There is no better way to start a piece on the benefits of talking to yourself than to quote Mr. Jones.
“One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody’s listening,” Franklin P. Jones.
You must be thinking now – is there a BAD way to do it? Of course. Believe me, It’s definitely an art. Just like basket weaving.
But seriously – we take our ability to talk to ourselves for granted. I tried to google “talking to yourself” in some languages. The result? Usually, people are trying to make sure that they don’t have schizophrenia.
Taking to Yourself – Why so Many Bad Associations?
Every time, every damn time, when I mention to somebody that I love talking to myself out loud, they give me this weird look. They probably think that I put on my trench coat, get on the bus, sit near some nice old lady, and rub myself while blurting out some incomprehensible words.
That’s a grave misunderstanding. If used the right way, “self-talk,” as psychologists refer to it, can be a handy tool in your mental arsenal. It can, I kid you not, improve almost every area of your life.
No more shameful hiding in the shadows. Embrace your inner voices, and let me walk you through the benefits of talking to yourself!
Cognitive Benefits Of Talking To Yourself
What does the research say about the benefits of talking to yourself?
Research from the University of Michigan found that those who worked through their stress about giving a speech about their qualifications using “you” rather than “I” performed better and were less tormented by anxiety and self-doubt.
When people think of themselves as another person, “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback“, says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan
In another study, psychologists Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Daniel Swingley (University of Pennsylvania) conducted a series of experiments to discover whether talking to yourself can help you to locate lost objects.
Long story short – they established that speaking facilitated search, particularly when there was a strong association between the name and the visual target.
You see? Not only children can augment their thinking while doing some tasks!
Are there any other benefits other than being more likely to stay on task, staying focused better, and showing improved perception capabilities?
Sure! Better memory. Think about it – when you talk out loud, you stimulate more sensory channels than when you subvocalize. You hear the sounds. What’s more, even though you may not realize it, your body feels sounds as they are conducted through your bones.
Fun fact: Bone conduction is one reason why a person’s voice sounds different to him/her when it is recorded and played back.
Last but not least, whenever you say something out loud, you engage your emotions. One of the most potent ingredients to boost your memory.
Research is great. But experiencing something first hand is even better.
Choose some words you’d like to memorize and shout it out angrily or with joy and afterward start laughing like a madman. I’ll be amazed if you can’t recall it a few days later.
Here’s a good example. I’m sure you remember this scene if you have seen the movie.
I hope that by this moment, you’re at least muttering to yourself!
Benefits of Talking to Yourself – Overcoming Stage Fright
Everybody has his favorite tricks to deal with anxiety. But the one which I find the most effective is preparing yourself for what’s about to come.
Have a presentation?
Stand in front of the mirror and go through your presentation as many times as it’s necessary to turn it into a brilliant performance. Who knows? Maybe you will enjoy it that much that you will join Toastmasters.
Have an interview?
Collect the list of 20-30 most frequently asked questions and rehearse the crap out of them!
Want to confront your boss about the long-overdue raise?
List all the possible questions that may come up during such a conversation and prepare your answers. Doing so will put you in a much better position when push comes to shove.
And so on. You get the idea.
Proper preparation kills stress and anxiety.
Benefits of Talking to Yourself – Practicing Languages
What if I told you that you could learn a language without uttering a word to anyone else but yourself? You would probably think I’m crazy. And I certainly am. After all, I’m writing an article about talking to yourself.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I learned Swedish (B2 level) to get the job in less than four months without talking to anyone in Swedish (but myself). And while working 50+ hours per week.
Self-talk enables you to concentrate on your weaknesses. Such deliberate practice can significantly improve your language level.
How to Talk to Yourself?
All conversations are based on the “action-reaction” principle. Somebody asks you some questions – you answer. It goes on and on. That’s why, if you want to prepare yourself for conversations with, say, friends from abroad, you should list potential questions that might come up, together with answers to them. Don’t forget about taking into consideration the interests of potential conversation partners!
