How to Remember What You Read: 3 Steps to Digest Books and Improve Memory

Struggling to Remember What You Read? Here Are 3 Steps to Fix It. 

Many people assume that forgetting what they read results from stored information (i.e. memories) disappearing or being lost by the brain. In reality, the brain never forgets or loses stored information (barring specific cerebral injuries and neurodegenerative diseases). "Forgetting" is the result of not your brain not properly storing or retrieving information. 

More simply, you can't forget what you don't already know

In most cases, forgetting something you read is a result of sensory overload corrupting information processing. Think about the last time you were trying to read something with clamorous noise in the background and people bothering you; odds are, your brain was having a tough time storing much of the information you were reading. That's not your fault — the brain is unfortunately only capable of acquiring so much sensory information at any given moment. 

But enough of the technical science stuff — let's focus on the matter at hand: how to remember what you read. You can implement several strategies when reading to ensure your brain A) acquires and stores new information, B) consolidates the relevant information, and C) actively recalls that information when pertinent. 

Hopefully, you don't forget the information in this article. (See what we did there?)

Tips to Help You Remember What You Read

Remembering what you read requires two things: acquisition (you have to get what you read before you can forget it) and consolidation. Every word you read right now is a visual stimulus for your brain. Essentially, you're acquiring "information." 

Acquisition comprises encoding and storing new information. Consolidation is the stabilization and processing of that information as a long-term memory. In today's world, most of us tend to divide our attention, like driving the car while listening to the radio or talking on the phone. But when we concentrate exclusively on material we are trying to learn, the chances of completing the consolidation process quickly and accurately are significantly increased. 

how to remember what you read

While acquisition is a crucial first step to remember what you read, speed-reading or "leafing" through a book is mainly engaging your short-term memory, which has a finite storage capacity. Short-term memory relies on auditory and visual cues but not understanding the deeper meaning of information. For example, showing someone multiple sequences of letters/numbers and then testing their recall. 

Research suggests short-term memory can only store between four to six distinct pieces of information at a time [1]. That finite limitation is what makes cramming for exams an exercise in futility. 

On the other hand, long-term memory has immense (even infinite) capacity and purposefully encodes information (i.e. you actually learn what it means and how it relates to prior knowledge). You may be able to recall a close friend's number for decades because A) you call them frequently (a form of memory reconsolidation), and B) it's relevant information to have. 

Hence, after your first read-through of a book, article, or other written content, you might not be able to retrieve critical pieces of information — and that's totally normal. 

Note: The three steps below are inspired by this video from Tim Ferriss.

Step 1: Make a List of Relevant and Interesting Concepts while Reading

Short-term memory is not very useful when the goal is to comprehend and understand what you read. On the contrary, long-term memory typically lasts decades, if not an entire lifespan, especially when you actively retrieve the information intermittently over time (i.e. reconsolidate). 

Rather than memorizing every chapter in a book, write out a list of important and interesting concepts that you want to reread on the inside cover or a blank page. Make a note of where those concepts are discussed in the book. This ties into the memorization tactic of "information clustering" that categorizes new ideas into related hierarchies.

There are limits to how much we can recall after reading something for the first time, but these limits expand when we meaningfully organize the material. As a real-world example: when someone gives you their phone number, chances are you cluster the ten digits into groups of three or four sequential digits rather than trying to memorize the entire sequence as a whole. Use the same strategy when making notes of which sections to reread.

Step 2: Reread to Consolidate and Understand

After finishing your first read-through, refer to your list made in step 1 and reread those sections of the book. Doing so will begin to consolidate relevant information into your long-term memory. 

On your list, draw a circle around the concepts you've reread and find intriguing. If you don't feel they are useful anymore, cross them out. 

After consolidation, information needs to be actively retrieved as a final "solidifying" step that ensures your long-term memory stays sharp. So, wait a day or two and come back to the material. Reread sections of the book discussing the concepts you circled. 

Once you've done that, draw a box around the circled concepts on your list. After reviewing them, try to explain the concepts to yourself or your friend out loud. Comprehending newly acquired information is necessary to consolidate it, and teaching is the best way to learn. 

Moreover, correlating new information to what you already know strengthens memory consolidation. For example, memorizing the name and location of each muscle in the body seems like a daunting task at first; however, as you learn the anatomical location of major muscle groups and their associated Latin roots, it's easier to memorize the minor muscle groups. 

Memory reconsolidation

Step 3: Reconsolidate What You Learned

Naturally, repetition is essential for understanding. Wait a few days, maybe even a week or two, and reread parts of the book that discuss concepts you drew a circle and box around in steps 1 and 2

Doing so will help reconsolidate what you committed to long-term memory and enhance your understanding of relevant material. At this point, you should have a firm grasp of what you read. 

Lastly, use your senses as a peg to hang the information you want to recall down the road. Perhaps something you learned associates naturally with a distinct smell or sound you have in mind. Using that sensory "cue" can strengthen the long-term memory retention of what you read. 

Eliminate Distractions When Reading

Since distractions make it hard to focus, it's best to read when you aren't surrounded by obtrusive clutter, loud noises, and other attention-grabbing sources. Here is some practical guidance to eliminate distractions while you read:

  • Before you start reading, make yourself comfortable (e.g. proper lighting, pencil/pen nearby, comfortable chair, etc.). 
  • Remove visual obstacles, such as desk clutter that may detract from your focus and concentration.
  • Use noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to block out extraneous sound. 
  • Silence your phone and leave it somewhere out of reach. 
  • Record stray thoughts on a notepad, but don't act upon them. Call this your pad of randomness (or whatever you prefer); use it to get random thoughts off your mind and refer to it later when you're not reading.

How to Improve Your Memory While Reading

With an estimated 80+ billion neurons and ten times as many glial cells, the human brain is the most intricate, powerful, and (still) misunderstood organ [2]. Despite accounting for just a fraction of the body's mass, it utilizes roughly 20% of a person's energy budget [3]. 

The brain contains various structures that modulate memory and learning, notably the amygdala, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and cerebellum. Each of these is rich in neurons that express an amalgamation of neurotransmitter receptors. 

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages throughout the nervous system and regions of the brain. Acetylcholine is often cited as the primary neurotransmitter involved in learning, memory, and cognitive function [4]. In fact, loss of acetylcholine transmission is a cause of Alzheimer's disease and dementia [5].

So, what does this have to do with remembering what you read? Well, various nootropics have been shown to bolster acetylcholine transmission in the hippocampus, notably CDP-choline (citicoline) and caffeine [67]. 

transparent labs nootropic

Remember What You Read: Key Takeaways

You're no anomaly if you often forget the things you read. If anything, that's quite normal. Thankfully, remembering what you read is much easier when you implement the tips and strategies outlined above. 

Since you're more likely to forget information that you don't understand, now is the perfect time to consolidate what you acquired in this article. Reread the tips and strategies above. Extract the main points from each section and condense them into relevant notes; keep them handy the next time you pick up a book. 

Related: SMART Goal Setting Made Easy

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