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Discovering the Characteristics of Effective Learning with Experts Peter C. Brown & Jonathan Levi

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“When learning is easy, it doesn't stick.”
— Peter C. Brown
This episode is brought to you ad-free by the Amazon Affiliate Program. Please consider purchasing a copy of Peter or Jonathan's books using the Amazon links below.

As someone who specializes in accelerated learning, I’m really excited about this week's guest, Peter C. Brown. After retiring from management consulting, he has published a number of books on money making ventures for nonprofits, jumping the job track, and most recently, a book entitled “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.” In fact, his book and mine are consistently battling it out for the top spot on Amazon’s list of best books about learning, so you know, i just had to reach out to him and compare notes on how the strategies for successful long-term learning versus those for accelerated learning compare.

I have to say, it was an absolute blast to speak to someone who is equally passionate about effective learning as I am. I really enjoyed the opportunity to pick the brain of someone intimately familiar with the research and see how he and I have coalesced or differed in our prescriptions to successful learning. The episode offers a ton of incredible takeaways both for students of my course and for those who have never even heard of it – telling you the key elements of successful and effective learning for the long term. I just know you’ll enjoy listening to the episode as much as I enjoyed recording it.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Peter C. Brown's journey from management consulting to writing and publishing
  • The research of Peter's co-authors, memory experts Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel
  • Common misconceptions on the characteristics of effective learning
  • The relationship between difficulty and retention when it comes to learning
  • Spaced repetition systems such as Leitner Boxes, and why they're so effective
  • The parallels between physical fitness training and effective learning
  • Where modern academic environments fail to adhere to the characteristics of effective learning
  • How important is testing for effective and sustained learning?
  • What the research tells us about the brain, short term memory, and long term memory
  • How to structure effective practice and learning for long-term success
  • Do we need to understand the basics of learning science to take advantage of them?
  • Visual and emotional “markers,” as discussed in Jonathan's book
  • The differences between Peter's book and Jonathan's
  • What are the few habits that ensure effective and successful learning?
  • What are the few habits that Peter C. Brown believes to be “game-changers” in life? 
  • How the characteristics of effective learning made the seemingly miraculous Hudson river landing possible
  • Mental rehearsal and it's efficacy for learning
  • How do sleep, dreaming, and lucid dreaming relate to effective learning?
  • What is Peter C. Brown working on next?

Resources Mentioned in This Episode:

Favorite Quotes from Peter C. Brown:

“For true expertise or mastery, your practice – and you need a lot of it – must exceed current ability.”
“You want the learning well embedded and connected in the mind to what you already know, and you want many different ways of finding it later when you need it.”
“All new learning builds on existing learning.”
“For me… the game-changer is not to try and figure it out, but to start to do it.”
“There's no end to our ability to learn, if we want to make the effort to do it.


Introduction: Welcome to the Becoming SuperHuman Podcast. Where we interview extraordinary people to bring you the skills and strategies to overcome the impossible. And now here's your host, Jonathan Levi.                                           

Jonathan Levi: Greetings SuperFriends. Welcome to this week's show. As someone who specializes in accelerated learning, I'm really excited about our guest today. After retiring from management consulting, he's published a number of books on money-making ventures for nonprofits, jumping the job track, and more recently a book entitled “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”.

In fact, his recent book and mine are currently battling it out for the top spot on Amazon's list of bestsellers about learning. So basically I had to reach out to him and compare notes on how the strategies for successful long-term learning compare to those I teach in accelerated learning. You know guys, I have to say it was an absolute blast to speak to someone who's equally passionate about effective learning as I am. I really enjoyed the opportunity to pick the brain of someone so intimately familiar with the research and see how he and I have coalesced or differed in our prescriptions to successful learning. This episode offers a ton of incredible takeaways, both for students of my course, and for those who've never even heard of it.

It'll tell you the key elements of successful and effective learning for the longterm. And so I just know you'll enjoy listening to the episode as much as I enjoyed recording it. And now I'd like to welcome Mr. Peter C. Brown.

Peter, welcome to the show. I'm so excited to have you today.

Peter C. Brown: Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to it.

Jonathan Levi: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I was looking on Amazon at other books in the memory improvement category and yours is consistently up there with my own and so I'm really excited to compare and contrast our methods for accelerated learning versus long-term sustained learning and use of the skills.

Peter C. Brown: Yeah. I'm looking forward to the conversation. I think there's a lot on both sides of this. We meet in the middle.

Jonathan Levi:  Absolutely. So, Peter, you mentioned as we were prepping for the show a little bit, that you retired in the nineties from your consulting career and you launched a new career as a writer.

And I'm really interested in that because on my end,  all of this is also new, and teaching online and podcasting is new so I'm interested to hear how you got into this new career as a writer.