Of course, you don’t have to come up with all the questions by yourself.
I want to recommend two fantastic websites which I have been using for many years:
It’s only weird if you make it weird. You don’t have to rush to your friends to brag about this, nor do you have to write an article about this (sic!). It’s just a tool to make you a better person.
It’s perfectly normal. Do you know that computer scientists do it as well (not that it means anything!)?
Rubber duck debuggingis an informal term used in software engineering for a method of debugging code. The name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck. Many other terms exist for this technique, often involving different inanimate objects.
So don’t be a weirdo and don’t feel ashamed to talk to yourself!
Other Benefits of Talking to Yourself
That’s right. You might use the self-talk for various things, such as:
Energizing and motivating yourself – you can psych yourself up with: “Come on!” “Let’s go!” “You can do this!”. Martial artists have been using screams for hundreds of years to give them some extra energy. I’m pretty sure there is a good reason for that.
Playing devil’s advocate – find the weaknesses in your argumentation. Try to debunk your theories. Saying your options out loud and elaborating on the pros and cons can help bring the right choice to light, and you might be surprised at the unexpected direction your thoughts take when they’re audible.
The curse of a B2 level might sound like a title of an F-rated horror movie but it’s a very real thing. In fact, it affects most language learners,
What is the curse of a b2 level (aka the language learning plateau)?
The language learning plateau is a phenomenon describing one’s inability to progress past the intermediate stages of language learning (i.e. a B1/B2 level). Typically, the main reasons are using inefficient learning strategies, or not using any learning system at all.
Let’s break down step-by-step why a B2 level is a final station for most language learners and what you can do to fix go beyond this mark. Time to break that curse.
What’s a B2 level is all about
What? You thought I would skip a dry, boring and theoretical part? No way! That’s where all the fun is!
understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.
Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.
Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.
How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level
English proficiency in the world
Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular choicem Our starting point is the EF English Proficiency Index. For brevity’s sake, I will skip the part where I lambaste the reliability of those results.
Countries with the highest English proficiency
Here is a list of countries which were classified as the ones with “very high proficiency” i.e. a C1-C2 level. Pay very close attention to the top dogs. Almost every country in the top 12 has either English as an official language (e.g. Singapore) or it’s a Germanic-speaking country.
Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.
Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.
A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.
Countries with moderate English proficiency
Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.
As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.
Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.
German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.
In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.
The magical number 20
In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.
Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.
Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.
The curse of a B2 level – the two main reasons why you are stuck
1. No learning strategy and no system
One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I assure you it’s not.
Here is an excerpt from a recent study (Schimanke, Mertens, Schmid 2019) about learning strategies at a German university.
To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW – University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.
Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female.
Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.
The terrifying thing is that we’re not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We’re talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.
And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let’s-hope-it-sticks strategy. It’s nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does, right?
You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.
Passive learning can be a very effective learning tool provided that you’re already at an advanced level (especially a B2 level and higher). It can also be relatively useful if, for one reason or another, you are already familiar with a language you want to master (e.g. because it’s a part of the same language family). However, passive learning is a terrible toolfor language rookies.
The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort). Other studies quote numbers between 7-60.
I will let it sink in!
That’s a lot. Of course, the number varies because it all depends on your background knowledge, emotional saliency of words and so on but it’s still a very big number.
Let’s delve into its consequences.
We know that in most languages 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
It means that as long as you are stubborn enough, eventually you will get to about a B2 level. It doesn’t matter how crappy your learning method is. As long as you soldier on, you will get to the finish line even if that takes you 10 years.
Because it’s almost guaranteed that you will amass a sufficient number of repetitions (7-60) of the words which occur in a language with a frequency of 98%! But what if you want to really master a language. Or two. Do you believe that you will be able to pull that number of repetitions for the words which occur with a frequency of about 2%? Of course not.
