Why do we forget what we read?

What’s the point of reading all these books and blog posts if you’re just going to forget most of it in a few hours?

I’ve been sitting in a cafe for two hours, reading countless blog posts on Medium and have come to the realization that I can only recall two or three of the numerous ideas and lessons I’ve read about.

Memory is fickle. I try to read as many books as I possibly can, yet I can barely tell you the main idea/plot of the books I’ve finished. Many students in college also have the same problem as me.

They spend an entire semester going over various subjects and investing hours upon hours into learning the material, only to find themselves forgetting the material a few hours after finishing their final exams.

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, discovered the forgetting curve — a concept that hypothesizes the decline of memory retention in time.

The forgetting curve is the steepest during the first day, so if you don’t review what you’ve recently learned, you’re more likely to forget most of the material and your memory of it will continue to decline in the following days, ultimately leaving you with only a sliver of information.

Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read on The Atlantic talks about how the rise of frequent Internet usage has affected our memory in a detrimental way.

Presumably, memory has always been like this. But Jared Horvath, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, says that the way people now consume information and entertainment has changed what type of memory we value — and it’s not the kind that helps you hold onto the plot of a movie you saw six months ago.

In the internet age, recall memory — the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind — has become less necessary. It’s still good for bar trivia, or remembering your to-do list, but largely, Horvath says, what’s called recognition memory is more important. “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” he says.

We treat the Internet as a hard drive for our memories. We know that if we ever need a piece of information, we can open up our laptop and search for it immediately.

Just-in-time learning is becoming increasingly popular because it is more efficient to search for information that you need immediately rather than storing information that might be useful in the future. Deep knowledge is no longer valued — shallow, quick and practical pieces of information are more effective in getting the job done.

Because we know that we have an externalized memory, we put less effort in memorizing and fully understanding concepts and ideas that we learn.

Research has shown that the internet functions as a sort of externalized memory. “When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself,” as one study puts it. But even before the internet existed, entertainment products have served as externalized memories for themselves. You don’t need to remember a quote from a book if you can just look it up. Once videotapes came along, you could review a movie or TV show fairly easily. There’s not a sense that if you don’t burn a piece of culture into your brain, that it will be lost forever.

We are also more prone to binge-watching with the rise of easily consumable media. Have you ever stayed home on a Saturday night and binge watched an entire season of your favorite show? Would you be able to recall the story line for every episode? Would you be able to remember the conflict and resolution?

Binge-watching encourages you to mindlessly consume content, instead of consciously engaging with each piece of media. We are encouraged to eat as much as we can, even when our belt threatens to explode from overconsumption.

It’s true that people often shove more into their brains than they can possibly hold. Last year, Horvath and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne foundthat those who binge-watched TV shows forgot the content of them much more quickly than people who watched one episode a week. Right after finishing the show, the binge-watchers scored the highest on a quiz about it, but after 140 days, they scored lower than the weekly viewers. They also reported enjoying the show less than did people who watched it once a day, or weekly.

People are binging on the written word, too. In 2009, the average American encountered 100,000 words a day, even if they didn’t “read” all of them. It’s hard to imagine that’s decreased in the nine years since. In “Binge-Reading Disorder,” an article for The Morning News, Nikkitha Bakshani analyzes the meaning of this statistic. “Reading is a nuanced word,” she writes, “but the most common kind of reading is likely reading as consumption: where we read, especially on the internet, merely to acquire information.Information that stands no chance of becoming knowledge unless it ‘sticks.’”

Or, as Horvath puts it: “It’s the momentary giggle and then you want another giggle. It’s not about actually learning anything. It’s about getting a momentary experience to feel as though you’ve learned something.”

We aren’t actually reading to learn. We just feel like we’re learning something by reading and recognizing the words on the screen. The information is not yet knowledge, but we are fooled to believe that it has been transferred into our brains and will stay there forever.
Spacial Learning and Questions

So how do we actually retain the things we’ve learned? You need to give yourself time to digest the things you’ve learned.

The lesson from his binge-watching study is that if you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out. I used to get irritated in school when an English-class syllabus would have us read only three chapters a week, but there was a good reason for that. Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch — on an airplane, say — you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.

