Last week, I asked readers of my newsletter to send me questions they had about life and learning. You sent a ton of great questions! I picked some of the most interesting/useful ones to answer today.
Reader questions are in block quotes, my responses are not.
Q: The introduction of the calculator made generations less reliant on mental arithmetic, and continues to do so. Computers and the internet age made researching easy. Since we have apps like Waze, we don’t bother to learn how to navigate to places. And now you have AI on the scene.
I know technologists will make the case that technology can and will be used to make us better, but I can’t help wondering that there is a huge risk to us given how AI especially can make us “soft” as learners. It’s just too easy to make ChatGPT do your “thinking” for you, and for a lot of people that might be good enough. What do you think?
I have two thoughts on this. First, whenever people worry about new technology making us mentally soft, I always think back to Socrates decrying the spread of writing as undermining the ability to memorize. And, you know what—he was right! Ancient Greeks had fantastic systems for memorizing speeches and poetry that we seldom use today.
But the broader point is that as new technology has automated some cognitive functions, it has opened room for different ones. Books may have made memorizing speeches less relevant, but they also greatly expanded the breadth and depth of knowledge a person could access.
As a teenager, I recall reading think pieces about the pernicious effects of Google and Wikipedia on our ability to learn things. But those things are great for learning! I can now learn something about almost any topic nearly instantly. I recently wanted to learn more about the science of burnout for an essay and was immediately given a summary of the latest research from Wikipedia. That’s a major improvement just since my adolescence, never mind generations who had to rely on paper encyclopedias.
So, I tend to be less worried about AI undermining education than others.
My second thought, however, is that sometimes this great boost in readily available knowledge encourages people to suggest the opposite: that because of these technologies, we won’t need to learn things. I do think certain kinds of skills may become obsolete, but not all of them. The calculator eliminated the need for slide rules, but we still need to understand arithmetic to use a calculator. It takes knowledge to learn knowledge, so I’m highly skeptical of claims that LLMs or ChatGPT will reduce the demand for education.
Q: Some people claim that they can increase their reading speed and can read a book in 2 or 3 days. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve covered the research on speed reading here. Spoiler alert: speed reading is just a strategic kind of skimming. It may be helpful for some things, but ridiculous speeds invariably result in comprehension loss.
But I can also say I regularly read books in 2-3 days, and I don’t think you need speed reading for that. Reading lots of books is largely about just sitting down and reading continuously for enough time to get through it. Similarly, you don’t need to be a speed-tv-watcher to binge an entire Netflix series over a weekend … you just need to watch a lot of television.
Q: How important do you think SRS [spaced-repetition systems] are for learning about history?
I am trying to read about different periods but I find myself bogged down between the extremes of 1) not having enough background knowledge to get through the books I’m reading and 2) wasting time creating and reviewing flashcards that are basic but too far divorced from their subject matter, e.g. birth years/deaths of Caesar or locations of Sparta/Thebes for Greece.
Would a more intelligent approach be to just immerse myself in children’s/young adult history readers first to get an intuition for the stories of history before delving into SRS for specific things, if at all? And moreover, is there anything you’d recommend putting in SRS at all for history?
For broad, knowledge-based subjects that you’re trying to understand informally (i.e., not trying to pass a particular exam or produce a piece of scholarship), I think the best possible thing you can do is read a lot. Knowledge begets knowledge. The more you read, the more background knowledge you possess, which makes further reading easier.
Working through a dense or complex field is often a process of reading something, retaining ten percent of it, reading another thing and another, and then circling back to the first thing because, suddenly, something you read shows the first one in a completely different light. Eventually, what was once a blank space becomes populated with factual details, varying scholars’ opinions, and the intricacies of pedantic disputes that you couldn’t have begun to understand when you set out.
To the extent that flashcards get in the way of just reading a lot, they’re probably a waste of time. Reading more within a field gives you new information, and it subtly reinforces old information through contextual associations.
That being said, flashcards are an excellent tool for some specific purposes. If I were in a class that required memorizing certain dates, figures or locations, I’d use them. Similarly, if I needed to memorize information that would take too long to master through the extensive reading method (say, memorizing maps of an ancient territory), I might employ them. Finally, I would use them any time I need to get better at component skills of a more complicated process—this is why flashcards are so good for language learning; they help diminish cognitive load.
