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How to Absorb Information Better & Get More Done


Instead of absorbing information indiscriminately, therefore, the brain employs a powerful filter in order to determine what will and won’t be stored. Improving one’s memory involves first of all understanding how this filter works so that we can use it to our own advantage. The human memory filter usually operates on a sub-conscious level, but its operation is tied to two key facets of learning: emotion and experience.

Emotion as a Key to Absorbing Information

The early history of the human race influenced the way in which our brains developed their capacity to retain information; things that needed to be learned thoroughly were often linked to moments of high emotion. A hunter in imminent danger of death because he had made a mistake in stalking would either survive or perish. Those who survived would probably perish on a future hunt unless they could remember their mistake well enough to avoid it in the future. What was the difference between those hunters who could remember and those who could not? Some of them had brains that became more active at times of high stress.

The course of evolution favoured the survival of those people whose memory filters admitted information that was linked to extreme emotions such as fear and regret. Recent research has shown that strong positive emotions such as exhilaration also cause our memory filters to switch on. Things that we learn at such times are more likely to be retained.

The implications of this for learning are clear and in order to absorb information more thoroughly, the learner should attempt to link it to emotion. Doubtless we are rarely in true danger in a classroom situation, but a skilled teacher can attempt to evoke emotion by linking learned material to anecdotes and visuals that will bring forth an emotional impulse. Learners who understand brain theory can assist in this by being open to the prospect of emotion being used as a tool in the classroom.

Experience as a Key to Absorbing Information

A second key way in which the brain filters information into memory involves the individual’s past experiences.  Schema theory describes the brain as a filing cabinet filled with organized drawers and folders that have been created over time out of our experiences. A concert pianist, for example, has many different folders about music, perhaps organised by genre and composer. Upon hearing a new piece of music, this individual already has a structure in place in which to sort the added information. This assists in learning the information thoroughly and being able to recall it later.

In contrast, someone with little experience of music may simply file data about the new piece in a folder devoted to “piano music,” or he may not store any information about it at all. This lack of learning takes place because the brain’s filter rejects the information due to the absence of any structure into which it seems to fit.

Schema theory has strong implications for improving human memory. First of all, the more an individual knows about a subject, the easier it becomes to learn even more. This is because new learning always tries to attach itself to previously learned material. Therefore, learners who become frustrated in the early phases of mastering a new subject should persevere. As the brain builds up folders of information and begins to sort them into the appropriate drawers, recall and retention of the material will improve.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, learning even new material can become easier by making certain to consciously activate the correct folders in advance. A teacher presenting a lesson on World War I, for example, should announce the lesson objective in advance and conduct a brief discussion about what students already know regarding the era. This will help the students’ brains to “open up” the correct folder in their mind, which will result in more information being sorted there, since the brain will know where to put it.

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3. Use the table of contents and subheadings

It often surprises people, often college-aged kids, when they hear that most scholars often don’t read books in their entirety. Instead, what they usually do (and I’ve been told this by a professor) is check out the table of contents, and read the chapters that interest them or are relevant to their work. Or, they’ll skim through the book and stop when they see a subheading that interests them. This makes reading less of a chore, since you’re only reading what you want to read. You’ll still get the gist of the author’s overall point as well, since they’ll usually restate it in some way in every section of the book. This is a great technique to prevent “eyes moving down the page but not processing a single world” syndrome.

2. Absorb

Scanning information is only the beginning. Anyone can quickly glance over an article or post. That’s the easy part. It’s a bit trickier to absorb that information as you’re scanning, without having to go back over it half a dozen times before any of it sticks.

Image by Jean-Louis Zimmermann

Take Notes!

Taking notes as you’re scanning can be a great way to absorb what you’re reading.

Write down the main points as you read them. You can do this stream-of-consciousness style, with little formatting or structure, or you can create an outline. Choose whichever one works better for you.

Outlines can be particularly helpful if what you’re reading is already well-structured with headings and subheadings. If not, you may just want to jot everything down in one long list.

Whether you write down verbatim what is contained in the article or rephrase it as you take notes depends on your own learning style. Some people have to rephrase in order to retain information, while for others just the act of writing it down will allow them to remember it.

As mentioned above, if you’re working with a longer piece, coming up with an outline or a list of points you want to take notes on prior to actually starting can streamline and speed up your efforts. A table of contents is a great place to get the necessary information to do so prior to actually delving into the text at hand.

Mind Map

If you’re not keen on taking notes, consider creating a mind-map showing the relationships between the information you’re reading.

Mind maps can be more creative than notes and can further help reinforce what you’re reading and allow you to retain that information for longer.


Reflect on what you’re reading as you read it. This can be done within your notetaking or separately.

One of the easiest ways to reflect on something is to ask yourself questions about it. Then, go find the answers to those questions in a similar fashion.

Question What You’re Reading

As you’re reading something, come up with questions related to the text. Answer them as you go along.

The purpose of this is to engage your mind as you’re reading. It also helps to ensure you don’t skip over important bits as you’re scanning.

If you can’t answer the questions you’ve come up with, you may need to either scan through the text again or look a little deeper into the subject you’re studying.

Short Sessions

Your brain can only absorb so much information at one time. And that time gets shorter as you get older.

So instead of sitting down for a five-hour cram session, spend 20 or 30 minutes at a time, with 20 or 30 minute breaks in between. This gives your brain time to absorb, process, and store the information you’re scanning so you retain it better.

6. Write reader responses

Bear with me before you start groaning. While most people hate writing, it really is one of the easiest ways to retain lots of information in a short amount of time. One of the things I used to do to remember the key points of a large book was to condense it into a single paged double-spaced reader response. In roughly two paragraphs, I’d outline the author’s argument, a few of their interesting pieces of evidence, and what I had a problem with/ what I thought they could have done better.

Like highlighting, writing reader responses provides you with a tool to quickly review the more impactful aspects of a book. When reviewing for a test, it’s much easier to pull up your reader responses than to fervently flip through all your books again.

Note-taking from books

We’ve now seen how to take notes in lectures more effectively. A rather different kettle of fish is taking notes from books. On the one hand, it’s easier because you’re not under such time pressure, and you don’t have to keep up with what somebody is saying. On the other hand, however, the temptation is simply to copy down entire passages of books. Why bother note-taking from books? Because, as with lectures and classes, taking notes helps you engage more with what you’re learning, and the act of writing down the salient points means you’re more likely to remember them. Here’s how to do it effectively.

Use bullet points

A good way of making your notes more succinct, and of ensuring you summarise the salient points rather than copying everything out, is to use bullet points. If possible, try to keep each bullet point to no more than a single line; this forces you to be concise, as well as making each nugget of information easier to remember.

Have an end-goal in mind

The chances are that you’re reading a book with a view to using its material in an essay. If this is the case, ensure that you keep your essay question in mind and only note down points that will be useful in the essay. This means you don’t waste time writing down things that won’t actually be useful in constructing your argument.

Organise your notes

Using your bullet points, add a heading to each section so that you know what each segment of your notes is about. One way of organising your notes is that the heading outlines the premise of an argument, while the bullet points note each of the supporting arguments.

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