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Intent to learn

I got a new phone recently and in the process my podcast app got out of sync. It keeps feeding me episodes from March and April that I’ve already heard, although to an alarming degree I’ve clearly just been listening with half an ear. I recognise the episode, but the details either never stuck or have become unstuck in the intervening months.

It’s a known bug with me. I have two modes of taking in information: with intent to learn and with intent to understand. The first one is highly useful: I hear or read a piece of new information and both understand it and learn it, so that I’m able to repeat it later. I believe this is the ‘feature’ – quite clearly how information intake should work.

The ‘bug’ is that quite often I just listen or read to understand, but the learning is skipped and I’m unable to regurgitate or indeed remember it later. A lot of people experience this at the doctor’s office: the doctor explains what’s wrong with you and it seems to make sense, but when you try to tell someone about it later, all you can really tap into is whether the message seemed to be positive or negative. ‘The doctor says I’ll be fine, but I need to start taking… something.’

I find this in more mundane situations too – I can relate the effect of some information but not the content. For example, I know I read an article in The Spectator that made me feel more positive about Liz Truss as PM, but I’m hard-pressed to name any particular reason. It was something about her long experience.

A couple of theories of what is happening:

  1. Learning is a processing-heavy mode for the brain, so it’s reserved for only certain situations or circumstances. Not clear what those would be, as I’ve definitely been in Understanding Mode in places like, hmm, the classroom before.
  2. Learning Mode is turned on on the second exposure to the same information, a bit like with allergenic reactions. I can think of counterexamples to this too.
  3. Learning Mode requires pre-existing knowledge around the topic, in order to file new information within context. Counterexamples galore.

The answer is probably out there if I look. Instead I’ll idly speculate and hope that a new book I’ve started reading will help: Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes. I heard about the Zettelkasten method, which the book is about, on Cal Newport‘s Deep Questions podcast, and as I love notes and methods, this was an easy sell.

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