Mind Macros 51: The five books of stupid, information retention, and learning with flashcards
"When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." - Marcus Aurelius
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. The five books of stupid
"I think the actual number probably differs for everybody, but when I approach a new subject my rule of thumb is to allow myself five books’ worth of stupid. That is, I pick five books on a subject and read them all without judging my learning along the way. This point is worth reiterating: learning doesn’t make us feel smart. At least, not at first. At first, learning makes us feel stupid. New concepts and new terminology can often add up to new frustrations. But don’t judge yourself for the stupidity you feel along the way.
"And don’t just pick any five books on the subject. There’s an order to the chaos.
“Book One: Start with the most popular, best-selling book you can find on the topic. Fiction, nonfiction, doesn’t really matter. The goal is fun, fun, fun. This first book is less about real learning and more about gaining a little familiarity with the world you’re about to enter and a basic sense of its lingo.
“Book Two: This is also a popular book, but usually a little more technical and a little more on point. This book is either closely related to or directly about the subject under investigation. Once again, the main goal here—and the reason to choose popular books—is to generate excitement. Motivation-wise, you need this excitement on the front end, as it’s what lays the foundation for real learning. Later on, as your knowledge base develops, the super-geeky details will become really tantalizing, but when starting out, just firing up your imagination is far more important.
“Book Three: This is the first semi-technical book on the topic—something that is still readable and interesting but maybe not quite a page-turner. This book builds on all the ideas learned in books one and two, layering in more precise language and expert-level detail. It’s also where you start to get the shadowy outline of the big picture. Toward those ends, in this third book, try to find something that provides a look at that wider view—a macroscopic perspective on the subject. If you’ve been reading about trees, this might be the time to learn something about systems ecology. If you’ve been studying couples therapy, this might be when to read up on the history of social psychology.
"Book Four: We’ve arrived. Book four is the first actual hard book you want to read on the subject—something that isn’t nearly as fun as the first three, but gives you a taste of the kind of problems that real experts in the domain are thinking about. Pay close attention to the field’s current borders. Get a sense for when, why, and with what foundational ideas contemporary thinking about a subject begins and ends. Also, figure out where the crazy lies: the stuff that experts feel is balderdash. You may not agree with these opinions, but you need to know they exist and, more important, why they exist.
“Book Five: This is not always the hardest to read (that can often be book four), but it’s often the hardest to comprehend. That’s because the goal here is a book that is directly about the future of the topic, where it’s heading, and when it’s heading, a book that gives you a sense of the cutting edge. After those five books, your brain typically has enough data to give you a feel for a field. The language is familiar and the macroscopic big picture has snapped into view. This is the point when real comprehension begins. When you can start asking meaningful, articulate questions about a subject, then you can feel confident that you’ve learned the basics.”
Putting this into practice:
"What does this look like in the real world? Well, consider my first novel, The Angle Quickest for Flight. The book is about five people trying to break into the Vatican to steal back one of the core Kabbalistic texts, a book stolen from the Jews in the thirteenth century and then secreted in the Secret Archives. Think of it as The Da Vinci Code, just a few years before there was a Da Vinci Code. To write this book, I needed to know quite a bit about Vatican history and the Secret Archives. So what did I read to get up to speed?
“Book One: Thomas Gifford’s The Assassini, a thriller about the Church’s involvement in art theft during World War II. It was a fun ride that gave me a glimpse inside the Vatican. I learned some lingo and got a feeling for the world I was about to enter.
“Book Two: Malachi Martin’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church. Martin is a former Jesuit and Vatican history scholar and writes popular fiction and nonfiction on the subject. Again, a fairly easy read but very informative.
“Book Three: Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Armstrong is one of the more respected scholars in this field, and this book tells the four-thousand-year story of the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—giving me a macroscopic sense of the subject. Armstrong is also a talented writer, meaning those four thousand years go by a lot faster than you might assume.
“Book Four: The Secret Archives of the Vatican by Maria Luisa Ambrosini and Mary Willis. This is the core text in the subject. Dense and detailed and directly on point.
“Book Five: Inside the Vatican by Thomas Reese. Not exactly a book that peers into the future. Rather, one that provides an enormously wide look at the past. The book is an exhaustive, scholarly study of the world’s most complex religious organization.
“Two final notes: First, this is an exercise meant to help you learn subjects, not skills. If you want to learn a skill, playing piano, for example, you can’t read your way to proficiency." — From The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler (view my three takeaways).
Kotler left out sourcing the material, which is now heavily influenced by algorithmic gamification; the most popular example being Google.
