The Feynman Technique

Having become more singularly focused on streamlining my life towards goals, on both a micro and macro scale, and, in the process, reading more, I’ve been noticing a surprising lack of detailed retention of the material I read. Sure, I’m able to grasp and hold onto takeaways from reading books that constitute their main ideas, but to retain and recall specific details in the midst of conversation and discussion is more of my goal in reading most of these books. Of course, this doesn’t apply universally to the set of books I read, such as fiction books. But, seeing as these are currently in the minority of the books I’m spending time on, I definitely wish to invest time in improving retention of material.

That being said, I recently chanced upon this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-UvSKe8jW4, which contains some fascinating insights on remembering material. Of course, I’ve happened upon the Feynman Technique and spaced repetition in the past, having spent time looking into this in the past. But, it seems to be time now that I should actually engage more actively with the material beyond passively reading it.

As a brief overview, memory and retention typically follows a two-stage cycle: moving ideas into short-term memory, which typically occurs on first encountering/reading a piece of information, and subsequently integrating it into long-term memory. This transition largely depends on one factor: our engagement with the material. If we are constantly distracted and/or multitasking on other items, which go hand in hand, these ideas inevitably are not thought through as deeply. As a result, they never even get the chance to move into long-term memory.

From long-term memory, there is great chance that the ideas will slowly evaporate. In this case, the most critical factor for prevention thereof is interaction with the material, typically in the form of spaced repetition and integration with past frameworks. In many studies, it was found that students who learn a piece of information and subsequently revisit it in the form of attempting recall or reflecting on it separated by days at a time understand and can reflect on the material more so than those who attempt to simply absorb it in a single sitting.

This is where the Feynman Technique fits in. The Feynman Technique, appropriately named after the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman, involves breaking down an idea into a form that it can be communicated to others, ideally without them requiring any technical background on the subject matter. If you are not able to do so, clearly that indicates a gap in your knowledge or a handicap you are living on. For example, a poor instructor on the derivatives market may rely on citing it as being a “market on instruments whose values are driven by underlying assets, such as stocks.” If, on further prodding, such a hypothetical instructor cannot explain how this market varies in the case of a stock’s value varying, clearly this indicates a gap or overreliance on the instruction of others.

This makes it quite interesting to bake a book down to the constituent ideas and see whether, upon doing so, there were some details that eluded you on first reading. In any case, this blog will attempt to apply this technique for books I’m reading, for the primary purpose of improving my retention on the material and ideally serving as a way for others to ingest such ideas.

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