How do you retain information from scholarly - history of facts, ideology, and economics largely - articles?
September 5, 2011 3:40 PM   Subscribe

How do you retain information from scholarly - history of facts, ideology, and economics largely - articles?

I can pace myself through a philosophy book by taking notes and doing multiple readings, section by section.

Then I come across works that delve outside of purely philosophical endeavors (Marxist works, really), and I become inundated with information concerning economics, and the historical development of particular ideas and economies. These sources range from large works such as Capital (and all of its volumes) or (<5000 words) small articles. The wealth and density of information regardless of size is just too unwieldy.

I've always had poor memory retention, which partly motivated me to not major in neuroscience. But these works are different from the hard sciences - I can't just flashcard all this information into my mind. I could read only one article a day and do what I do with philosophy, and I still wouldn't retain most of it. Even still, literally have sentence is vastly important. Retention of even 90% of a <5000 word article leaves out a LOT. (Another issue is that a lot of my retention is purely "associative". If I'm reading something else and the information is related, I might be able to remember some past readings. But recalling that memory independently is nigh on impossible.)

Any suggestions before I go crazy? I've always been fascinated with Jean Paul Sartre's drug use (though as I understand it his was related more towards writing than for reading retention), just because completing everything that needs to be completed within a lifetime purely naturally just seems impossible even though I'm 19.
posted by SollosQ to Education (18 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
What are you trying to do with this information? Are you studying for a class, trying to learn a skill, or just reading for pleasure? Most people don't remember everything they read. In fact, most people remember very little of what they read unless they apply it to a specific skill or task on a regular basis. Heck, I've read novels where I didn't realize until several hundred pages in that I'd actually read the book before and forgotten it, but I still enjoyed reading it.

When you talk about "completing everything that needs to be completed within a lifetime," it leads me to think that you're likely putting way too much pressure on yourself. "Every sentence" is not "vastly important" in the grand scheme of things, and unless you need to memorize instructions for disarming a bomb, nothing bad will happen if you forget stuff. There is no list of things that need to be completed in your lifetime, and I think you'll enjoy your reading more (and potentially get more out of it) if you put less pressure on yourself. You're 19. You have all the time in the world. Try to relax and enjoy this time in your life.
posted by decathecting at 4:42 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: At the moment it's extracurricular, but next semester (and so in preparation necessary to begin it) I'll be doing some formal research. But after that I'll (hopefully) be in graduate school and eventually academia where my career is going to be importantly affected by my ability to retain, process, and manipulate all this information into understanding and coherency.
posted by SollosQ at 4:51 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

In that case, take notes on the parts of things that are relevant to your research. You don't have to store all of the information in your brain as long as you can store it in a format that allows you to call it back up again when you need it. But again, relax. Academics are not superheros, and you're not going to fail at grad school because you can't remember every word of thousands of pages of articles you read.
posted by decathecting at 5:08 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Being an academic isn't about knowing every fact or theory; it's about knowing where to look for facts or theories and how to interpret facts and theories. What works best for me as I'm doing reading for a class or a project is reading with pen in hand, jotting down notes on what sticks out to me onto a separate piece of paper with page numbers clearly marked, and then synthesizing all the important ideas of the article or book into a short little blurb. That way, I can easily recall the general sense of a source, and if I need to go back to check something more specific, it's not the end of the world because I have my earlier notes with page numbers as a reference.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:14 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes individual sentences make reference to several different strains of thought. When you are familiar with those strains of thought, as you seem to be with philosophy, it's fine. When you aren't familiar, as you don't seem to be with economics, you aren't fine.

Keep reading. Don't listen to those folks who tell you to "relax" -- it's fine to continue being intense about this stuff -- but don't take drugs.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 5:17 PM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: Nobody remembers every bit of information in a five-thousand word humanities article, not even the person who wrote it. That's what note-taking is for; it's an artificial memory. (Historians used to use 3x5 index cards for primary and secondary sources for this, cross-referencing their notes and resources. These days everybody's got different electronic systems for indexing and note-taking).

You can't do it all in your head. You need a system to be able to store the information you want, and you need to be able to identify in the sources you're reading what that information is. The best researchers and humanities scholars aren't the ones with the most comprehensive memories, they're the ones with the best, most methodical systems.

My uni used to have short teaching and learning seminars that specialised in just this kind of thing, and they were very popular and useful with students from science backgrounds who've been used to learning in very different ways, and with students from countries where education is traditionally by rote. If you can find one at yours, I'd strongly recommend one.

