Studying without studying

I’ll occasionally start listening to a Mandarin news broadcast and then start doing something else. When I realize it’s still playing, I often wonder, “Am I learning something from this, even though I’m paying it no attention?” My intuition is that my brain does process some of the “background noise.” This is plausible because MUCH, MUCH more goes on inside our brains than we’re conscious of.

It’s also plausible because those who want to concentrate on a task usually try to minimize background noise. This also suggests our brains are doing something with that “background noise,” even if we’re not consciously paying it any attention.

A new study by scientists at Northwestern claims not only that our brains can learn from “background noise” but that such unconscious learning can — under certain conditions — be as effective as focused, conscious learning!

Wired reports:

listening to relevant background stimulation could be just as effective as slaving away at the task itself, at least when the subjects had practiced first. In fact, the scientists found that we don’t even have to be paying conscious attention to the stimuli – subjects still benefited from the stimulation even when distracted by an entirely unrelated task.

One of the study’s authors, Andrew Sabin, explains, “you do have to do the task, just not for the whole time. The main result is that if you practice for 20 minutes, and then you are passively exposed to stimuli for 20 minutes, you learn as if you have been practicing for 40 minutes. You can cut the effort in half, and still yield the same benefit.”

This suggests listening unconsciously to Mandarin in the background may strengthen my audio comprehension if I listen to something I’m generally able to understand when I pay attention to it. Listening to a Chinese university professor lecture on quantum physics or Chinese medicine wouldn’t benefit me because (s)he would use too many words I don’t already know. But I probably can improve my Chinese by listening to a conversation about business or education or international relations (subjects in which I have already learned many Chinese words), even if I don’t pay attention.

This principle also applies to anyone learning a language. But you must choose your background material to match your knowledge. And it’s presumably most effective if you re-listen to material you have just studied consciously. So, when you stop studying your Spanish lesson and move on to math, replay your Spanish lesson in the background and see how you fare on your next test.

Posted by James on Wednesday, September 29, 2010