But, for a broad subject like history, you’re probably better off starting with reading a lot and only using flashcards to fix specific weak points that reading alone won’t handle.
Q: I am slightly above average IQ, apparently, but man, I have a hard time remembering names and the like when I’m talking in conversations and such. Any recommendations on how to more easily remember? I can remember things well long-term if I study on flashcards, for example, but hearing something one time in a convo, or seeing something once is usually different (like it’s in one ear and out the other).
There are mnemonic techniques for remembering names.
But I would argue that we tend not to retain names because we don’t usually pay much attention to them when people introduce themselves. We hear someone say, “Hi, I’m Tom,” register that Tom is indeed a human name and promptly focus on whatever else we want to talk about.
You can remember names, and anything else, more by simply paying more attention to them when they’re said. Using a person’s name, relating their name to another person with the same name, or even just stopping and rehearsing it mentally for a few seconds is usually sufficient.
Most of the time, we don’t remember something easily because we weren’t paying enough attention to it when we first encountered it.
Q: I understand that adults post-60 have different challenges when it comes to learning new things, or going back to learning a musical instrument that they had abandoned 30-plus years previously. What do you know about senior adult learning? And, what books would you recommend that provide proven strategies for senior learning that perhaps even delve into neurobiology and/or neuroplasticity?
I’ve covered the research on learning and aging in this essay.
My major takeaway from doing the research, however, was that the brain is part of the body. The best thing you can do to sustain your mental functioning is to stay physically healthy.
Q: Does being exposed to tons of information (news, radio, talking, reading, social media, etc.) reduce your ability to learn?
Directly answering the question, I think the answer is clearly no. Background knowledge is one of the best determinants of future learning. So, in many ways, the answer is the opposite: being exposed to tons of information improves your ability to learn.
I suspect what Hayden might be getting at, however, is whether having lots of information is a kind of distraction that makes focusing on learning academic things harder. I think that can be true, and that’s one reason why blocking distractions while studying and consciously choosing your online media consumption can be helpful.
But, in general, the broad effects of exposure to information are positive.
Q: How does the complexity of material affect how you space it out during spaced retrieval practice?
Complexity probably favors massed practice, at least initially. If you don’t understand something when you first encounter it, spacing will like make learning harder initially. This is probably true of all desirable difficulties, and is part of the reason most practice types involve an initial massed session where you “get” the idea, followed by spaced review.
Q: I’m a big fan of your book – Ultralearning. If you were to write Ultralearning all over again today (or were interested in starting very different, new ultralearning projects today), what would you do differently? Would you change your 9 principles or approach ultralearning with very different projects?
If I had to rewrite Ultralearning, I’d only make minor changes.
I’d draw a firmer distinction between practice and problem-solving. I didn’t have the mental models to draw this distinction when I wrote Ultralearning, but I now think it’s one of the more important ones to make when learning. (In particular, using Srinivasa Ramanujan’s math learning efforts as an example of retrieval practice confuses this distinction, so I wouldn’t use that story if I had to rewrite.)
I think the biggest thing is that I now have a broader knowledge of theories of learning and their evidence base than I did when I wrote Ultralearning, so my upcoming book will be more grounded in those theories. But practically speaking, I’m not sure I’d change too much of the advice.
Q: For a while now, I’ve been experiencing déjà vu in my job. I’ve been in the field of Learning & Development for over 15 years, and I increasingly feel like there’s not much new on the horizon. For example, the gamification of learning programs has been a returning theme, as well as a returning disappointment. Same with simulations, talking heads, explanimations, ‘learning experiences’…
Technology keeps evolving, but the way they are used keeps repeating. Trends are cyclical in learning. Do you share this observation? I’m feeling more and more like technology really doesn’t make that much of a difference—it’s mostly about the novelty effect. After it wears off, people discover you can’t ‘hack’ or ‘speed up’ the human learning process. What do you think?
