How to Study, or, Your Brain: A User Manual

The concept of studying is at the core of our learning institutions. It’s what you’re supposed to be doing in college. Still, just how you’re meant to do it remains one of the many mysteries of college; the drop out rate is about 33%.

To be fair, there’s a number of reasons a person might drop out of college, but for those who are looking to up their study game, here are some quick neuroscience facts to work smarter and not harder.

1. Eliminate distractions. Splitting focus with your smartphone, tablet, TV, or roommate blathering away will force your brain to “task switch”, flipping back and forth and draining your brain’s energy reserves. This will drastically reduce your ability to move information into your memory for later retrieval.

It might feel like multitasking, but research shows that attempting multiple demanding tasks at once sets you up for the 50/50 rule. That is, you’ll make 50% more mistakes and you’ll take 50% longer than if you were single-tasking.

2. Read a passage and then close your book or laptop, and attempt to recreate as many key points as you can remember on paper. (Yes, on paper: the act of physically writing the letters will create stronger memories.)

When you’re done writing, check it against your book or computer for what you missed. Then add the missing info to your notes and highlight it.

3. For best results, stay hydrated and grab a small, high-protein snack (a fistful of nuts, for instance) about twenty minutes before you start, and then again once you’ve finished.

4. Work in 15 minute increments. This is the maximum amount of time most of us can stay at peak focus. After 15 minutes, take a five to ten minute break. Don’t stare out the window; perform some physical activity that doesn’t require much thinking: walking, juggling, playing the guitar, etc.

Follow this process repeatedly during the week, rather than saving it all for the night before the big test.

5. When you’re standing, you drive 20% more oxygen and blood to the brain, significantly increasing your ability to think. Consider studying at a standing desk.

6. Semantic information (facts, figures, main ideas) gets processed by your brain during the first phase of sleep, so make sure you go to bed at a reasonable hour. “Reasonable” can vary from person to person, but your goal is to get eight hours of sleep on a relatively consistent schedule.

Remember: it’s not just about being able to stay alert throughout your day. Caffeine is no substitute. Sleeping is a crucial part of the memory-encoding process.

Pulling an all-night before an exam may work in the short run, but it’s unlikely to encode permanent memories. If your goal is to retain what you’re learning for the rest of your life, it’s not a good option.

7. Based on a normal circadian rhythm, that 24-hour hour clock humans run on, you’re most likely to be at your mental peak four to six hours after waking.

Studying after you’ve eaten a large meal or when you’re very tired will hurt your performance.

8. That said, getting it done is always better than endlessly waiting around for ideal conditions to arise. Beware of procrastination and the natural human tendency to delegate your studies to some “future-self”, the bright-eyed, more restful you of tomorrow. (Future-self has a bad habit of not showing up.)

The best way to guard against future-self is to balance proper sleep with exercise and diet. This triad forms the foundation for willpower, what neuroscientists sometimes call “the mother of all virtues.” Willpower, the ability to control yourself, is necessary for achieving any study goal—or any other type of goal, for that matter. Cheat any leg of the triad and you radically decrease your ability to learn.

9. Generally speaking, a person needs around 66 days to build a habit, so you’ll need to follow the concepts outlined above for about two months before you find yourself doing them naturally.

Edison’s Errors: When Genius is 99 Percent Flop Sweat

When you think of inventors, the iconic example might be Thomas Edison, who brought us the electric lightbulb. In the process, he discovered what we call the “Edison effect.”

The idea is that in a vacuum, electrons will move from a heated surface to a cooler one. Simple as it sounds, it’s a fundamental principle underlying modern electronics, from toasters to computers.

By the time the Wizard of Menlo Park died in 1936 at the age of 86, he had managed to attach his name to 2332 patents worldwide. Some of those creations he produced personally, some he helped develop as part of a team, and sometimes the connection is dubious. It seems if you worked in Edison’s lab, he had no problem sticking his name on your work. (Edison didn’t invent taking credit for the efforts of his underlings, but he certainly brought it to new levels.)

Still, there’s no denying Edison had a deep domain knowledge. The lightbulb, the phonograph, the movie camera—these are the kinds of triumphs we associate with someone operating at the top of their game. He embodies the essence of growth mindset in his famous quote: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

The mythmaking process tends to edit out a person’s missteps. We may remember his legendary persistence, trying filament after filament as he searched for a material that could sustain the glow of electricity, but the punchline is still unmitigated success.

Edison was not, however, allergic to all-out failure. Writing for Smithsonian.com, Erica R. Hendry recounts some of his more notable flubs.

For instance, what do you do when you hold the corner on sound recording technology? Edison decided to team up with a German doll manufacturer to produce a talking doll. If you’re picturing a reassuring Tom Hanks as Woody from Toy Story, think again. According to Leondard DeGraaf, an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, the voice coming from Edison’s girl doll was “just ghastly.”

It wasn’t just a creepy doll, it was a malfunctioning doll, fragile and prone to breaking. After 30 days, Edison recalled her from store shelves.

Edison also invented a vibrating “electric pen” designed to puncture paper, creating a dimpled template which would serve as a master for producing additional copies. The final design was awkward, heavy, noisy, messy, and difficult to control. Ultimately, he gave up, selling the technology and patent to recoup some of his expenses. A.B. Dick bought a piece of that technology, reconfigured it, and created the first mimeograph machine, thus for many years becoming the hero of churches and grade school teachers everywhere.

