Do you feel jealous of others who seem to remember everything they read?
No one remembers “everything.”
In fact, brilliant readers know how to isolate the most important parts of books. That way, they can spend their time remembering the ideas, facts and other details that matter.
Once they’ve identified only the most important information, they use the best memory science to effortlessly usher it into long term memory.
The best part?
The brain will automatically remember more of the incidental information you don’t memorize when you read this way.
Anyone can do it, and in this post, I’ll show you how.
I Can’t Remember What I Read… Here’s Why
There are quite a few factors that explain the difficulties with remembering what you read.
For example, many people suffer from low vocabulary, ruining their comprehension.
Other people don’t set reading goals, nor do they set specific amounts of time aside for USSR:
Then there are those who fall into the pseudoscientific traps of “speed reading.” They waste time trying to stop subvocalization. They are misled about concepts like skimming and scanning. They remain slow readers because no one told them the truth about what it really takes to read faster.
All that’s about to change for you.
How To Remember What You Read: 8 Proven Steps
I’m about to share with you a number of steps that will help you remember what you read.
There’s no perfect order, and you don’t have to incorporate them all at once.
However, each one is important. And you don’t have to take my word for it.
For one thing, I’d got a PhD. And that means I had to read a lot of books very well.
But I’m also a scientific thinker. I encourage you to be skeptical and follow-up everything beyond the research I’ve included.
And that’s a very important tip for you: Follow-up with your own research.
This always helps you remember more because research has “re” in it for a reason.
It gives you repetition of the core concepts you’re learning while expanding the context.
If there’s one principle I want you to remember it’s this:
Content may be king. But context is god.
And the more you expand the context of your reading, the more you’ll remember.
With that governing concept in mind, let’s get started with the steps that will help you remember and understand what you read.
One: Know Your What And Why
Many people forget what they’re reading because they’re far too passive.
But as Roger Seip points out in Train Your Brain For Success, by knowing what kind of material you’re reading, you can switch “gears.”
The two questions you can start with every time you’re reading are:
- What am I reading?
- Why am I reading it?
This might sound simplistic to you, but how often do you ask such questions intentionally?
When you know what you’re reading and why, you can think about the “gear” you need to be in.
For example, when I’m reading a scientific research article, I know that I need to hyper-focus my mind to deal with difficult terminology, graphs, numbers and counterintuitive findings.
I also sometimes need to perform a quick “attitude check,” because many scientists write poorly, or at least in ways that aren’t particularly engaging.
But with the right attitude in place, I can brace myself for reading certain parts two or three times if necessary. And since my mission is to help others understand memory science, keeping that “why” in mind helps attune my focused attention to the task.
Another way to think about the “gears” concept comes from Mortimer Adler. He talks about:
- Elementary reading
- Inspectional reading (much like priming, discussed below)
- Analytical reading
- Syntopical reading (or summarizing, see below)
Key Takeaway: Keeping focused on what and why you’re reading helps certain details leap out at you. This is especially important for giving you clues on where you should focus for follow-up research.
Two: Question The Material Deeply
Asking questions while you read makes the process more experiential.
This is very important because, as neuroscientist Eric Kandel demonstrated with his research in the 1970s, “synapses change with experience.”
This means that if you want to change your brain from one that merely reads to one that remembers, you need to experience the reading.
We’ll talk about a few ways to do this, but questioning is one of the most direct.
You’ll probably know these questions:
But how often do you actually deploy them while you’re reading?
Start getting into the habit of asking them much more often – literally on each and every page.
You can also go further so that you have a stronger basis for reading around the text:
- What is the author’s intention or agenda?
- According to whose authority does the author appeal?
- Who benefits if this is true?
- When might this statement not be true?
- What’s the counterargument?
- What are the consequences? What changes if this is true?
The more you ask these more advanced questions, the more you’ll naturally remember because you are experiencing the reading.
Key Takeaway: These questions are useful to ask while reading, but also before and after you read a book.
When you voluntarily ask these questions after reading in particular, you’ll get the benefits of active recall. This process is very important for memory formation.
Three: Get Your Reading Ready For “Prime” Time
Have you ever heard of priming?
Some people call it “pre-reading,” but I don’t think that term quite aligns with the science that supports the idea.
Whether you call it priming or pre-reading, it’s one of the few useful techniques from the world of speed reading.
In brief, it means that you examine the parts of a book before you start reading it. The exact process I usually follow is never the same because not all books are identical. But it’s generally something like this:
- Back cover analysis
- Colophon page
- Index & works cited/bibliography
- Table of contents
- “Picture walk” to look through illustrations, diagrams and other images
Why go through these steps before reading?
Because plenty of scientific research demonstrates that it works. As Yantis and Meyer put it:
“The effects of context upon the speed and accuracy of memory retrieval are well documented in the literature on semantic and episodic memory. Word naming and lexical decisions are facilitated if subjects have been exposed to other semantically or episodically related verbal material.”
In other words, “priming” helps you remember more because exposing yourself to these parts of the book helps your semantic and episodic memory. It’s like looking at the layout of a store before trying to find aisle five.
Frankly, I rarely read a book without priming it first, including fiction.
If you’d like to see the skill applied to a book with some “next level” memory tricks, check this out:
Many readers pick up a book and plow through it from beginning to end.
This is a huge mistake.
We know from a lot of research that you will remember more if you take frequent breaks and switch between topics.
For this reason, I tend to read three books at a time. I’ll read a chapter from one book, a chapter from the next and so on, rotating between them.
The trick is to mentally compare what you’re reading between the books. This will help your brain make connections that facilitate greater remembering.
Yana Weinstein and her co-authors make how this works and why very clear in their book, Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide.
As Doug Rohrer has shown, interleaving not only helps you remember more by making connections. It also helps you distinguish between concepts and even objects that appear very similar.
