How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens


What is the book “How We Learn” about?

As the book’s author says, Benedict Carey was a very motivated student in his childhood. He believed that in order to achieve a result we need to make the efforts,  to pore over books, show self-discipline, acquiring knowledge. His life goal was the entrance to college, and he worked hard for it, believing that work is important if you want to study well. At the same time, he felt that there must be another strategy, apart from hard work.

Some children in a class remembered mathematical formulas and historical events very well, without making efforts. Carey had lessons with tutors, passed training for students and was sure that this would be enough.

When the time came to enter a college, Carey, to his great surprise, failed all the tests that he sent to several prestigious places. He was in a cold sweat, but he wanted to be admitted so much that he sent a request to the State University of Colorado, where as a result, he was admitted.

He was good at study and finally permitted himself to relax. He walked a lot and courted girls, participated in a friendly student drinking bouts and parties. The study was just a part of life and not his main life goal. He was not afraid of failures, like any student, he was ready to fail because every failure could be corrected. Like everyone, sometimes he had his bouts of laziness and absent-mindedness. But, to his great surprise, the study in college became much easier even in comparison with study in school.

And at that moment Benedict Carey started thinking: is it really so bad to be lazy sometimes? Perhaps, our body is programmed to take a rest for easier absorption of the new material. Maybe we need absent-mindedness in order to let the brain rest?

It would be very suggestive to consider the brain as a muscle that needs to be trained and loaded to make it stronger and stronger. But examining modern researches, Carey came to the conclusion that the brain is not really muscle, but something quite different. It is connected with circadian rhythms, sleep, and wake, sensitive to mood and environment. It has a way more than we think, and even at night, it is awake and active, looking for connections and analogies in the events of the past day.

What is important to do well in school? One of the obvious advice is to find a quiet place where nobody will disturb you, where you can easily concentrate. But recent researches in the field of education had shown that a special restful spot for training and other educational rituals slow down the perception of educational material and not the reverse.

Another popular approach to learning is the need to practice constantly, preferably at the same time. But studies suggest that the brain works more effectively when it has to solve tasks from different areas than when it is forced to focus on one thing.

Many people clamor against current generation, which is distracted by smartphones or reading posts on social networks again and again, instead of putting mind to useful and important things. But who has proved that such distractions have a bad impact on the memory of students, on their ability to learn new things? Maybe this fact is wrong? Of course, distracting factors are hinderance to some learning types: if students, during a lecture, sit over another book or chat on social networks for hours. But a little distraction not only doesn’t harm the cause but also promotes it. Even more, during such distractions, the insight can come suddenly if we focus on a complicated mathematical problem or get stuck in a creative dead end.

Benedict Carey doesn’t claim that there is a right and wrong way of learning. He says that there are different strategies for information collection and processing, and everyone should choose their own one, according to their individuality.

And his book is about how to make learning a part of life, when it proceeds easily and naturally, without tearing and overstraining. So, it isn’t always necessary to fight furiously with our weaknesses, which, as was supposed until recently, harm any learning – with laziness and absent-mindedness. It is also necessary to learn how to benefit from them.

Summary and Ideas of “How We Learn”

Idea №1. The hippocampus and neocortex, special brain regions are responsible for our memory and our learning

Idea №2. The storage force and extraction force act in our brain

Idea №3. Distributed learning is much more effective than continuous cramming and it helps to learn twice more information

Idea №4. The distributed learning method is especially effective on the condition of increase in an interval between repetitions

Idea №5. Tests aren’t only a tool for measuring student achievement, they are also an effective teaching method

Idea №6. The mind works on problems subconsciously when we don’t even feel that it happens

Idea №7. Alternation of different practices and skills allows to learn the educative material better

Idea №8. After work with many examples, the brain develops intuitive solutions, “sixth sense”

Idea №9. Sleep improves keeping and understanding of the material, which was learned the day before

Idea №10. We are capable to control our learning process

Review “How We Learn”

The Benedict Carey’s book isn’t easy, but it’s useful and educative. Many of his techniques may seem uncommon because we are used to traditional ideas in the learning process. In order to understand whether they work or not, we can conduct some experiments proposed by Carey independently.

Not always Carey’s ideas correspond to our ideas on the knowledge acquisition ways, they can seem questionable to someone because we are used to another one. But they are interesting, simple and have their own logical explanation, which helps us to look at the learning process from a new perspective.

Pros and Cons:

  • Helpful ideas and valuable advice on how to improve learning efficiency and retention quality.
  • Someone can refer some seriousness of statement and a large number of references to theories and researches to shortcomings.

About Author Benedict Carey

Author of book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It HappensCarey was born on March 3, 1960 in San Francisco and graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in Mathematics in 1983. In 1985, he enrolled in a one-year journalism program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and in 1987 joined the staff of the medical journal of Hippocrates medicine in San Francisco.

Since 1997, he worked as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles and then served as a writer on health and fitness in the Los Angeles Times. In an article in 2002 on the impact on the health of drinking eight glasses of water per day, the University of Missouri Award was awarded. Since 2004, Carey has worked as a scientific and medical writer for The New York Times.

He has written three science/math adventures books for middle-schoolers, one called “Island of the Unknowns,” “The Unknowns”, and “Poison Most Vial”

Watch and listen to his thoughts


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