Incidentally, Marxist history and economics is deliberately dense, especially if it's been translated badly into English from German or French, and a lot of Marxists have a tin ear for language, so don't feel bad if you struggle. Everybody does. A lot of them deliberately try to one-up each other in pompous, self-important, opaque and obscure prose. Capital is a seminal work, but Marx really only hit his stride as a writer when he was describing things he could only imagine ie. "all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last..." etc.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:17 PM on September 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Keep in mind that "retention" is a metaphor. It treats the mind like a container and information as something that fills that container and that something that can leak out. Interestingly enough, the metaphor isn't water tight.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 5:23 PM on September 5, 2011

For the sake of your own sanity, don't try to memorize things. Just keep a mental index of where you can find things if you need them -- for example: Remember that Sartre said something interesting about the nature of free will in a certain essay. You don't need to memorize what he said, just remember that he said something, and you can go back to it whenever you need it.

Make notes in the margins and leave pages dog-eared so you can flip back to it immediately if you want to refresh yourself. Or use the kindle and use the equivalent bookmarking functions.

Writing was invented so we don't have to remember everything. Don't waste your brain power on the rote memorization of facts when all the facts are easily accessible in other ways.

The more you read, the more connections your brain will draw between different concepts, and you'll develop your own ideas about how things are connected and relate to each other, and the books you read will be used to re-inforce those ideas (or challenge them). Think for yourself, and use the ideas of others for support, don't just memorize and regurgitate.
posted by empath at 6:35 PM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: I seldom have to memorize anymore, but when I do these days, I make use of mind mapping software to organize data. That allows me to pile up huge portions of it in an orderly fashion, and associate a diagram with the information content. Personally, I find it helpful.

If I had to memorize something for recall in the extremely short term, I'd use mnemonic tricks. The mind is content addressable, it appears. If you can trigger the content, it pours out on its own to some extent.

Such a short term mnemonic trick might be to segregate info into small piles, and for each pile, make up a nonsense word of initial letters that you can memorize by rote. I'd limit those piles to seven items or less, each. It seems to be a magic number for memory, and is reflected in our 7-digit phone numbers.

For long term data, I think the only trick is periodically refreshing it. In the past, I've found that I can let some topic decay to a point of intolerable inaccuracy, but can quickly get back up to a comfort level with a good refresh from my notes. It's one reason I take a lot of notes and draw a lot of pictures/graphs.

It helps to segregate the data you are dealing with into categories of priority and importance. Some core data is essential to demonstrate overall competence in an area, but the kazillion exquisite details usually fade with lack of use, and reference material is always available these days to consult.

You can master some things with just routine exposure. Google will yield a pile of memory tricks, but I have found that if I want to master something, super intensive exposure followed by breaks, followed by super intensive exposure reinforces pathways effectively and gives me a few weeks of command performance, after which disuse decays.

You can't possibly remember it all, if you are a normal human like the rest of us. It's OK to have an average memory, or an average IQ for that matter. Reasoning skills, interpretive skills, and research skills are much more important than random content. Where to find what you need is perfectly adequate.

I just finished reading "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Johnathan Foer. He discusses his experience over a year of training his memory. A good read, it's thin on technique but he effectively makes a point that memory used to me much more important than it is now, and that our minds are able to do some rather amazing things, WITH PRACTICE. There are tricks. There are techniques. Most importantly, even the tricks and techniques have limitations. Don't feel inadequate or impotent.
posted by FauxScot at 6:40 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, you're concerned that you have trouble remembering >90% of an article that you read? That expectation seems unrealistically high to me. Way high. I would be very satisfied to retain about 10%, and I'm pretty sure I'm not stupider than average. If you can fully understand most of what you're reading, and retain the gist of it, that should suffice. No one is going to expect you to memorize all that and carry it around in your head.

When I read something that I really want to understand and remember, one technique that helps a lot is to write a short summary of the main points after I've finished reading it. This is different from (and in addition to) taking notes while reading -- it's harder, and more useful.
posted by Corvid at 6:51 PM on September 5, 2011

Response by poster: What about teachers and the sort of people that seem to have quotes always at hand and what seems to be a comprehensive understanding, or those that have seem to have some form of, not perfect but still, photographic memory?

My memory is worse than typical for a person, but yet people in the profession always come off as having superb memory. Is this just an incorrect perception, perhaps skewed by their preparation for talks, and years of teaching and researching?
posted by SollosQ at 6:56 PM on September 5, 2011

Response by poster: I largely do what decathecting, oinopaponton, empath, and Corvid have mentioned - but it's the finer details that always slip by. I guess it helps to know it's not expected to be retained... but it still feels wrong not to have it on independent recall nontheless...
posted by SollosQ at 6:59 PM on September 5, 2011

works that delve outside of purely philosophical endeavors

It sounds like the problem is absorbing the whole social/political/cultural/economic context lurking in the background of philosophical texts. Memorization tricks will not help at all with this.

How to approach the background will depend on where your interests lie.

1) Capsule summary approach

Example: why does Hobbes argue for absolutism? He'd lived through the English civil wars. It was not clear what powers the king and parliament had, they argued (both appealing to tradition) and eventually raised armies. If only someone had been unquestionably in charge war could have been avoided. That's all you really need to know, enough to inform the text so that you can see what's motivating Hobbes to argue for such extreme conclusions.

