Learning To Read Again
Musings on memory, attention, and reading
I have had trouble reading and keeping my attention on things, even things I really want to read, for as long as I can remember. I think my ability to read was compromised by games and computers starting at the age of 15. Or maybe earlier.
This morning, I came across a series of articles on the practice of reading. Before today, I didn't consider reading to be a skill—something that someone, even me, could get better at.
Though I don't agree with or get into the "personal optimization" world often, and I don't agree with some of that article, I now believe reading is a skill that can be refined.
This year, I have set out to deepen my knowledge of a few key subjects that are useful to me. And so, more or less by accident, I've had to re-learn how to read, and read more effectively than ever before.
My current state of mind
I have been walking the edges of learning about plants and medicine for years. So, for the last month and a half, I have been studying basic Anatomy & Physiology, along with botanicals and internal medicine from a variety of sources and modalities. But this year, as part of my new approach, I have been using an app called Obsidian to write, collate, and organize my notes.
My main takeaway so far: creating a system for personal knowledge management (PKM) has been profound. Instead of notes spread across five apps, they are now in one. Everything from grocery lists (which I delete after use) & recipes, to notes on Podcasts, to my finished writing pieces now reside in Obsidian. They are all searchable, organized, and linked. Obsidian is like a personal wikipedia for what I am interested in, or find useful.
Through this process of getting organized, I have seen a dramatic shift in my ability to retain and understand information. Since the information I am taking in has a "place", I now know where to "look" for it. With a "process," taking in lots of new information is manageable—and even fun.
It makes sense that it works well to build a map of my own knowledge on a computer in a way that reflects my brains' own memory process. Though neuroprocessing is mysterious, memory and recall seem relatively simple: the more ideas linked to other ideas, the easier they are to retrieve, and the more durable they become.
It's the same with notes in Obsidian.
Learning to read again
My process looks something like this:
Decide what I want to read or study today.
Anatomy & Physiology from a Western perspective
Western Herbal Medicine
Crypto, DeFi, and Blockchain
Just read Dune and Killing Commendatore
Seek out those items via search, podcast, library, books in the house, or my own notes
Begin reading or listening, and take notes in Obsidian (unless just reading for fun), organizing/categorizing the notes every step of the way
If my attention fades, take a break (exercise, running, cooking, chatting)
Attention, they say, is the gateway to memory. Through this process, I have seen a shift in retention and attention. With a system to get all these interests in order, it seems that when I do sit down to gather new information, my mind retains a more orderly state. I am ready to take in information, and organize it in a way that makes sense.
What's the point?
If this sounds robotic and overly linear, you're probably right. The personal issue I am trying to solve, is that I am naturally hyper-curious and creative. The opposite of robotic and linear.
Being curious and creative are vitally important, and my work wouldn't be what it is without these aspects. In fact, I could write a lot about the importance of curiosity.
But to learn something well, there has to be a progressive framework so that knowledge can be absorped at a steady pace. Our hippocampus, which "stores" memories, actually gets saturated by experience throughout the day. It takes a night of good sleep to absorp what was learned. In this way, learning doesn't necessarily have to be linear, but it has to be regimented. The fact is, we can only really think one thought, or read one sentence at a time.
When my mind wanders away from what I'm reading, or disappears into a wilderness of association, I gain some things and lose others. I might lose the thread of what I wanted to know. I might forget half the things I read, or not even be aware that I'm reading anymore. Yet I might have an insight into an issue, or have a spontaneous thought that leads to something worth writing, thinking about, or doing.
Thus, being aware and in some degree of control over creative and linear thinking is what I am trying to get better at.
But it has to have meaning
Of the personal optimization culture I know of, very few who seem interested in optimizing themselves ever seem to have a purpose for the optimization.
I'm lucky in that through my wandering life, I have come to understand what really matters to me. I have spent over a decade pursuing things that interest me, throwing caution to the wind, and hunting down what makes sense in the moment. I think it's a common path, actually, but one most people don’t know they are on.
It's true: not all who wander are lost.
In the midst of my wandering, wayfaring lifestyle, I have turned up some themes of interest that will stick with me, probably forever. I've established what is valuable to me personally. Now, I feel I am entering a refining process. And this process will necessarily be more linear.
So in summary, that's why I'm learning to read again.
Ps. Got any book recommendations?