Carey (Poison Most Vial: A Mystery, 2012, etc.) chose to write scientific mysteries for kids as a distraction from his day job as a science reporter for the New York Times, until it dawned on him that he had an amazing story to share: Ostensibly poor study habits can be important to improving learning strategies.
Recent experiments in cognition offer startling insights into how the brain works, contradicting traditional beliefs about the merits of concentration and self-discipline. “Distractions can aid learning,” writes the author. “Napping does, too. Quitting before a project is done: not bad, as an almost done project lingers in memory far longer than one that is completed.” Taking a break and texting or checking emails when faced with a knotty math problem may actually facilitate a solution. New research indicates that memory is a two-stage process: In addition to storage, there is retrieval, which is an associative process. What we remember from one moment to the next may not be identical; images are embedded “in networks of perceptions, facts and thoughts, slightly different combinations of which bubble up each time.” Carey describes experiments that demonstrate the remarkable fact that if subjects are shown a series of pictures or lines of poetry that they are asked to memorize, their recall will improve over several days without further practice. In the case of a meaningless array of syllables or numbers, however, this is not the case. “Forgetting is not only a passive process of decay but also an active one, of filtering,” and the brain treats nonsense syllables as dispensable clutter. Forgetting is part of the mental process of fixing a memory. If we are motivated to solve a difficult problem, our brains will take advantage of a break to continue working “offline” while we turn our attention elsewhere.
A fascinating perspective on how we can benefit from the distractions of daily life.