Note: I cannot take full credit for the main idea of this article. Each of the great thinkers listed in this bibliography contributed something significant to the thesis of this article, as did Greg Smith, the owner of Northwest Educational Services, along with, in all likelihood, several other people whom I have forgotten to give due credit. The idea that the brain must be convinced to care is a synthesis of their ideas and is therefore a product of their hard work and research. My sincerest gratitude goes out to each of them.
I often write about what to do on this blog. Today, I’m going to focus on the why.
We’ve known for years which study methods work the best. To form strong memories of what you’re learning, write the ideas out by hand, include visuals and sounds, physically and mentally do things with the content, revisit the ideas repeatedly, and test yourself. While many authors and our own experience as tutors make it clear that these methods are, in fact, the right things to do, for the longest time I didn’t understand why they work so well. What makes a good study method effective?
The answer to this question is interesting, but it is also a matter of practical importance. It will help shed light on what all good study methods have in common. With your newfound understanding of why an effective study method works, you might even invent whole new ways of studying. Good studying need not be limited to a rigid set of strategies and tactics defined by someone else; it just has to work.
There’s really just one thing that good studying needs to do: convince your brain to care.
That’s right. The brain has to be convinced that whatever you’re studying is worth figuring out and worth remembering. If you don’t convince your brain that the ideas you’re learning are worth the effort it takes to achieve understanding and form lasting memories, your brain won’t bother.
But wait, isn’t the human brain designed to remember things and figure things out? Isn’t that what it evolved to do? Nope. First and foremost, the human brain is a forgetting machine.
Our brains receive millions of pieces of data every second, the vast majority of which must be discarded. If we didn’t flush away most of the information our senses receive, we’d be completely overwhelmed, flooded with data, unable to see patterns.1 So the brain is programmed to forget almost everything. That’s the default setting. And because that’s the default setting, if we want to remember something, we’ll have to take action to get the brain to switch out of forgetting mode and into memory-formation mode.
The other reason we have to actively convince our brains to care is that human brain is also an energy-conservation machine. Relative to your other organs, the brain is outrageously expensive to operate. Although it accounts for just 2% of your body weight, on average, it uses about 20% of the calories you consume.2 Our ancestors did not have grocery stores and restaurants, and they were often hungry.3 This lack of food meant that energy had to be conserved, so the brain does exactly that whenever possible.
The brain will, of course, remember things that are important – that’s a major reason we have brains.1 It will devote energy to solving important problems, too, because that was critical to our ancestors’ survival. So the question then becomes, what signals to the brain that something is important? What convinces the brain to care?
One answer is emotions. Things that are emotionally significant get remembered. Anything that produces extreme happiness, extreme sadness, severe pain, a great deal of pleasure, anger, fear, or any other strong emotion will be easily remembered.1 The brain automatically remembers what’s very good, so that we can repeat it, and it automatically remembers what is very bad, so that we can avoid it. That’s why people have no trouble remembering experiences like their first kiss or breaking a bone. Likewise, if something produces strong emotions, but we don’t understand why it happened, our thoughts will be consumed by the goal of figuring it out.
Unfortunately, the things we learn in school are not particularly exciting. They don’t trigger strong emotions. In fact, most of what we study in school does the opposite of that because it feels boring.
This means that you won’t automatically remember what you’re taught in school or what you read in a textbook. You’ll have to convince your brain to devote energy to forming memories.
Effective studying turns out to be exactly this. Good studying is using techniques and strategies that trick your brain into thinking school content is important enough to remember. And what do all bad study methods have in common? They don’t work because they fail to convince your brain to care.
The primary way you convince your brain to care is putting effort into studying. This works because of self-perception: the brain’s tendency to decide how to feel by observing your own behavior. By taking action, you’re telling your brain that whatever you’re learning is worth putting energy into. Why else would you be doing it? It’s as though your brain has built into it the following rule: “If you try, I’ll try.”
Now, let me be clear, this is not the same as convincing yourself that the content you’re learning matters. You don’t have to actually think it’s important. You don’t have to actually care. You just have to act like you are, and by acting that way, you’ll convince your brain that the content is important. If your brain sees you acting like you care, it will come to believe that it should care too. To the brain, actions speak louder than thoughts.
And it’s your brain’s perception of the content that counts. At the end of the day, you don’t remember things just because you want to remember them; you remember things that your brain has decided to remember. Your job as a student is to help your brain make the right decision by taking the right actions.
The Mind is Like the Body
I often say that the brain is like a bunch of muscles, and this is another example of that principle. If you want to get stronger, you have to take actions that convince your body that it needs to get stronger. When you lift weights, you put your muscles under strain, which is uncomfortable, which sends a pretty clear message that you need to be stronger. The body responds by devoting more resources to growing the muscles you used to lift weights.
