How do you “encode” information without spending an entire day?
We all want understanding, not memorization alone. We don’t want blind regurgitation because it makes us feel like impostors.
This is great because understanding something makes retrieval easier. After all, coherent information is much easier to remember than a series of disconnected facts. Relevantly, it’s a small proof of what we learned from Part 1:
- You can only encode what you can pay attention to.
- You can only retrieve what you’ve encoded.
- The rate at which you learn is directly determined by your prior knowledge.
In itself, the fact that understanding is superior to rote memorization already justifies the need for Processing.
Just as looking for a specific set of clothes becomes easier when everything is organized, retrieving information also becomes easier when it’s made coherent. As a result, Permanence becomes easier, too. Ultimately, when learned information stays useful via Permanence, you can start to use it to make sense of more complex information.
Put simply, Processing helps create this virtuous cycle of learning; it sets the “foundations” for future knowledge by producing coherence to raw material. Thus, let’s establish that the purpose of Processing in your study system is to make raw information coherent, i.e. to turn data & information into knowledge.
When it comes to actually producing coherence, though, there’s another recurring theme — but it’s not so great.
The problem is that producing coherence may be taking you an entire day
You know what I mean — in an attempt to learn something deeply, you take up much of your time that’s supposed to be “study time for other subjects.”
And, if you’re like the 2017 me, you may even feel like you have to remember just about every sentence and wording in the book before you start to feel a “slight hint” of confidence. You may even feel like you have to keep a murderous look at the textbook to do “active reading.” Or perhaps you were told to take complete notes all the time or “just listen to lectures.” Yet, they only take up your time while producing little to no understanding.
So let’s ask better questions:
In the first place, how do you even make raw information coherent? Do you need to spend more time or read it countless times? Do you need to “pay more attention” in class? Do you need to take “complete notes of important things to remember”? If that’s not clear, then we might as well be shooting darts without a dartboard, right?
Is there really a way to get to coherence without wasting time?
Yes, and the answer may seem too obvious to notice — mentally organizing information into meaningful chunks.
No — not the Feynman Technique. Not “teaching it to others.” These techniques tell you that you’ve already gotten to coherence, but using them does not necessarily lead to coherence.
Mentally organizing information comes first. It’s the mental process that matters, not the technique or note-taking method you’re using.
And the way you organize information to form meaningful chunks is by grouping a set of raw information (or, a group of chunks) into smaller retrievable units. The obstacle, however, is that there are plenty of techniques to do this — from simple associations, like the peg method, story method, and memory palace technique, to imposing hierarchy and performing elaboration.
This is too chaotic, and “unmapped” options certainly don’t help.
So, to bring order to this madness, let me give you a set of heuristics (i.e. mental Processes that solve the problem most of the time) for common archetypes:
- For studying terminology, deconstruct why the term is coined in that specific way. My favorite example: “Sternocleidomastoid,” a neck muscle — “sterno” is sternum, “cleido” is clavicle, and “mastoid” is, well, somewhere behind the skull. Simply knowing this allowed me to remember how this muscle is connected to the body. In general, most books state the root, prefix, and suffix in Latin or Greek, so take advantage of that. This is probably the most important part here because deconstructing how words are formed (especially in medicine!) widens your ability to infer meaning from new, unfamiliar words. It makes textbook reading suck less.
- For short lists, use mnemonics. Self-explanatory. But now that you know this, I recommend you use it more often for short lists.
- For long lists, use the memory palace technique. It’s hard to use mnemonics for long lists, so you’ll need a more robust method. Even as a beginner, I was able to use the memory palace technique to memorize the name of 48 sections of a Republic Act in under 30 minutes. (IIRC) And all I needed to do was learn the method once, and use my notes as “scaffolds.” And FYI, you don’t even need to pay for anything to learn this skill. You can learn it at Art of Memory Wiki for free. (That’s where I learned it, but please don’t skim it.)
- For concepts, use “Bento Box Thinking”. More on this in a bit.
This playbook isn’t set in stone. Again, they are heuristics, not algorithms or “truths.” Some of them may already be obvious to you, but again, the goal here isn’t to make you learn something new. My goal is to help you get to better implementation.
I know — Bento Box Thinking is a bit of an ugly duck. It’s the first time you’ve seen it, and it sounds like Ikigai (Which was disappointing). So, to understand this mental model, let’s take a walk for a moment and eat lunch, the Japanese way.
“What in the world is Bento Box Thinking?”
I like to think of encoding conceptual information as “filling in a bento box,” where the main ideas are the ‘compartments’ and the smaller ideas are the ‘food.’
When you don’t organize raw information by “attaching” the smaller ideas (the food) to the main ideas (bento box compartments), then you end up with a weird “mental fried rice” that you can’t even determine what it’s made of. At that point, it becomes really hard to retrieve a specific idea from the clutter, not to mention knowing how each idea relates to the others.
On the other hand, when you do the “attaching” process by forming relationships between central ideas to supporting ideas, or supporting ideas to other supporting ideas, two awesome things happen:
- Just remembering one idea allows you to better access the other related ideas. (This is called “network redundancy.”)
- Just remembering the smaller ideas allow you to better infer the central idea. (This is called “inferential redundancy.”)
So how do you apply Bento Box Thinking to get to coherence?
At first, you may want to try this with textbooks because it’s far easier that way. After doing this a few times, you’ll be mentally drained, but as a result, you’d have formed logical relationships between the main ideas and supporting ideas.