Think of any rare word from your native tongue like “cream puff” or “head physician”. How often do you hear them in your daily life? Not that often, right? And that’s the problem. C1-C2 levels consist of rare words like these. That’s why your chances of getting there if your default learning style is passive are very thin. Unless you have 20 years of spare time and are willing to spend most of your waking hours surrounding yourself with a language.
Real vocabulary gains from reading and listening at the early stages of language learning
Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.
Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.
The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.
Vocabulary gains from listening
Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.
Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.
At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.
At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.
Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.
A B2 level is achievable to almost anyone as long as you pursue your learning goal with dogged persistence. However, moving past this level requires from you the use of systems which will allow you to focus heavily on rare words which make up about 2-3% of a language since it’s almost impossible to master them just by learning organically (i.e. reading, listening and talking).
If you stick to smart learning methods, you will surely overcome this hurdle.
Have you ever experienced the curse of a B2 level? Share your stroy in the comments!
Have you noticed a trend that has been going on for quite many years now? Almost every app out there seems to be using pictures. It’s been touted as a magical cure for your inability to learn.
But is it really the case or maybe it’s another thinly veiled attempt to talk you into buying a premium version of some crappy app?
Unfortunately, it seems to be the latter. Yes, learning with pictures has its benefits, but they are relatively tiny compared to the effort and other potential strategies you might use.
Let’s investigate step by step why it’s so!
Potential benefits of learning with pictures
One picture is worth 1000 words, as the saying goes, and I am pretty sure that every child who ever wandered into their parent’s bedroom in the middle of the night can attest to this. But what’s important to you, as a learner, is how many benefits can learning with pictures offer you. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste too much time adding them to your flashcards if they are useless.
The Picture Superiority Effect (i.e. you remember pictures better)
If we want to discuss advantages of using pictures, we much touch upon the picture superiority effect. This is a go-to argument of many proponents of this approach to learning.
The picture superiority effect refers to the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.
It’s not anything debatable- the effect has been reproduced in a variety of experiments using different methodologies. However, the thing that many experts seem to miss is the following excerpt:
pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.
It just means we are great at recognizing pictures and images. It has its advantages but it’s not should be confused with being able to effortlessly memorize vocabulary.
Let’s quickly go through some studies to show you how amazingly well we can recognize pictures.
Power of recognition memory (i.e. you’re good at recognizing pictures)
In one of the most widely-cited studies on recognition memory. Standing showed participants an epic 10,000 photographs over the course of 5 days, with 5 seconds’ exposure per image. He then tested their familiarity, essentially as described above.
The participants showed an 83% success rate, suggesting that they had become familiar with about 6,600 images during their ordeal. Other volunteers, trained on a smaller collection of 1,000 images selected for vividness, had a 94% success rate.
But even greater feats have been reported in earlier times. Peter of Ravenna and Francesco Panigarola, Italian memory teachers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively, were each said to have retained over 100,000 images for use in recalling enormous amounts of information. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works and How To Make it Work For You
Now that we have established that we’re pretty good at recognizing images, let’s try to see if pairing words with pictures offers more benefits.
Boosting your recall
Another amazing benefit of using pictures as a part of your learning strategy is improving your recall. This process occurs in the following way:
During memory recall, neurons in the hippocampus began to fire strongly. This was also the case during a control condition in which participants only had to remember scene images without the objects. Importantly, however, hippocampal ativity lasted much longer when participants also had to remember the associated object (the raspberry or scorpion image). Additionally, neurons in the entorhinal cortex began to fire in parallel to the hippocampus.
It’s worth pointing out that even the evidence for improved recall is limited and usually concerns abstract words and idiomatic expressions.
Farley et al. (2012) examined if the meaning recall of words improved in the presence of imagery, and found that only the meaning recall of abstract words improved, while that of concrete nouns did not. A possible interpretation of this finding is that, in the case of concrete nouns, most learners can naturally produce visual images in their mind and use them to remember the words.
Therefore, the Vocabulary Learning and Instruction, 6 (1), 21–31. 26 Ishii:
The Impact of Semantic Clustering additional visual images in the learning material do not affect the learning outcome, since they are already present in their mind. However, in the case of abstract nouns, since it is often difficult for learners to create images independently, the presentation of imagery helps them retain the meaning of the words they are trying to learn.
