Can you recall how you spent your day today since you woke up? You can recall the time you woke up, what you had for breakfast, how the commute was and the phone call you made.
Now, can you recall how you spent your day last Monday? You may remember some key events, but it is unlikely that you remember the time you woke up or if you had cereal or a sandwich for breakfast.
Let us take a different scenario in your day to day life. Yesterday, you read about a formula to calculate the air resistance. Does the below statement sound familiar to you?
“What was that I read? I am this close to recalling it but arrghh. I cannot.”
Do you often forget what you have read and later struggle to remember the pages you glanced through? Welcome to the problem faced by you, me and the rest of the world. Though you believe you have read the information to enough detail, you cannot recollect the same content, days, hours or minutes later.
You know that taking notes can help you store them better in your memory. You have read enough articles on that technique. But let’s admit, taking notes while reading a book is like safely storing documents in a file. You and I know its importance, but laziness gets the better of us.
Many people, from kids, middle-age students to the book lovers, have wondered how to remember what you read without taking notes.
Why do we forget?
As human beings, we cannot retain every word we hear, every sight we see or every page we read. You will forget most of what you gather using your various senses.
If you love following fashion trends, you will remember the trendy shoes worn by a random person who walked by in the mall today. But will you remember those shoes 3 months later? Most people won’t.
On the other hand, if I showed you 3 similar shoes and asked you which one of those was the person wearing, you may not choose the right one either. You might not have observed the shoes to that level of detail.
Things get worse when it comes to the information you read. If you read a book today, a year later, you cannot recall most of it. You and I go through a forgetting curve, where we naturally forget what we read. If you want to shock yourself with a mathematical formula, here goes:
Of course, retention varies from person to person. But, as per the forgetting curve, you start losing knowledge faster than the pace at which bacteria multiply. Some studies say you lose 90% of what you read in 7 days, while others state that you forget 80% of the knowledge in 30 days.
Since such studies cannot zero down on exact figures due to the difference in memory by person, no one can predict your forgetting curve with high precision.
Irrespective of the exact figures, one thing is certain. You will lose information quickly if you do nothing about it.
How to remember what you read without taking notes
To combat the forgetting curve, here are a few things you can do.
1. Think of ways to apply what you learned
Whether you read a self-improvement book or a technique to eat pineapple, make an attempt to apply what you learned. The way your brain stores information is different from how it stores an experience.
By applying your knowledge, you transform the information in your brain into an experience. You thereby stand a higher chance of remembering what you learned.
Once you apply a skill, you have learned it for a lifetime. Think of learning as knowing how to balance a bicycle. Once your brain knows how to, you can ride a bicycle years later with no practice.
2. Use the Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique is named after the Nobel winning physicist, Richard Feynman.
The technique is not only easy to apply but produces great results too. As per the technique, you have to teach what you learn. You can choose any possible way to teach. If you find a person next to you whom you can explain the knowledge you gained, teach the fellow even if he shows no interest in the topic.
Another way of teaching is to pretend an invisible student exists and explain the concept to him. In its simplest form, you can pull out a sheet of paper and scribble what you learned. Writing down on a paper will seem no different than taking notes though, which our lazy selves want to avoid.
3. Ask yourself some questions
After learning a topic, question yourself on certain aspects like a self-quiz. When you quiz yourself, you realize the gaps in what you learned. You notice the areas which you have already forgotten. A quick brush up on what you missed cements the learning deep into your memory.
When you learn a topic, you have a fake feeling of remembering each element. A question to yourself serves as a reality check.
4. Stop when you’re bored
Do you remember reading a book where you went from page 120 to 125 without knowing what those pages were about? I do. Sometimes when I force myself to read through a book I am not interested in, I read the book but do not register half the content.
At times, even if I like what I am reading, my state of mind prevents me from capturing what I read.
Over the years, I have learned to stop reading books I find boring. You should do the same.
If my mind cannot concentrate on what I am reading, I pause to take a break.
5. Summarize what you read
If you are reading study material like a textbook for an exam or certification, try to revise in parts than in full. Many people have the habit of finishing the entire material first and then revising from step 1. Such a technique makes you learning vulnerable to the forgetting curve.
