We forget what we read, and that is OK

We tend to forget most of what we’ve read. Of course, we can do something about that:

Taking notes, skimming, understanding the structure of a book/argument, asking questions before diving into a chapter, summarizing the argument afterwards, talking to friends about what we’ve read (for more, I recommend the book ‘How to Read a Book’ – not a joke – by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren).

These are all ways to deal with Ebbinghaus’ ‘forgetting curve’: we forget information over time but can retain more of it, if we review it at key moments of the curve, what is also referred to as ‘spaced learning’.

There is another way to approach forgetting what we’ve read: acknowledging that it is normal, perhaps even necessary.

Neuroscientists are studying forgetting not as the opposite or failure of remembering but as a separate and essential component of our memory system. We forget so much, because so much of what we encounter is irrelevant to decision-making. Our memory is designed for intelligent decision-making, not storing as much information as possible. Our brains have mechanisms to help us forget.

So, we can do something about forgetting, all the while knowing that our brain does us a favour forgetting much of what we register.

But also: what if reading is not solely about recalling information in the first place?

If reading fiction for the joy of it makes us happier, then that’s a goal in itself. And if happiness itself is not a worthy goal, we can at least appreciate the many positive effects of being happy.

What is more, reading (fiction or non-fiction) enriches our world by giving us a chance to see the world through new perspectives. We feel what it’s like to be a tragic hero, we get a glimpse of a scientist’s madness or get a chance to float in Earth’s orbit. We do not need to recall anything particular about these experiences for them to be meaningful and add to our lives.

Finally, being exposed to novel ideas, contemplating whether we agree, seeing how an argument is developed, how it could be expanded, all adds to our own critical thinking and problem-solving muscles. We are going to the gym, whether we recall what exercises we did or not.

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