Keep revisiting the pieces of information that you’d like to keep with you. I often find that when I learn something interesting and write about it, I’m able to recall the information more easily than if I were to try to recall something I learned once in a book or article somewhere.

Sana says that often when we read, there’s a false “feeling of fluency.” The information is flowing in, we’re understanding it, it seems like it is smoothly collating itself into a binder to be slotted onto the shelves of our brains. “But it actually doesn’t stick unless you put effort into it and concentrate and engage in certain strategies that will help you remember.”

People might do that when they study, or read something for work, but it seems unlikely that in their leisure time they’re going to take notes on Gilmore Girls to quiz themselves later. “You could be seeing and hearing, but you might not be noticing and listening,” Sana says. “Which is, I think, most of the time what we do.”

If you’re studying for a test or trying to learn a complex formula/concept, come back to the same information. Every time you revisit the subject you are trying to learn, the more you reinforce the idea into your long term memory.

Give yourself a few hours and try to recall it yourself without looking at the study material. If you feel stuck, read the formula/concept again and try to recall it again a few hours later.

The more you practice this, the more likely you will be able to retain and recall it in the future.

Scott H. Young is a blogger who has challenged himself to find the answer to the question: “what’s the best way to learn?”. He believes that learning is the key to living well, and has addressed the issue of people forgetting what they read by offering an effective solution.

When we read books, we are not actively engaged with the material. Our eyes are skimming over the words, and we put most of our time and energy in recognizing what is being said.

Unfortunately practicing recognition is virtually the only thing most people do when they read a book. When you’re reading a book, most of your time is spent recognizing what is being said. Only rarely do you have to specifically recall an idea, unprompted. If you’re reading a well-written book, you may never have to use recall as good writers know that recall is difficult and so they will often reiterate previously made points so that you don’t get confused.

Then, after you’ve read the book, you suddenly want this knowledge to be available in a recallable format. You want to be able to, given a conversation with a coworker, a question on an exam, or during a decision you have to make, be able to summon up the information that you previously had only practiced at being able to recognize it.

Given this pattern, it’s no wonder most people fail to recall much from books they’ve read.

It’s unreasonable to expect readers to come out knowing every single word and idea that the book entails. Our memories are faulty. But many of us get frustrated when we find ourselves forgetting many parts and ideas throughout the book as soon as we close the book.

Scott Young offers the solution: The Question Book Method

Whenever you’re reading something that you want to remember, take notes. Except, don’t take notes which summarize the main points you want to recall. Instead, take notes which ask questions.

If you wanted to do it with this email, you could write down the question, “Q: What are the two different memory processes?” and the answer would be “A: Recall and recognition.”

Then, when you’re reading a book, quickly go through and test yourself on the questions you’ve generated from earlier chapters. Doing this will strengthen your recallable memory so that the information will be much easier to access when you need it.

Instead of taking notes or rephrasing the author’s words into your own words, ask yourself questions that would help you practice recalling information.

At the end of each chapter, you can ask yourself a question that would summarize the main idea or important concepts that you want to remember.

He also adds some helpful tips to make this exercise as practical as possible.

He knows that some people will try to test themselves too hard and try to test themselves on every little piece of knowledge in the book. This will make reading a chore and ultimately discourage the reader to keep using this method.

First — don’t go overboard. Trying to recall every possible fact from a book will make the reading process so tedious that it might kill your love of reading. One question per chapter is probably more than enough for most books. For popular books, a dozen questions will probably be enough to capture the big points and main thesis.

Second — put page numbers that reference the answer. If you do forget a point, you’ll want to be able to check. Knowing that the answer to a big point is on page 36 will save your sanity later.

Third, make the technology simple. For paper books, I recommend an index card, since you can probably fit all of the questions on it back and front. Plus the index card also works as a bookmark, so you won’t have to go around looking for your notes later. If you use Kindle, make your questions as annotations in the book. Then you can see the annotations later to quiz yourself.

Practicing spatial learning and actively recalling recently learned information can help you stop forgetting the things you learned.

As an exercise, why don’t you start by asking yourself a few questions a couple hours after you finish this article, such as:

How do I remember more of what I learned?

How does binge-watching affect my ability to remember?

How has the Internet affected our way of learning and retaining information?

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