You can also combine interleaving with how you schedule your reading and studying. For example, imagine you have three books you need to study and you have three days to prepare for an exam:
- Session One: Book A, B and C
- Session Two: Book B, C and A
- Session Three: Book C, A and B
It might seem like a minor thing, but approaching your reading out of order has been shown to help you remember more.
Five: Less Is More When Taking Notes
Many readers chew up tons of time by highlighting or filling up pages with notes.
Although there’s nothing exactly wrong with these approaches, they shouldn’t be necessary.
As I talk about in how to memorize a textbook, if you create simple limits while taking notes, you’ll be able to remember more.
My personal rule of thumb is to pick a number. Usually I decide that I will only take down 3-5 notes per chapter in a book.
Now, I might change my mind if something really important leaps out at me. But generally, I stick with the plan.
- By focusing only on big details, I wind up memorizing the most important parts
- Thanks to priming, these connect to the overarching concept of the book with greater ease
- With interleaving in place, these big ideas are easier to connect with the other books I’m reading
Also, using index cards helps with physically rearranging the cards in space that enhances interleaving.
And it makes it easy to strategically chart out what we’re going to memorize and in which order or priority when we get to one of the most powerful techniques for expanding your mind and memory of them all.
Six: The Memory Palace Network
Let’s say you’ve read ten books and you’ve followed my note taking advice.
The next step is to commit everything you need to memory.
You can apply this technique to what you read, but let me share the way I used it when the stakes were high.
I completed my Ph.D. in Humanities at York University. I read many philosophers for my two field exams and was responsible for even more when defending my dissertation.
To keep up with all the details, I created a Memory Palace for each philosopher I studied. For example, I had:
- An Aristotle Memory Palace
- A George Bataille Memory Palace
- A Cicero Memory Palace
- A Jacques Derrida Memory Palace
In some cases, I had more than one Memory Palace per philosopher. In these cases, I would base the Memory Palace on the philosopher and memorize the name of the book on the first station.
Then, I would “follow” the philosophers through the Memory Palaces, treating each as a “Bridging Figure.”
The alphabet is one of the most powerful memory tools we have, and that is why I linked my Memory Palaces in this way.
Key Takeaway: Using a “Bridging Figure” to memorize key details transforms passive reading into a deeply engaging and transformative experience.
Remember: science demonstrates that we learn and remember more when reading is experiential.
Seven: Multisensory Connections
As you’re reading and especially when you’re using memory techniques like the Memory Palace, you want to deepen the experiential aspect.
One of the most direct and fun ways to do this is to use your senses.
For example, I wanted to remember Aristotle’s three types of friendship. One of them is the friendship of utility, the kind where you basically trade favors with each other.
To rapidly remember this detail, I imagined being friends with Aristotle dressed as a utility repair man. To make it multisensory, I imagined:
- Kinesthetic – the feeling of shaking his hand
- Auditory – the sound of his voice as we arranged an exchange
- Visual – how he looked in his uniform
- Emotional – the feeling of a bit of sadness that we weren’t true friends
- Conceptual – the idea that this was just one of three friendships Aristotle discusses
- Olfactory – I imagined the smell of oil on Aristotle’s uniform
- Gustatory – I imagined him eating his lunch alone, also feeling sad
- Spatial – I imagined how tall he was
Taking just a few seconds to go through each of these sensory associations helped drill the fact deep into my memory quickly.
Key Takeaway: You don’t have to use the KAVE COGS formula in this exact way or in this order. That’s the pattern I came up with for myself and it works for me.
But put some time into the multisensory aspects that make sense to you. Then, make it a habit to deploy them when you’re reading and remembering. You’ll thank me for the boost it creates for you.
Eight: Summarize & Discuss
So far, you’ve learned how to read and remember more. But in order to bring it all together in a way that forms long term knowledge, you need to summarize what you’ve read.
When I went to grad school, I had a professor named Katey Anderson who made me read dozens of books and prove I’d read them by explaining their content in my own words.
And this is how you wind up remembering more. Not just repeating the key points and terms, but coming up with your own.
Dr. Anderson required at least 250-500 words of summary, which is about right. You don’t have to reproduce the whole book in your notes – and you won’t have if you’ve followed my recommendations above.
The next step is to speak about what you’ve studied.
I know not everyone has many connections willing to listen to you ramble on about what you’re reading. But you don’t need to have a listener in order to benefit from verbalizing what you’ve read.
For example, I talk to myself a fair amount, including in the show. It’s a great way to remember more of the material I’m reading.
Of course, I also talk as much as I can with my friends and the people who follow the Magnetic Memory Method blog, podcast and YouTube channel. Sometimes we even debate, which is also great for expanding context for everyone involved.
Reading To Remember = Expanding Your Context
We’ve come a long way together in this post.
And just as we started, the key point all along has been to expand your context.
Obviously, using memory techniques is really important because it’s just a simple fact:
The more you know, the more you can know.
That’s because memory is all about connecting one thing to another. Connection also expands your context. And expanding context through connection is how to comprehend what you read so that you can remember it – it’s the ultimate method.
So as a final tip, let me suggest this:
Rinse and repeat.
Give all the steps we covered today a try. And keep trying them. The more you use these processes with more and more books, the more your context will grow. This simple expansion will make learning new things easier and easier as you mature as a learner over the years to come.
Same thing with adding more and more memory techniques. Once you’ve got the Memory Palace down, learn how to remember numbers, for example.
And if you’d like to learn more about how you can remember what you read even faster, check out my free memory improvement kit:
I use these techniques every day and I hope you will too.
So what do you say?
Are you ready to remember more from the books you’ve been dying to understand at a deeper level?
Let the adventure begin!