YB: You give some great tips for how to learn well and I hear some of them in what you just said. Can you explain those tips a bit more?
Dr. Markman: The first thing you have to do when you want to learn well is to actually pay attention and engage in the learning process. The biggest danger of the modern world isn’t that there’s so much information; it’s that there’s so many distractions. The single biggest killer of learning is multi-tasking. We have to stop multi-tasking. If you need to learn something, shut off your instant messaging, don’t answer your phone, don’t let people come and interrupt you. Create a space for you to learn things.
Second, memory is all about connection. Make sure that you work to connect what you’re learning to things that you already know. We don’t learn lists of things. We don’t learn independent facts. We learn about how things are connected to each other because memory wants to give us whole chunks of information that are going to be useful in a particular setting. When you’re learning, ask ‘what are other things I know about that are like this and how can I find connections between all of those?’
The third piece to remember is to focus yourself on what it is that you’re supposed to remember. We’re all constantly running onto the next thing. Instead, if you spend a minute or two minutes reviewing the experience that you just had and thinking, ‘what are the three most important elements of what I just experienced,’ your memory for those elements will be so much better later.
YB: If someone does commit this knowledge to memory, then when they’re faced with a problem they’re trying to solve, how can they weed out the specific knowledge they need at that moment?
Dr. Markman: In situations where you get stuck, the likely possibility is that you do know something that’s going to help you solve the problem, only you don’t realize it yet because you didn’t learn about it in that specific circumstance. That’s where you have to start playing the game of re-describing the problem to figure out its essence.
Take your problem and try to give it a good title, a title that really grabs the essence of it. What sort of a problem is this? Once you find that essence, now suddenly you’ll realize that there are all sorts of other things that you know about that might be relevant. For example, think about a company that makes at-home hair color. The problem with coloring your hair at home is that you want to color your hair without coloring your skin, the bathroom counter, the walls, right? How do you do that? How can you create a dye that works on hair and not on anything else? The essence of that problem is a problem that you could call the “collateral damage problem.” Which is basically, you have this thing you’re trying to affect, which is surrounded by all these other things you don’t want to affect and you want to make sure you only affect the stuff you want to affect. And the fact is, lots of people deal with this collateral damage problem—people who make weed killers want to kill the weeds on your lawn without killing the grass, oncologists want to eliminate cancer cells without destroying healthy tissue. It might turn out that the kinds of strategies they use might actually be useful in helping you to think about the problem you’re grappling with. Simply by re-describing the problem, you realize you did know something that was relevant, you just hadn’t described it in that way before.
YB: You talk a lot about smart habits as well. Why are smart habits an important part of smart thinking?
Dr. Markman: We are habit-creating machines. We want to automate as much of our lives as possible. What I encourage people to do is to take smart thinking strategies and turn those into habits so that you end up mindlessly doing things that will make you smarter, mindlessly engaging in practices that will help you to learn more effectively. For example, if you make re-describing problems a habit, then you won’t even notice you’ve gotten stuck anymore because you’re immediately thinking of the six different ways that you can re-describe your problem. To me, that’s why habits are so crucial.
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