Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HistoryFantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fantasyland was a fun read for at least two reasons: (1) each of the underlying themes seemed custom-made to validate my preconceived notions about why people (Americans, particularly) are quick to believe unsubstantiated claims, and (2) Andersen’s style is smart, conversational, and funny.

I really wanted to give Fantasyland five stars, but it was frustrating in one pronounced way: Andersen waits until the second half of the final chapter to do most of the work of tying together the themes and ideas of the previous 45 chapters. It makes for a satisfying finish (a method that probably serves Andersen’s fiction readers well), but this approach leaves the reader with long stretches of what begins to feel like recitations of “oh, and look at this other weird thing people believe.”

Also, I know it wasn’t Andersen’s purpose, but I wish he’d given the reader just a little more by way of suggested remedies, more how-to advice on making America reality-based again. Perhaps a companion volume is forthcoming?

All that said, this book deserves a wide audience and to be added to civics syllabi everywhere. It won’t turn everyone into rational empiricists overnight. But a basic understanding of the historical and developing reasons why facts and reality have taken a backseat to relativism and magical thinking for so many Americans (on the left and the right) is a good starting point, and Fantasyland delivers just that.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens  By: Benedict Carey

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

By: Benedict Carey

There are some good tips in here. But even for a short book, it's a little too long. Subtract the fluff and you have a handy pamphlet of advice that looks something like the following:

Information Retention and Retrieval

1. It can be useful to temporarily forget what we learn. The act of later trying to remember information thought to be forgotten is a "desirable difficulty" that ultimately works to hardwire that information more permanently in our memories and make it easier to recall. Forgetting also helps the mind filter out the irrelevant parts of the information. 

2. Retention of information is significantly greater when we force ourselves to try to remember what we've learned rather than just reviewing the information itself. 

3. Writing down what we've learned from memory, even if it's not perfectly accurate at the moment, before immediately referring to our past notes or the material itself is significantly more effective in terms of retention and future retrievability than just reviewing. For example. highlighting text, reviewing those highlights and reviewing previously prepared outlines are only somewhat effective (these are very passive approaches) compared to forcing ourselves to actually reproduce / write down what we know.

4. We recall information better when the contextual cues are the same as those when we learned the information. E.g., students test better when listening to the same music as when they studied that information. Contextual cues act as a sort of hint toward the right information. 

5. We should very the times and places that we study. One reason this may help is that our minds will associate more contextual cues with the information studied.

6. Breaking up study time into short sessions over several days, weeks and months, produces long-term retention levels significantly greater than studying the content for the same amount of time over one or two long study sessions. 

7. For certain subject matters, taking a test before learning any of the content significantly aids comprehension and retention of that information after studying it. Recognizing in advance what we don't know helps us to hold onto that information once we learn it.

Problem Solving

1. "Incubation" time is important. Time away from the puzzle while it lingers in the back of the mind helps us see connections and possibilities that aren’t apparent in the moment of focusing on the problem.

2. Puzzles that require multiple attempts before achieving an a-ha moment (especially spatial relationship problems) are best solved by taking a break away from thinking about them after the first few unsuccessful attempts. 

3. It's actually beneficial to be interrupted in the middle of trying to solve a problem. The brain will keep the problem in memory and be more prone to find solutions in day-to-day experiences. The details of a solution to a problem already solved are much more easily forgotten than the working details of a solution to a problem not yet solved.

4. Varied practice (applying several different applications/approaches of a skill) is more beneficial than focused practice. E.g., practicing different kinds of shots versus just free-throws makes you shoot better free throws over the long run (but not necessarily or the short term). 

Subconscious Learning

1. Chunking pieces of information into meaningful groups increases understanding. E.g., a good eye in sports, the ability for a chess master to memorize the board after a glance, or linking squiggles to letters to words to paragraphs to ideas, etc. Benefiting from this type of grouping of information comes after a lot of experience with that type of information. 

2. Sleep, particularly REM sleep, is how the brain organizes and categorizes useful information obtained while conscious, and filters out less relevant information. Failing to get enough REM sleep significantly decreases one's ability to retain and retrieve information and solve complex problems.

Overall rating: 3/5

This review also appears in Goodreads