how do you Connect and Understand Stuff you've read?
March 14, 2015 6:48 AM   Subscribe

ok, this is kind of a complicated question and I'm not even sure how to ask it. But I do feel like something is Wrong about how I read. Details below.

I read a LOT. All kinds of books, mostly academic social science/humanities, as that's what I am (a very early-career one). A lot of social science, psychology, anthropology, history, philosophy. And contemporary news and analysis. For some reason I can't understand, however, stuff doesn't stay in my head. I read actively. I can discern arguments. I follow up bibliographies. I've taught a bit. I try to note down details, summaries, and I think I have pretty good note-taking skills.

But then I go to a seminar or get into a conversation, or a colleague or student asks a clarifying question, and I just can't seem to make quick connections between what I've read and think I know about, and what is being talked about or asked. I can't ever seem to dredge up useful examples on the spot, or pull in relevant scholarly arguments, or cross-check a claim that's been made by a speaker with stuff I supposedly know. I can't seem to do the sort of thing where someone says "that looks like what's happening in X Y Z at this time too, and have you thought about Q literature", even though I have read so many books on X Y Z and am aware of Q literature. Or even "what you've said is interestingly different to these other cases for these reasons". It's like all the reading I've done is in weird disconnected silos in my head, or rather it might as well be at the bottom of the sea, since I'm never able to dredge it up at the right time and apply it, make useful observations or do useful analysis with it. It seems to get worse if I'm stressed - then I really can't think at all. It's kinda the same with world news too, on a smaller scale. I just can't seem to analyze intelligently. I feel really stupid most of the time, like I'm constantly missing something obvious, or that everyone sees connections and things that I just don't see. I'm constantly overwhelmed by all the things I don't know or understand. I'm baffled by how people can speak so confidently about complex things. I'm constantly second-guessing my understanding of anything and end up in a complete black hole of uncertainty.

A lot of the time it's just that I don't even remember what I read or that I've read something after a while. Though I will often be reminded that I know it when I, e.g. encounter something I've read in a footnote - I'll see it and be like, ah yes! I know that, I have read it, and this is what it's about, and it makes sense that it's cited here. But for the love of all things I can't seem to do that without being prompted.

Where is all my reading and knowledge going when it gets into my brain? Why can't I seem to access it usefully? I don't know if this makes sense as a problem. MeFi, I wondered if you've ever experienced a problem like this, and given this problem, if you have any suggestions or specific strategies on how I might read better or take notes better or just think better. Maybe this will just take time - but how can I accelerate this or at least ensure that the connections will eventually happen? Or maybe I'm just Stupid and there's no hope! Thanks in advance.
posted by starcrust to Education (23 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
In broad strokes: ensure that the connections will eventually happen? Or maybe I'm just Stupid and there's no hope!

The first may never happen. The second is surely surely not true.

Being able to recall gained knowledge on the spot is really a talent (inasmuch as you're born with the ability or not, I believe) but since you can in fact recall the information when prompted just focus on that. Work on the prompting method. Ok so it's footnotes that do it? Religiously study them. I'm visual so I would actually sort of remember what the footnote looks like and then that keys the information for me.

This honestly feel a like a cross between memory skills and just a touch of (totally normal) public speaking/social anxiety. Much more than you being stupid or having some learning disability.
posted by chasles at 7:10 AM on March 14, 2015

Best answer: My experience is that you come to make connections between texts by working with them actively in some way - using them as the basis for your own writing, or at least seeing them through a directed lens of some question you are trying to understand. That converts them from things you passively absorb to things you engage with as confirming, challenging, or augmenting a mental model you are building.

You can't hope to understand everything about everything you read - you see it through a particular frame, and its that personal frame that allows you to see connections that are relevant to you, but have passed others by.
posted by crocomancer at 7:13 AM on March 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Did you have to write compare and contrast essays as a kid?
  • Compare and contrast your favorite candy to your best friend's favorite candy
  • compare and contrast your bedroom with your living room
  • compare and contrast puppies and kittens
  • compare and contrast George Washington and King George
  • compare and contrast this reading sample and that reading sample
They probably morphed into essay choice options as you entered university:
  • compare and contrast this philosopher and that philospher
  • compare and contrast this historical period and that historical period
  • compare and contrast structural functional theory with environmental theory
  • compare and contrast these two economic theories
  • compare and contrast
  • compare and contrast
  • compare and contrast
You can write your own essays like this now, for your own personal benefit. Just basic five paragraph type stuff. Take the articles in the bibliographies/lit reviews, and make point by point comparisons. Connecting these thoughts in writing and with a critical eye will help commit them to memory.