Jennifer Aniston neurons
It seems that this improved recall is caused by creating immediate associations between words and pictures when they are presented together.
The scientists showed patients images of a person in a context e.g. Jennifer Aniston at the Eiffel Tower, Clint Eastwood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Halle Berry at the Sidney Opera House or Tiger Woods at the White House. They found that the neuron that formerly fired for a single image e.g. Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry, now also fired for the associated image too i.e. the Eiffel Tower or Sidney Opera House.
“The remarkable result was that the neurons changed their firing properties at the exact moment the subjects formed the new memories – the neuron initially firing to Jennifer Aniston started firing to the Eiffel Tower at the time the subject started remembering this association,” said Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, head of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester.” – Researchers Make a “Spectacular Discovery” About Memory Formation and Learning
To sum it up, we know that:
we’re great at remembering pictures
we’re great at recognizing pictures
we’re great at recalling pictures
Let me make it clear – these benefits are undeniable, and they have their use in the learning process. However, the real question is – how effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary!
How effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary
Before I move on to the science, let’s start with my personal experiments. Contrary to a lot of “language experts” online, I rarely believe anything I read unless I see lots of quality scientific support for some specific claims. And believe me, it’s not easy. Most of scientific studies are flawed on so many different levels that they shouldn’t be written at all.
Once I have gathered enough evidence, I start running long-term statistical experiments in order to see what benefits a given approach brings to the table.
What’s the answer in that case? Not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Possibly, if the picture represents accurately a meaning of a given word, you might find it easier to recall the said meaning. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5-10%.
Effect of pairing words and pictures on memory
Boers, Lindstromberg, Littlemore, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2008) and Boers, Piquer Píriz, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2009) investigated the effect of pictorial elucidation when learning new idiomatic expressions.
The studies revealed that learners retain the meanings of newly learned idiomatic items better when they are presented with visual images. Though there was no impact for the word forms, such presentations at least improved the learning of word meanings.
In other words, using pictures can improve your understanding of what a word, or an idiom, means.
One of the problems I have with most memory-related studies is that scientists blatantly ignore the fact that familiarity with words might heavily skew the final results. For that reason, I really love the following paper from 2017.
Participants (36 English-speaking adults) learned 27 pseudowords, which were paired with 27 unfamiliar pictures. They were given cued recall practice for 9 of the words, reproduction practice for another set of 9 words, and the remaining 9 words were restudied. Participants were tested on their recognition (3-alternative forced choice) and recall (saying the pseudoword in response to a picture) of these items immediately after training, and a week after training. Our hypotheses were that reproduction and restudy practice would lead to better learning immediately after training, but that cued recall practice would lead to better retention in the long term.
In all three conditions, recognition performance was extremely high immediately after training, and a week following training, indicating that participants had acquired associations between the novel pictures and novel words. In addition, recognition and cued recall performance was better immediately after training relative to a week later, confirming that participants forgot some words over time. However, results in the cued recall task did not support our hypotheses. Immediately after training, participants showed an advantage for cued Recall over the Restudy condition, but not over the Reproduce condition. Furthermore, there was no boost for the cued Recall condition over time relative to the other two conditions. Results from a Bayesian analysis also supported this null finding. Nonetheless, we found a clear effect of word length, with shorter words being better learned than longer words, indicating that our method was sufficiently sensitive to detect an impact of condition on learning. – The effect of recall, reproduction, and restudy on word learning: a pre-registered study
As you can see, conclusions are not that optimistic and almost fully coincide with my own experiments. That’s why I would suggest you don’t add pictures to every flashcard. It’s too time-consuming compared to benefits. However, if you really enjoy learning this way, I will suggest to you in a second a better way to utilize pictures.
Test it for yourself!
