Benjamin Carey: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

CareyBenedict J. Carey is a science reporter for The New York Times who focuses on brain and behavior topics. He writes about neuroscience, psychiatry and neurology, as well as everyday psychology. The territory includes the large and the small, memory molecules and group behavior, narcissism and nostalgia, drug uses and drug addiction. From 2007 to 2010, he was the Mind columnist for Science Times, where he wrote about pranks, binge drinking, boredom, regret, perfectionism, study habits and Super Bowl anxiety, among other things.

Carey joined The Times in 2004 as a behavior writer. Previously, he worked at The Los Angeles Times, writing about health, medicine and brain science, where he won a University of Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Award for a story on drinking water. Before that, he was a freelance magazine writer, and a staff writer for Health magazine in San Francisco. He began his career at American Shipper, a trade book in New York covering the shipping trade. He writes frequently for the Review section of the paper and has written two books, both science mysteries for middle-school aged kids: Island of the Unknowns (previously titled The Unknowns in hardback), a math adventure; and Poison Most Vial, a murder mystery involving forensic toxicology due out this spring. His latest book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, was published by Random House (September 2014).

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write How to Learn?

Carey: I had covered the area – the cognitive science of learning – for years, and saw how counter-intuitive and little known it was. No one gets a course on How to Learn, and we all should. I realized I had the background and the access to deliver the story in all its pieces – biology, theory, experimental findings – and to tie it all together into one big idea: the brain as forager. I was excited about telling the story, and felt a professional obligation.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Carey: Yes, the many dimensions of forgetting, that was wonderful. So often we think of forgetting as the enemy. But no, it’s the greatest friend of learning, allowing us to acquire new skills while also ‘banking’ the old ones for future use.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Carey: It has more of myself in it than I expected. I thought I would let the science do the talking but in the end we are all experts on psychology and learning to some extent – and doing plausibility checks on the information put me in the book a lot. I was, in a sense, speaking for the reader.

Morris: Of all that you learned about how we learn, what did you find most surprising? Please explain.

Carey: Pre-testing was great. Take the final exam on the first day – and do better on the real final. The way front-loading information that is foreign and make it more digestible later on.

Morris: You provide a number of tools in this book. Which seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

Carey: The most difficult to deploy may be perceptual learning – training up your instincts quickly, in sports, games, music, math. That takes some up-front work and it’s the kind of thing we’re used to doing very slowly.

Morris: You suggest that, “if the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one. And it performs best when its quirks are exploited. “ Please explain.

Carey: The brain is a machine, a clump of cells. It has evolved to learn what is most valuable to survival, and just telling it, “Here, learn this,” is not enough to deepen learning. It needs to be *shown* that something is important, by spaced use, by use in all environments, by continual self-testing – all the techniques in the book. The ‘conscious mind’ whatever that is, can’t just give orders. *Using* information and skills is what tells the machine the stuff is important.

Morris: Please explain your reference in the Introduction to “background noise, a rustling of the leaves.”

Carey: Most experimental findings don’t pan out in the end, as tantalizing as they seem. Some of the newer findings in learning science fit this category, and I wanted to simply say: Give it time. Some of those rustling leaves will shake the tree, but it takes time to find out which.

Morris: I agree with you that some of what of what we have been led to believe about laziness, ignorance, and distraction – our so-called “worst enemies” – is, in fact, questionable. Each can also work in our favor. How so laziness?

Carey: Better to say what we think of as laziness, the putting work aside, napping off, wanting distraction. Learning takes work; the point is that much of what we think of as laziness is in fact work of another kind.

Morris: What about ignorance?

Carey: Ignorance acknowledges is a form of humility and a prod to digging deeper.

Morris: And distraction?

Carey: Distraction needs to be well timed – when solving a problem and we’re run out of ideas – that’s when it helps. Distraction for its own sake is just that.

Morris: What are the core components of the science of learning?

Carey: The same as any kind of learning: motivation, patience, creative thinking, and willingness to fail and try again.

Morris: Which seems to be most difficult to grasp? Why?

Carey: The last one. Science is a foreign language (much of science) but it’s not one, like Spanish, that others speak and can help you with easily. So where we’re generally OK trying out our mangled Spanish knowing we’ll fill in the blanks, or others will, not so with science. We get it ‘wrong’ and think – oh no, I can’t understand.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye.

For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, Cognitive science and physiology of the brain: Aids for study (xi-xvi)

Carey: All you need in terms of biology and cognitive theory is in the book. Most important thing is: using memory changes memory.

Morris: Retrieval of memory (21-41, 59-79, 82-97, and 205-209)

Carey: Most important: forgetting is the best friend of learning.

Morris: Philip Boswood Ballard (Pages 29-35 and 205-206)

Carey: Memory does not work in the way we think it does and may get sharper” with time, not decay.

Morris: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and Robert Bjork (35-40, 93-100, 153-158, and 160-163)

Carey: Memorized facts are never lost. It’s what’s currently retrievable that changes.

Morris: Context for memory, environment for learning (47-64)

Carey: Changing locations for learning – switching room, going outside, to a cafe – deepens the experience, as does varying how you engage the material: reading, writing it out, on the computer, hands on.

Morris: Four Bahrick Study (69-74)

Carey: Spaced study is best way to learn a foreign language for a lifetime.

Morris: Testing as self-examination (76-79)

Carey: Self-examination, closing the book and rehearsing the material – in front of mirror, talking to friends, making your own outline – are high-octane forms of studying.

Morris: Your own experiences in learning: Incubation or percolation, problem solving (107-130 and 131-148)

Carey: Writing is all about percolation – stopping a project and letting your mind chew on it, making the mind sensitive to incoming relevant information and to your own thought about that information. Incubation – taking well-timed breaks – is the best way to see your way through a knot, whether in math problems of writing problems.

Morris: Learning Cognition: Discrimination (142-146, 159-163, and 175-194)

Carey: Discrimination is a very important and often overlooked part of the process. We all do it – we had to when first learning to read, just discriminating letters. You can do the same, train yourself to discriminate between things that look the same but are not, using fairly simple tools.

Morris: Interleaving (163-171)

Carey: This is the idea of mixed practice. That is, instead of repeatedly practicing one thing over and over – which leads to noticeably improvement – it’s more efficient (once familiar with a skill) to practice it along with many other different ones. Musicians already do some of this: scales, then a new piece, then sight reading, then an old piece – all in one sitting. The variety builds a *general agility* that sharpens each skill faster than doing each one at a time.

Morris: In your opinion, of all the information, insights, and counsel you provide in the book, which – in your opinion – will be of greatest interest and value to first-time parents of a newborn? Why?

Carey: Newborns are natural learners. They can teach us how the brain forages for information. The message from the book is, Watch how they do it. How they pick up things piecemeal, on the fly, coming back, messing around. The book should put a new light on “goofing off” and give parents some patience and appreciation for young learners.

Morris: What about first-time grandparents?

Carey: Ditto, Robert.

Morris: Of all the great educators throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Carey: I’m a Ben Franklin guy. Practical, curious, open minded, experimental, decent, and not too pompous and pretentious.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in How We Learn, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Carey: You know, I think the perceptual learning stuff is going to be extremely applicable to people trying to build instincts in complex new areas. But overall, everything in the book is potentially applicable – and it’s up to the CEO or entrepreneur to experiment with lots of possibilities and then decide.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Carey: You’ve covered it. I’m exhausted. Cheers!

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To read my review of How We Learn, please click here.

To read Part 1, please click here.

Ben cordially invites you to check out these websites:

The How We Learn Amazon link

New York Times link

NPR interview link

Scientific American review link

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