What are the best ways of absorbing, and maintaining, knowledge?

by Arkanj3l 2 min read3rd Nov 201142 comments


Recently, I've collapsed (ascended?) down/up a meta-learning death spiral -- doing a lot less of reading actual informative content, than figuring out how to manage and acquire such content (as well as completely ignoring the antidote). In other words, I've been taking notes on taking notes. And now, I'm looking for your notes on notes for notes.

What kind of scientific knowledge, techniques, and resources do we have right now in the way of information management? How would one efficiently extract useful information possible out of a single pass of the source? The second pass? 

The answers may depend on the media, and the media might not be readily apparent. Example: Edward Boyden, Assistant Professor at the MIT Media Lab, recommends recording in a notebook every conversation you ever have with other people. And how do you prepare yourself for the serendipity of a walk downtown? I know I'm more likely to regret not having a notebook on hand than spending the time to bring one along.

I'll conglomerate what I remember seeing on the N-Back Mailing List and in general: I sincerely apologize for my lack of citation.


  • I'm on the fence about Shorthand as a note-taking technique, given the learning overhead, but I'm sure that the same has been said for touch-typing. It would involve a second stage of processing if you can't read as well as you write, but given the way I have taken notes (... "non-linearly"...), that stage would have to come about anyway. The act of translation may serve as a way of laying connective groundwork down.
  • Livescribe Pens are nifty for those who write slowly, but they need to be combined with a written technique to be of any use (otherwise you're just recording the talk, and would have to live through it twice without any obvious annotation and tagging).
  • Cornell Notes or taking notes in a hierarchy may have been the method you were taught in high school; it was in mine. The issue I have had with this format is that I found it hard to generate a structure while listening to the teacher at the same time.
  • Mind-Mapping.
  • Color-coding annotations of text has been remarked to be useful on Science Daily.
  • Speed Reading Techniques  or removing sub-vocalization would seem to have benefits.
  • Once upon a time someone recommended me the book, "How to Read a Book". Nothing ground-breaking -- outline the author's intent, the structure of his argument, and its content. Then criticize. In short, book reverse-engineering.
  • Spaced Repetition. I'm currently flipping through the thoughts of  Peter Wozniak, who seems to have made it his dire mission to make every kind of media possible Spaced Repetition'able. I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts on incremental reading or  video; also, how to possibly translate the benefits of SRS to dead-tree media, which seems a bit cumbersome.

(I've also heard a handful of individuals claim that SRS has helped them "internalize" certain behaviors, or maybe patterns of thought, like Non-Violent Comunication or Bayes Theorem... any takers on this?)

  • Wikis, which seem like a good format for creating social accountability, and filing notes that aren't note-carded.  But what kind of information should that be?
  • Emotionally charged stimuli, especially stressful, tends to be remembered to greater accuracy.
  • Category Brainstorming.Take your bits of knowledge, and organize them into as many different groups as you can think of, mixing and matching if need be. Sources for such provocations could include Edward De Bono's "Lateral Thinking" and Seth Godin's "Free Prize Inside", or George Polya's "How to Solve It". I'm a bit ambivalent of deliberately memorizing such provocations -- does it get in the way of seeing originally? -- but once again, it could lay down the connective framework needed for good recall.
  • Mnemonics to encode related information seems useful.
Any other information gathering, optimising and retaining techniques worthy of mention?