Google's algorithm considers various factors when ranking websites, such as the relevance of its content, backlinks, and page speed. Website owners use a strategy called search engine optimization (SEO) to leverage these factors to improve their ranking, with the ultimate goal of appearing on the first page of search results. This means that Google's top-ranking sites are not necessarily those with the most relevant content but those with the most effective SEO strategies.
Because of this, people are increasingly turning to Reddit to find answers they can't find on Google. Reddit's search function is notoriously flawed, so users are adding 'Reddit' to the end of their Google searches to receive unbiased results.
Reddit is like a bustling shopping center with numerous stores; the sheer variety provides something for everyone. Every niche imaginable has a community of people asking and answering questions. The members vote on the topics, meaning the platform is driven by humans, not algorithms. Could someone manipulate the results? Of course, no system is foolproof. But, as someone who spends a lot of time reading and researching books, I find it to be the most effective method for sourcing material across a variety of subjects.
To see the workflow in action, let's suppose we want to improve our decision-making abilities.
We would search Google for 'the best books on decision-making Reddit.' This will bring up various results from people who have previously asked this question on Reddit. Generally, answers will be repeated across different threads, providing a convenient starting point. Next, we can copy the relevant results into a digital note, which will serve as a jumping-off point for further investigation. From the recommendations, we could create a ranking system by adding each book to a spreadsheet file sorted by its number of 'votes'.
Another option is swapping out ‘Reddit’ for ‘Hacker News.’ Hacker News focuses on computer science and entrepreneurship but often has threads on a much broader range of subjects. As long as their pages are ranked by Google, niche communities can also be targeted using this method.
II. Effective information retention
"Since as far back as 1885, psychologists have been plotting ‘forgetting curves’ that illustrate just how fast our cranberries slip off the string. In very short order we lose something like 70 percent of what we’ve just heard or read. After that, forgetting begins to slow, and the last 30 percent or so falls away more slowly, but the lesson is clear: a central challenge to improving the way we learn is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting. The power of retrieval as a learning tool is known among psychologists as the testing effect. In its most common form, testing is used to measure learning and assign grades in school, but we’ve long known that the act of retrieving knowledge from memory has the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future. In his essay on memory, Aristotle wrote: 'exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.' Francis Bacon wrote about this phenomenon, as did the psychologist William James.
"Today, we know from empirical research that practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than reexposure to the original material does. This is the testing effect, also known as the retrieval-practice effect. To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort. Repeated recall appears to help memory consolidate into a cohesive representation in the brain and to strengthen and multiply the neural routes by which the knowledge can later be retrieved. In recent decades, studies have confirmed what Mike Ebersold and every seasoned quarterback, jet pilot, and teenaged texter knows from experience—that repeated retrieval can so embed knowledge and skills that they become reflexive: the brain acts before the mind has time to think. Yet despite what research and personal experience tell us about the power of testing as a learning tool, teachers and students in traditional educational settings rarely use it as such, and the technique remains little understood or utilized by teachers or students as a learning tool in traditional educational settings. Far from it." — From Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. Mcdaniel (view my three takeaways).
Active recall and spaced repetition are two tenets of effective information retention.
Active recall involves learning information by attempting to recall it from memory instead of passively reading material, taking notes, or watching lectures. Spaced repetition is a technique used to help retain information over time by spacing out the intervals between reviews. These principles help strengthen our recollection of knowledge, making it easier to commit the material to long-term memory.
The spacing of our study sessions shouldn’t be done haphazardly but according to our ability to remember the material. If we can easily recall an answer, we shouldn’t review the question again for a few days. If we can't remember the answer, we should review it again within minutes. The more times we successfully recall an answer, the less frequently we should review the question. These techniques are most effectively practiced within a flashcard application that handles all the necessary calculations.
The concept of spacing information in this manner runs contrary to the conventional method of trying to 'burn' it into our memory, as the authors note:
"It’s a common but mistaken belief that you can burn something into memory through sheer repetition. Lots of practice works, but only if it’s spaced. If you use self-quizzing as your primary study strategy and space out your study sessions so that a little forgetting has happened since your last practice, you will have to work harder to reconstruct what you already studied. In effect, you’re ‘reloading’ it from long-term memory. This effort to reconstruct the learning makes the important ideas more salient and memorable and connects them more securely to other knowledge and to more recent learning. It’s a powerful learning strategy."
For more on effective learning strategies, see issue 12.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Friedrich Nietzsche on embracing our fate:
"My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity . . . but to love it."
II. Marcus Aurelius on practicing morning gratitude:
"When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love."
Thank you for reading,