A friend of mine recently sat in on her son’s psychology class in college. My first question was: How did she get a son who isn’t embarrassed to have her there? My second question was: What did she learn?

The professor was talking about memory and he said that information learned while drunk can only be accessed while drunk (an interesting example for a college campus!) and, likewise, information acquired while sober can only be retrieved while sober. In other words, context matters when it comes to memory. A lot.

This may seem like a relatively trivial point, but I found it helped me understand two phenomena much more clearly. Jewish law emphasizes the importance of having a fixed place and time for learning Torah. I always assumed that advice was geared towards maintaining discipline and consistency. And I’m sure that’s a component. But I realized that it goes much deeper; a fixed time and place makes for easier access to materials previously learned – which in turn leads to a greater grasp of the total picture and thereby deeper insights.

It also explains a contrary phenomenon. I find that when I travel it is almost impossible for me to concentrate on learning or class preparation. I have created a whole level of sophisticated rationalizations (from my single-minded focus on the task at hand to my devotion to my children to my investment in the program I am facilitating while away from home) to explain this. But I think the answer is much simpler and lies in this new (and ancient) psychological insight: I don’t have my fixed place. I don’t have my fixed time. I don’t have the settled mind required to learn because I am not in my settled spot.

Whew! I thought I was just getting old! Or too easily distracted…I feel relieved. And motivated to find a solution.

I now know not to move my spot at home, to continue to learn in the place where I am best able to concentrate (even if I risk getting ink on our new dining room table – and yes, I still write with a pen). Come to think of it, I did try a new place (in deference to said table) and was completely unsuccessful.

And, conversely, I must now create some tools and fixed rules and experiences to allow me to be productive in learning while away from home. I can’t just accept that time spent traveling (even if it’s for business) can not also be spent learning. I just need to figure out how to create a conducive environment, one that won’t be the same as home but can perhaps be my “fixed” travel spot. That sounds like an oxymoron, but I think there’s potential there and at least I’ve figured out the source of the problem which is the first step in solving it.

My friend was just taking pleasure in sharing her day on her son’s campus – the mother-son bonding and the intellectual stimulation. But it was also an opportunity for insight and understanding, and for some new decisions. In other words, the perfect get-together. I just hope I don’t have to go back to Boston where we had this conversation to remember the rest of the details!