Improving Enjoyment and Retention Reading Technical Literature

by sentientplatypus 2 min read7th Aug 201339 comments


A little background on myself first – I am currently studying to become involved with aging rejuvenation therapies like SENS.

This requires learning quite a lot about molecular biology. Which is fine, because I find cell biology quite interesting. The problem is naturally that textbooks and technical literature on the subject often make very little effort to be interesting.

Many of the books I’ve been reading lately are largely lacking in energy. And I was finding my mind was often drifting away from what I was reading and generally just not enjoying the process. Which was bad, because I need to spend a lot of time doing it.

I asked myself, do I hate learning about molecular biology and engineering? Should I shift my goals to something I’m more interested in? But, I didn’t seem to actually be disinterested in the subject. I loved talking about what I’d learned. And I frequently thought about it with interest. I was passionate about the goal of defeating aging. So the problem then was probably the books themselves.

So then the question was: how do I make boringly written biology books fun to read? Find better books? Well unfortunately, based on my research, the only biology books written to be interesting tend to be focusing on on other sects of the science; most good molecular biology books are boring. If anyone knows of any books on the subject that are unusually well written, please let me know. But I couldn't find any.

So I looked for the bright spots: where reading was fun. What makes reading a novel fun? I asked. Interesting story, character interactions, suspense, humor, dramatic scenes.

None of these are incorporated in molecular biology books and publications that I can find. But the answer was still there: visualize what I read. But not just visualize like the little diagrams of cellular interactions books usually give you – like stupid, over-the-top, Hollywood-status visualization. I had to make it dramatic. I had to mentally reconstruct the biology of a cell in massive, fast, and explosive terms.

Suddenly, I was reading about genetic engineering with a grin on my face; because I was visualizing a cackling mad scientist taking a jackhammer to a gene sequence.

Which, yes, is totally not what is happening in any way, but I remember what I read better because the unusual things are what stick in human memories; just reading a passage normally makes it easy to forget what I’ve read. And the weirdness seems to make the parts around it more memorable, so I’m remembering what I read a lot better, I find.

Most of the time I try not to make it that absurd. But if I imagine spliceosomes blasting introns out of RNA molecules or cell lysis as an overstated explosion of a cell I simply remember the concepts better. It isn’t the most accurate view of reality, but I'm aware of that when I think back on it, and it’s better than not remembering it.

But this strategy eventually gets a little tiring to maintain alone, I find, so I had to add in a second technique. Every time my mind wants to start wandering I stop, close my eyes, and refocus on what I'm reading, I recite ‘Tsuyoku Naritai’, and why I want to become stronger, what I have to protect. And then I continue. I find this little technique to make a massive difference. It reorients me, so that I continue to concentrate and it briefly reminds of what I'm pursuing and why. And if that doesn't give you the motivation to continue you should probably find a different project.

A third useful strategy has been planning how long I will read instead of how much and then break up the time spent reading over the course of a day. First, it encourages reading to understand fully rather than reading to finish fifty pages. Also, I find it tends to get me to read more pages, despite defeating the motivation to go fast. Time goals just take the pressure of failing to complete work off a bit, I find. As an example, I read about a 160 pages of a molecular biology textbook today using an input-based time goal. I used to plan for fifty pages of a similar type of material on a regular day and sometimes not finish even that. To be fair, I'm spending more time reading now, but I think using input based goals instead of output goals had a part in that that.

The other results I've gotten from these strategies have been pretty good as well. I’ve been trying to quantify my happiness lately, on a scale where every full number corresponds to doubled enjoyment, and now that I’m doing these three things my average happiness while reading technical passages has gone up by nearly a full point. My enjoyment of technical literature has gone from somewhere around 'yeah, it’s ok, I guess' to 'happy' while reading. And because it’s just more fun to do, it helps me to spend more time reading about molecular biology, more time working towards an unaging future.

Anyway, I thought I’d post the ideas in case they helped anyone else out (although the first might not work as well for things that are harder to visualize). I’m also interested if anyone does anything similar (or different) to increase their enjoyment of similar texts.