Peter C. Brown: Well, I spent most of my career as a management consultant, working with a teams of senior managers in companies and non-profit organizations on long-range planning, listening to their ideas, what the issues are, and helping coalesce that into a plan of action. And my wife and I decided to take a year off in 98 and go live in Italy just to get recentered about life and what we wanted out of our remaining years. I'm 67 now so I had turned 50 in Italy and I decided when I came back that I wanted to explore this thing called writing, which has always been an important part of my life but in the background. Since then, I've written a number of books, fiction, and nonfiction. And when I was between books, I live in Minnesota. My brother-in-law Henry Roediger is a prominent cognitive psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. We get together regularly. And now once when I was between books, I was asking him about his work in this field of memory and learning. And what he described to me from the research that he and his colleagues had been doing, I found compelling and we decided we needed to put it out in a book that would be accessible for non-scientist readers like myself.

So maybe I'm answering more than what you've asked, but that is how the arc of my attention and focus has evolved in the last few years and I spent the last three and a half years or so working with Roddy and his colleague Mark McDaniel to learn myself the science of memory and the recent research into the relationship between memory and learning.

And be able to put that into a book that was highly anecdotal soundly rooted in the empirical research that would help people understand that most of us go about learning in the wrong way.

Jonathan Levi: Absolutely.

And I agree with you on that. I'm really excited that you dove straight into it because, in my course, I admittedly admit that I'm not a neuroscientist.

And though I'm going on a basic understanding of neuroscience, I don't draw enough upon the studies. And that's because I haven't had access to them. So I'm really excited to hear about Roedi's research and maybe you can elaborate on that a little bit.

Peter C. Brown:  Oh, I'd love to. Well, Roedi is I say his full name is Henry Roediger.

R-O-E-D-I-G-E-R. Everybody calls him Roedi. His field is the science of memory, and he's really advanced in that field has been recognized internationally. He was approached by a big foundation, uh, around 2001 that said we're really interested in the question, what teaching and learning strategies, lead to better memory of the learned material.

And we're wondering if you would feel a team of your colleagues at different universities around the country to do empirical studies into those questions or that particular question. And that's really, after 10 years of doing these studies, what led into the book and one of the fundamental ideas is that when we think of learning or studying, we think that we read something, we listened to a lecture and that's how we learn it. We take it in and that when we're tested, that's like a dipstick to determine, uh, how much of it we've really learned. And so the early research involved having students in labs, doing different amounts of reading and rereading and material to see how their learning improved. And other students would read it fewer times, but they'd be tested more times to see how those success of events of reading it and rereading it helped them. And low and behold, what they discovered was that the students who hadn't read it very many times, but had been quizzed on the material learned it far better than those who had read it many, many times, but not been quizzed.

Jonathan Levi: Interesting.

Peter C. Brown: It took them right into this phenomenon that has been known for many decades called the testing effect. The testing effect says that retrieving something from memory is a more powerful way of strengthening the memory and connecting it to the other things, you know, Then is review and rereading.

So that research started branching off in many directions, which we can go into.

Jonathan Levi: Can I ask really quickly how old were the students?

Peter C. Brown: The students, in the beginning, were college students, but they've subsequently the research has reached into middle school is now going down into younger ages still.

Jonathan Levi: Oh, interesting.

Peter C. Brown: And it also has been conducted with people who are much older than school students or college students.

Jonathan Levi: Right the reason I ask is because I talk a lot in my course about Malcolm Knowles and his six principles of adult andragogy and you touch exactly on one of them, which is we need to understand and make our brain believe that there's pressing need. You know, whereas a child may be willing to learn or maybe able to learn because they're told to do so. Adults need to know that they're going to use the material. And I think that touches upon, you know, when you're quizzed on it and you know, you're going to be quizzed on it repeatedly, it creates this pressing need and applicability for the knowledge.

Peter C. Brown: Yes. There's another way to think about that. What the cognitive psychologists in this field called generation, and that is you're presented with a situation or a problem, and you're invited to try to come up with a solution. It might be something as simple as naming the capital of a state and you search your mind, you think of the different towns in that state, you think of the other states and the capitals you know. And even though you don't pull it up, when you are then told what the capital is, you remember it far better than if you had gone into a Roman, now we're going to learn the capitals of the States, the capital of Maine as Augusta.

You might or might not learn it, but this notion of struggling with it first creates I don't remember the word that you used. I started with an a.

Jonathan Levi:  Oh, andragogy.

Peter C. Brown: I don't know that word andragogy.

