I read a lot, probably an average of 15 blogposts a day and a book every two weeks. I find that I sometimes have a lot of trouble remembering the things I just read. Well it’s usually not completely forgotten, the information is likely stored in my unconscious brain and will trickle back to my consciousness when somethings triggers it, such as a question or a situation that matches the pattern my brain stored when I read said content. So that means I just need a little prodding in order to remember. However there is I think a more interesting question: how do you build upon what you read? How do you effectively turn information into knowledge? The secret lies in having an active attitude towards remembering things, and not just passively consume content.
Write it Down
Writing things down has a number of wonderful consequences.
First of all the information is “safer” in the sense that it is now written down in a place from which it is easier to retrieve in its actual form than from your unconscious brain. Not only that but it also ensures that the information stays put and doesn’t change. One cannot say the same holds true for memories, as the brain changes them all the time. Memories are very volatile and often the brain tampers with them to spin them more positively or make them more relevant to the context. Writing down will prevent information from being distorted by your unconscious brain.
Additionally, writing things down will actually strengthen your memories. When you write full sentences that are grammatically correct (or close to correct at least), you must formalize relationships between facts, entities, people, and concepts. The brain being better suited to memorize relationships and patterns, it will be easier for you to memorize that way instead of simply highlighting a few words or numbers here and there that aren’t linked together by explicit relationships. (Think of a graph.)
Last but not least, text is universal. Information in writing is easily accessible and shareable. This is important because for instance say you store information in other formats such as audio or video, it won’t be as easily retrieved and accessed. This is why I love blogposts but am not a fan of podcasts or videos that don’t include a “textified” version.
In that regard, I write summaries of what I read and find most interesting and useful. It is important to summarize relationships and not facts only, so that it matches the brain’s memorizing process.
Musicians are known for their disciplined rehearsals. When I was 10 years old I started learning to play the piano. My parents would pay this private tutor that came once a week and insisted I play 3 hours of piano per day. At this time I was of course way to enthralled by my Playstation to care, but I do regret it now. So I didn’t practice like I should have, and the promising career as a pianist that lied ahead of me ground to a screeching halt. However some of my friends heroically put in the effort and I can see now that practice makes perfect.
Where does that all fit with memorizing and building knowledge? The goal is to apply the methods of musicians to the practice of building knowledge. In that case, practicing means a few things:
- Write an interesting bit of knowledge down in different ways, targetting varied audiences (yourself, your family, friends, colleagues, etc.)
- Talk about it to people who have a varying level of understanding of that particular topic. They will ask you questions you didn’t expect and force you to dig deeper and strengthen your knowledge.
- Weave blobs of knowledge together. By that I mean think about what one relationship in a given domain means if applied to another one. (For instance Math and Computer Science, or Sociology and Networks, Math and Art, etc.) Bridging domains will often make great insights and ideas pop in your head and further strengthen your understanding and memory of a bit of knowledge.
Capitalizing on what you read by writing it down and practicing will slowly (but surely!) turn you in a walking encyclopedia. You will be able to remember a lot more things than you are used to, and gradually gain a deeper understanding of what you memorize.