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The old book-under-the-pillow trick

Nov 25, 2012

I know a fireman named Bill who thinks that if he places a book under his pillow while he sleeps, he'll absorb the material. He tried this trick to learn material for an exam to qualify as a fire captain.

Bill and I both have another friend, Marty.  Marty had a medical problem. One day, fireman Bill called Marty on his cell phone to say he had a book that describes a cure-all approach to healing the body and he was going to stop by to drop it off.  Marty covered the phone and said, "Bill's going to stop by to give me a book he wants me to read". I said "tell him you'll just put it under your pillow". When you put an idea into Marty's head, it's hard for him not to follow through, and so I heard him say to Bill "I'll put it under my pillow. That should work, right?". When he got off the phone, I asked Marty what Bill had said. "He said yeah, but read it too."


That was the end of the post.   But 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 can 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.


  1. Ah, learning by osmosis. My friends and I used to joke about that in high school. Wish it was true. Or better yet, wish we could plug into the Matrix and download whatever we needed to know in a matter of seconds, lol!! :-)

  2. Lol! This reminds of when I asked my 12 year old granddaughter recently if she was thinking of what college she would like to attend yet.

    She casually told me, "Oh, I'm not planning to go to college, by the time I am ready they will have a chip to insert in your brain that will teach you everything you need to know."

    For all I know, that "brain chip" may become reality. :)

  3. I think there is more likely a coorilation between keeping something close to your thoughts and remembering the material.

    Kind of like how people think praying about things causes it to come true, when in reality its just something you keep on the forefront of your mind so work to get it that does the trick.

    People tend to pray about and keep important things under their pillows that they find important...

  4. It really could be that putting something under your pillow acts as a symbol for its importance to you -- and it wouldn't be surprising if that reminder of its importance does allow your brain to process the matter more deeply.

  5. Would this work the same way if I put a Playboy magazine under my pillow? ;-)

  6. Be a pioneer for science, Phil. Find out, and let us know.

  7. will likely have more luck if you browse through your Playboy first. ;D

    Jon...I still claim the only "miracle" I ever witnessed by putting an object under a pillow was way back when I carefully placed my baby teeth under there and woke up the next morning to find a shiny silver quarter. THAT was bonafide results!

  8. Well since men allegedly read playboy for the articles, maybe some ingenuous solution to a societal problem will come to P H

  9. Jon...I apologize. I woke up at 3:30 this morning after dreaming about the time I placed my Grandmother's worn rosary under my father's pillow after he had been in ICU for three months and was planning to starve himself to death rather than live like that.

    I was reminded that mind over matter can work...even if we don't know why.

    Why mine almost always reminds me of my mistakes one way or another has been a lifelong mystery.