Jonathan Levi: Adult learning

Peter C. Brown: Oh, okay. Well at any age, and this is clearly true of infants and toddlers, that you struggle with everything around you that you're trying to learn and that struggle whether you succeed or fail, leads to better learning and memory of the correct answer when you get it. So that I think resonates very clearly with your notion of learning something better when you have a need for the information.

Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. And you must also be a fan of spaced repetition, I would assume.

Peter C. Brown: Right. One of the notions, I think one of the places that you, and we might part ways a little bit is this, but maybe not really when learning is easy.  When you hear a lecture that is the epitome of clarity, do you think? I think I must know this. It just makes so much sense in any case, I've got it.

You know, it's clear to me. Well, when test time comes around, that ain't the case. It, you don't remember it when learning is easy. It doesn't stick. There are certain kinds of things that make learning a little harder. That make it stick better. One of them is what I just described this idea of trying to solve a problem before you're taught how to solve it.

Another is when you've read an article or learn how to find the volume of a spheroid or a wedge in your math class, rather than practicing that solution over and over in rapid succession, which keeps your learning and short-term memory. You're much better off coming back to it later when you're a little rusty and you have to try to retrieve from memory.

What that solution was and how that worked, that requires retrieving it from long-term memory. And that act involves the reconsolidation of that learning and long-term memory. So spacing out your practice, which makes it a little more difficult and feels kind of clunky because it is difficult, actually has far better benefits in terms of mastery and retention.

Then practicing something the way we normally do over and over, you know, your 20-foot putt over and over again, that doesn't help you and you'll see improvement, but it doesn't last. You, you don't realize it doesn't last.

Jonathan Levi: Sure. I couldn't agree with you more. And I think that's why spaced repetition. We talk about software a lot and I'm a big proponent of  Anki as a spaced repetition software that will determine right when you're on that cusp of forgetting, or you have to recall it back from long-term memory. But you know, this stuff's been around since the 1970s with Sebastian Leitner and his system for. Oh yeah. And I mean, it's exactly. If you look at how it works, that's exactly what it does. Let me move this card because it's difficult and I won't review it until it's rusty.

And of course I won't review the cards that are easy because at that point I'm gaining no benefit as you said.

Peter C. Brown:  Lietners box was a box to hold flashcards and it had several compartments in it and then everything starts in the front compartment. And let's say it's French vocabulary. You're trying to learn a new quiz yourself on it.

And then as you feel like you're on top of something, you put it in the next box, which is instead of being practiced once a day it's practice, once every three days. For sake of argument. And then when that works, you put it in the box where it's only practiced once every week or once every two weeks. So the Leitner box basically says when you're on top of it, you can retrieve it less often, but it never leaves the box.

Anything you want to hang on to, you must always. Periodically retrieve from memory.

Jonathan Levi: Exactly you know, I have a deck in my Anki software, which as I said is really just a digital recreation of this. And I have words that are so basic in the languages that I'm learning. That I'll never forget them. I'll never forget the word for I in Russian, but six years from now, it's going to pop up.

Alrighty, I'm going to repeat it. So one day, just in case.

Peter C. Brown: So the notion was spaced retrieval practices that people want to know how far out should I space my practice of recalling something that I've learned. And the answer is you want to space it out far enough that it's difficult, but you can do it. You don't want so far out that you have to relearn it.

You just want to have to struggle with a little bit. You have to. Try retrieving the cues that take you to that point and say, Oh yes, it was that. And that strengthens those cues and those routes that's R-O-U-T-E-S the routes to that memory.


Jonathan Levi: I like that. And one thing that I think about a lot is the parallels between exercise or weightlifting or bodybuilding and memory.

And we talk a lot about that with progressive overload, how you kind of want to push yourself a little bit beyond your limit, but not too much. And it sounds almost like we're talking about hypertrophy that you kind of need to push yourself a little bit further beyond, but not to the point where you're metaphorically injuring yourself or getting frustrated.

Peter C. Brown: I think that takes us into the realm of the work by Anders Ericsson. That's quoted by Malcolm Gladwell and became known as the 10,000-hour rule. Basically, the notion being that for true expertise or mastery, your practice. You need a lot of it and it must exceed current ability. Inevitably there is a failure and you learn from the failure.

So this idea of improving your expertise in a skill or a subject area involves reaching beyond your current. Level and that struggle and that reach or what bill, the pieces that come together, uh, sometimes the elements get chunked into one unit. You no longer think of all the different individual pieces of that knowledge you think of that chunk.

And it becomes connected to another chunk. I think we're kind of maybe getting into the weeds here, but you're right. That notion of exceeding your current level of striving. We understand that in sports, but we don't think of it that much in intellectual exercises.

Jonathan Levi: Right. And I think one of the shortcomings perhaps of academia is that we're not doing this.

