Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 3)

This is the third of a 4-part series covering Dr. Taylor’s conversation with Robin Phillips about the brain. To read the other posts in this series, click here.


Graham Taylor: At TSM we do a lot of work with the various theories of memory and learning. In fact, we have seamlessly integrated over a dozen theories of memory and learning into our learning platform. I’m curious to have your take on the relationship between these mental fitness skills and the various theories of memory and learning, such as Mind-Mapping, Method of Loci, Spaced Learning, Neuro-Transmitter Depletion Avoidance, and so forth?

Robin Phillips: Great question, Graham. It’s when we start looking at some of these theories of memory and learning that we realize just how mentally unfit most of us are today. How was it that medieval monks were able to memorize the entire Psalter while we struggle to even memorize our closest friends’ phone numbers? It wasn’t that people in the past had more time on their hands, although that’s part of it. And it also isn’t that we’re more stupid than our ancestors. Rather, we have a tendency to focus exclusively on content while neglecting the actual mechanisms of learning. Mary Carruthers has a great book called The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture in which she documents various techniques prevalent throughout the Middle Ages that people used for training their memory. One example of this is the Method of the Loci that you mentioned, which has received some recent popularity because Sherlock Holmes uses it in the series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock’s “mind palace” is basically the Method of Loci, whereby memories are stored in the rooms of an imaginary palace. This memory technique goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. A very enjoyable book about this technique is Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. Foer tells how he went from being an ordinary guy with an ordinary brain to becoming America’s #1 memory champion. He did this simply by following ancient methods of memory and learning, especially the memory palace method.

In the ancient world, educators understood that a good memory was an art that could be developed with practice. But fast-forward to today. Our schools spend a lot of time teaching children information, but we spend very little time teaching children how to learn. Many professional educators have never even heard of the various techniques for effective learning and memory. If anything, educators in the modern world ought to be championing these methods even more than our ancestors because we now have access to cutting-edge brain research that supports the effectiveness of these methodologies. To expect children to learn by throwing content at them without first giving them the tools for effective learning is like throwing someone in the water and asking them to swim without any training. Now if you do that long enough, eventually the person may learn to swim or at least stay afloat, but it will never be as effective as if they had been trained in the proper techniques.

Back in 2013, British a Grand Master of Memory, Ed Cooke, wrote an article in the Telegraph where he commented that “An alien species trying to understand our schools would be forgiven for thinking that they have been artfully designed to train students in the art of forgetting.” He went on to point out how year after year our schools teach children content that they try desperately to remember until the exam, after which they can comfortably forget what they’ve learned. Again, what we ought to be doing is not simply teaching our children what they need to learn, but teaching them how to learn and how to use their brains at peak efficiency for receiving, retaining and retrieving content.

I mean, think again in terms of physical fitness. If I’m going to the gym every day and using the equipment without any training, without having done any research on how my body works or the best ways to optimize my work-out time, it’s not going to be very effective and I may even end up hurting myself. It’s the same with how we use our brains, particularly in the context of studying. If it became routine to train students in these memory and learning techniques, we might find that we could teach twice as much material in half the time.


GT: A person could argue, like you said before, that the computer has diminished the need for humans to exercise their memories as much.

RP: Well, I said people are arguing that, but I think it is an oversimplification. Joshua Foer has a good discussion in Moonwalking With Einstein about why memory is central to both wisdom and personal identity. Also, if we don’t learn and remember things—perhaps because we think we can always look up the information online—then our brains will never have the opportunity to form schemas out of what we’ve learned. Our brains will be little better than a computer which is able to retrieve lots of information but isn’t able to sort the information out into schemas that are meaningful and wisdom-imparting.

