Apr 21, 2023
In today's conversation, I am joined by Dr. Dan
Willingham, a memory expert with a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology
from Harvard. Dan’s new book Outsmart Your Brain (which we discuss
today) will change your life. While the book is catered to K-16
learners (for example, it includes chapters on “how to take notes,”
“how to listen to a lecture,” “how to read hard books,” and “how to
take tests”) trust me when I say this book is for you and everyone
you know. It is fascinating and will help you with any presentation
you may give or meeting you will be in moving forward. Trust me,
you’re gonna love this.
A little more about Dan: His work has appeared in the
Washington Post, The New York Times, and many other publications,
and he is the author of several books – his writing has appeared in
18 languages! In 2017 he was appointed by President Obama to serve
as a Member of the National Board for Education Sciences.
Whether you want to be a better learner yourself or if
you have kids (including college students) in your life whom you
want to help be successful, this episode and book are for you. I
can't wait to dive into this one because there is so much great
- [00:43] In today's conversation, I am joined by Dr.
Dan Willingham. Dan earned his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from
Harvard University in 1990.
- [03:03] Dan shares about himself, his background, and
the work he does. He was trained as a cognitive
- [04:04] He shares his transition from basic
researcher to applied researcher.
- [07:02] Often, we assume people know that thing that
we know so we miss key things when presenting. That means they
don’t get value from your talk.
- [08:41] There are things we know we should do that we
find difficult to implement. Sometimes we really don’t know what is
optimal to do. We tend to do things in the moment that we feel are
working and are not that difficult. (But often, the
harder/counterintuitive thing will make a much bigger impact.)
- [11:16] Does cramming work? Dan says, “kind of.” It
depends on what your goals are. If you do not care about
remembering something in the long term then crowding it all in
right before you need to perform is actually fine.
- [12:50] The only way to ensure that you remember
things in the long term is if your learning happens over time
rather than all crammed together.
- [15:42] If you are trying to master a new skill or a
new topic and you feel like you need to wait to start until you
have more than small bits of time, don’t wait! The data shows this
is actually optimal for learning and retention.
- [18:2326] Creating that consistent study or work
habit by time and not by task is very important.
- [21:04] We all procrastinate. It is a natural
- [22:37] The key thing is you have to give yourself
permission to stop if you want to.
- [24:26] The night of sleep is important in
consolidating the memories that were formed during the day. If you
don’t get much sleep or you get low-quality sleep you are tampering
with the learning that you put so much time into the previous
- [25:40] Your intention or your desire to learn
contributes nothing to whether or not you will learn something.
There are lots of things we want to remember but don’t.
- [27:26] Memory loves meaning. That is the main way we
- [29:05] You draw memory out the same way that it went
- [30:53] Memories are going to be queued by thoughts
or by things in the environment later. The way you are going to be
able to draw memories out most successfully is when the queue is a
good match for the way you thought about the memory at the time you
were trying to remember it.
- [32:51] When you are storing something away, think to
yourself, “How am I likely later to try and remember this?” and
make that part of the way it becomes retrievable.
- [35:48] How do you organize 94 tips in one book? He
chose to sort them by task. It is organized by things you would do
that entail learning (how to read hard books, how to take notes,
- [38:45] When there is a hierarchical organization in
speeches you are expected to make connections among the different
things that you are hearing. Because it is not a narrative it is
difficult to make those connections.
- [41:45] You want to reframe to highlight what you
enjoy instead of what is making you procrastinate. Looking at it in
this way helps you overcome that.
- [44:43] Allocate time to different tasks to help you
get to the tasks that you tend to procrastinate on. Do the hard
- [46:40] It is not that what you are doing now is
ineffective. It is that it can be slightly tweaked to be
significantly more effective.
- [48:31] What’s the simplest tip in the book? Some
data shows that chewing gum helps you to focus for 20 minutes. Give
it a try if you like gum!
- [50:328] Melina’s closing thoughts
- [51:39] In understanding how your own brain is wired
to learn as well as others, and then how to "outsmart it" every
step of the way is pure gold.
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