How to remember what you read

How to remember what you read? I came across Jordan Peterson’s response to the question. His suggestion is, instead of highlighting or copying what you find interesting in a book, you should close the book and write down what you understood in your own words. Then, dig deeper by criticizing the idea you just wrote down, or by connecting with other ideas. This process should help you memorize better what you read.

Here’s an attempt.

Yesterday, I was reading Zen in the Art of Archery, published in 1948. The author, german philosophy teacher Eugen Herrigel, shares what it was like to learn archery from a Japanese master, Awa Kenzo.

In one story, Awa teaches a new technique, focusing on the tension in the hands. Eugen tries and struggles. He tries again and again, but continues to fail. At one point, the teacher explains how to synchronize the breathing with the gesture. Eugen integrates this piece of advice… and it the movement flows naturally. « But what didn’t you tell me this before? », he asks Awa. Awa replies: « If I had told you beforehand that breathing properly was the key to this move, you wouldn’t have paid attention to it. »

When I read this story, I closed the book. I was baffled by the demonstration of such an effective teaching principle. Make the student care about the problem before handing out the solution. The first words that came my mind were just-in-time teaching, the Toyota concept of just-in-time production applied to knowledge.

It also echoed strongly with the idea of progressive disclosure. One interesting difference is the awareness of the student. In the archery story, the student is painfully aware of his own failure. Not only he needs the information, he’s also craving for it. When the trick is finally shared, it comes as a relief. The emotional dimension is likely to play a role in the memorization effectiveness. In a similar manner, artificially creating this desire for an answer is a trick you can use when making a presentation.

Somehow, this idea reminded me of an article from Jason Fried, about the roles of questions. Quoting Clayton Christensen, he was explaining that questions are places in your mind where answers fit. It’s a new perspective on why some knowledge will stick while some will slip; it all depends on whether you had a question for it.

Another similar approach is to only read books that are offering solutions to problems you are experiencing right now (I remember Jean de la Rochebrochard sharing this view in a podcast, but I cannot find the source.) In other words, don’t read books about topics that are solely interesting, because you won’t remember much from them. Rather, clarify the problems that you are currently facing, and then select books that should offer handy solutions that you can immediately apply. It’s easy to imagine why this approach works: you already have existing knowledge about the topic (the problem you’re encountering), to which new knowledge will easily connect to. On top of that, your level curiosity is aroused by the pain you’re going through, which should guarantee a higher level of attention when a potential pain-killer is mentioned. Lastly, the ability to turn the theory into practice provides another immediate opportunity to reinforce the lesson.

All in all, this type of thinking provides good hints to define the right distance between the knowledge you already have and the knowledge you are aiming to gain.

However, this entire approach of just-in-time learning clashes with another observation about creativity. As defined by Ken Robinson, creativity is the process by which you produce original and valuable ideas. If you’re approach to problems is to only seek solutions that are directly related to it, you are unlikely to come up with lateral ideas, that would be unique to your ability to connect two seemingly unrelated concepts together.

A good example of the value of such supposedly useless knowledge is this personal story about my grandparents. After years of obsessive yet purposeless accumulation of information about the functioning of the brain, an opportunity to use that knowledge appeared. Of course, the randomness of the story demonstrates how ineffective such an approach is.

Speaking of random story, another personal anecdote illustrates the impossibility of systematically relying on just-in-time learning, during a creative process. That being said, the randomness isn’t the key. What is key is the accumulated knowledge and the habit of tapping into it in circumstances that are not obvious. How this knowledge was accumulated or not does not come into play.

The last observation that comes to my mind is a meta-question: if questions are knowledge magnets, how do you help children develop the habit of asking questions? Or, considering this habit seems to be a natural one for most children, how do you prevent from disappearing as they grow up?


Are there any interesting insights emerging from this mental exploration? My attempt:

1. Just-in-time learning is great to retain new knowledge but cannot be relied on to produce new ideas.

2. When the new knowledge is solving a preexisting emotional gap (pain, frustration, fear), retention is higher.


And here’s a meta-analysis of attempting the recommandation from Jordan Peterson:

- None of the thoughts came to my mind when I read the book. One connection happened naturally a couple of hours later. Four additional connections emerged when I started to list what the archery story reminded me of. Three additional connections appeared during the writing process. Two additional connections came up when I tried to come up with a conclusion. More and more connections continue to happen as I’m typing this… It’s almost as if the number of connections made is proportional to the time spent thinking about the topic, the writing process just being the forcing mechanism required to stay focused on it.

- Most of the connections I made where with things I wrote about in the past. Another proof of the efficiency of the approach?

- There is even a connection between the « write what you understood » advice and the « just-in-time » teaching approach… which I previously wrote about.

- The opposition that Peterson makes between highlighting passages vs writing about them can be seen as different levels of maturity on a book reading ladder.


It’s only now that I realize that my own archery teacher uses a teaching technique that is exactly between the two extremes described above (push the content before the student is ready vs make the student struggle in order for him to pull the content). His approach is to only provide advice based on the observation of a particular archer. He runs week-long archery camps without ever providing any general advice about archery. However, he doesn’t wait for students to reach the emotional frustration before providing the piece of advice.

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