Benedict 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).

Here is an excerpt from Part 2 of my interview of Ben. To read all of it, please click here.

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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.

* * *

To read all of Part 2, please click here.

To read Part 1, please click here.

To read my review of How We Learn, 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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