|Participants in a new study demonstrated higher levels of brain activity when reading the original passages from select Shakespeare plays as compared to the same text rewritten in simpler language.|
I admit it: I have trouble retaining the details of books. Most texts eventually get relegated to a dark corner of my mind, slowly accumulating dust until they're barely visible at all. The only thing I can remember about DeLillo's White Noise
is that the narrator's wife is named Babette, The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen brings to mind sharp angles and little else, and the specifics of Conrad's Heart of Darkness
have grown as murky as the book's title.
The process is gradual but often follows a pattern. First plot particulars float away. Next the theme grows fuzzy. Then characters and images start to vanish until all that's left is one or two lone figures standing in a cornfield or the high desert or a sprawling suburban home. Occasionally the entire book recedes into the ether.
As part of my New Year's resolution, I've decided to take some steps to boost my recall. While I don't expect to be able to recite Crime and Punishment, I hope that I'll come to recollect a little more about the books I read. If you experience the same forgetfulness, you might want to consider trying out some of these strategies as well.
Take notes. When you read, your mind processes the text at varying levels, from shallow to deep. Deep processing involves analyzing something in a more meaningful way (e.g., reflecting, creating associations, visualizing). Interacting with a book as you read can help you achieve that higher level of thinking so you're more likely to store and retrieve the material. So go to town: highlight, underline, draw diagrams, ask questions in the margins, add Post-it notes. Using an ereader? Most devices have the functionality to let you highlight, take notes, add bookmarks, and so on.
If you'd rather not mark up the text, use a notebook to jot down quotes, capture ideas inspired by the work, even summarize the plot if you're so inclined. Writing things down by hand has been proven to engage the brain in learning, and notes act as excellent aids for reflection. Returning to important passages after taking in an entire work can help enrich your overall experience with the book and make it easier to formulate key takeaways.
Whatever form of note-taking you employ, don't let it become a chore. Focus your efforts on what inspires you and what you'd like to get out of the book.
Give yourself a break. In a 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, participants were presented with two stories: one was followed by a 10-minute "wakeful rest"; the second was followed by a game. Participants demonstrated a significant improvement in recall, on both a short- and long-term basis, when they were given a brief rest following the reading. The takeaway: Next time you put down your book, avoid jumping to a new task. By giving yourself some time to let the information sink in, you'll be more likely to retain it.
Consider the medium. While research is limited on the topic, there is some evidence that people are more likely to remember information when reading old-fashioned books as opposed to ebooks or text on a computer screen. Reading a physical book tends to involve a variety of unique visual and spatial cues — the artwork, the typography, the pages, how the sections are broken up, the size and heft of the book, where a passage falls within the framework — all of which augment the act of reading and may ultimately help trigger memories associated with that book. Ebooks, on the other hand, tend to strip away many of those unique characteristics, so that the reading experience becomes markedly similar from one book to the next. While I'm not suggesting that you throw out your ereader, it might be a good idea to be selective about what you read on paper and what you read on a device.
Challenge yourself. In a new study, as reported by the Telegraph, researchers at Liverpool University found that reading difficult works, such as prose and poetry by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot, sets off more activity in the brain than reading more straightforward language. The brain's right hemisphere, an area associated with "autobiographical memory" and self-reflection, tends to become particularly active while processing poetry. When a text demands higher levels of concentration, readers are more likely to reflect on what they've read and reconsider events in their own life in light of the new information. This process of incorporation helps anchor the concepts in the brain in a more meaningful way.
Seek out other perspectives. Get into the practice of discussing what you read with a friend, reading group, or participants in an online forum. Hearing other people's interpretations of a book and discussing ideas will give you a broader perspective on the work and prompt you to perform the deep, intensive thinking needed for memory formation. Reading critical thought can produce the same effects — even something as simple as a reader review can be enlightening. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the opinions, your reactions will help reinforce your impression of the book.
Write a review. Create a written record — be it on social media, on a bookseller's website, on a blog, or even in your own journal — of your take on the book. By summarizing the text in your own words and sharing your reaction, you're engaging in a time-tested learning method. Detailing how you feel about a book can better organize your thoughts, reveal how you're going to store the information, and help build a model of the book in your memory. It's a great way to examine a book's intricacies and then pull back to consider the larger picture: How has the work affected you? What will you take away from it? You decide what details are worth hanging onto.
Create your own Top 5 list. Every year at Powell's, staff members put together their top five favorite books of the year to celebrate recently published works. Performing this exercise forces employees to look back on everything they read over the year now that they have some perspective on the works. You may find it useful to get into the habit of formulating your own "best of" list on a regular basis. By dusting off each book (figuratively or literally), reexamining its contents, and weighing its impact on you, you will help cement the book's memory in your mind and come away with a clearer idea of what works you may want to return to someday. And we all know that when it comes to memory, repetition is key.