It's not enough for some people to just read and remember. Writing is, for many scholars, part of the act of synthesis. This might be true for you. Because everything can be compared and contrasted, it is the most effective synthesis writing exercise I have done or recommended as a writing tutor.

On preview, yes, what crocomancer said much more succinctly.
posted by bilabial at 7:21 AM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

I read a LOT. All kinds of books, mostly academic social science/humanities...A lot of social science, psychology, anthropology, history, philosophy. And contemporary news and analysis. For some reason I can't understand, however, stuff doesn't stay in my head.

It sounds like you're not reading for comprehension so much as reading for the sake of reading. I find that a lot of people today read almost as if it's a sport...That the one who burns-through the most titles the fastest wins....something.

All I can suggest is that you cut back on the sheer volume and slow yourself down. Read a bit a pace that allows your mind to "think" about the words it's digesting. Read for pleasure. Savor the words.

Quantity ≠ Quality.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:26 AM on March 14, 2015 [7 favorites]

Oh, and you can do this compare and contrast exercise to compare two authors/researchers in the same field, looking at their entire (or selected) body of work, if you want.

Here's how it might look in note form:

Author A and B both focus on $topic in their many books and articles
Author A focuses on historical facts using census data and primary documents in his first two works and then shifts his view toward...something else
Author B focuses entirely on predictions for the future, though his predictions has become more dire over time. Author B uses interview data.
Author A and B both assert that race is a factor in outcome disparity, though they consistently disagree on the extent of the correlation.
Author B has also published on $these other topics and Author A brings her expertise in $other discipline to the table.

And this is where your footnotes come in handy, because you can figure out that Author A comes from the foo school of whatever and Author B comes from the baz school, each heavily influenced by their favorite researchers, who were great rivals and actually had axes to grind that showed up in their teaching styles.

The point is to not wait until your in the middle of the conversation to try to make the connections, but to make them before you get to the table.

And the more you practice, the easier it will get. That's not to say that I can guarantee that it will be capital e Easy, just easier.
posted by bilabial at 7:33 AM on March 14, 2015

This bloke knows a trick or two
posted by flabdablet at 7:52 AM on March 14, 2015

I suspect that some of the people who intimidate you have a pet text (either a theorist or a piece of their own work) which they aggressively connect to everything. It's much easier to identify specific links than to sift through all possible links.

You might try the same: pick one text you respect, ideally one with a fairly pointed argument, and compare it to everything else you read. What would X think of this? Does Y's argument hold up in light of X's evidence? Where would Z fall in X's framework? etc.
posted by yarntheory at 7:58 AM on March 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

When you learn something deeply it gives you enormous confidence. I'm in the sciences and I felt like you did for a long time, until I actually started to learn topics well (and to know that things I thought I knew, I didn't really know at all). The amazing thing I found was that focusing on one small (but maybe fundamental) topic gave me strength in that topic, but also gave me tools to learn other things, and a structure to place all of the new knowledge.

Some people that I was intimidated by early in graduate school were people who knew things very well (and had devoted much of their lives to get to that point). Others were people who were able to speak well on a broad category of subjects, but it turned out that their depth of understanding was shallow --- once I understood things well, I could see that they did not.

So, yes, as people say above, study one thing well. To start.
posted by pjenks at 8:07 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So...I just finished my PhD last year and this completely makes sense to me as a problem - you have articulated it beautifully, in fact. I dealt with it throughout my career, and I don't have any easy solutions but I will tell you a little more how it works for me and some hacks I lean on to get by.

You call it "weird disconnected silos in my head" and that rings true. I always thought of it as a forebrain/deep brain problem. Like, I know there's a ton of information in my deep brain, but my forebrain - the front of my brain, the place in my head where I can quickly and easily access information on the fly - is basically empty. This is such a huge problem for me when it comes to teaching, because I have an incredibly limited access to relevant facts. Like, I wrote my dissertation on Kenya, I've read hundreds of books on the subject, and yet if I'm teaching and a student raises her hand and asks me what year Kenya got its independence, if I haven't actively anticipated having to answer that question, my brain will freeze up and I'll get anxious and unsure and there'll be like a 20% chance I'll answer it wrong. There's no point in sitting down and memorizing the fact - I have memorized it, hundreds of times, but every time I stop using it, it gets re-filed into the place that's harder to access. It's not that I don't have the fact, it's that it's poorly stored.

