Want to hear something harsh but true?
You’ve probably wasted a huge amount of time in your life trying to educate yourself with terrible technique.
So have I, and being an avid student of the nature of things, I decided to educate myself on the nature of learning, in effect to learn how to learn.
I wanted to absorb new skills in a matter of weeks, not months or years. I wanted to build an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subjects I cared about. After I learned how, I even considered neatly filing away all my important phone numbers in my skull.
Memory is about technique, more than natural ability. People who seemed to have excellent memories from birth seem to simply have a better method of recall than the rest of us. Everyone is a mixture of nature and nurture, of course, but the human brain is very ‘plastic’, meaning mouldable and improvable, and if you’re still alive, there’s space for you to grow.
There are three types of method that will help you along your way to genius:
1) Bio-hacking. Improve your physical neurons with optimised diet, sleep routines, and supplements, and use neuro-feedback technology to improve your working memory, raise your IQ, and give you more fundamental potential across the board. Technology is improving in this area at an exciting rate, see the Melon and Muse headbands.
2) Study-enhancement. Understanding the nature of the mind allows us to study FAR more effectively. The mind is designed to remember certain things, and forget others. By giving our knowledge more associations, more meaning, and by reviewing it at optimal intervals, we can create faster natural internalisation of the topic or skill-set we’re learning.
3) Memory techniques. Memory palaces and the ‘peg’ systems are two examples. Think of these as extra software programs to put on top of the foundation of your physical brain and your mental habits. They’re a lot of fun, and easy to get “carried away with”. I’ll talk below about how to prevent that.
Put all these together, and you could become a memory champion!
Ever Fantasised about Being Sherlock Holmes?
After Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr re-vamped the world’s most charming sociopath, who hasn’t wished they could have the endless mental abilities of Sherlock Holmes, the famous fictional creation of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sherlock may be fictional, but he was inspired by a real person. Arthur not only solved crimes in real life using similar techniques as Mr Holmes, [reference], but in fact he based his favourite character on an incredibly perceptive doctor that he learned from as med-student. Skip to 2:25 in the video below:
It’s not just an imaginary genius from birth that Arthur described in his books, it was a character that, in his mind, was the perfect example of applying the scientific method to thinking.
Seeing that the author successfully applied it himself to give an innocent man his freedom, I have to wonder, did he create this archetype of the perfect detective in his books, because he lacked such an example in real life? Did he write from the perspective of the humble ‘everyman’ Watson, so that he could be mentored by Mr Holmes, his perfect teacher, whenever he wrote a new story?
Intelligent people know to use a combination of fanciful imagination, and stern rationality, to facilitate their thinking. Einstein famously figured out relativity by indulging in an almost hallucinogenic daydream one day in a park, and Newton realised the nature of gravity while taking a leisurely stroll. Both men spent many hundreds of ours engrossed in logical study before then, of course.
Before you dive into the many brain hacks you can apply to boost your mental abilities, first understand that a really healthy mind is not overly specialised. Both creative and cranial pursuits are often found together in the same genius. The basis of intelligence is making meaningful associations, which is also the basis of memory.
Learning Rule #1: The more associations, the better.
“If you understand something in only one way, then you don’t really understand it at all. The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we’ve connected it to all other things we know.” – Mavin Minsky
Blogger Scott H Young catalysed this concept for me, and I recommend his martial to anyone wanting to level up their brain, since he lays out a fundamental, holistic philosophy of learning that will support everything else you try to do.
From his book Learn More, Study Less, he summarises this point:
“Learning doesn’t fit into boxes. Learning fits into webs.”
– Scott H Young
People who have more expansive life experiences tend to have more expansive minds, too. It’s the presence of a massive network of associations from all the places they’ve been, people they’ve met, and creative problems they’ve made their brains sweat over.
A mathematician who plays the cello might have an easier time remembering formulas, particularly if he starts noticing the logical formulas that exist in music.
If you listen to a podcast while walking along a familiar street route, you’ll notice that as you think back to different things said in the episode, you’ll be almost irresistibly transported back to the point in the route that you were when you heard it. Your brain enjoys the sensual stimulation of wind on face, noise of traffic, people chatting, and associations will be made with the subject material that you won’t even need to try to create.
Learning Rule #2: The more sensual the associations, the better.
This idea of multiple types of intelligence all feeding into the power of the whole system was introduced to me by Tony Buzan, through his “Genius Formula” audios with chess champion Raymond Keene.
And yet, even though breadth of knowledge and experience will make your mind sharper and more voluminous in general, intense focus on a particular goal is crucial. Joshua Foer didn’t gain a memory champion’s abilities to memorise a deck of cards in under a minute, or 99 names and faces in 15 minutes, if he didn’t have the championships to aim for.
Learning Rule #3: Have a crystal-clear goal for your learning.
This rule was illustrated very well by Josh Kaufman in his book, The First 20 Hours.
The 80/20 of Meta-Learning
Put the goal of “whole-system excellence” in your “someday” list, and in the meantime, let’s focus on what’ll get you the most bang for buck.
Step 1: Choose just one subject to start with. Don’t make it a difficult one, I don’t want you putting it off! You must start with the goal. How much do you want to learn? When will you know when you’re done? What specifically will be your finishing line? Sometimes it’s hard to know before you’ve started on a subject where you’ll be happy ending it. If that’s the case, aim low. You can always learn more, later, after you’ve hit your goal and felt the warm feeling of a win, which doesn’t change much with scale.
Step 2: Download Anki, the open-source spaced repetition software.
Step 3: Read this primer on spaced repetition, why it’s a revelation, and how Derik Siver used it to take his knowledge of programming to a new level.
Extra credit: Quantified Self on Spaced Repetition.
Step 4: Read this guest post on Benny Lewis’s excellent site Fluent in Three Months about using a memory palace for learning foreign vocabulary. You can use the same technique for anything, and ALL the memory champions use it… take a hint from that!
Step 5: On your Anki install, create ONLY ONE DECK, until you’ve hit whatever goal you’ve set yourself in this learning sprint you’re about to charge into. This is critical advice to myself and anyone like me, who tends to get over-excited when they find a new tool for increasing awesomeness in life. I didn’t follow this guidance when I first used Anki, and as a result, it lingered stagnant on my computer for more than a year, once the initial excitement wore off and the bloated mess it had created began to overwhelm me.
If you really feel like adding more decks, or learning more techniques, but you have enough to play with, STOP!
Don’t add any more. That’s perfect! Being excited to do more is a crucial feeling to keep. As soon as you go so far that you no longer feel that, guess what will set in? That’s right, a tiny little poisonous seed of apathy. So stick with ‘just enough’, and enjoy the immediate results.
When you’re ready to go further:
Click here for a deconstruction of learning by the Godfather of lifestyle design, Tim Ferriss.
And click here for My Ultimate Resource List for Meta-Learners (PDF), which includes the best books, conference talks, articles, and blogs that I’ve ever found on rapid skill acquision, memory hacks and techniques, and biohacking for brain-power.