I know that the above could be a bit of a buzz-kill for any die-hard fan of all those flashy flashcard apps and what not. But the thing is, you should never just trust someone’s opinion without verifying it.
Run your own experiment. See how well you retain those pictures and if it really makes a difference result-wise compared to the invested time. Our time on this pancake earth is limited. No need to waste any of it using ineffective learning methods.
It doesn’t take much time and it will be worth more than anyone’s opinion. If you decide to go for it, make sure to run it for at least 2-3 months to truly verify of pictures offer a long-term memory boost.
How to use picture more effectively in your learning
Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.
What kind of pictures did I use?
I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.
Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures, but now words, from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.
So what kind of pictures did work?
Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don’t waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.
What’s more, if it’s only possible, try to stick to pics from your personal collection – a weekend at your grandma’s, uncle Jim getting sloshed at your wedding. You know, good stuff!
Pictures are a definitely a nice addition to your learning toolkit. However, in order to be able to use them effectively you need to understand that they won’t help you much with memorizing words. The best thing they can offer is a slight boost in remembering words and significantly improved recall for pictures. That’s why don’t waste your time trying to paste a picture into every flashcard. Benefits will be minuscule compared to your effort.
If you really want to get the biggest bang for your buck learning-wise, try to use one picture to memorize many words. That’s a great way of mimicking the way we originally started acquiring vocabulary. And it’s not very time-consuming.
Once you try this method, let me know how it worked for you!
What are your thoughts on using pictures in flashcards? Let me know in the comments!
The quality of your life depends mostly on your ability to make the right decisions and to solve problems. One could think that in the world of almost unlimited access to information our decision-making abilities should be getting better and better.
Is it really the case?
I don’t think so. There are many explanations for why it is so.
However, instead of delving into them, I would like you to show you how to improve the quality of your thinking and problem-solving skills with the concept of my own devising – The Magnet Theory.
But first things first. Let’s start with a structure of knowledge.
Bloom’s Taxonomy – The hierarchy of knowledge
Not a week goes by when I hear someone say – if you don’t understand something, don’t learn it. And some part of me crumbles away every time when I hear it.
Because nothing could be further from the truth.
Understanding is very often the by-product of all the information at your disposal.
Let me explain why.
Let’s start with fundamentals i.e. Bloom’s taxonomy. The Bloom’s taxonomy depicts the structure of knowledge and how it is organized.
Take a look at the foundation of this pyramid. Can you see it? That’s right. Understanding doesn’t seem to be the most important element of knowledge.
Why do you think it is so?
I will tell you why – because you can’t think without facts.
Facts are frequently the foundation of the good solutions and thinking.
Why understanding is overrated
My guess is that most of the time, on the surface, it is easier to understand something than to memorize dozens of different facts.
We like to assume that if A leads to D then it surely happens in a nice progression – A causes B. B causes C. C causes D.
The reality is that most of the time progression looks more like this.
A -> L -> B -> G -> C -> K -> X -> E -> D
It’s an interaction of dozens of different elements which we very often don’t see because of our limited knowledge. This phenomenon is called “The illusion of explanatory depth“.
“People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”
“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe.
The real reason why understanding starts with memorization
That doesn’t inspire much confidence comprehension-wise, does it?
How many concepts do you know that can be understood by knowing just 3-5 facts? I can tell you right away, that there are not many of them. And even if you find any, they probably won’t be worth your while.
In order to see the big picture, you need a lot of facts. Which, truth be told, can be problematic.
Because you don’t know how many puzzle pieces are needed to create it. That leaves you just one choice – you have to keep on memorizing things even if they don’t make any sense at the moment. You need to memorize facts before you understand what they mean.
If you memorize just the things you understand, you will never be able to look beyond the obvious.
The problem nowadays is that almost nobody is willing to do it. Why bother if all the knowledge you need is at your fingertips?
It is the tendency to forget information that can be found readily online by using Internet search engines such as Google. According to the first study about the Google effect, people are less likely to remember certain details they believe will be accessible online.