We're not testing people more than once, and we're not forcing them to recall. It's kind of a brain dump from a textbook or an instructor. One time, passive input of the knowledge and time recall in a very limited fashion.

Peter C. Brown:  Yeah, really the best role of testing. I guess we need testing as a measurement, as a dipstick, but really we ought to be thinking of testing as a powerful learning tool.

I interviewed one on the web. I was looking for teachers who were current with the research and learning and to see what they were talking about. And I found a wonderful professor at University of Washington in Seattle and uh, Mary Pat Wenderoth, who was a scientist and she's teaching her students.

First thing she does, she's very clear about how learning works and the difference between the illusions of mastery that you get from rereading a text many times and getting fluent in the text, but not really understanding the concepts below it and the notion of retrieval practice as a way of locking and learning. And she'll be lecturing to her students and she'll pause. And she'll ask a question on the material and when the students turn to their notes she says, put your notes aside. Imagine your mind is a forest. And the answer is in there somewhere. The more times you make a path to find it, the stronger that path will be. That's a very simple metaphor, but that's what quizzing is.

That's what retrieval practice is. It's going down, finding your way down that path again and getting that knowledge and bringing it out of the forest. And that's why quizzing and testing low stakes frequent is. Far better way to learn than to be presented something and review it and only be tested at a midterm or at the end of the year.

Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. And you know, like you mentioned earlier, where if you try to solve a problem and you don't yet know the answer or how to solve it, I can think back to my most memorable class in business school, and essentially the quiz or test was presenting our findings in front of the class. And of course, the professor wouldn't explain how we were supposed to solve this financial problem.

And those are the things that I most remember because one, I did all the work. To go through and play and try and understand how we were going to do this only to realize we didn't have the tools yet. So I understood the problems and then we were presented on how to do it. And then we had to present and essentially we were quizzed in a kind of socially, I guess a social-proof environment. Which is low enough stakes, but high enough that you remember the content and you're pulling it back and really, uh, forced to dive in and create those extra routes as you said.

Peter C. Brown: Right. Yeah. That's a good way to learn a good way to run a class.

Jonathan Levi: Peter, I'm curious what the other findings are. I mean, we've covered a couple of them but what are the other fundamentals of the make it stick way?

Peter C. Brown: Well, one thing I would say is it helps to understand that, uh, how learning works in the sense that when you're exposed to something new and at the traces are the part of your brain called the hippocampus it's in short-term memory.

And over a period of hours, maybe a day, the exact time and process aren't very well known. But we do know that there's a period of time in which the brain makes sense of that material and fills in gaps and rehearses that, and it slowly moves into long-term memory. But it takes time. It takes hours or maybe even a day or two for learning to go from short-term memory to long-term memory.

And in that period of moving on, being consolidated into long-term memory, it's pliable as plastic, the brain looks for ways to connect it to what you already know to help make sense of it. You know, horror does it fit into your scheme of the world? So the notion that doing something. Once or doing it over and over quickly where it resides in short-term memory, it's a false notion or an illusion that that's beneficial.

What really is needed is time for that learning to consolidated as sleep helps a lot. Sleep is an important-  apparently in, during sleep, there are certain functions that the brain engages in, and rehearsing this kind of learning to help consolidate it and connect it. The notion of pulling it out from long-term memory was some effort apparently makes that learning somewhat pliable again, and it brings the key ideas forward makes them more salient. It connects it to things you've learned since it strengthens both the way it's embedded and the memory and the retrieval cues to find it later to big issues you want to learning well, embedded and connected in the mind of what you already know. And you want many different ways of finding it later when you need it.

That takes me to one other point I want to bring up. And that is when you retrieve or practice something. That you've learned earlier, you actually learn better. If you mix up your practice of, let's say you're practicing your solution to finding the volume of a sphere. And you've got also a wedge and you've got also a cone, different kinds of solid geometry problems.

You will learn and remember them and apply them better later. If your practice is mixed up between the different examples. The same thing is true. And in golf you're you will learn your 20-foot putt better. If you practice different distances and different strokes in mix it up, the brain gets a more sophisticated representation of the 20-foot putt versus the other strokes that you're taking, or it gets better able to identify.

What kind of a problem you're facing, Oh, this is a cone. And the solution to that is over here. It's this solution. So mixing up or interleaving the practice of different, but somewhat related problems improve your mastery and your recall later. But when you are in the learning phase and the practicing phase, when you mix it up and feels clumsy as heck, you just don't think you're getting it. So we don't tend to practice that way.

Jonathan Levi: No, we certainly don't. But if you want to learn something like a language or you want to learn a sport, you're forced to, because you're not going to sit and review the same 10 vocabulary words. And how long can you practice that 20-foot putt?  It actually reminds me, I've been binge-watching Tim Ferriss TV show, the Tim Ferriss experiment, which just came out finally after kind of years of him trying to get the rights.

