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Tests, superstition, and self-esteem

Jun 11, 2017

About four years ago, I wrote a post called "The old book-under-the-pillow trick".  It was meant to be a funny account of an interaction between me, my friend Marty, and his friend Bill the Fireman.  Bill was studying for an exam that would promote him to fire captain, he had to memorize a lot of material for it, and it was all in a book.   As you've probably guessed, he would put the book under his pillow at night because he thought it helped him absorb the information.  He wanted to sleep on the material --- literally.

Somehow, this ended up being one of the most frequently visited posts on this site. Over 100 people visit this post each month. Had word gotten out about this funny post?  That might boost page-visits for a few days after it's posted, but not for four years.   It's more likely that these folks are interested in using the old book-under-the-pillow trick themselves.

If so, my post will be a disappointment. It has nothing to do with the benefits of this "technique".

Yesterday, I thought --  given that about 3 people are landing on this page every day, is there anything I want to say to them?  I pictured a person who's worried about passing an exam. I imagined I was speaking to one of my City College students, or to a younger version of myself at a time when I might consider a supernatural solution to a problem I couldn't seem to solve with the natural means I'd tried. 

So, at the end of the post ("Bill... fire captain ... book under the pillow ...")  I wrote this addendum to the post:
... I want to say a few words more about this because, humor aside, I know that some people really are curious about whether this might help.  After all, if it does help, it would give you an advantage with essentially zero effort.

If you're thinking about it this way, I'd ask you to consult your own inner wisdom, your 'intuition', and ask, Is it really likely that I'm going to absorb material in a book that I've placed under my pillow?

If it were true, it would be easy to demonstrate objectively with groups of people studying the same material with and without the pillow trick.  And if one day it was discovered to be true, you'd know about it. It would be on the front cover of every major magazine and newspaper.  (Of course if you look for an internet page or forum where someone swears it works, you're sure to find it, as you're sure to find pretty much anything else on the internet.  Once again, ask yourself, Is this likely to be true?)

If you're considering the old 'book under the pillow trick', it probably means that you're feeling nervous about not being able to absorb material that you need to know for your job or for school or for something that's important to you.  In that case, I suggest reading the material in small chunks rather than overwhelming yourself by reading for long hours.  "A little bit at a time" is a really good strategy. It's been shown to improve learning in humans and other animals.

If you don't have much time to study, here are two other key suggestions:

1)  Don't just read passively. One trick I learned was to test myself in a way that feels like a game. For instance, if  you come across a part of the material that you think is particularly important, write out the sentences, leave one of the key words blank, and place them on the side of the page so you can later cover up the word, and test yourself.

E.g., with the last sentence you might write ...

"... leave one of the key words blank, and place it on the _____ of the page, so you can later cover ..."

[In the side margin of the page, you'd write the word SIDE, and test yourself later]

This is an amazingly effective way to get a high grade on a multiple-choice exam that's evaluating whether or not you've read the material.  It's not a great way to appreciate the material in the deeper sense of applying concepts to new situations.  But in my experience, when you're tested on large amounts of reading material (the kind that would make you think about placing the book under your pillow), the exam is often superficial.   I predict that one minute spent on this fill-in-the-blank approach will help you more than 8 hours of putting the book under your pillow. 
2) It's good to be motivated, but anxiety may be counterproductive. So, remind yourself that your self-worth doesn't depend upon doing well on a test. If you don't do well, there may be some inconvenient consequences (you don't get the promotion this year, or the grade you wanted in this particular course).  But your self-worth remains exactly the same.  And, by the way, your self-worth also remains the same if you get a super high grade.  Unless you accept this truth, your self-esteem will be going up and down, as if you were on a roller coaster, each time you encounter a new challenge.  That's not a very fun way to live, and neither is it a realistic perspective.  How could you possibly be a fine person one day and terrible the next? Or vice versa.

So relax, do your best, look for reasonable strategies to study (not strategies that you know are superstitious), and be kind to yourself and others.