The thing is that if you want to be the best at something, you need all those pesky details.
My answer has always been the same and possibly disappointing to others – I try to memorize everything.
I don’t care how abstract or vague a given piece of information seems. I will commit it to my memory. I do it because I can’t possibly know which fact will tip the scale and raise the curtain to reveal the magnificence of understanding.
That’s why I can’t be picky.
At some point, the facts always come together to form a clear answer. Sometimes, you just have to wait for it.
For example, right now I can tell you quite exactly what science currently has to say about the process of working-memory consolidation. This knowledge includes even tiny facts about frequencies of different brain waves.
And I will be honest with you. I don’t know right now the purpose of this information. I am more than clueless. But I am pretty sure it will come handy one day. Maybe in one year, maybe in ten. Whenever it might be, I know that I will be ready.
It might not be the most pleasant way to acquire expertise. However, it’s sure as hell the fastest and the most certain way to do it.
The Magnet Theory – how to understand the process of effective thinking
Years ago, I was obsessing over the question – how come two smart individuals can arrive at the completely different conclusions?
I knew that asking good questions was important in that process. I also understood that you couldn’t think effectively without facts.
The effect of these cogitations turned into something I dubbed The Magnet Theory.
It’s a very elegant way of understanding the process of problem-solving and effective thinking.
Think of any question or problem you might have as a powerful magnet. The minute you encounter some riddle, the magnet starts doing its magic. It starts scouring your mind and attracting everything which might be useful in the process of cracking a given problem.
And I really do mean everything – anecdotes, scientific facts, your personal experiences and so on.
The whole comes together and creates a solution to the problem.
There is one more component of the magnet theory – your ego. It filters and potentially distorts all the potential conclusions you may reach. Even if all the facts are in favor of one solution, your ego might nudge you to reject them all.
The consequences of the magnet theory
1. Almost everyone has an opinion
How many people do you know who don’t have an opinion on some matter? Not many, right?
That’s the thing. Any question you ask or problem you state is a potential magnet for the mind of your interlocutor. The magnet will scrape up every little bit piece of information. As a consequence, this motley clue of assorted facts and anecdotes will form an opinion on a given topic.
Are these opinions worth much? You can answer this question yourself.
2. Your thinking is as good as the information you remember
Remember that you will always have an answer to almost every question. That doesn’t mean that the answer you come up with is any good. As the great and late Richard Feynman used to say –
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
Don’t rush to the conclusions. Before you make a decision ask yourself this – how many good facts do I have at my disposal? Not opinions, not anecdotes but the cold scientific facts.
If the answer is “not many” then do your research to give your magnet some “better food”.
I routinely distrust anyone and double-check any kind of information myself. Maybe I am paranoid but my behavior is driven by one simple question – how many people appreciate the importance of memorization and treat it as an indispensable part of their expertise acquisition?
The answer is – close to zero.
That automatically renders the most of the opinions you will ever hear in your life invalid. Or at best they might be classified as half-truths. Sounds callous but it’s definitely true.
Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. – Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds | The New Yorker
3. Your ego can be the end of you
It’s worth keeping in mind that the more somebody holds himself in high esteem, the slimmer the chances that they will be swayed by facts that contradict their opinions.
What’s worse, everyone is affected by this bias. Especially all the people who think of themselves as experts or have fancy titles like Ph.D. or a professor.
Alas, the titles don’t mean diddly-squat if you don’t have vast knowledge.
If I invited you to a blind taste test of a $12 wine versus a $1,200 wine, could you tell the difference? I bet you $20 you couldn’t. In 2001, Frederic Brochet, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, ran a study that sent shock waves through the wine industry. Determined to understand how wine drinkers decided which wines they liked, he invited fifty-seven recognized experts to evaluate two wines: one red, one white. After tasting the two wines, the experts described the red wine as intense, deep, and spicy—words commonly used to describe red wines. The white was described in equally standard terms: lively, fresh, and floral. But what none of these experts picked up on was that the two wines were exactly the same wine. Even more damning, the wines were actually both white wine—the “red wine” had been colored with food coloring. Think about that for a second. Fifty-seven wine experts couldn’t even tell they were drinking two identical wines. –I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi
Example 1 – Vitamin C
It reminds me of a great story. A couple of years ago, there was a lot of controversy in Poland around the man called Jerzy Zieba. What did he do, you might ask?