I think the design of the human brain puts some fundamental limits on learning that we can’t overcome through technology (short of some kind of science-fiction-y direct brain rewiring). And you’re right that there’s often an undue amount of hype for particular methodologies, and that hype tends to fade as people realize the limitations.
But, I tend to be more optimistic. Most people can learn, and yet many people struggle to. I don’t think there is some revolutionary method that will solve the problem for those people, but I do think a better understanding of how the brain works, how learning works, and how we can help people can resolve some of those difficulties.
But, realistically speaking, if you need to learn, say, a language, you’re going to have to learn all the words. People who proffer techniques that somehow skip over learning the words are just full of hot air. Unfortunately, most learning is like that—you need to learn the words.
Q: As a teacher in a university, my opinion is that the best performing students are those most interested in the subject. However, it seems that the students most interested in a subject are those who are the most intelligent.
Is intelligence just an interest in thinking or are those that are intelligent interested in complicated things and bored by simple things?
My view is that curiosity compounds. The more knowledge you have (which smarter people tend to have more of, owing to a greater ease of learning throughout their lives), the more interesting you find particular topics.
Thus smarter (and more knowledgeable) students find the topics more interesting because their background knowledge makes it easier to understand the incoming ideas and formulate interesting questions.
As for how you can spark interest in bored students, I’m not sure there’s a magic recipe for that. However, I do think recognizing that many students are uninterested because they don’t know enough about the subject does point in some helpful directions.
Q: You once said that students should spend most of their time testing themselves rather than just reviewing the material.
In the context of learning a foreign language, does reading a foreign language count as testing yourself?
Reading a lot in a language is important for other reasons, but it does also count as a kind of retrieval practice. Essentially you’re practicing “target language” -> “meaning” whenever you’re getting input, just as you’re practicing “meaning” -> “target language” when you’re speaking. Both are a kind of retrieval, whereas looking at a vocabulary list with the words side-by-side isn’t.
Q: How would you change The Year Without English if you didn’t have a friend to join you?
I have wanted to do this challenge ever since you did, but have never been able to convince a friend to join me. The closest I came to doing this solo was in February of 2020: I quit my job with a lot of savings to travel the world, and covid literally ended my dreams. I’m hoping to attempt this again in 2025, as I am currently in the military, but I fear the challenge won’t be as enjoyable without a friend / companion.
I think you’d just have to be more deliberate about finding practice opportunities.
Also, I would actively seek out things like homestay or schooling opportunities with people from the country to get immersion in the language.
My sister did a Rotary exchange in her last year of high school and lived with a Danish family, and she learned Danish quite well. In some ways, that’s “better” than traveling with another non-native speaker for language learning.
In terms of enjoyment, I enjoy traveling more with another person, but Benny Lewis did most of his language-learning adventures solo—so I think it depends on the person. If you think you’re a more introverted person or don’t make friends as quickly, I’d suggest moving around less, as it may take you longer to establish a good circle of friends.
Q-1: Does Anki alone work? Or do we need to use it along with reading and listening (or something else)?
Q-2: I know that in Spanish, there are genders in nouns. How do you learn the gender of a noun, and how do you learn to use it smoothly during a conversation (in your final conversation with Benny in Spanish, it seems that you speak fluently and automatically)?
Anki is a good foundation. But genuine input and output are essential for proper language use. My view is that memorizing a flashcard makes it easier to comprehend some passages, and so it facilitates “real” practice—but doesn’t substitute for it.
For learning gender, some of this is learned automatically through regular practice. You can put it directly on your flashcards (I know some people color-code for hard-to-remember vocabulary features like gender, tones, etc.). But, regularly listening or using the language will also make the “correct” gender for words you repeatedly hear feel more natural. Not to mention that languages like Spanish have a fairly transparent gender system, so as your knowledge expands, it gets much easier to guess with new words.
Q: Have you thought about creating an LLM mentor version of yourself, trained on all your articles and other free resources of content you’ve produced?
I’m not sure I’m even a good simulation of myself, so I don’t really trust an AI to do a good job!
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That’s it for this mailbag. I had lots of fun! My apologies to everyone who sent interesting questions that I didn’t answer!