A post you can sink your teeth into

Jun 3, 2017

I've written posts about the brain - the memory-storing hippocampus, the habit-forming striatum, the prefrontal cortex and inhibitory control; and about people I know - unusual characters like Alex (despite his intelligence, he sometimes tucks his shirt into his underwear), Marty (a big friendly guy who seems to remember everything he reads and watches on TV), Bill the fireman (who carries a 'magical' cane to fire scenes), Old George (who knows nearly every street of Manhattan and Queens) and John the Priest (whom I miss along with George).  I met them during the three years when I went almost every day to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, which is just across the street from St. John's Cathedral, which is just a few blocks from Columbia University where I taught and did research on the brain and learning. I still live in that neighborhood, but now I teach and do research at City College, 15 minutes north of the pastry shop by a bus that stops in front of St John's Cathedral. 

I've written about lots of the things that interest me.  But restaurants interest me too, and I've never mentioned any of my favorite restaurants in NYC.  I don't go to expensive restaurants. I'd rather spend money on other things - travel, maybe a show or a music concert.  A few times I've eaten really expensive meals, but a few hours later it seemed like I'd flushed the money down the toilet (sorry -- if you're no longer in the mood to read about food and want to bail on this post, I understand.)

When I'm visiting another city, one of the first questions that comes to my mind is  -- where should we eat?  A lot of people visit NYC at one time or another, and so I want to recommend a few restaurants with meals less than $20, and a few cafes.  Today I'll mention just one restaurant and one cafe.  They're both in my neighborhood. The Columbia University area isn't a major tourist attraction like Greenwich Village or Times Square, but is worth visiting if you're in NYC for a few days.

The restaurant is Community Food and Juice  - 2893 Broadway, between 112-113th St.  When I go out with friends to eat, I usually choose Korean, Thai, Indian, something like that.   The food at Community isn't ethnic, but it's special.  I recommend the salmon rice bowl.  They'll ask you how you want the salmon cooked, the default is medium rare, and I think you should go with that.  You don't want overcooked salmon (and they know what they're doing).  It's served over brown rice with a citrusy sauce, carrots, beansprouts, crushed peanuts, ...  Rosa usually gets the quiche  and after 8 years in NYC she still says it's the best quiche in the city. Both are reasonably priced and I don't think you'll find better salmon or quiche dishes in the city at double the price.

Community is on Broadway, three blocks from Columbia University's main entrance. But that doesn't mean that the restaurant is filled with Columbia students. There's a diverse mixture of people around here, so you rarely get a big dose of any one element.   After lunch, if you walk down tree-lined 112th street toward Amsterdam Avenue, you'll see the Gothic towers of St. John's Cathedral in front of you.  Before or after you visit this big*, beautiful cathedral (worth visiting even if cathedrals aren't your thing), you can go to The Hungarian Pastry shop, just a block down Amsterdam Avenue (between 110th-111th St).  If it's nice weather, sit at a table outside and look out over the cathedral while you  have a cappuccino and pastry.  You order inside, give them your name, and the waitress calls out to you as she brings your order to the table.   If you see a big friendly-looking guy sitting next to a guy with a shaved head and a (magical) cane, that will be Marty and Bill the Fireman.  I'll be the other guy at the table.

*It has one of the largest free-standing domes in the world. 

Learn a little bit each day

Apr 3, 2017


I've discovered a fun hobby.  I take a subject that I know almost nothing about. Maybe a subject that I missed in high school because I was daydreaming in class.   Back then I could decide quickly that a subject like Chemistry wasn't my kind of thing.   That was lucky, because there's a special joy in learning about a subject fresh as an adult.  And the less attentive you were in class, the fresher and more exciting it is to learn about now.

So, with my morning coffee I open up this Chemistry Book, and I'll read just a page or two; sometimes half a page.  But if you do that - or anything else - every morning, a page a day adds up to getting through a textbook in a year.  Even in three months, you have a feel for the topic.


When I decided to learn something about Chemistry, I Googled "BEST INTRODUCTORY CHEMISTRY TEXTBOOK" and soon I had a list of the 5 or so textbooks that were often described as "very good'.  And I chose one that was, sure enough, very good.