A better way to keep what you learned is by summarizing bit by bit. If you read about a certain algorithm, summarize the concept mentally right after you finished that content. The summarization helps you etch the concept in your brain helping you comprehend better and retain the learning longer.
6. Use Memory Kegs
A common technique used by memory grandmasters is relating information to kegs. Some card counters use 52 spots to remember the sequence of cards.
You may not have to remember 52 cards, but you frequently have lists to remember, like 6 ab exercises to try today. You can hold such lists in memory by associating them with some real-life objects.
To begin, use a place you know very well. For example, use your own house. Go through your house in a sequence.
You can start with the door, followed by the place where you place the shoes, the couch, the TV, the coffee table and so on. You must follow the exact sequence in which the objects are arranged in your house.
Now to remember the 7 habits of effective people, start with your first object, the door. You can imagine yourself proactively cleaning the mat. You just associated ‘be proactive’ to the door. Next, visualize keeping your shoes ready for the next day thereby relating begin with the end in mind. Continue doing the same with the other items on the list.
Next time if you start from the door of your house, you can recall what you visualized and recollect the 7 habits of effective people.
7. Aim to remember only the important elements
You do not always have to remember everything you read. If you are reading a self-improvement book, you do not have to implement every little tip mentioned through the 250 odd pages.
What I do instead is, focus on a few, say 1-3 takeaways from each book. I may or may not recall the rest of the matter from the book. I am ok with forgetting what I read as far as I gain certain knowledge which helps me grow. I know that applying everything I read from each book is beyond my capacity and I can live with that.
For example, I do not remember every single one of the 99 flaws of the brain I read from the book the Art of Thinking Clearly. But, I remember a few of them well enough to make sure I try to overcome them on a daily basis.
Attempt to learn a few elements and apply them. Trying every single one and succeeding at none does no good.
8. Revisit frequently
For content you intend to hold for a long time, revisit what you read. The exact time and frequency to revisit vary based on the person and the kind of information.
If you read the name of a hormone responsible for sleep, chances are you will forget it in a day or two, unless the same name showed up multiple times in the book. Your brain has a hard time remembering term-based data.
On the other hand, your brain can hold concepts that you understand, longer. If you read how the Rapid Eye Movement(REM) sleep makes you more intelligent, you will recall the context for years to come.
If you intend to remember the name of the hormone for an exam, you have to revisit the subject again to help you store the term better. To remember how REM sleep works, you may never have to revisit the content again. But if you want to write a blog post about REM sleep, you probably have to open the book and re-read the content.
Use your own judgment to decide if you should revisit what you read the next day, a few weeks later or never ever.
9. Sleep 7 hours
Are you aware of the magic that happens in your body when you fall asleep? Do not kick yourself if you don’t. Most people are oblivious of the activities their brain carries out after they slip into slumber.
When you gather information through the day using your five senses, your brain stores them all in a part called the hippocampus. If you have to recall the color of the t-shirt your crush wore today, your hippocampus retrieves it for you.
After you fall asleep, during your initial sleep, your brain strips off all the unnecessary information you gathered. A few days later you will no longer remember what outfit your crush wore on every single day. But the important information is replayed at quarter the speed during your Rapid Eye Movement(REM) sleep, like a movie in slow motion.
Like an action replay, your brain tries various permutations and combinations to associate the new information with the knowledge you have. After the process, you wake up smarter. You must thank your REM sleep for making you intelligent and wise.
Once you wake up, the important information from the previous day moved to the neocortex. The same data is no longer served from the hippocampus.
7 hours of sleep helps your brain complete such activity without any hiccups. If you sleep fewer hours, chances are your brain cannot connect what you read with your prior knowledge. If you do not sleep enough, you will forget what you read.
If you are interested to know what happens when you sleep, read the article – Why the heck do we sleep?
Now that you have learned a few ways on how to remember what you read without taking notes, try applying a few the next time you read a book or learn a subject.
Since human beings have a complex brain, not all the tips might work for you. Test each one to know how well the technique works for you.
Over time, you can master the art of filling your brain with useful information which you can recall. Be a wise man who remembers what is necessary.
What I am not:
What I am:
Continuously improving self-learner
Productivity/Time Management Obsessed