Sleep is Homework And Other Tips About the Brain

The special assembly with Andrew Watson, of Translate the Brain, began with a game. The Upper School students had 30 seconds to examine a chart and, using three simple conversion rules, figure out solutions to several strings of numbers.

But there was a trick to this game. After calling time, Mr. Watson asked if any of the students had picked up on it. The key, he said, was in the numbers: the first half of the answers mirrored the last. Those who recognized that could complete the task in half the time.

Why was this relevant to students on an early November morning? Mr. Watson promised his talk, entitled “How to Study Less and Learn More”—and bizarrely subtitled Import Anthill Wontons!—could give students half a dozen strategies for achieving higher grades while doing less work.

“I hope at this moment you’re all feeling a little skeptical,” he added, with a smile.

The secret was in how the brain worked, he said. Modern scanning techniques had helped scientists better understand the connections neurons formed inside the brain. In part, the studies showed that people forgot, and quite quickly. They could retain the same information for much longer, though, when they practiced learning, forgetting, and relearning over time.

“Over learning doesn’t help. This is completely bizarre,” Mr. Watson said. “But for remembering, a key cognitive process is forgetting.”

Modern brain studies had also shown that brains had trouble switching between tasks—even if those tasks included reading a book, checking email, logging in to Facebook, and then going back to the book—so an important step was doing only one thing at a time. Another was to self-test repeatedly, rather than simply re-reading material.

“Don’t just review your notes,” Mr. Watson said. “Write down as much as you can remember. Then do it again.”

Most of all, Mr. Watson said it was important for students to give their brains huge doses of the mysterious substance BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)—a protein produced during exercise and sleep that aids in long-term memory creation.

“Different kinds of sleep support different kinds of memory,” he said. “Sleep is homework.”

As he had began, Mr. Watson concluded with a pop quiz. Had anyone in the audience guessed the meaning behind the subtitle of his talk? It was, of course, an anagram, and it stood for “Williston Northampton.”

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