Your body would never grow muscles that you’re not using because that would be a waste of resources. In fact, if you stop using certain muscles for any significant length of time, they atrophy. The brain, too, quickly forgets skills and knowledge that we never use. Both the brain and the body obey the principle of “Use it or lose it.”4
“Repeat to remember … Remember to repeat.” –John Medina1
Perhaps the simplest way to trick your brain into thinking something is important enough to remember is just to engage with it on a regular basis. Spaced repetition is, in fact, known to be one of the most effective study habits of successful students.5 When the brain sees something once, it uses the default setting and forgets. If the brain sees something over and over again, it becomes convinced that this is a thing you’ll need to know.
When you engage in spaced repetition, it’s as though your brain says, “You keep looking at this; I don’t know why, but it must be important.”
You can consciously predict that there is an upcoming test on the quadratic formula, but your unconscious brain will only believe your prediction if you take enough action to convince it. If you keep coming back to an idea, your brain will grasp that it needs to be understood and remembered.
The brain actually responds to this sort of repetition on a physical level that neuroscientists are able to detect. When new information is learned, new links between neurons are formed. Repetition makes these neural connections thicker and more resilient.4 Regular practice of a particular skill also encourages the growth of new brain cells.6,7 Your brain is a dynamic, malleable organ that responds to what you do by changing and growing.
Repetitions can be writing about it, talking about it, or just thinking about it. One of the most powerful tricks top students use is thinking about whatever they were just taught in between classes. When you finish this article, spend a minute going over the main points from it in your head, or better yet, take a minute to write down the main ideas.
An often-overlooked method of convincing your brain to care about what you’re learning is to take some time after studying to do nothing. Not only does this allow the brain some downtime to pause and process, but it communicates to the brain that you care so much about the ideas that you’re willing to spend extra time just letting them sink in. Thus, a powerful way to enhance your learning is to embrace being bored and alone for a few minutes after each study session.
This is very hard to do in the modern world. Your phone allows you instant access to a myriad of social connections and other activities which, in all likelihood, feel more interesting than schoolwork. If you turn your attention to these inputs the moment you finish studying, you’re telling your brain that they are what really matter to you. Your brain listens, and it forgets much of what you were trying to learn.
The ultimate memory-eraser:
Likewise, if you allow yourself to be exposed to distractions while you’re studying, that signals to the brain that you don’t really care. The brain sees this, and decides not to care either. After all, if the schoolwork was really important to you, you’d give it your full attention.
Studying ought to be done with as few distractions as possible. That might mean choosing a quiet room in the house or wearing noise-cancelling headphones. It should certainly mean limiting access to your phone, either by turning it off, putting it in another room, or putting it in airplane mode.
Here’s a model of how you might use airplane mode for your phone during and after studying:
Again, I’m not asking you to actually prefer your studying to games and friends; I’m asking you to pretend that you prefer your schoolwork during and immediately after studying. Acting like you care gets your brain to actually care, and that’s what counts.
Naming the Significance
You can, however, get yourself to care at least a little bit most of the time. To do this, from the very beginning, name for yourself what the significance of the topic is. Hopefully, more than one of the following reasons will apply to anything you’re learning.
In rare cases, the topic at hand is interesting or cool. More frequently, you can find something about it that’s interesting. Very often, topics we study in science, English, and social studies relate to important aspects of the real world, such as love, health, politics, or the environment.
Another type of significance you can name is that it will be on the test, and you want to pass the test because you want to pass the class. If this is a math or foreign language class, the content you’re learning will almost certainly be needed to succeed in next year’s class because both are structured like an upside-down pyramid.
You might also conceive of the minor topics you’re learning as part of a major goal, such as graduating, getting into college, or landing your dream job. Keeping the end-goal in mind can help you stay on track when you’re struggling to care about the day-to-day pieces.
Do you have a big goal?
Perhaps you don’t know what you’d like to do for a career or whether or not you even want to attend university. That’s fine, but you can be sure that whatever you end up doing in the future, you’ll need to be skilled at learning. School is, first and foremost, a training ground for learning, so every topic you’re asked to understand and remember is significant because it is an opportunity to practice learning.
Likewise, whatever you choose to do in life will require that you’re able to get yourself to work hard, even when you don’t feel like it, and every time you practice having a work ethic for school, you’re cultivating your work ethic for life in general.
Whenever you find yourself lacking in motivation, remind yourself of the reasons you care, however minor they may be. It will help you get started when you don’t feel like starting. And because of self-perception, five minutes into the work, you’ll probably have enough momentum to keep going with minimal resistance.8
More to Come
Convincing your brain to care will be a theme I revisit often in future blog posts on such topics as the power of hand-writing, self-testing, and asking questions. Until then, please simply keep in mind that effective studying is taking actions that convince your brain to care. When effort goes in, learning comes out.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.
2 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.
3 Zimmer, Carl. Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Harper Perennial, 2007.
4 Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin Books, 2006.
5 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
6 Jabr, Ferris. “Cache Cab: Taxi Drivers’ Brains Grow to Navigate London’s Streets.” Scientific American. December 8, 2011.
7 Lazar, Sara W., et al. “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.” NIH Public Access. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. February 6, 2006.
8 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.