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Processing Information and Learning

Our information mediums are noisier than they have ever been. Information and public discussion appear accelerated and can be temporally fragmented. Distracting us, diverting focus and everything that is at the the core of of deep work. It becomes increasingly difficult, even for technical topics, to sift through marketing material and hype, before we can hit bedrock facts, knowledge and (sometimes) ugly truths. We’re destroying our attention span for the last few decades.

Our brains have developed many filters that we employ to process information, but nature didn’t adapt us for the firehose of addictive multimedia content and unscrupulous attention mining by big tech, that we’re exposed to with our modern always online state. I pondered how to best consume information for a while. How to recognize importance and remember what we read and learn. How to process information as fast as possible to keep up with what is going on. In this post I’ll go into what I found when dealing with this topic.

A note upfront, this is for subjects that are relevant for entrepreneurs and proplem solving in corporations where the subject matter is complicated and deep. I don’t employ any of these for casual reading. I read for interest, not to worry about how I remember things.

Only the mediocre are always at their best. -— Jean Giraudoux

Umbrella Rain

Recognize What Matters

A large amount of what we call intelligence or even creativity, is just memory. It is rare that we’re original in our thoughts and ideas. Learning by rote in our modern education systems has given us the wrong idea of what innovation actually is. Though you need to be able to make connections and know things.

Effectiveness is the degree to which something is successful. Efficiency is the ability to accomplish something with the least amount of wasted resources. When consuming information, focus on effectiveness over efficiency. Enable more understanding and ultimately output.

Create a macro focus on what you want to do. There are a million things you can spend time on, a thousand different business ideas you could execute. In order to excell, you need to focus on what matters the most at a given point in time.

Be open minded on fundamentals and continually ask “why”. Changing how to do the fundamentals of learning tends to become more difficult with experience and age. We become accustomed to our old system and are often not willing to relearn a topic from scratch as it comes with a productivity hit. It is however of vital importance when we pivot.

Care about your State of Mind

Cover the basics, sleep, diet, excercise and rest. Without sufficient sleep your brain will simply not be able to consume information, recharge quickly and to iterate. A poor diet makes you feel like shit, we don’t do our best work when we feel shit. Excercise and rest. Exercise the best nootropic in the world. It puts your brain into the win state.

Rest allows you to reflect on what’s important and see the forest for the trees, don’t neglect it, don’t fill your resting time with social media. Social media is essentially a global brain that is hooked on dopamine without inhibition in a permanent seizure.

Limited Working Memory & Attention Span

Cognitive psychologist George Miller hypothesized in 1956 that our working memory is limited and can only hold between 5 and 9 “chunks of information”. Recent modelling, such as Accelerating dynamics of collective attention by Philipp Lorenz-Spreen 2019, suggests that as the rate of content production and consumption increases, individual items are covered faster, leading to a sharper increase in collective attention, and equally sharp drop caused by self-inhibiting saturation. Meaning, our collective attention span is dropping. Another study, Abundance of information narrows our collective attention span supports that our collective attention span is narrowing and hints that this effect occurs not only on social media, but also across other domains such as books, web searches, movies and more.

Ensure you make time to focus on one item at a time and allocate an interruption free slot in your day to it. Even if the sessions are short, focus on the subject matter is often the elephant in the room when we find ourselves procrastinating.

Make Context Switching Deliberate

Long term memory is virtually infinite during our lifetimes. It is however expensive to commit information to it and it has to pass our many filters. Nature optimized our nervous systems over millions of years for energy consumption. This is best seen in our peripheral vision, we have very few cells to identify colors in our periphery, but our brains paint in what it thinks should be there. Allowing a narrow focus when processing visual information. When we consume information, it is either stored or filtered. Our shorter term, working memory acts like a filter to our long term memory. A deliberate bottleneck by evolution. Anything that isn’t going through our working memory for a long enough period of time, is filtered before we allocate more expensive, longer term storage.

Our working memory is actually quite small and is easily overloaded. Causing us to “lose” information if we lose focus on any singular item. For this reason, distractions and context switching is rather harmful to our ability to remember things and it fatigues our control systems for focus.

If you have to context switch during your day, make these switches deliberate, plan ahead and review. I myself was all over the place for my workdays and in my private life, with hundreds of tabs open on my laptop and phone, Twitter feeds, news and everything I had to do and catch up.

First Principles & Biases

To be inventive rather than iterative, we need to think differently than our peers. From Aristotle to Elon Musk, the key to achieve this has been called “first principles thinking”. First principles are the building blocks of true knowledge. Question every assumption you think you “know” about a given problem, break it down to their basic elements and reassemble the pieces from the ground up.

Nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first understood. – Leonardo da Vinci

In the book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, Richard Feynman says this about his fellow university students:

I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile! – Richard Feynman

Considering the sheer amount of sensory experience we’re exposed to from the moment we wake up, our brains have developed coping mechanisms called “Cognitive Biases”. Subconscious, mental shortcuts that help us make decisions and navigate our daily lifes. In computer science, we call these filters “Heuristics”.