Conferences, of course, are even worse, because you're not only expected to marshal lots of facts but - as you point out - to synthesize them. But if your problem is like mine, the problem isn't actually the synthesis, it's that initial ability to recall and access - if I were asked to compare two texts that were right in front of me, I would have no problem; if I just had one minute before each question to sketch down some thoughts and do some quick Googling, my answers would be strong. It's the immediate access to the raw material I lack, not the actual ability to analyze, which is why I'm a much stronger writer than I am a speaker.

So what do we/I do? Well, one thing is - I have ADHD. Do you? I am actually not on meds for it - it makes my anxiety worse - but it's something to consider.

Beyond that -

1. Overprepare. Write everything down. Sketch out possible questions you're anticipating beforehand and give yourself time to answer them. Take notes during conference presentations and write down your own questions as they come to you instead of trying to form them on the fly.

2. Recognize that this is a common problem and lots of people suffer from it. I think most academics recognize that the guy whose asking the sharpest questions or doing the fanciest on-the-fly synthesis is not always going to do the best analysis once it comes time to write. These are separate skills and lacking the ability to intellectually improvise like this does not make you stupid. If someone asks you a question and you kind of fumble it when you're in the spotlight, it's totally cool to email them later and give them a more nuanced response. Similarly, knowing how this affects me has made me more sympathetic to my students - now, i try to give them time to sketch out ideas and pause and think before they answer, so that it's not only the fast-movers who get a chance to shine in class discussion.

3. Google google google. I don't have a forebrain; instead I have Google. When I'm writing, I google everything I've ever read because it usually only takes a little flash of familiarity to pull up all the information that's in my deep brain. Similarly, I write all over my books. Once I close a book I forget 90% of what's in it - but if I've underlined and made notes in the margins, then if I want to access it again, I can skim through my underlines and the material gets resurrected very quickly. You're a fast reader, like me, so I bet this technique will work well for you. If I make a note - even a small one - on every page, I can usually get most of the book "back" after a single skim.

4. Know that you actually are getting better. Stuff does move from my deep-brain to my forebrain if I use it enough...just very, very slowly. I come off as much more knowledgeable about many subjects after 8 years in academia, even though the things I can discuss with ease are a tiny fraction of the things I feel like I should know. It's a good thing, ultimately, to be aware of the limitations of your knowledge - and because our limitations are so front-and-center, we can't ever forget them. Silver lining!

Good luck, seriously. Memail me if you ever want to talk about this or need a pep talk if you're feeling down. :)
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:37 AM on March 14, 2015 [14 favorites]

Oh man, I just read through your previous questions. Your whole story rings so true to me. I don't want to pathologize you at all but I think you should really talk to someone about comorbid anxiety/ADHD. It's kind of amazing - I think your life is going to get a TON easier very, very soon.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:45 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Finding metaphors makes it easier to link between chunks of data. Sounds like you need to get better at pattern recognition and abstraction. Get into poetry maybe? Seriously, it might hone the right bits of your brain.
posted by Grunyon at 8:47 AM on March 14, 2015

Read less.
posted by srboisvert at 9:23 AM on March 14, 2015

Cool question!

I haven't read all of these responses, but things that work for me are 1) note-taking/active engagement with reading, and 2) externalizing and organizing ideas and examples. From my interactions with other students/scholars, these seem like common and very effective ways of understanding topics, as well as connecting and internalizing theory and empirical examples.

1) Note-taking/active engagement
One thing that others have brought up that is very valuable is just note-taking, either inside books or on a piece of paper or in a computer. I don't know whether you take notes or not, but I find that when I take notes, scribble marginalia, highlight, etc., it forces me to re-read statements and engage with them actively. As long as you're free about it, it also allows you to be like, "oh this reminds me of XXX", a connection which you have made in the moment but can draw upon/elaborate on later.

My note-taking also really varies. Sometimes, I'll go thirty pages without a single note, because the material isn't so relevant or interesting at the moment. But other times, if it's stuff I find cool or relevant, it might be a scribble or jotting every other sentence.