And he goes through all these challenges and tries to deconstruct them. And what is interesting is he'll try 10 different moves of a particular sport. And exactly like you said, because it creates a more diverse learning environment. And in my opinion, it also has to do with kind of creating a neuroprotection and getting your brain into this exciting learning state.

That's hard to get if you're practicing the same damn movement over and over again.

Peter C. Brown: Right. I think when you mix up the problems you are on higher alert. If you will, you're struggling, you're engaging all of your resources in finding the solution, which is not the same when you have the predictability of doing something over and over again. You can kind of do something over and over again and be thinking about what you're going to do on Saturday night at the same time.

Another interesting thing that seems to be coming out of the research is that. Some people are better at what the cognitive psychologists are calling structure builders. These are people who can read something new and pull out of the material. The few key ideas, the two or three key ideas and make a mental model of that and connect that to something else.

Whereas other people will read the same passage and try to remember everything. They can't seem to discriminate between. The important ideas and the illumination around it, if you will, or are there some supporting points. And I think of that, for example, a builder who was at a job site and has all the materials on the job site, but doesn't really understand the key principles of the load-bearing properties of the trusses and so forth, or the principles of heat transfer and how you need to design that roof to make sure that it's warm on the inside and cold on the outside.

You know, all of those fundamental principles that involve the system. For each system, electrical plumbing, you know, the shell and everything, all those come together. Each one has a model and they come together to form a bigger model, which is a warm, dry house. So the notion of when you learn something, asking yourself, what were the key ideas here?

And how do those ideas relate to something? I already know, how would I put them? In my own words helps you build a mental model that enables you to bring that learning up again later and apply it, connect it to something else and apply it. If you don't do that, kind of thinking through and winnowing down to the core ideas and the connection in your mind that you don't learn as well.

And you don't apply it as well. Again, later.

Jonathan Levi: I love that. And it actually touches on another one of the Knowles principles of adult learning, which is adults need to connect. And you've actually mentioned it a couple of times, adults need to connect to existing learning and you know, that just underlies the way that our brains work.

They work by these connections between neurons and if things are not connected, you know, that odd person's name that you meet, you have one data point on it and it's not connected to any pre-existing knowledge. It disappears.

Peter C. Brown: Yeah. All new learning builds on existing learning. One of the learning disadvantages of somebody would be in a sit down in a class where they don't have the fundamentals that come before that class.

They can't learn that new material because they have nothing to connect it to. So all new learning connects to something that we already know you're going to learn it.

Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. And I think that's one of the main reasons why. You know, if you do speak a couple languages already, it's so much easier, not harder to learn additional languages, paradoxical, almost.

Peter C. Brown: Many points of connection.

Jonathan Levi: Absolutely.  And different libraries of sounds with different meanings and yeah, absolutely. So it sounds like you and I both would agree that in order for people to take advantage of these techniques, they really have to understand how the techniques work. Would you say that's fair?

Peter C. Brown: I think that it helps to understand yes.

That it takes time for new knowledge to be consolidated in the mind that struggle, mental struggle is positive evidence. It's not evidenced that you're not getting it. It's evidence that you're doing what you need to do to really get it well and hang on to it. Those are sort of large concepts. I think also an area that you talk about in your book that I think is an important learning from the memory scientists, is that.

It's easier to find something you've learned later. If you have different vivid cues to retrieve it, it's important that it's embedded well, but it's very important that you have ways to find it. And some of the most potent cues to help find something, you know, are. Visual cues. I can think of many times when my wife and I have come back from a trip.

And she said, you know, that woman who was talking about such and such was really interesting. And I can't remember that in a horror was that while I was in that restaurant next to the such and such, Oh, I can see the restaurant that I find the woman in my mind, then the. Conversation unfurls in my mind, it's an interesting thing.

So there are many different kinds of cues you can have, but I know in your book, you talk a lot about how to construct cues. When you're reading something to help attach the memory to a cue that you can help find it again later. And that's certainly validated by the memory research.

Jonathan Levi: Yeah, that's about 60% of our method.

You know, we often like to tell students, there's no point in speed reading. If you can't quickly assign the memories and store them in such a way that's going to be recallable. And you know, the only really, really fast way to do that is to use visual cues. Or if you can conjure up sensational kind of imagery or smells, tastes, stuff like that.

Peter C. Brown: Or emotions. Like I think, here's one place where we walked down, different paths. You walk down a path of saying, how can I consume a large body of information in a short period of time and be able to call it up later, which is a lot of Tori aspiration. The path that we're walking down is a little different. We're saying for mastery and long-term retention.

