BOOK REVIEW: Wired to Grow by Britt Andreatta

Wired to GrowWired to Grow by Britt Andreatta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is one of those books that is hard to rate and review. It does a thing well, and if one is looking for a book of its strengths, it’ll serve one well. That thing it does well is to concisely and clearly summarize research in neuroscience relevant to learning new skills. If that is something one is interested in, and one hasn’t done much reading on the subject yet, this book will get one up to speed in just over 100 pages while offering insight into where to go to flesh out what one has learned.

That said, if one has read up on pop-sci neuroscience and /or self-help books applying said research, one is likely to find that this book offers little value-added while lacking the depth and narrative approach of competing works. The latter is particularly intriguing as this is a book about effective learning, and it seems clear that humans like learning through stories. However, Andreatta does little story telling beyond brief mentions of approaches she’s used in her seminars and occasional recaps of the stories of the researchers whose work she’s drawn upon. Some may find this isn’t so bad because it keeps the book compact. Story telling is page intensive. On the other hand, a lack of story-telling means that the material is a bit less prone to stick than it might otherwise be.

The author’s approach to making the material stick is to hang it on a three-phase model (learn-remember-do) and to keep it brief. Many of the chapters consist largely of bullet points, and in places the book feels like a PowerPoint handout. (I’ll let the reader decide whether that’s a good thing or not.)

The book is organized into twenty chapters arranged in five parts. (That tells one a lot about the brevity of chapters, given the book is 102 pp.) The five parts consist of: I.) an overview of neuroscientific fundamentals; II.) a description of research related to the “learn” phase of Andreatta’s model; III.) the same for the “remember” phase; IV.) coverage of the “do” phase; and V.) a section called “design” that helps the reader to apply what they’ve learned in the earlier parts to build approaches to teaching and learning.

There is some useful ancillary material. First, there are many graphics of a variety of types (pictures, line drawings, tables, and graphs) that are nicely drawn and effective. Second, there are “Your Learning Journey” sections interspersed throughout the book. These are one page or less exercises that are designed to help one put one’s learning to use. Thirdly, there is a bibliography that includes crucial reference materials divided by type: i.e. journal / scholarly research, books, journalistic / media accounts, and cited scholars. Finally, there are apparently additional resources accessible online, e.g. downloadable pdf files, but I didn’t investigate these features.

I would recommend this book for those looking for a concise summary of recent developments in neuroscience as they apply to education and learning. If you’re well-read on the subject, however, you might not find that this book delivers much extra. It should be noted that the author is speaking from an educator’s perspective (i.e. not a scientist or psychologist) and readers may find that a plus or not.

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5 Ways to Manage Your Email & Social Media Addiction

Addiction? That seems harsh. It feels like I’m equating a person who has his phone in hand several times every hour with a heroin junky or a nymphomaniac. But, the difference is in the word “Manage.” I wouldn’t write a post entitled “How to Manage your Heroin Addition.” I’d write one called, “Quit that Shit Before it Kills You.”  I’m not suggesting that one needs to do away with checking email and social media. These are great tools that allow us to be much more productive (potentially.)


Still, if we’re honest about it, most of us at some point get caught up in the compulsive checking of emails, social media, internet feeds, click-bait sites, sale pages for online retailers, and stats pages. There’s no denying it. A pile of evidence has accumulated about the extent to which people are dismayed by their own e-world activities. I just started reading Kotler and Wheal’s “Stealing Fire” (out February 21, 2017) and they site a study that found that about 2/3rds of those surveyed admitted checking their status page when they woke up in the middle of the night. It might seem off topic for book about altered states of consciousness to report on such matters, but its not because it’s all about the pursuit of a neurochemical bump. (Also, as I’ll discuss, a major problem of this addiction is in keeping one from slipping into the Flow with one’s work, family, or hobby activities.)


So, below are five methods I’ve found useful in my own on-going struggle with this addiction.


5.) Set a timer:  The problem with this addiction is that when one falls into habitually checking one’s status, one isn’t able to stay on task, and that means that one won’t achieve that elusive state of optimal performance called Flow. One needs time to immerse oneself in a task.


When I’m writing and editing, I set a timer, and until it beeps I do nothing off topic. I don’t make it some Herculean effort. I use 60 and 90 minute intervals. After the alarm rings, I can check email, do Tai Chi, get a cup of coffee, or work on my handstands. A longer time period may be more–or less–beneficial for you. (Isaac Asimov was said to only take a break after 5,000 words, but few writers have that in them.) The point is to make it long enough that one can get into a focused state of mind, but not so long that you become distracted and run down.



4.) Know your high energy period: This point relates to the last because it’s about blocking one’s productive time, and putting the more Flow-demanding activities when one is at one’s best. e.g. Are you a lark or an owl? (i.e. morning person or evening person.)


For example, I’m a morning person. This creates a potential problem. While I find it easy to get up with the sun, I’m at risk of saying, “Oh, I’ll just check emails, Facebook, my blog stats, a couple YouTube channels, and then I’ll get to work.” Then it’s noon, and the hours in which my mind was at its very best are gone. From 7pm until I go to sleep is when I should check these feeds because by that time my mind isn’t good for editing or writing tasks that require a high level of attention to detail.



3.) Go Cold Turkey [for a few days]: Sometimes it’s easier to make changes when one is forced by circumstance to quit. Then one can be more conscientious in resumption of the activity in question. (Moving to India helped me break a lot of bad habits.) If nothing else, this will help to give you confidence that the Earth won’t roll off it’s axis just because you aren’t checking on it twice an hour.