Also, it shouldn’t be overlooked that memory is closely linked to creativity. As our personal and collective memories are being outsourced to machines, we forget (no irony intended) that humans have always understood there to be a reciprocal link between memory and creativity. The Muses in ancient Greek mythology were the goddesses of inspiration for literature, science and the arts, yet significantly they were the offspring of Zeus’s union with Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. I don’t think that was a coincidence: the Greeks understood that memory is at the heart of both creativity and wisdom. As the Greek playwright Aeschylus put it in Prometheus Bound, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” That’s why teaching the techniques for memory and learning ought to be at the heart of education. But because we aren’t teaching these techniques, what happens is that there is a vacuum in which numerous false ideas about memory arise.

: Like what?

RP: Well, massed practice is one example of a false idea about memory. You know, rereading the same thing over and over again hoping it will stick. Recently cognitive scientists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel teamed up with story-teller Peter Brown to write the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Their book explores all the latest empirical research into how human beings learn and remember information. One of the most interesting things for me was their discussion of how the traditional way of learning—slog it out with a textbook that you re-read over and over again until it sticks—is actually a very ineffective way to master material. I want to share what they wrote about massed practice because I think it will resonate with what you’ve found in helping students prepare for the EPPP.

“The finding that rereading textbooks is often labor in vain ought to send a chill up the spines of educators and learners, because it’s the number one study strategy of most people—including more than 80 percent of college students in some surveys—and is central in what we tell ourselves to do during the hours we dedicate to learning. Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content. The hours immersed in rereading can seem like due diligence, but the amount of study time is no measure of mastery…. Belief in the power of rereading, intentionality, and repetition is pervasive, but the truth is you usually can’t embed something in memory simply by repeating it over and over. This tactic might work when looking up a phone number and holding it in your mind while punching it into your phone, but it doesn’t work for durable learning.”

Other false ideas about memory and study includes the myth that I already mentioned that a good memory is something a person is either born with or not—basically, the idea that memory is a gift rather than a skill. I know you’ve dealt with that myth, as well as some other false ideas about memory and learning here at TSM. For the sake of people reading this interview, could you provide some links to the work you’ve been doing on study myths?


GT: Absolutely. Here are the links to our ongoing series debunking some of the most common myths about memory, learning and study:

RP: Thank you. And you know Graham, many of these myths about memory and learning have been institutionalized in our school systems as British memory champion Ed Cooke warned in one of his Telegraph articles. In the mid-1980s, the National Commission on Excellence in Education was put together to investigate the state of America’s school system. Their 1983 report,  A Nation at Risk, gave a summary of American education since the colonial days, and makes the following observation about the contemporary situation (which has only become worse since the early eighties):

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves…we have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”


GT: That is sobering. But getting back to something you said earlier, Robin. I’m very interested in that book you referenced Make it Stick. What methods do the authors recommend for achieving content mastery?

RP: Well, I’m only a little way into the book, but from what I can tell so far they recommend exactly the sorts of things you’ve embedded in your EPPP test preparation curriculum. Things like spaced repetition of learning sessions, effortful learning, flashcards, lots of simple quizzes to facilitate memory retrieval—these are all methods supported by the empirical data, at least according to Roediger, McDaniel and Brown.

Another discovery they share in the book, which interested me because of how it relates to schema formation, is that human beings remember information best when you can connect that information to existing contexts or schemas. “Putting new knowledge into a larger context helps learning”, they write, adding a bit later that “People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in leaning complex mastery.”


Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips spoke about the ingredients that go into successful memory and learning.
Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips spoke about the ingredients that go into successful memory and learning.