Long-term, you know, making it stick, make it stick. As our book is called, make us tick the science of successful learning to make it stick. There are things that slow the learning down a little bit and make it a little more difficult that help make it stick longer. And these are the spaced retrieval practice, the generation, trying to solve problems before you're taught how they mixing of practice of different kinds of things so that you switch back and forth.

And each time you come back to something, you have to remind yourself. What it was and how you know it and what you know, and do the thing you need to do with it. Again, that's a little different, well, it's fundamentally different in some ways, from the notion of speeding up the reading and the capture, if you will, and the ability to recall, but they both rest on a bed of uh, trying to move learning in a long-term memory. And our focus is decided to lead, not on speed, but on cultivating a couple of habits that if you use them, if you follow them, cultivate those habits, you will find that you have to do spend much less time in review later know, say you approach a test or a situation.

And those habits are periodically recalling from memory, you know, self-quizzing, that kind of thing. Uh, mixing up your practice. Those kinds of activities will serve you at any time point in your life. If you're trying to learn to play the piano, you're just trying to learn to be a neurosurgeon, a cop, you know, a student in college or in high school.

Uh, those skills will get you to the end of the semester on top of your material.

Jonathan Levi: Agreed. And I think, you know, some of the experts that I've spoken to in, for example, language learning, seem to agree with you and say, you know, you should challenge yourself with quizzes, get a penpal, try to write to them in the target language because that's a real world applicable quiz where you're quizzing yourself and testing yourself on the knowledge.

Peter C. Brown: Yeah, that's exactly right, Jonathan. And there's two benefits to that. One is what you've just described. It strengthens your mastery to do it, but the other is you suddenly become aware of whether in fact, you are on top of it. Because we were not very good judges of what we know and don't know. And so self-quizzing is a way of checking yourself and whether you really are where you think you are.

Jonathan Levi: Yep. And I had Benny Lewis on the show who speaks seven languages fluently, 12 languages conversationally. And I asked him, you know, his book is fluent in three months. I said, how do you break down the three months and know what to learn in what week? And he said, there's no prescribed plan. I spend enough time testing my skills out by talking to native speakers that I do that on the weekend. And by Monday morning, I'm very clear on what's missing in my skillset.

Peter C. Brown: Yeah, it's interesting. Isn't it? I'm thinking of the year we spent living in Italy and I discovered that riding my bike through the villages and stuff at the village water pump and chatting with the hunters about what they were hunting and, you know, going into the little coffee shops and stuff and trying to make my way was the felt halting and awkward, but it ended up being a very successful way to try to pick up the language. You find yourself at some point, speaking idioms that you didn't even know you're new because they've come to you from that kind of exchange and in effort.

Jonathan Levi: I would say 10 to 20 times, you know, minute for minute more effective than studying in a textbook.

It amazes me. I have maybe two one-hour conversations in Russian a week. I've completely stopped looking at textbooks. I've almost completely stopped, you know, reading in Russian, but in those two hours, it amazes me sometimes. Like, I didn't know. I knew that word.

Peter C. Brown: I am one of the interviews I did for writing this book is kind of like what you're just describing, but it was a young Marine, named Mia Blundetto and she was in charge of logistics and she was in Okinawa. And to be in charge of logistics, she had to go to jump school, to learn how to jump out of airplanes, which didn't really appeal to her. But she, it was a very high honor, the position she got. So she said, yes, sir, I'll jump out of airplanes.

And she described, make jump school at Fort Benning. You go there, you are not allowed to, I have a pencil and paper and take notes or have a book or anything that where you write down what you're learning. Or you read about it, you go there and you do it, and you start at the very basic level you're standing there.

And the instructor said explains what a parachute landing fall is, how you land in different planes of your body, and distribute the impact. And then he has you practice them just by falling down the round and demonstrating it. And the next day you're maybe a foot or two off the ground going into a sandpit and the whole series of training, which actually is very complicated because when you're up in a plane and strapping in and you're staggered behind other troops were getting ready to go out alternate sides of the plane, and then coming out into whatever that environment is.

There's all kinds of things you need to know what to do about the second time she jumped out of the plane, she landed in another jumper shoot and she knew what to do. But going through that jump school is just a great example. Just like what you're describing and practicing your Russian, learn it by doing it and practicing it.

Not by reading about it or writing about it. Although writing about something yeah. Is a good way to learn because you're putting it in your own words. But in the cases, we're describing. That kind of generation and retrieval practice and they spot spontaneity involved in it as very potent.

Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more.

I'm actually curious, you know, in your opinion, since we both have this passion for learning, what do you think are some of the most game-changing and pertinent skills or disciplines that people should undertake when armed with an effective learning methodology, such as yours?