I can offer two examples from my own life. Every year my wife and I go on an extended trek in a place where there are no bars and saving batteries is essential. The past couple years, this has been in the Himalayas because we’ve been living in India, but anywhere remote will work. I also did the Vipassana Meditation Course last year. (If you’re interested in the latter, you can read my account of it here.)




2.) Meditate: Why? Because when you start meditating regularly, you tend to do less and less out of mindless habit. You become conscious of what you’re doing, and that’s the first step to making changes. You also start to become attuned to those very subtle dopamine bumps, and in that way you  aren’t fighting it the impulse blindly. The high of the click is infinitesimally more subtle than taking mind altering substances, and so it’s easy for this all to take place below the waterline (analogizing the mind to an iceberg but instead of the majority of the mass of ice below the waterline, it’s the conscious mind above and the subconscious below.)




1.) Substitute: In the immortal word of the rock band “The Who.” If your problem is so extensive that it does more than block your attempts to hit the Flow, you may need to find a healthier alternative to wean yourself away.


What does one look for in a substitute? If it’s going to fill the same space, it requires immediate feedback and a mix of “fails” mixed in with “successes.” These are the components that make the e-world so addictive. We know immediately whether we got something or not, and that keeps us clicking–not unlike the famous rats that would keep pressing a button for pleasure even to the point of forgetting to eat.


Some people may work on games that will help build their brain. (Warning: just don’t trade one unproductive addiction for another.) I’m an advocate of working on physical activities (e.g. trying to develop new capabilities in calisthenics or yoga), but these often involve a demoralizing amount of fails to reach the optimal level (the optimal being that one has enough fails to keep it from being boring but not so many that one is brutalized.)

BOOK REVIEW: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayHow to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is a book about free time management. Bennett proposes that one use one’s non-working hours for self-betterment, and offers advice on how to go about it. It’s a single volume from a larger tract entitled, “How to Live.”

The book was written in 1908, and it’s at once archaic and ahead of its time. How is it archaic? While the book is slim–less than 40 pages–it’s verbose by present-day standards. However, the prose isn’t so purple as to be unreadable. Also, some passages won’t be relatable to modern-day readers. (e.g. Bennett counters the argument—apparently common in early 20th century Britain—that one can’t start one’s day before one’s servants have awoken, and asking them to get up an hour or two earlier is so 18th century.)

More importantly, one must exercise caution because some of the advice isn’t sound in light of recent scientific research. The best example of this is the idea that one should summarily cut an hour and a half or two out of one’s sleep time. This can work for some, but as blanket advice it won’t produce wholly positive results. To be fair, there are still people giving this advice, e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In my view, two incorrect principles inform this belief—one is wrong in my opinion, and the other is being gradually killed by science. The first is the Western attitude that rest is a form of weakness that we—unfortunately—are forced to put up with, but which we should try to minimize (and even be vaguely ashamed of.) Rest is an essential part of the productivity formula. (Bennett both recognizes and denigrates the value of downtime.) The second notion is that sleep is just rest for the mind. There’s substantial evidence that sleep plays a major role in memory consolidation as well as ramping up healing actions into full gear.

How is the book ahead of its time? Let me say that I mean ahead of it’s time for early 20th century Britain. In some parts of the world, the ideas I mention have been around for thousands of years. First, Bennett describes the importance of training the mind to not be in a constant state of flux, so that one can be less reactive and subject to petty impulses. Bennett doesn’t use the terms “meditation” or “mindfulness” (he talks about “concentration”), but what he describes is meditative practice. What he describes is a bit more cerebral than one would recommend for a beginning practitioners of meditation in light of what we know from the people who do this stuff really well (e.g. Buddhists and Yogis.) While Bennett says that the one can use any object of concentration, he recommends passages from Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. (Two stoic philosophers.) Note: I’m not disregarding the virtue of reading and actively thinking about the ideas of the Stoics. I’m just saying that it may take some preliminary concentration work on breath or a mantra to get to a place where one can get what one wants out of it.

Second, the book suggests that one rethink one’s notion of happiness. Then, as now, it was common to think that—or at least behave as–if one accumulated enough wealth / stuff, one would achieve a state of happiness. Of course, there’s no evidence that that’s the case, and building evidence that it isn’t. Third, Bennett recognizes the folly of trying to make a massive change all at once. He suggests that one start with an hour-and-a-half a few times a week, and build from there as is manageable as long as time is available.

This volume consists of twelve chapters of a few pages each. The chapters start by introducing the premise—that one has 24 hours a day and roughly 16 of those are ones that one can use as one wishes. Bennett discusses why one would want to do more with this time, what the challenges are, and how one can structure a program of self-development. There are a couple of chapters that discuss the mind and concentration, as mentioned above. However, the program goes beyond mere concentration. There are chapters on the arts, serious reading, and dangers to avoid when starting such a program–as well as my favorite chapter entitled, “Nothing in Life is Humdrum.”

Perhaps the most controversial suggestion in the latter part of the book is that one shouldn’t include novels in one’s “serious reading” time. It should be noted that Bennett isn’t telling one not to read novels, he’s just saying that they shouldn’t be part of one’s mental development regime. Instead, he recommends poetry and non-fiction. His point is that novels don’t challenge the mind. One can certainly see how this is true of today’s sweatshop commercial fiction or the YA novels that dominate the best seller lists, but harder to understand why it’s true of “Ulysses” or “Moby-Dick.”

Given the proviso that one should take what is useful and discard the rest, I’d recommend one give this a read. It’s particularly ripe for consideration if one feels that one has surrendered one’s free time to social media, TV, and brain candy books.

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