My three steps to applying Bento Box Thinking are:
- Find the compartment — the main idea
- Find the food that could fit into it — finding the “details”
- See how it fits — asking “how is this related to the central idea?”
This is a great Podcast on BB thinking if you have the time then go through it, but still let me show you through an example.
We’ll break down this paragraph from an open textbook on Physiology:
Without the highlights I made, it’s easy to think that you’d have to memorize every sentence to “get what the author means.” But the truth is that most of these sentences are logically connected, and you have to get that logical connection in order to understand the text.
Step 1. If you look at the sentence, “Human anatomy is the scientific study of the body’s structures,” you’ll notice that it’s declaring something as a fact, but there aren’t any details involved. This is often a sign that it’s a “compartment”; it’s a main idea. They’re usually found at the beginning of the sentence in your textbooks.
Step 2. The next two sentences, “Some of these structures are very small…blah, blah, blah,” and “The word ‘anatomy’ comes from a Greek root that means ‘to cut apart’,” on the other hand, talk about the first sentence.
This means that they’re the “food” that fits into the “compartment.” Technically, they’re elaborations of the first statement. Now that we know both components, all that’s left is the relationship.
Step 3. If it’s not yet obvious after reading the elaborations, you should then ask “how is this related to the central idea?” The result of this mental process should be a bunch of insights — which could either be complete or incomplete.
From the first supporting sentence, the insight was: “Oh, this means that Anatomy can deal with small or large structures.”
From the second supporting sentence, the insight was: “Anatomy is ‘cutting apart’, which means it just looks at parts and structures that make up the body.”
Continue Bento Box Thinking for each heading, paragraph, and sentence
You could also use the same concept of elaboration for main ideas, not just on supporting ideas. After you’ve produced coherence from the main idea, you can then ask how that main idea relates to the main topic or other main topics. (Ex: How “homeostasis” relates to “Physiology”)
You may think that this is an excessive use of time, but this mental process only takes a few seconds or minutes.
And what you’ll find is, instead of remembering every sentence, you’ll get a coherent understanding at a level the author originally intended upon writing.
Of course, there are other ways to get to coherence, like “connecting it to what you already know,” but in my experience, Bento Box Thinking has been the easiest way to teach the process of “understanding a new concept” in a way that anyone would understand.
Also, I’m confident that you’ll eventually adopt the process more generally as you start to “get it.” It’s actually pretty damn fun. :)
Unless you are a psychopath.
Now, Some Important FAQ regarding Reading :
Q: Why should I even read textbooks if there are lectures?
Lectures are merely supplementary material. Textbooks, on the other hand, are primary material for your fundamental subjects. They give you the full picture, thus making them crucial to your professional career.
If you’re learning for grades, then by all means rely on lectures alone and memorize what’s in the slides.
Otherwise, if you’re learning for yourself and you want to understand a topic such that you can answer any question from any angle (while feeling sure of your answers), then textbooks are top priority.
Q: Does this apply to all textbooks?
No, but most well-written undergraduate textbooks have this structure. In any case, the same principle applies: find the main idea, then elaborate on it using the supporting ideas.
Q: My textbooks contain weird godly terms!
That’s what you’d expect when dealing with technical texts.
Academic books, in contrast to the usual popular books, use precise language as a way to compress knowledge and sharpen communication.
This is why, in the “playbook” I showed you earlier, the most important “play” is to deconstruct terms. The more you deconstruct terminology, the more you’ll be able to decode unfamiliar words and ultimately, extract the nuances from a text.
Prior knowledge plays a large part, but that’s a topic for the next lesson :)
Q: “This sounds really good, but how do I determine what to put into my notes?”
This way of thinking comes from the assumption that “capturing the most important things will lead to remembering” or “notes are required for retention.”
No, note-taking is NOT required, and note taking alone doesn’t guarantee retention. What makes note-taking work is the mental process of processing information — regardless of the paradigm. (encoding/storage paradigm)
The fact is, note-taking is just a tool to help you get to coherence by apparently extending the limit of your working memory.
One concrete example is solving math problems. You can’t think of the entire solution for hard problems unless you write them down so you can think about the next step instead of holding everything in your head.
So don’t determine “what to put into your notes.” Instead, use your notes to externalize your thinking process, just like how I showed you earlier. Your thinking process would then organically shape what you put in your notes.
Sure, you can capture important information without processing them, but you’ll be doing the work to process them later, anyway, so why not process it the best you can at the first encounter?
Summary: To process raw information, make it coherent
Retrieving something from a pile of mess is hard. When you just try to store information into your memory without organizing them, they become harder and harder to find — let alone build new knowledge on top of them. In contrast, when information is encoded in coherent encoded chunks, they become easier to find and build new knowledge on top of.
Put in simplistic terms, you can only retrieve what you can encode. Build knowledge as though you’re constantly picking and placing books into mental bookshelves; that makes them easy to retrieve once you need them.
But, retention is a different matter
This is the part where I say: Understanding alone isn’t enough.
Retention of newly learned information is still fragile. No matter how vivid you understand or remember something today, you’ll likely forget it in the future — even when you feel like you won’t. (cf. Stability Bias) In other words, producing coherence is separate from maintaining it in the long term.
That’s where Permanence comes in — which we’ll talk more about in the next lesson.
- Get a textbook on a subject that’s fundamental to your career
- Practice applying Bento Box Thinking
- Take note of your insights. Keep these notes, because you’re going to use it in the next lesson.
By the end of these action steps, you should end up with something similar to this:
You could totally have notes that are exclusively insights. You don’t need to copy the first two columns, my expressions, nor write in complete sentences.