Peter C. Brown: You know, that's, uh, I guess what's game-changing is up to every individual and what their passion is. I know for me in writing the game-changer is not to try to figure it out, but to start to do it because once you engage in something and you're struggling with the problem, your mind starts to knit at it, even when you're doing something else. John McPhee, the great non-fiction writer talks about that and then talks about writer's block.

He said, just start writing about the thing. And you'll discover later when you're driving down the road, your mind has been working on it and we'll present you with a solution to a problem. So I think this notion just going and doing is a game-changer for me. Instead of trying to. No exactly where I'm going and what I'm supposed to do.

I think, uh, another game changer for me from having worked on this book and read this research is the notion of making a habit of reflection and self-inquiry. And I find myself now when I read something in the paper and I'm going to be in a social situation where I want to talk about this thing that I read because it really made an impression on me.

Yeah. It used to be able to go and see to just see that piece, you know, wasn't that great. Well, now I want to be able to say, what was it about that piece that really resonated with me? And so when I've read it, I had to put her aside and I have to ask myself that question. What were the key ideas? What are the three ideas in this piece that are really important?

And why do I think they're important, then I have to pick it up and reread it again because I'm not sure I got it right. But this notion of a habit of reflection and self-inquiry, Is a game-changer. A neurosurgeon that I talked with and writing this book to all the great story about the solution he had invented in doing a surgery on the brain.

He came to that solution through the same process of a habit of reflecting on what he had done or what he had read, mostly what he had done, how he might want to do it better to get a better result, you know, this notion of self-inquiry. And then I think the notion of mental rehearsal, a few read Captain Chesley Sullenberger's memoir about being a pilot.

He's the fellow who set that Airbus down on the Hudson River, so flawlessly. And you wonder, you know, how did he do it? And it's wonderful to read how. Sullenberger as he came up as a pilot, he flew in the military, he then investigated airplane accidents. He studied them, he took an interest in water landings, and he had studied what little available footage there was of those landings.

And he had mentally rehearsed, many different aspects of flight in his mind, including water landings. And there he was at that moment. So this notion of mental rehearsal. I interviewed, uh, Vince Dooley, who was a famed coach of the Georgia Bulldogs football team. He talks a lot about mental rehearsal with his players and his quarterbacks and his team.

So those ideas for me going and doing it. Cultivating a habit of reflection and self-inquiry and engaging in mental rehearsal of something that you are trying to master or that's it for me, those are game-changers.

Jonathan Levi:  I would agree with you. And I think the mental rehearsal is really just another form of a recall.

You know, we talked about the lightener boxes and stuff like that. It doesn't matter if you're actually rehearsing. I mean, I talked to myself in my head all day long in Russian, and that's likely a big contributor to why I feel I'm improving.

Peter C. Brown: Yes. And in case of the neurosurgeon and the football coach, and they both felt that the mental rehearsal enabled them to practice a different solution to something that they were doing that wasn't quite working well. And then when they were back in the fray and had to do it. They were prepared to do it in that different way. So it's a form of generation as well as retrieval, but it is both. It's all of those things. And according to Roddy Roediger, my side is coauthor, mental rehearsal can be just as potent as a physical rehearsal of if you're rehearsing a physical activity mentally.

Jonathan Levi: I think that's very interesting. And I think that actually, it peaks my interest because I'm starting to take an interest in lucid dreaming and the idea that you can conjure up situations and control your dreams. And I would wonder, you know, if sitting in mentally kind of rehearsing your way through a problem, I would wonder if, you know, you could actually get better at surfing by conjuring up a surfing situation and practicing over and over and over again in a lucid dream.

Peter C. Brown: Well, now I'm going to speak, not from the research. But I'm going to speak from my opinion. And that is, although I think the research shows that the mind consolidates learning in during sleep and what my opinion is that if I'm working on a piece of writing or something that I'm trying to learn, that if it's on my mind, when I go to bed, that the mind will work on it through the night. Or you might find this true for me. Certainly, if I write up an essay or an editorial piece, the next day I wake up and I see, you know, there's really, you know, just a couple ideas in this that are really important. And my mind is sort of worked at it and brought that forward for me and I can revise the thing very nicely.

So there is a kind of mental rehearsal, apparently, that happens in our sleep that helps us consolidate our learning and move to the forefront, the most important elements of the topic that we're struggling with.

Jonathan Levi: Certainly, and you know, what little we do know about sleep does tell us that it's actively, you know, repairing the brain and building these connections more during sleep.

We don't really know how, but we know that that's happening more during sleep and the brain clearing metabolites that are created during rigorous mental activity, which is also very important. So what's next? What are you currently working on?