Although it’s harder to trace, some say the modern tattoo pen also owes its roots to Edison’s abandoned contraption.

Putting aside Edison’s incredible drive for self-promotion and his less-than-honorable treatment of employees, collaborators, and competitors, maybe the most impressive part of his story is the sheer number of times Edison failed. Hours, days, and years were sacrificed in the pursuit of his goals—often ending in crushing loss, both emotionally and financially. And still he persevered until his dying day, choosing instead to focus on what might lay ahead of him.

You might think about that the next time you flip off the light switch. Provided you can get his creepy doll out of your head.

Old Science and New Horizons

The human brain is one of the true wonders of the world; after all, it contained the source material for building each of the seven famous Wonders.

From Twinkies to arugula, just about any scrap of digestible matter can power it: a machine that runs nonstop for an average of seventy years, somehow composed largely of fat.

So it’s no wonder that we’re fascinated. Understanding how the brain works is front and center for the scientific community. In April of 2013, President Obama announced that the U.S. government had budgeted a hundred million dollars to begin a project to map the human brain, his call to action nearly an echo of Kennedy’s imperative to land on the moon some fifty years before.

Brain exploration leads us to Michael Gazzaniga. Not exactly a household name—and no, he’s not latest new Republican candidate for presidency.) He is, however, one of the founding fathers of cognitive neuroscience, a field which seeks to find the connection between human behavior and the circuitry of the brain.

In 1961, Gazzaniga received a Ph.D. in psychobiology from the California Institute of Technology. Early in his career, he teamed up with famous brain pioneer Roger Sperry.

Gazzaniga worked on split-brain patients. These were individuals who, as treatment for severe epilepsy, had undergone an operation severing the bridge between their brain hemispheres. Cutting this corpus collosum was an attempt to isolate and contain the epilepsy so it couldn’t spread to both sides of the brain.

Gazzaniga’s research led to the discovery of what’s called the functional lateralization of the brain, and how the two halves communicate with each other.

In the mid-sixties, the media seized on these findings and ran with them, morphing the data into a still-familiar story of the artistic, creative right brain and the methodical, analytical left brain. But although you can find some degree of speciality, there’s also a tremendous amount of overlap and redundancy between the hemispheres. The right brain vs left brain model is at best, a tremendous oversimplification.

The story has nonetheless achieved urban legend status, alongside the likes of sewer rats, vanishing hitchhikers, and Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen body. Judging from the right brain/left brain books and articles still circulating today, scientists have their work cut out for them.

Still, they push on. A single human brain contains more neural connections than there are stars in the Universe, but enterprising men and women continue their study, mapping a new kind of galaxy. Not, they would tell you, because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Push-ups, Pyramids, and You

The Great Pyramid of Giza was built around 2500 BC. Its individual stone blocks weigh up to 50 tons, and its base contains roughly 2,300,000 blocks, measuring 592,000 square feet. This combined with its height, 481 feet, would be enough to earn the pyramid a spot on the Seventh Wonders of the World, but it’s even more impressive at second glance.

The ancient Egyptians installed the pyramid’s cornerstones in a special ball and socket configuration, allowing it to flex slightly in case of an earthquake. Indeed, the structure survived just such a quake in the 14th century, although the tremors loosened its smooth outer covering, which is mostly no longer with us. (Some believe the local population took advantage of the freed stones, carting them away for a variety of purposes. Who wouldn’t want a pyramid souvenir?)

When that limestone facade was intact and polished to a full shine, it would have been so bright that some have theorized it would be visible as a twinkly dot from the moon. Scholars believe it took over 20 years to build, and an army of workers that totaled somewhere between 14,000 to 300,000, depending who you want to believe.

The pyramid was built so that each side aligns with one of the four cardinal directions, with such precision that it’s only 3/60th of a degree off. Even with modern equipment, this is a remarkable feat.

And perhaps the most remarkable feat of all: 4500 years later, it’s still here.

And now for another kind of pyramid, one designed to build your core muscles and help out your brain. I’m talking about—drum roll, please—a push-up pyramid. It may not be as exciting as the one at Giza, but it’s far more accessible for most of us, and it can have quite an impact.

You might be surprised to hear this, but strength training is one of the most beneficial exercises you can do for your brain, according to John J. Ratey, psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Developing your muscles can increase your cognitive skills and reduce your chances of dementia.

A push-up pyramid works like this: do one push-up and then sit back on your heels and rest for three seconds. Then do two and sit back on your heels for another three seconds. Add a third push-up next time, and rest in the same way. Continue this pattern all the way up to ten push-ups, and then all the way back down. If you counted correctly, you’ve knocked off a total of 100 push-ups.

If you aren’t much of a weightlifter, this may sound like a Giza-sized goal. The thought is not to start out with an entire pyramid, but to simply do as many as you can, and then take a day’s break. The priority is to use good form and take your time. As you get stronger, you can work your way up to that 100.

If even one push-up eludes you, start off by doing push-ups off your knees instead of your toes.

It’s a slow process. Nobody would ever say pyramids were easy—least of all those workers at Giza, operating without such flashy modern technology as the wheel. Still, history shows they were successful.

When working on your own push-up pyramid, here are five building tips we can take from the ancient engineers of Egypt.

1. Build with a clear goal.
2. Build up your base first.
3. Build slowly and incrementally.
4. Build with an eye towards perfection.
5. Build with the future in mind.

So tomorrow morning, you might consider dragging yourself out of bed and getting to work. And the good news is, in this case, it only takes an army of one.