GT: I know from experience what can happen when teachers give content but don’t provide students with the tools for mastering and retaining that content. Back in 1995 when I was in preparation for my EPPP, I had about a month to master a ton of materials. I went to one of the weekend EPPP workshops and while it was good, it didn’t teach me how to take these armfuls of material and go and do something with it. It was like trying to get a drink out of a fire hydrant. I didn’t have a course of study, I didn’t have a way of assessing what my strengths and weaknesses were and I didn’t have a daily plan. Given the volume of EPPP study materials before me, and the very short period of time before sitting the exam, I knew I needed to do something very different in my preparation if I was going to pass. So I took a step back and looked at how the human brain operates and what neuroscience tells us about why we remember some things and not other things. I also wanted to see what I could glean from various theories of memory and learning (both ancient and modern) to enhance the learning process. I was able to weave all of this into my EPPP preparation to develop a very efficient and effective method of preparation. This enabled me to succeed with a very good EPPP passing score, and the method I used has now become the basis of what we do here at TSM. We have a 94% first time pass rate for students who use our system, and I sometimes find myself wondering what our school system would be like if they also used some of these techniques. 

RP: Exactly. I keep coming back to the fact that teaching content without equipping students with the tools for mastering and retaining that content—kind of like you experienced at that EPPP weekend workshop—is like asking a person to ski down a mountain without the right gear. Eventually you may reach the bottom of the mountain but it will take twice as long and require much more effort and pain than if you had been equipped with the right gear and trained in the proper techniques.

Another analogy comes from music. The techniques of memory and learning are like a musician learning his or her scales. When you understand about all the notes in the scales and you can play the scales correctly, then you are ready to begin learning pieces that incorporating the notes and techniques you’ve mastered into more complex pieces. Even after mastering the scales, there are other techniques you need to learn. That is why people who have been playing the piano for years still spend half their practice time working on technique. Right technique provides a foundation to build upon.

And I’m not just referring here to memorizing techniques. A successful student also needs to know techniques like focus, which I’ve already briefly mentioned but which it might be worthwhile to explore in a little more detail. Without focus there can be no learning. Without focus there can be no remembering. Without focus there can be no organizing of knowledge into schemas. Without focus there can be no creativity or productivity. Without focus there can be no emotional intelligence and peaceful communication in our relationships. Without focus we can’t develop the type of well-disciplined mind that is able to self-consciously reject thinking errors despite their emotional pull. So focus should be right at the top of our list of brain-fitness skills.

Focus is rightly considered a skill because it is something that can be practiced. We practice focus through mindfulness techniques, meditative practices and deliberate acts of mental self-control.

I already mentioned Daniel Goleman in the context of his work on emotional intelligence. In 2013 he wrote a book called Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Goleman’s earlier work showed that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ whereas now he’s sharing research that mental focus, and related concepts such as mental self-control and willpower, are more important than IQ. But it isn’t just that focus is more important than IQ; in some sense focus is also a necessary condition for IQ since focus is the foundation on which other mental virtues can be built. Goleman shared fascinating research showing that childhood self-control is a stronger predictor of a person’s long-term financial success than IQ, social class or family origins. Compared with IQ, self-control is a more accurate predictor of emotional adjustment, interpersonal skills and a sense of security and adaptability.

From a purely cost-benefit analysis, you would think that schools and parents would have a vested interest in spending at least some time every day—maybe as short as 5 minutes—offering training and practice in focus skills. Businesses realize this and many corporations are now hiring focus experts to offer mindfulness training to their staff to increase productivity. I’m not so much interested in focus for its utility value, so much as a way to achieve our mental and spiritual potential.

Some wealthy parents pour enormous money into sending their children to good private schools, or getting the best tutors for their children. But these things, important as they may be, are of minimal importance compared to much more mundane things that teach a child conscientiousness, self-control and focus—like expecting a child do his or her chores consistently, or requiring a child to focus on practicing an instrument at the same time every day even when distractions are occurring around her, or whatever it is that we use to teach our children to structure their daily routine around the disciplines of focus and self-control. As Goleman writes,

“Don’t underestimate the value of practicing the guitar or keeping that promise to feed the guinea pig and clean its cage.

“Another bottom line: Anything we can do to increase children’s capacity for cognitive control will help them throughout life.”

: It makes sense. Thanks for sharing that.


Further Reading

Leave a comment