TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Arun Rath is away. I'm Tess Vigeland. School is starting. That means lots of time in the classroom or library sitting quietly - no distractions. But more and more brain science is saying that may not be the best way to learn. Benedict Carey covers medicine and science for the New York Times, and he's written a new book called "How We Learn." Ben, welcome.
BENEDICT CAREY: Thanks very much. Nice to be here.
VIGELAND: And I'm going to play a game on my phone and look up tips on how to juggle and maybe take a nap while I'm talking to you. How does that sound?
CAREY: That sounds good. Absolutely.
VIGELAND: 'Cause then I'm going to remember and absorb more of this conversation, right?
CAREY: Yes, you are. Well, look, I mean, a lot of people think learning is all discipline. I know I believed it. And it turns out that scientists have discovered - through a whole lot of different ways - that it doesn't work that way. The brain is a foraging instrument. You know, it's a scavenger just like humans were for so much of their existence. And once you appreciate that, you're able to take some pressure off yourself to not worry that you're doing things right all the time and to have a tactical plan when you study for something.
VIGELAND: Right. Well, you talked about how - I mean, I think most of us grew up with this notion that self-discipline and focus are what we really need to learn something. And apparently that needs to be replaced by distractions and, maybe even as I noted, napping. So what is it about our brains that we know now that basically turns the whole concept of learning - shall we say - on its head?
CAREY: Well, we know that quiet study, ritual - all those things we assumed to be true - assumed to be self-evident - those are only one way to study. A lot of the things we've learned, whether it's to cook or ride a bicycle, to socialize, we've done those piecemeal. The brain is very good at learning on-the-fly during daily life. And so to take topics and isolate them, you know, to sit there like a monk with a textbook - with the chemistry textbook - I mean, who wants to do that, right? It's difficult. I'm not saying it's - you throw it away. I'm saying that's only one environment where learning occurs. It also occurs throughout your daily life.
VIGELAND: So a lot of this deals with memory - memorization. But of course, memorization doesn't necessarily translate into comprehension. So, like, you can know all the U.S. President's names and when they were in office, but that doesn't mean you understand history, right?
CAREY: That's right.
VIGELAND: So does this new way of learning address that as well?
CAREY: It does. There are a bunch of things that scientists now know improve retention, which is talking about, you know, foreign-language, names, places, facts and figures and so on. And there are a handful of things, also, that seem to aide comprehension. For example, distraction - distraction is one of those things everybody's worried about - certainly every parent, you know, with the iPhones and people jumping on Facebook and so on.
CAREY: And, you know, of course if you're spending your entire time tooling around on Facebook, you're not studying. So that's a problem. However, there's a whole bunch of science looking at problem solving. In problem solving, when you get stuck, you've run out of ideas. Distraction is really your best friend. You need to stand up, let it go, walk around the block, go to the cafe, drink a beer - whatever it is. And that is really your best shot at loosening the gears a little bit and allowing yourself to take a different and more creative approach to the problem.
VIGELAND: You know, I wonder what some of these new findings mean to the current debate in education over things like Common Core and, you know, the idea of teaching to the test. Do you think these findings about how we learn could or should change how we evaluate what we learn?
CAREY: These are - the science addresses how you learn, how I learn, how an individual learns. And they are independent of any policy changes. Now when it comes to standardized testing, there is a story to tell. There is a lot of interesting research now looking at using testing as a study tool, and that self-examination or even doing tests before a course starts are both very intriguing, interesting and possibly sort of revolutionary approaches to learning.
VIGELAND: What are some practical ways, then, that we can take some of this new data and apply it to our own learning methods like, say - so I want to learn Spanish - which I actually do - or I want to get better at photography - which I do. What's your advice for me?
CAREY: Well, one of the easiest things you can do - well, take Spanish first but simply move around. You don't need to stay in the same place. You don't have to have the same chair, the same cubicle, the same room to do your memorization. Changing context, changing environment aids in retention and, in this case, particularly in learning Spanish words.
Now photography - that's a different thing altogether. It's very creative. There, I tend to think of that more in the sense of what I call in the book percolation, which is an interesting thing that I think all adults who have learned something know happens. You know, you're starting a very big project. You don't even really know where to start. And the science on this says, just start the thing. You can quit five minutes later or ten minutes later because what happens when you do that is it activates your mind to begin sort of scavenging the environment and your own thoughts for what the relevant information is in your life.
VIGELAND: All right. Well, I'm going to go back to the cake that I'm baking and the math problem in my checking account and see if I remember any of this conversation. How's that? (Laughter).
CAREY: That sounds good. You've learned.
VIGELAND: All right. Benedict Carey is the author of the new book "How We Learn." Thank you.
CAREY: Thanks very much, Tess.
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