Freelancers are nomads, and moving from project to project often requires us to understand new information in short windows of time. For those of you interested in retaining information at a faster rate, we sat down with New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey to discusses his non-fiction debut: “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens.”
Before joining The Times, Carey spent many years freelancing as a magazine writer. And, as he told us, understanding how the brain functions when learning directly applies to the working lives of freelancers. When people need to learn a topic quickly, for example, many habits can lead them astray, such as trying to gain knowledge with the help of a thick book. Carey elaborated on how certain strategies, such as getting on the phone with an expert or failing during an interview, can facilitate the rapid intake of information.
Freelancers are often put into the position of having to learn something new in short order. You were a freelancer at various times in your life. Now, having written a book about learning, what do you think freelancers should know about how we learn?
We think of learning in academic terms, generally, like practice and homework and class and thinking hard and concentrating, and I think we apply that same framework when we try to think about something new.
As a freelancer, you may not have much time with a person you interview, so you need to come up with good, educated questions based in some understanding of the material—but you have to get up to speed pretty quickly, and it’s not a matter of holing up with a pile of studies or a book.
In some ways, because we’re writers, that’s our first instinct—to try to capture the material intellectually on the page—whether visual or hard copy. But that can be a frustrating experience because if it’s a really a new topic, not a lot of it sticks. For a novice to try to come in and get traction on a topic like psychiatric genetics is almost impossible, and at the end, you feel like you can’t remember any of it. The science says that’s fine. The brain doesn’t yet know what’s important, and so the way to take advantage of the way the brain learns is to do some scavenging on your own by switching up the way in which you engage the material.
So read a book, call some friends, and engage the material as many ways as you can and in multiple ways that allow you to integrate it quickly. It takes the pressure off of trying to sit down and learn something. It just doesn’t happen that way.
Even a blown interview is beneficial, then?
The cognitive science of learning says that even a blown interview or an embarrassing interview or an interview where you feel like an idiot is really a very efficient way to build knowledge in the area you are trying to learn fairly quickly.
You’re not only learning the material a different way, but you’re also talking to somebody about it, which deepens the experience. You need to go back and make sure you get the points you might have missed.
The brain is scavenging all of the time for information, and what what may feel like a failed interview can be an effective way of jumping ahead on the material because it means you will naturally go and nail down the things you feel you should have known.
So this is the freelancer’s version of “Move fast and break things,” the Facebook mantra?
Failing can be embarrassing, especially if someone else makes you feel like a failure. The reality is different. One of the hottest approaches in college now is to give people a final exam the first day of class. The students bomb the test, but by engaging with the questions, it really prepares them and primes the brain. The beauty of these tests is that they’re not counted as a failure, because they’re not graded or counted.
As a freelancer, you don’t want to go into a new topic knowing nothing, but given resources that are available, you can take 10 minutes to review a paper or go on Google Scholar to get some basic orientation. It’s not a matter of falling on your face from the start, it’s a matter of realizing you can only learn so much by reading in an academic fashion isolated from rest of source material.
How important is breaking up material into components?
There are two aspects. When you break your time into pieces, it helps a lot. It’s called space study. So, you give an hour to studying tonight, an hour tomorrow, an hour the next day.
Another aspect is breaking up your learning into parts. If you practice any one skill in isolation, that’s an artificial situation, and because you are going to have to put that together with different things, science says break down the components. Let’s take basketball as an example: Once you have practiced individual components—whether they be free throws or shots from the corner—the next step is to mix them in while practicing.
How important is the space where you work and learn?
When you’re a freelancer, you have to figure out ways to make the work interesting enough and varied enough to keep yourself awake. Do an hour at home in your computer, go out on the back porch, then move it out to Starbucks, and so on and so forth. Sometimes you think it’s interrupting your work, but in fact, it’s enriching the learning all the way along because you are associating more cues and environments with each thing you are doing.
What else helps in retention and understanding?
Sleep is learning consolidation. If you are practicing learning something and getting tired, the brain is saying, “Enough, it’s time to consolidate what you are learning and figuring out what’s important and put it into a hierarchical order.” And one of the learning theories about why we sleep is just this—to consolidate what we’ve learned during the day.
The phases of sleep seem to be specialized to handle different kinds of consolidation. The first half of the night is spent in retention territory, as deep sleep seems to be most important for consolidating deep factual information.
The second half of night is more specialized for motor memory and seeing hidden patterns and math and science-related stuff. So if you’re going to do something the next day and you have to truncate your sleep to prepare for a test or performance or polish off a difficult story, that research gives you a sense of when to go to bed. If it’s a language test, you’ll want to keep that first half intact. If you are going to burn the candle, burn it on the early morning side and get up earlier.