in: Living, Reading

• Last updated: June 4, 2021

The Best Way to Retain What You Read

A boy reading a book while traveling in subways.

“I read an interesting alternative theory from a scientist last week. He was saying that the data is off because, um, I can’t quite remember the reason, but it was interesting.”

“That’s not a venomous snake. On a venomous snake the red bands of color touch the yellow bands, rather than the black ones. Or wait, maybe it’s the other way around?”

“C.S. Lewis described what you’re observing as ‘men without chests.’ What he meant by that was, uh, you know, well, I forget exactly what he said.”

Have you ever found yourself saying things like this to friends and family? Or been by yourself, chugging along a productive train of thought that ground to a halt as you struggled to recall some salient details that needed to be fed into the cognitive firebox?  

We’re exposed to a torrent of media these days, much of it dross that we’re happy to forget in the time it takes to scroll to the next thing. But sometimes we’re reading a passage in a book or article that is so interesting or inspiring we feel we’d like to remember it for a long time. 

Typically, even if we mentally repeat and rehearse the arresting content, we find ourselves in the position described above — just a day, or even an hour later, we can’t recall what we read. Interesting, weighty, even potentially life-changing insights have permanently evaporated from our minds.

If you’d like to retain and secure more of the information you consume instead of letting noteworthy knowledge pass right through you, here’s the best way to do so: share it with someone else.

The secret of why this method works is in the number of times it forces you to reiterate, and thus solidify the memory of, a piece of information. 

The first reiteration comes when you mentally put what you’ve just read in your own words. If you know you’ll be sharing something with someone else, you have to make sure you understood what you read and can repeat and explain it coherently. This may require returning to the text, reading over a few bits a few more times, and thinking about how to synthesize things.

The second (and perhaps third and fourth) reiteration comes during the time between when you read the information, and when you’ll share it with the other person. During this stretch, you’ll have to check in with your memory once (or multiple times, depending on the duration of this interlude) to make sure you remember what you wanted to tell them.

The next reiteration(s) comes when you actually share (or “teach” may be the better word, depending on the setting) the information with the other person. Making sure they understand it and answering their questions about it will force you to tighten up your own understanding of the material. You’ll then further solidify your grasp of the idea as you and the other person discuss it back and forth.

The result of all these reiterations — reading, rehearsing, reviewing — is that you’ve sunk a new nugget of knowledge deeper into your brain and maximized your chances of remembering it in the future. 

But the reason sharing newly-learned information with someone else is so effective for memory retention goes beyond the number of reiterations the act requires. 

It also adds an important layer of motivation to retaining the knowledge. 

Reviewing and summarizing information in your own words is of course something you could do on your own, by writing down your personal summary of it. But writing something down is not only arguably less effective for retaining it than oral repetition (hence why Socrates thought writing weakened memory), it’s just plain hard to get excited to perform such exercises for yourself alone; it feels a little like homework.  

Knowing that you’re going to share something with someone else, on the other hand, feels more intrinsically motivating, as the act carries with it several rewards. First, if what you share offers someone some interest or edification, it’s like giving them a social gift, which boosts your sense of status, which viscerally makes your brain feel good. Second, interesting tidbits of information provide fodder for better conversations, which you and the person you interact with will both appreciate. To keep relationships with friends and loved ones from getting dry and dull, it pays to always have fascinating gleanings from your “self-study” to offer up for discussion. You remember something better for the long-term, and your associates delight in better conversation in the short-term. It’s win-win.

While the process outlined above may sound rather formal and involved, it need not be a lengthy process, nor reserved for complicated, meaty topics from deep literature and complex science.

It can simply be applied to some handy bit of know-how or a news story you read and want to retain. Spend a few minutes thinking about the main points. Memorize a couple of the important statistics. Then over dinner that night, share the story with your significant other. Discuss. Debate.

The next time you want to tell someone else about the same thing, or find yourself contemplating it in the shower, you’ll be able to pull it right out of the brain hopper. 

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