How to Understand Things and Remember Them Forever


RichardFeynman-PaineMansionWoods1984_copyrightTamikoThiel_bwHow can you come to understand something as quickly and as deeply as possible? Moreover, how can you ensure that you never forget what you have learned? The following study techniques explained by Ken Farrell are applicable to the learning of any college course. 

The more deeply you understand an idea, the easier it is to remember it. So, what is the fastest way to understand something? Trying to fill in the pieces of a jigsaw is much more difficult without the overall picture to guide you. Understanding will come faster if you have a general outline of the material you are going to learn. If you are sitting down to read a chapter, skim through the headings contained within it to determine the key concepts you have to learn before diving into the body of the text. The first time you encounter information will be the least efficient stage in coming to a deep understanding of it, so do not bother analysing every word in a text, and if you are watching or listening to a lecture online speed up the rate at which it is being played.

Once you have covered the material you are going to learn, now you can focus on deeply understanding it. Even if you can accurately state that the French phrase “J’ai donné” makes use of the “perfect tense,” or that a famous philosopher was a “transcendental idealist,” do you really know what these terms mean? Even if you can correctly apply a mathematical formula, do you know why it works? Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman argues that “you must not fool yourself; and you are the easiest person to fool.” Use the Feynman technique to test whether or not you really do understand something. Write the concept (literally anything) which you are trying to understand, or believe yourself to understand, at the top of a page. Very simply, explain this concept as if you were explaining it to someone who had never heard it before e.g. to a 5-year-old.

See if you can complete these five steps (Use the “ADEPT” acronym to help you remember them): Formulate an Analogy; draw a Diagram; give an Example; describe the idea in Plain English; and finally write the Technical Term. It will be obvious to yourself if you are struggling to explain a certain step in a maths equation, the effects of an enzyme, why an economic theory was formulated etc. When you determine exactly what you don’t understand, then return to your lecture notes or books. Once you have gathered the necessary information, repeat the Feynman technique. The benefits of this technique are mind-blowing. Every time you pick up a book it will be with the goal of understanding a specific piece of information. Your study periods will skyrocket in efficiency.

So you have proven to yourself that you understand an idea, but how do you remember it? Humans have massive visuospatial regions in the brain, so information is much easier to remember if you can visualise it to yourself. Imagine that you are studying psychology. You want to remember that the brain’s “limbic system” contains the “hippocampus” and the “amygdala.” Seeing as the most efficient way for you to remember this information is to somehow visualise it to yourself, how do you go about doing it? The crazier your visualisation is (make it outrageous!), the more memorable it will be – this is known as the Von Restorff effect. Similarly, the more senses you utilise in your visualisation, the higher the probability of recall – this is known as multiple-sense encoding. Imagine your good friend Amy (or TV personality Amy Huberman) riding on a giant hippo while doing the limbo. These ridiculous but simple associations are fantastic memory aids: Amy = amygdala, hippo = hippocampus, limbo = limbic system.

Hear Amy groan as she struggles to pass underneath the limbo bar, imagine what the texture of the hippo’s skin would feel like to touch, smell the hippo’s odour (or Amy’s, maybe she smells awful!) and cement the scene in your mind by adding in as many details as you can. Not only is this information now easy to remember, but you will find it hard to forget that the limbic system contains both the amygdala and the hippocampus. Remember, you are the director of an avant-garde movie with a limitless budget, and the movie is in your mind.

Visualising information is the ultimate cramming tool. For instance, you can visualise all of the points in an essay by constructing a wild sequence of characters and events in your mind. However, if you want to commit what you are studying to long-term memory you have to do one more thing: repeat or re-visualise this information in your brain over time. Free flashcard software “Anki” is an incredible study aid. Anki has wonderful algorithms for determining how often you should repeat information you are trying to commit to long-term memory based on how easy you find it to recall – try it out!

To recap: Attending lectures and reading books will allow you to cover the material you are going to learn, but these activities are surprisingly inefficient by themselves if you want to deeply understand information and commit it to memory. Use the Feynman technique to ensure every time you open a book it is with the goal of understanding a specific piece of information: whatever it is that you are finding difficult to explain using jargon-free language, simple examples, pictures and analogies. Once you have put in the time to deeply understand an idea by using the Feynman technique (note that the Feynman technique can also be used as a revision tool before exams), remember it by visualising the information to yourself. Make the visualisations as wild as you can, and finally, repeat these visualisations in your mind over time and you will never forget what you have learned.