Learning is simple, right? It’s the process of moving information from out there — from a textbook, a company report, a musical score — to in here, inside our heads, and making that knowledge our own. Parents, teachers, and other experts are full of sensible-sounding advice about how to learn well: select a particular place to study and use it consistently; concentrate on one subject at a time; focus intensively on the material just before a test or an important meeting.
But it turns out that learning is not so simple and obvious — all of the above instructions, for example, are flat-out wrong. Our own experience with learning — or our kids’ or our employees’ — shows us that learning can be a tricky thing: we read and we memorize and we practice, and still the information doesn’t always stick. Under the pressure of an exam or an audience, our hard-won knowledge does a disappearing act. Even social scientists have been confounded by learning. For more than a century, psychologists have constructed elaborate theories of how people learn that are intricate, elegant—and mostly useless.
And then, about ten years ago, researchers started to do something radically different. Using the tools of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, they began paying attention to how the brain actually learns. This new field has witnessed explosive growth over the past decade, generating academic programs, professional journals, research conferences and reports of scientific findings by the thousands. What they have discovered was a surprise: the brain has its own set of rules by which it learns best — and they look nothing like what we imagined. From these rules, some remarkable conclusions follow: