Reading and Remembering

There’s something I need to admit: I read a lot and don’t remember most of what I read!  Thankfully, that’s how it’s supposed to be.  Let me elaborate.

I’m a huge fan of reading as a means to learning.  There’s so much knowledge that has been discovered by generations of the past that it’s just not possible to learn everything through one’s own experiences.  Hence, learning vicariously through reading.  I think most people intuitively agree with this basic premise.  People who read quite a bit also know that they forget most of what they’ve read!  How can you possibly learn anything if you can’t remember it in the first place?

The answer is quite simple: remembering is not the same thing as learning (despite what every educational institute you’ve ever been to says).  Remembering is what you do when you study for a test1.  It involves mostly facts with the occasional brush with actual thinking.  That probably sums up 95% of the tests you have ever taken, so it’s natural to equate this fact-based drudgery with learning.  However, remembering is such a small part of learning.  Learning (at least how I define it) is about acquiring knowledge as to be useful in some way, shape, or form.  Decidedly not the same as rote memorization.  Just ask anyone who has ever done any real work.  They’ll tell you that they use maybe 5% of what they have learned in school, and that’s if they actually went to a good school2.  So what then is the point of going to school — and by extension reading — if we don’t remember or use what we have “learned”?

This has been a huge question lingering in the back of my mind for quite some time (probably since I started reading on my own to learn).  On the one hand, I knew in my gut that reading — regardless of how much I remembered — is incredibly useful.  On the other hand, I just couldn’t express exactly why.  And then I read an essay by Paul Graham that really articulated what I knew intuitively:

“Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.”
How You Know, Paul Graham

Reading is about training your mind on how to think — not on what it remembers3.  It’s the “latticework of mental models” that Charlie Munger is always espousing.  Reading trains your brain to gain a greater depth and breadth of mental models to adapt to and solve the myriad of non-trivial problems you may encounter in the real world.  And training is the right word here because it takes time for you mind to learn a mental model to the point where it’s useful.  Watching a TED talk on a subject doesn’t mean learned anything useful; it just means that might have remembered what the speaker said.  Reading is different because it forces your brain to think about an idea multiple times over an extended period.  Exactly what you need if you’re trying to change how your brain thinks and approaches problems.

But maybe I’m just being a grey beard here.  Who’s to say that that the new generation and they’re fancy interwebs and social mediums aren’t changing the way we learn for the better.  I mean look at what it has brought us: 140-char. tweets, funny cat videos, and tinder.  Who’s to say this isn’t raising the level of discourse and changing the way we think for the better?4

  1. For most tests anyways.  A really good test will test you on how you think, not on what facts you know.  The reason why most tests don’t do this is because it’s incredibly difficult.  Trying to determine how well you think in only a couple of hours is quite a challenge. []
  2. Good in the sense that they made an effort to teach you things that will be useful to you later on — not necessarily in the traditional prestige sense. []
  3. Admittedly, facts are important.  For example, not remembering the multiplication table would make solving many different types of problems much more difficult.  I’m just trying to emphasize the point that it’s just a very small part of actual learning. []
  4. I am.  It’s not and it’s an anathema on young budding minds everywhere.  Want to read more about it?  Checkout Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows. []