2) Externalizing ideas and examples (i.e., writing them down in an organized fashion)
I find Google Drive super-useful for this. So, for example, my interests are broadly in rules and norms in small-scale, self-governing societies, and they way the come about/change, and how they increase cooperation or whatever. So I have a google document where I keep various scholars' definitions of rules, one that discusses enforcement, one that discusses examples of rules that increase cooperation, one comprised of examples of the changes of rules. I know the examples quite well now, because I've written them in these lists and typed in quotations from books - and they're much more cognitively salient in writing papers and considering whether certain arguments have empirical support.

In summary, go slowly, take notes, engage actively, and externalize. I mean, granted, I also have a lot to learn and am really in no place to say "this is how to do it". But I've personally found these techniques effective and useful in making arguments and having a grasp over a body of information. Ultimately, one's own style might also play to personal preferences/dispositions, so this stuff may not necessarily be the cup of tea you'd like to sip.
posted by mrmanvir at 9:42 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thing I've started doing a lot more often since I've started medical school (where we're expected to absorb a lot of complicated material) is try to explain major concepts to my wife who doesn't have a science background.

I've found that this does two things. One, it forces me to translate my knowledge and think about what I'm trying to explain from a number of different perspectives. I have to evaluate my own deficiencies in understanding before I try to explain anything, and in a lot of ways it helps me know what I don't know. At the end of it I also feel like the knowledge becomes stickier because I've thought through it on multiple levels.

The second thing that really helps are her questions. She'll often highlight things that I hadn't thought about, or ask for clarifications on things that help me reenforce what's particularly important about a given topic.

This strategy has worked so well that it's often the topics that I've talked through with my wife that I remember best for tests (this could be self-selection bias as the topics I talk about tend to be things I find interesting, but I definitely feel that the fluency I gain contributes to a greater understanding of the material). Additionally, it's incredibly helpful for me as a future doctor because a lot of what I do when I see patients is explain and translate complicated and potentially scary sounding information into something that can be understood by a wide range of educational backgrounds.
posted by ghostpony at 10:13 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I just took this really great class on coursera

Learning How to Learn

Some of the many elements they touch on:

One is that your brain has two modes of thinking, a focused mode where you study things and try to learn them, and a diffuse mode where your brain is forming connections in the background. If you're having trouble with things sticking, you should study for a bit and then go for a walk (exercise also important!) and then while your brain is mostly distracted, you can keep thinking back to what you just learned and it'll stick better.

Another thing too is the importance of going back and review and quizzing yourself. It sounds like you see the footnote and remember it, which is kind of the same thing as looking at the book and thinking you know the material. You need to quiz yourself while not looking at it to really let yourself know if you know it or not.

They explain it much better than I am in the class. Definitely one of the best MOOCs I've ever taken.
posted by cali59 at 10:54 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone. This is incredibly helpful. Takeaways for me, for easy reference:
1. Make reasons to engage with a text. Questions, frameworks, comparisons, contrasts, mental models.
2. Quiz myself. Or discuss with others. Active engagement.
3. Slow down. Less is more. Quality not quantity.
4. Write. Organize.
5. I am not alone.
posted by starcrust at 12:11 PM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

pretentious illiterate puts it very well, and it's not just an academic problem. I was previously a journalist with this issue, and the steps pretentious illiterate outlines were the ones that helped me. Overpreparing has always been something I've had to do before interviews and meetings, to ensure I'd have talking points written down to jog my memory at a glance and also give me a way to commit more facts about the subject to memory. I'm great at pattern recognition, but I've always remembered more and recognized more patterns in common between my knowledge and what someone else is talking about by writing and copying information into my own words.

I'm actually just better in written words in general—in high school, I once tested that out with a new love interest by just having a conversation with him in a notebook, sitting right in front of him in person, and I have several friends with whom I've largely maintained my friendship over the years, even while living in the same place, through chat. The ability to converse extremely fluidly in written words is also very useful in my current job, since my workplace is, much of the time, a chat room. Having Google, Gmail, Google Drive, and Slack as part of my external memory help a lot and are a huge part of my flow. And being willing to admit that I don't know something off the top of my head and that I'll get back to someone on it is actually a useful thing to be comfortable doing in my line of work, to avoid imparting inaccurate information.

