How to remember what you read using digital mnemonics

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

If you are interested in making some digital mnemonics yourself checkout — the simple tool I created to do this.

Many of us are striving to learn more and read more, how many popular science books did you read or listen to last year? Chances are quite a few. In the last decade we have been inundated by amazing books that simplify and summarize some of the most fascinating findings in academia. Yuval Harrari’s “Sapiens” and Khaneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow “come to mind, to name a few. And yet older classics may still remain unread such as Dawkins “The Selfish Gene” or Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach”. And yet regardless of how much reading I do, I’m forgetting almost everything.

Despite my voracious appetite for learning how the world works, I feel like I’m pouring water into a leaking bathtub.

Should we take notes?

This is the go to technique for almost everyone looking to remember what they digest. However, researchers have found that this might be a bit backward, and that mindless note-taking might actually make us more forgetful. Personally I never found hand written notes to be useful in itself, I’ve come to believe that the essential part of solidifying learning is to engage with the material and concepts actively. Ideally this means creating something new using the concept at hand, for instance writing an essay, telling a story or solving tough math problems. These methods require effort, that's crucial. In particular, creative/generative effort. This has become established knowledge in the research, in fact recently faculty at the Harvard physics department found that active learning was not only superior to passive learning, but also that we personally underestimate its efficacy. Why the disconnect? One explanation could be that we conflate mastery with lack of resistance. We think that we understand the Pythagorean theorem because we followed along as the teacher solved problems on the board, but we its not until we force ourselves to actively solve problems on our own that we realize the limits of our understanding. David Epstein's talks about a similar concept in his book Range, where students who learn actively score radically higher on retention.

Active learning with mnemonics

So we know that to learn better and remember more we need to find a way to learn actively. How can we do this while reading or listening to audio books? There are probably dozens of different ways of doing this, but let me share what has worked for me, mnemonics.

Mnemonics are a collection of memory techniques aimed at maximizing your retention. Their are many flavors, but my favorites and arguably the most famous are the ones involving visual stories. They work by encoding the concept you want to remember into a visceral and often bizarre story. For instance, consider Einsteins famous equation: E=mc².

Now imagine:

a bolt of lightning (energy) striking a gigantic 50 meter tall sumo wrestler (mass) trying to catch the millennium falcon from star wars (light-speed) piloted by sponge bob square pants (squared).

Can you see it? Although this is quite a vivid image, you’ll probably find that this particular mnemonic doesn’t work optimally for you. That’s because you didn’t make it yourself, you didn’t really engage in active learning, I did.

I’ve found mnemonics to be incredibly effective in helping me retain what I learn from books and other sources. Creating a memorable visual story requires a good understanding of the concept being learned but no tedious note-taking. The only problem I discovered was that after creating a couple of dozen mnemonics I started to forget some of them, how ironic! Without the mnemonic at hand there’s little hope in retrieving the underlying knowledge. So I built a workaround. Why can’t we store our mnemonics digitally?

Maybe something like this?

E=mc² Digital Mnemonic

It works for me.

Here are a few more examples of digital mnemonics, or memaids as I call them, that I’ve created to help remember some key cognitive biases from Khaneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Do they make any sense to you?

Cognitive Bias — Regression toward the mean

Regression toward the mean — Memaid

Cognitive Bias — Attribute Substitution

Attribute substitution — Memaid


If you are interested in making some digital mnemonics yourself, checkout Memaid — the simple tool I created to do this.



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