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Smarter, Faster, Better: How to Up Your Reading Game According to Science

Books: some of the world’s best discoveries are contained within them, and new ideas spark to life as we plumb their pages. Learn how to read them better.
by Caitlin Schiller | Mar 17 2016

Books: some of the world’s best discoveries are contained within them, and new ideas spark to life as we plumb their pages. But as modern readers, it’s hard to find time to spend in their company. Adding to that is the fact that, even when we do find the time, it’s not always a given that we’ll retain what we’ve read.

But what if we could? Would you feel more confident at work? Would you start a new project? Would you be able to go through your day more smoothly, feeling more assured? Would you go on Jeopardy and win” Blinkist, we discovered the formula for deep, meaningful reading four years and 1,500 books ago. Today, we’re going to share it with you. So grab a piece of paper and a pencil, tune in, in get ready to rediscover how to read with our 7 science-backed steps.

1. Find a personal angle

In Brain-Based Learning, Eric Jensen notes that for our brains to truly learn something, that something needs to have meaning. The thing about meaning is that it’s best conferred by giving the topic personal relevance. What do you think you’d remember better? Someone tells you a forest in China is on fire, or that the field near your childhood home burst into flame? Jensen’s research concluded that you’re more likely to remember the flaming field in your hometown. This is so because relevance evokes emotions, and new knowledge sticks best when it’s attached to something familiar—bonus if it’s on fire.

Use the science:

Get motivated! Find out why the content is personal and relevant to you with the help of these 3 questions:

  1. What do you want to learn from this piece of content?
  2. How might it change you life for the better?
  3. What kind of people should read it in general, and why are you one of them?

2. Get a bird’s eye view

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren was one of the very first manuals on the subject. In it, they tout a preliminary skim called inspectional reading. This entails sampling pages throughout the book, but listening for the “pulsebeat”—or the central theme. The pulsebeat is the core of the book’s vitality, and it’s also your key to retaining more.

Learning theory pioneer Leslie Hart found that, contrary to what many educators believe, presenting information in fragments doesn’t actually make learning more manageable. Getting the basic outline of a concept, however, can. While it’s true that the brain simultaneously perceives parts and wholes, without any idea of what the whole should look like, the brain can’t assemble it from the disembodied parts that make up a concept. Once it has a lay of the land from 1,000 feet, the brain can correctly place and interrelate all of the hills and meandering rivers of new insight and knowledge.

Use the science

Spend 20 minutes skimming the book or reading online summaries with the goal of finding out 1) what the book is about and 2) the main takeaway. You’ll read more efficiently and retain knowledge better with this broad view.

3. Drum up curiosity

When presented with new concepts, it’s our own curiosity that awakens an attitude of awe—which is great, because that awe primes our brains to learn.

“There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding,” Ranganath explains. This circuit lights up when we get money, or candy. It also lights up when we’re curious.

When the circuit is activated, our brains release a chemical called dopamine, which gives us a high. “The dopamine also seems to play a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning.”

UC Davis Psychologist Charan Raganath conducted a study that asked volunteers 100 trivia questions on topics from Beatles discography to the origins of the word “dinosaur.” With the help of an MRI machine, Raganath and his researchers found that when participants felt especially curious, the brain regions regulating pleasure and reward sparkled to life. When this circuit is activated, our brains release the hormone dopamine, which gives us a high, and also helps enhance connections between cells involved in learning. Raganath’s curious participants also showed increased activity in the hippocampus, which is involved in creating memories. It follows that when they were questioned later, these extra curious participants proved more likely to remember what they’d learned.

So what is the essence of curiosity? That gap between what you want to know and what you already know—what Made to Stick authors Chip & Dan Heath refer to as the curiosity gap. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do we humans, so when we’re driven by a desire to close that breach. That drive’s something you can use when you read.

Use the science

Before you begin to read, craft a few good curiosity gap questions. Check out the back of the book or a few reviews online for help: this content is made to get you interested in the book, so it’ll lead you in the right direction.

4. Create your own structure

Researchers who studied the use of personal organization techniques like mind mapping have found that these tools really help with learning and retention. They work not only because they stimulate the visual part of the brain, but also because in creating such a mind map, learners organize information based on how they have attributed relevance. Relevance, as we discovered in part one, is one of the key ingredients to retention.

Of course, books already come with structures, but they belong to the author or the editor. Your brain, however, will have a much easier time remembering a new concept from your reading if you devise your own structure to give it personal meaning.

Use the science

Flip through the book you’re about to read and see what kind of structure there might be. Identify the key points, separate them into elemental chunks and write them down, making sure to leave plenty of space between each for your own notes.

5. Record key insights

Grab your pencil! It’s time to take some (original) notes.

In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Psychologists Henry L. Roediger and Mark A. McDaniel reveal that we’ve been wrong about what actually constitutes the smartest techniques for learning, like highlighting. Neither highlighting nor writing down word-for-word notes straight out of the book is effective because you aren’t creating and enforcing original neural pathways. The good news is that your brain will take the smaller chunks of information that you write down in your own words and connect it to knowledge you already have—particularly if you contextualize that information by placing it in your structure.

Use the science

In your own words, make brief notes about your main takeaways from the reading and find the best place for these insights in the structure you’ve crafted. You’ll end up with a summary of the book in your own words, made in a way your brain best understands.

6. Review your notes

Neurons are linked by synapses to create a unique pathway describing what you’ve learned. In much the same way that wandering pedestrians wear down informal footpaths through a park, the more often you recall a certain piece of information, the stronger and deeper you’re impressing its unique “footpath” in your memory. Conversely, if the information is never recalled and reviewed, the pathway fades and disappears. If you want to keep something you’ve learned, you’ve got to dredge it up and look at it. Often.

In Brain Based Learning, Jensen recommends reviewing material within ten minutes of learning it, then again 48 hours later, and again in seven days. The shakier your memory, the more you’ll benefit from repeated activation of the pathway.

Use the science

Thanks to step five, you’re already armed with your own personally relevant summary. Read it for 10 minutes after you finish the book, then again three days later, and keep resurrecting it for up to a month. As you review the summary, try to remember other details related to the messages you’ve recorded. With each repetition, you’ll be blazing that trail ever more certainly into the geography of your brain.

P.s. For an epic visual metaphor explaining how our brains work when we learn something new, check out this gem from the BBC:

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