My husband is very much one of those people who can recall and synthesize on the fly, though, and I think he has trouble understanding my inability to always snap right back out loud. There's a really good story about this in Committed: Men Tell Stories of Love, Commitment, and Marriage, in which the guy who always goes for women who can banter like that realizes one day that the woman who doesn't banter like that but always zings back to meet him in other ways is the right one for him.

In short, memory and the means of recalling it are a land of contrasts, you're not the only one who works this way, and there are ways to work around it and increase your recall.
posted by limeonaire at 3:18 PM on March 14, 2015

You need to write, not just read, to synthesize and connect ideas. So even though you're not in school and thus not required to write research papers anymore, start writing about what you've read and how it connects to other things you've read. Perhaps a blog?
posted by Jacqueline at 3:32 PM on March 14, 2015

So I can do this really well.

The goal is not to read a lot - that will happen naturally if you spend a lot of time with books.

The goal is to keep what you learn for a long, long time. So you do stone-cold free recall (this is really hard, but learning is hard, deal with it) instead of repeatedly reading. You variegate your exposure to an idea from different authors, modes of learning, modes of sensation, what-have-you. You try systematically to do things which are hard as shit. These thoughts have been confirmed in psychology experiments, but the most useful and accessible folk wisdom about how to do this in an extremely hardcore way is in the mathematical heuristic literature. Consider Polya's How to Solve It.

Intellectual improvisation can also be said to be a special case of improvising generally. Are you good at improvising, generally? Go read Impro and Improv Wisdom and that sort of literature if you aren't.

It is good to read some of the literature on Ebbinghaus's experiments on memory for a clue to this. Consider that semantic nets are often well modelled by preferential attachment: having a lot of facts, your brain will organize themselves into a coherent framework or it will forget most of the facts. In your case, the second thing happened, but there is a strange effect with the forging of a coherent framework where you will be able to remember it again, a strongly nonlinear effect. There is often a phase transition sort of effect, which is remarkably nice - I tend to think it creates the power law of learning. Compare to the power laws created by preferential attachment, and go ooh and aah a little bit.
posted by curuinor at 6:29 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by islandeady at 5:36 AM on March 15, 2015

Einstein said that if you can't explain something simply, you haven't understood it well enough. When I was a kid in the 50s, I was told that E+MC^2 was such a difficult idea that only two people in the world could understand it. Today, every reasonably intelligent child can understand.

Practice explaining what you know to that child. Project your knowledge into something that a non-specialist can recognize: "It's like [a spider weaving its web/a car crashing into a wall/two people approaching on the street and knowing what to do to get around each other...].
posted by KRS at 10:03 AM on March 15, 2015

When I'm at a lecture assuming that it's completely new to me I like to organize my thoughts similar to a ladder. I'm always building upwards and simplifying old concepts as I gain more info. I'm aiming for a broad understanding of the subject and smaller details unless I'll be tested on them I will forget. Since there will always be gaps in my knowledge I just put in a placeholder until I get enough free time to Google for the correct facts.

Notes and active listening help but the truth is I'm not sure if anyone else can understand how my outlines work as they are closer to map key than a guide. I can do recordings but even then it's just too much info all at once.

Explaining ideas to people help but at the same time the other person has to be familiar with the subject that you're not stuck defining each part over and over.

The most useful tool would be my RSS reader as I like to pull related content for me to read or follow up. I've accepted that the human brain is limited and I will rely on any tech/devices to augment my understanding. OK it's a huge time sink but it always refreshing my memory of the subject as it's constantly being brought up each time there's a new post.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 11:57 AM on March 15, 2015

Where is all my reading and knowledge going when it gets into my brain? Why can't I seem to access it usefully?

What really strikes me about your words is how physical it is. If this is the way you think, you might find benefit in the Memory Palace concept of remembering things. Most of the things I'm finding on the web about memory palaces are about memorizing lists of discrete items. But I'm imagining that you can read your texts and then find a room in your palace for each concept or each author or however it makes sense to organize it.

Like, the ideas of social justice related to poverty belong in this room, and you can imagine author A and author B in that room discussing their disparate ideas. When you read a new text, then author C joins them in the room.

Or maybe the poverty concept is a hallway and each author has their own room on the hallway like a hotel, and when you are talking about poverty with your colleagues you can imagine yourself walking down that hallway and knocking on the doors that you want to talk about. Spend Saturday afternoons imagining the authors all coming out into the hallway to to discuss their ideas while you compare and contrast.
posted by CathyG at 10:07 AM on March 21, 2015

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