He wrote the book called “The Hidden Therapies – What your doctor won’t tell you“. The books shook the medical world in Poland to its core as it exposed incompetence and rigidness of the Polish health care. In one of the chapters, he described wonderful qualities of Vitamin C which can be used among others to:
treat cancer and various diseases
lower blood sugar
substitute anti-allergic medicine
As a result, the real shitstorm ensued. He was publically flailed and tarred and feathered at the altar of science. There were literally thousands of medical professionals who mocked him to no end.
After all, he was not a doctor. So what that in his book he quoted hundreds of scientific studies from all over the world to back up his claims. He was no one and had no say in the matter.
I saw professors of medicine and oncologists saying straight to the camera that this is scientific tosh and they haven’t seen even one scientific paper who proved it.
So why I am telling you all this?
Because each one of these detractors was dead wrong. There are actually hundreds of scientific studies proving the efficacy of vitamin C in treating almost every possible malady.
This anecdote is especially important for me because I have been personally interested in medicine for a long time now as it’s definitely one of the main fields of knowledge where you are only as good as your memory. Throughout the years I have read, gathered and memorized dozens upon dozens of articles and studies about vitamin C which confirm its effectiveness.
In the end, the professors were wrong. The ego got the best of them.
It’s an important reminder for all of us to never get too cocky. In other words – be humble or be humbled.
Example 2 – Losing Weight
Let’s ponder over the following problem. Let’s say that your aunt Elma wants to lose weight. She has been buying Vanity Fair for a long time so she knows that even though she accepts herself, she is fat and hideous, and needs to slim down.
The years of reading has equipped her with a truly powerful, intellectual toolkit.
She knows that she has to:
stop chugging gin before she gets to work
Is losing weight really that simple? It might seem so. After all, doing all those things takes us from point A to point B.
Before, I move on. ask yourself the same question. Be sure to follow the whirlwind of incoming thoughts. Can you feel how they are trying to organize themselves? Or do you maybe feel like you have a ready answer?
I can bet that your first instinct is to start spewing out all the facts in your head. I know that it is typically my first reaction.
However, what’s on the surface might be merely a tip of the iceberg. But only once you take a peek “under the hood”, will you be able to see the real complexity of the issue at hand.
If you want to lose weight, you have to:
improve fatty acid oxidation
manage blood sugar levels
Increase the breakdown of fat storage
Improve fat burning capacity
Increase insulin sensitivity
Of course, it would be just the beginning of your investigative journey. Next, you would have to learn what is responsible for each of these functions.
Only then will you be able to truly understand what is required to lose weight. And it would be a truly amazing journey because the truth is that there are thousands of possible solutions. If you dig long enough, I am sure you will be able to find the optimal one.
Do we have to understand all the things deeply?
I don’t mean to make you paranoid. Of course, you don’t have to possess a profound understanding of everything. Although I would suggest you do it for every area of knowledge which is of interest to you.
The Magnet Theory is an easy way to understand how the processes of thinking and problem-solving work. It can be summarized in the following way:
Problems and questions act as magnets
Those magnets attract every last scrap of information they can find to form an answer
The final answers can be potentially distorted by your ego
The theory leaves us with three conclusions which are applicable to every area of life.
(Almost) everyone has an opinion on anything. The magnet will always attract something which can be used to form a conclusion.
Your conclusions are only as good as the information at your disposal.
Your conclusions can be easily distorted by your biases and ego.
There you have it. I hope that you will be able to apply this theory to improve your quality of thinking.
Do you have anecdotes where some tiny piece of information helped you understand something? Please let me know in the comments.