Cognitive biases are hindering learning. To name a few, our brains subconsiously try to maintain the “status quo” and don’t like change. We’re also over reliant on tools and methods we’re familiar with. Both are clearly conserving energy for our brains. To overcome our biases and get ourselves into first principles thinking, I’m trying to do the following:

Consume High Quality Information

We have to recognize that YouTube or any kind of video content is usually more engaging to our minds, but conveys information only on a superficial level. It is also much slower than reading. When reading, a physical book allows our minds to create spatial memory. Books work becaues our minds and memories are particularly receptive to narrative. I almost exclusively read physical books or print what I consume from the web. Books especially contain specilized knowledge and have been reviewed usually before we select them. You don’t have to read a book cover to cover neither, skip what you dislike or find unengaging or unimportant. Reading should be fun. Any physical book I read, if you tell me about a section, I can almost immediately find the page it was written on. If longer time ago, I at least have a good hunch on where in the book it was located. Our brains are used to 3D space. We all likely create memories slightly differently, but I found this a strong indication for myself that any physical medium is of highest quality for memorizing information without even trying.

When dealing with conflicting source material, distill the lowest common denominator of knowledge and try to fill in the gaps from there. I found for example that most things that we call “science” have a degree of truth to it. In a completely different field, let’s say “security” in the technical sense, has a huge degree of fraudsters. We shouldn’t take any singular source at face value.

Organize what you take in

I realised eventually I didn’t get anything done to my own satisfaction or I didn’t remember topics well enough even though I spent substantial time on them during projects. Everything was fading out fast. Organize what you take in. I found it best to keep notes during the day, all day. I cannot and shouldn’t need to reflect on everything that is happening during the week, but I can easily find the one to three most important lessons and problems I dealt with. In order to process the imporatnt bits better, I started writing. At first, just for myself.

Consume information the right way

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Get involved.

When dealing with any topic or project. Understand the core of it, the motivation behind it or the concepts that make it whole. If you’d mind map it out in context of the broader world, make sure that you understand its main branches and how it connects to the bigger picture. Don’t directly go into the leafs. This goes towards the recommendation to view knowledge like a semantic tree.

When we learn something we cannot connect to the rest of the world, we will forget it easier. Just like a mind map, our brain has to connect information to something we know. When we’re a child, we bootstrap this process by mapping out the world with our senses, then attaching words to things.

Techniques

In order to connect the dots, we have to remember the fundamental concepts. Underlining and highlighting don’t exercise our brains output circuits. If you want to remember thoughts better, write them out by hand in your own words. Take notes while consuming information. Most of the value of notes is actually in the act of writing them down by hand.

Practice recall. When dealing with any topics, frequently pause and recall its key points. This is most useful for remembering.

Despite analogies I use here, our brain functions less like a computer but more like a muscle that needs to be exercised. The more often we use particular neurons and have them fired, the stronger their connections will get. Space out repetition over several days. I chunk multiple different topics over consecutive days before I revisit the first one again. Three days I found works well and allows me to deal with three different topics at the same time. Unlike Elon Musk, I rarely deal with completely different subject matter on the same day.

The Feynman technique is best for understanding. Teach what you learn, find the gaps and reread the material, then teach and simplify along the way. Teaching and simplifying information is only truly possible if we understand it.

For all of the above, writing blog posts comes in really handy. In other words, rewrite the material. In half an hour I completely revisit a topic and try to teach it to myself (and possibly strangers on the internet). Every now and then I rewrite articles and revisit topics. Improving and simplifying the material. I often don’t publish an article right away, some I publish never. The original drafts may be rather rough around the edges. Forcing myself to publish some posts makes me however put more effort into it.

Motivation

Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in. – Leonardo da Vinci

The best way to learn is to be enthused by the subject material and passionate about its implications. Dopamine is how we assess value of the goals we achieve.

Dopamine has the power to create motivation and has been shown to contribute to working memory by activating brain pathways in line with a task and blocking pathways that divert attention away from a task. Growing evidence suggests that serotonin enhances the speed of learning. How exactly do we best balance our drive and confidence is where I found the 85% rule.

The Eighty Five Percent Rule for optimal learning

A way to achieve continuous motivation is to employ the eighty five percent rule for optimal learning. Neuroplasticity is the brains ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience. When we’re making errors, parts of the brain circuitry becomes more suceptible to process information better on a second try. As it turns out, this is the core concept of motivation and learning, and consequently teaching as well. A paper from 2019 The Eighty Five Percent Rule for optimal learning showed that the optimal error rate for training is around 15.87% or, conversely, that the optimal training accuracy is about 85%.

Summary

I believe the key points are commonly found in literature on this subject. Personally I watch my thoughts and try to focus (no pun intended) on these points the most.

  1. question everything, be skeptical, think first principles
  2. find key issues and break them down into their parts
  3. understand concepts and their connections in our personal “tree of knowledge”
  4. (re)write and explain the subject
  5. revisit and simplify the topic after a few days or weeks

When dealing with a subject or problem my routine is therefore:

"why" -> key issues -> fundamental concepts -> explain -> simplify

I strongly believe optimizing the way we consume and process information organizes our minds, organizing our minds organizes our life.


Published on Sunday, Jan 30, 2022. Last modified on Sunday, Mar 13, 2022.
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