Myth #3: Sleeping Takes Too Much Time and Is Inefficient For Learning

Topic C: Sleep

Pulling an all-nighter has become the status quo for my students around the world. We forego sleep in hopes that finishing a project or cramming for an exam the next day. We often underrate the importance of sleep in our role in learning. This may be because sleep does not appear as active, but in reality a lot happens if you get a good night’s rest.

Sleep puts our brains into “diffuse mode”, which is when the brain consolidates what we have learned throughout the day and makes connections and even new neural pathways. When we wake up, we unconsciously have new perspectives about the material and when we revisit the material, we can approach it with a new mindset.

Sleeping has also been shown to help with learning declarative memory (factual information) and procedural memory (doing things), especially during REM (rapid eye movement). In fact, if you learn right before sleeping, you may even get to dream about the material, which helps solidify what you have learned. Without sleep, we are also less likely to focus during the day and lose memory of the things we learned the day before. It makes us more stressed out, making us unlikely to learn even more material.

During sleep, our brain cells also shrink, which increases the space between cells. This allows more the cerebrospinal fluid to flow more readily and wash out toxins that accumulated in the brain during the day. Less toxins means a more efficient brain.

So what is the takeaway? Minimize procrastination so you have time to sleep. It is worth it and your brain will thank you.

And sweet dreams.

Image from


John Hamilton. (October 17, 2013). “Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep.”

“Sleep, Learning, and Memory” at

Cromie, William J. “Research Links Dreams, Sleep, and Learning.”


Myth #2: Rereading and Highlighting Significantly Increases Learning (and more)

Topic B: Illusions of Competence

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that highlighting is so fun that people often highlight while they are reading. The rainbow visuals create a sensation that we are productive and offers proof that we are reading the material carefully. In fact if we reread the material, that also offers proof that we are spending dedicated time to studying and learning. Anybody who was watching us the entire time could not possibly accuse us of not using our best effort.

Those efforts may be in vain as research as shown that highlighting and rereading yields low levels of learning. What feels like you’re learning is actually an illusion of competence.

An illusion is of competence is when you believe a certain learning technique is teaching you effectively. It is often characterized by a false sense of security and often uses practices that are deemed “easy”, like highlighting  and rereading, though not always. An example of an elaborate illusion of competence is the belief that creating concept maps (diagrams that illustrate the complex relationship between materials) is more useful than retrieval practice, even though retrieving and recalling the concepts worked much better.

(Even though I desperately hope that by writing this out for everybody to read, I am not creating my own illusion of competence in the process.)

What are good ways to circumvent the illusions of competence?

As the study previously mentioned showed, retrieval or recall practice is a good way to test if you actually know something. It takes away the impetus to look at the solution if it is in front of you and requires that you come up with the knowledge yourself. For instance, if you are hoping to memorize a piano piece, literally put away the sheet music and practice as much as you remember. It is a lot more effective than playing the music over and over again with the sheet music in hopes that you will somehow build muscle and auditory memory. Playing the piece may even be easier over time, but there would be diminishing returns in your memory. But why is that?

Practice is good and no doubt it will make you better the more you do it. But if you practice something too much it may lead to overlearning complacency and the belief that just because something is easier, you are learning more. In addition to recall, it is good to use deliberate practice, which means forcing yourself to focus on the difficult material, and interleaving to practice many approaches and strategies to the same material. This prevents another illusion of competence, Einstellung, when knowing something well with a narrow-minded focus prevents a better idea from being found. Interleaving gives you different perspectives, allowing you greater mastery.

So why should you predominantly use the difficult methods of studying (recall, deliberate practice, interleaving)? Not only are you testing yourself against illusions of competence, but sometimes errors are good to make. Learning from your mistakes is another mindful way of accepting your shortcomings and working towards improvement.

So the next time you are studying, perhaps it is a good rule of thumb to put away the highlighters and bring out the flashcards.

Highlighters are like candy when you’re on a diet.

Image from :

Now recall this: what is the term for knowing something so well it can prevent a better idea from being formed? (No looking!)


Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Memories of errors foster faster learning,” August 14, 2014, Science Daily.

David J. Herzfeld, Pavan A. Vaswani, Mollie Marko, and Reza Shadmehr. A memory of errors in sensorimotor learning. Science Express, August 2014 DOI: 10.1126/science.1253138

“The lesson you never got taught in school: How to learn!” at

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266 [PDF]

“Research finds practicing retrieval is best tool for learning” at

“Deliberate Practice” at

“Interleaved Practice: A Secret Enhanced Learning Technique” at

Myth #1: You Should Only Focus on Your Strengths

Topic A: Life-long learning and broadening your passions

It’s easy to believe that some people are destined for greatness. We see our peers doing better in us in the same class. Occasionally there is the story of the four-year old concert pianist. Maybe we stroke our insecurities by telling ourselves these people were “better fit” and that we perhaps were “born stupid”. However, these explanations are often a disservice to the tremendous amount of work individuals have put in that take place behind the scenes. The truth is that even those who are predisposed to a better advantage (whether through genes or social upbringing) still have to work hard to become successful.

If people should only focus on their strengths then Julia Child should have never become a culinary inspiration, because she did not learn French cooking until age 30.

If people should only focus on their strengths, then Vincent Van Gogh should have never have pursued painting, because he did not paint until he was 27.

So what happened?

Instead of dismissing these challenges, these people and other late bloomers cultivated their craft so that it became their passion. They did not blindly follow the false notion that we are destined for only one passion based off what we like or our current strengths. If anything, it is because of this myth that so many people spend so much time wondering what they are best at rather than putting in the effort to learn and broaden their experiences.

When you learn something new, your brain changes. The neurons in your brain rewire, creating new synaptic connections where there were none, and strengthening others through repeated actions. It happens when you are learning music and it happens when you are learning a new language.

Learning is not only for children. The adult brain is also capable of change.

This means that you are literally capable of learning anything at any age if you give it the right amount of attention, understanding, and practice.

The world is a diverse place and it could use people have broad experiences and perspectives. Find something you find fulfilling and own it.

Julia Child would approve.

Image from


The Passion Trap: How the Search for your life’s Work is Making You Miserable at

Learning rewires the brain at

Neuroplasticity in Second Language Learning at

Adult Brains Can Still Change at

Neuroscience of Music- How Music Enhances Learning Through Neuroplasticity at