2) Skim, baby, skim

Read up a bit. Grab a biography of Cromwell. You don't need to know who commanded the right flank at the Battle of Marston Moor, but knowing the various political factions will help you know what ideas Hobbes was up against. e.g. the Levellers, a radical democratic faction which had a notion of natural rights that Hobbes was dead set to demolish.

Done? Now forget 99%. Hold on to what's relevant to the Hobbes you're reading and/or whatever's fun for its own sake. The goal isn't memorizing, it's more like getting a sense of the shape of the era.

3) Full immersion

If you're really interested in a period, dive in. Read a swathe of original texts (philosophy, constitutions, speeches, plays, histories...), get to know current scholarly histories, learn languages. If you love a period, you might do this -- it happens to a lot of ancient philosophy buffs.

4) Flâneur

If you're the sort of person who likes taking random walks through nonfiction, do that. Wander about, read what interests you. Someday you may happen to pick up Adam Smith and realize that you already know about the Scottish Enlightenment.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:03 PM on September 5, 2011

Your memory is fine, I'm sure. The teachers that have quotes handy probably have referenced those same quotes dozens of times, year after year, in class after class. I've been doing computer stuff for 10 years and have piles of facts that have accrued over time, but I've rarely sat down to memorize anything -- it's just that after the 4th or 5th time I've had to look something up to do my job, I just remember it.
posted by empath at 7:08 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I largely do what decathecting, oinopaponton, empath, and Corvid have mentioned - but it's the finer details that always slip by. I guess it helps to know it's not expected to be retained... but it still feels wrong not to have it on independent recall nontheless...

The finer details come with years of dedicated study and practice at a particular field, at the expense of learning the finer details of other things.

Just to change the subject out of books, let's say you want to learn to make music. You get a book about music theory.

It's far, far, too much information, but you remember time signatures and scales. So you spend some time applying it, you make some simple melodies in 4/4 time and C Major, because it's easy. After you get that, you read the book again, and now you read the section on chords. You think, oh that's amazing, let me try adding some chords to this melody, and after that, you read the same book again, and you go from simple triads to more complex chords like augmented major 7s or whatever, then maybe you read it again and this time you focus on the time signature chapter and try things in different time signatures.

The more time you spend on it, the more and more details that come naturally to you, because you've reinforced them through practice. Once the basics come naturally to you, then you can focus on a new topic, and so on. But there's no fast way to do it, it's just years of focus and study.

And, imo, don't waste the time memorizing things unless it's something you're genuinely interested in or need. The best thing to do is just read a lot, and write a lot. The memorization will come naturally that way.
posted by empath at 7:16 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Spaced repetition software is one possibility. Lots of people achieve without it, but if you want command over a large quantity of facts this is one way to go about it. Review is a daily commitment and there's also the time required to enter the material you wish to memorize.

Previously, on MetaFilter.
posted by BigSky at 8:12 PM on September 5, 2011

Best answer: What about teachers and the sort of people that seem to have quotes always at hand and what seems to be a comprehensive understanding, or those that have seem to have some form of, not perfect but still, photographic memory?

It's quite possible that teachers seem to have all the important information handy because they've recently prepped for the class or discussion, not because they can recall what was on page 56 of whatever book you pull off their shelves.

Also, don't underestimate people's ability to remember different things. You're impressed with another person's ability to remember details and exact quotes, but that may come at the expense of understanding big concepts or themes that you can recall easily. Part of my early grad school experience was realizing that not everybody reads and remembers a book the same way, and there's no one correct way to do so. Others' abilities to remember specific quotes doesn't mean they're reading the book better than you, it means they're reading in ways that maximize their strengths. So just because your professor can remember the year when a specific English land tenure law was passed and you can't doesn't mean you're not reading the book as effectively as he is. Figure out how you remember things best, and develop strategies to maximize that as best you can.
posted by lilac girl at 8:35 PM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Testing yourself is a very good way to improve long-term retention of the tested material.

So test yourself. Sit and write answers to sample questions. Write answers to questions at the ends of chapters. Make flash cards. Make up your own tests: if the paper lists five major somethings of something, make a note of this as you read and then set yourself a test at the end: describe the five major somethings of something, etc. Keep the test materials with the original paper so you can go back to them. The first time you take the test, you will have to go back to the paper and look up the answers. The second time, maybe only to see whether you got the answers right. The third time, maybe not at all.

If you keep testing yourself, you will improve your retention of material important to you and your ability to recall it on demand, and your confidence that you know and can recall that material will improve. When confronted with having to recall and describe the five major somethings of something, you will be able to tell yourself "I know this" and just do it.
posted by pracowity at 3:38 AM on September 6, 2011

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