Peter C. Brown: Uh, going back to fiction.  I'm going to back to historical fiction.

My first novel, I was in historical novel. And you know, it's one of those things where there are a lot of aspects of life. Let's say a 19 hotter that wouldn't have interested me until I had to animate characters and move them through their day. So became passionately curious about how different things worked.

And so I'm going back to historical fiction for me, the thrill of writing a story sat in this case in the 1860s on the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Try to inhabit those lives emotionally, as well as physically in my mind. And then the research is close actually to your book where you talk about a preread of something to figure out what it is.

You're trying, what you're looking for. When you go back and really read it. This is true in writing a historical fiction. Instead of going out and doing a lot of research and then trying to write your stories better to get your characters moving, and then have the question and read for the answer. And so I find this kind of learning very rewarding.

If I can animate it, learn it so well that I can animate my characters on the page and the reader will feel those emotions and the thrill that those characters are going through.

Jonathan Levi: It sounds like an incredible challenge, actually in an incredible journey.

Peter C. Brown: Yeah, it is. You have to kind of remove yourself from the rest of your life, which is one reason I resist doing it. Live in your mind through the scenes and the experiences of your characters in the new, forget where to turn off the highway and so forth and so on.

But on the other end of it, when it comes out in book form and your readers are immersed in the novel, it's like you've exercise kind of a demon because now it exists and lives on by itself in book form at another people's minds.

Jonathan Levi: I love that visual and I love that concept. So, Peter, I can count at least three distinct careers that you're clearly excelling at.

And I think, you know, if the research that was done at the University of Haifa, wasn't conclusive enough, I think you're living proof that there is no excuse, you know, for not being able to learn effectively whether at 12 years old or 67 years old. And I thank you for that because it is a misconception that you and I probably both battle every day.

Peter C. Brown: Yeah. I interviewed an 88-year-old keyboard pianist who is still learning and performing classical works at her age and she is now 90 and she's still doing it beautifully. And I think there's no end to our ability to learn if we want to make the effort to do it.

Jonathan Levi: I would agree. And I think that's a great quote to end on Peter.

Where can we send audience members if they want to learn more about you or your work, would you like us to direct them to Amazon or to your website?

Peter C. Brown:  Well, I have a website. It's that is a website for the book and Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, if you click on about the authors, that will take you to my personal website, shows a variety of my books and you can learn more about them there.

Jonathan Levi: Excellent. And we will put that in the show notes as well as hopefully we'll dig up some of the research that Roddy and Mark worked on. And I'd love to put that also in the show notes.

Peter C. Brown: There's a tremendous amount of that in the endnotes of the book. And I must be quick to add Jonathan that the book isn't just about their research, not even the lion's share of it is their research.

The book is about, um, a fast body of research that informs the book and much of it is theirs.

Jonathan Levi: Excellent. So I'm definitely gonna have to read it this weekend. Peter, thank you so much for your time. And I know you just got over a cold, so, you know, for mustering up the strength to chat with me today, I really am enjoyed it.

Peter C. Brown: It's been a great pleasure for me, Jonathan. Thank you for having me on.

Jonathan Levi: My Pleasure. You take care.

Peter C. Brown: You too.

Jonathan Levi: So that's it for this week's episode guys, if you enjoyed it, as much as I enjoyed recording it. Please head over to iTunes and or Stitcher and leave us a great written review. It really, really brightens our day to see those reviews.

The other thing is I just wanted to let you guys know that as promised my new book, Become a Superlearner is now available on Amazon. It's actually climbing up the charts really, really quickly. And so we would love to give you guys a free copy of the first 10 chapters and help you accelerate your learning and improve your memory a little bit.

So head over to and if you subscribe to our email list using the form on the bottom or the window that opens up when you visit the site, we will automatically send you those first free 10 chapters to enjoy. So head over to Drop your email in one of the forms and we hope you enjoy the book.

We'll see you guys next week.

Closing: Thank you for tuning in To the Becoming SuperHuman Podcast. For more great skills and strategies or for links to any of the resources mentioned in this episode, visit We'll see you next time.



  1. Luiz
    at — Reply

    Thanks, I learned a lot of interesting things in past episodes.

  2. Shivaditya Purohit
    at — Reply

    loved th heart and the depth of the conversation. The way that Dr. Metivier shared from his enormous experience and insights was just amazing. Thank you Jonathan for doing this podcast!! 🙂

  3. Rob
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    Great interview with Dr. Greg Wells! He mentioned a doctor from Colorado around the 42:30 point of the podcast, discussing turmeric and black pepper. I couldn’t make out the doctor’s name. Can you provide me with his full name and maybe his website or contact info. Interested in his products.



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