When you’re unemployed, you get to do all sorts of things that, if you had a job, you’d correctly judge as stupid, and then not do. Here’s one of them!
I was curious as to how much information I can pick up in an hour. I mean, I’ve gone to lots of talks, but I think a lot of the time it’s because they’re pretty specific, advanced topics (I mean, they’re usually talks about someone’s research). So I don’t think they’re necessarily the best metric for that. Part of why I’m curious is that there’s gotta be some sort of “information retention vs time spent learning it” curve, and I don’t really have a great grasp of the shape of it. I mean, I’m pretty sure that it’s monotonically increasing with time, but I really don’t know where the best ratio of it is.
Another motivation is that I’ve come to realize just how insanely little I know about certain topics. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad, because obviously I spent the time I could’ve spent learning those things on learning other, more specialized things. But it also kind of intuitively strikes me as messed up that, if someone put a gun to my head and said “TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT THE HUMAN LIVER OR I’LL KILL YOU”, literally all I could tell you is that it’s inside of us and…maybe a filter or something? I know alcohol is supposed to be bad for it, I think?
So, I thought this would be a fun little thing. I want to take a (beginner) textbook on something I know shamefully little about, and see how much I can get in an hour.
For this, I’m going to use the book “Biology for Dummies”, 3rd edition, by Rene Fester Kratz. I know pitifully little about biology, so it’ll be a good area to see how much I can pick up from nothing. The saying “if you throw enough mud at a wall, some will stick” feels pertinent.
The (pdf) book is 600 pages long (counting intro, other stuff, etc). So, 600 pages/1 hour = 10 pages/minute = 1 page per 6s. That means I’ll basically get to scan the page and get the gist. I’m going to have a timer on my phone set for 5 seconds. Luckily, the way it works on my phone is when the time is up and you hit stop, it just resets it to the same time, so I hopefully won’t have to concentrate on that.
Let’s see! I’ll report back in about an hour.
HOOOOOOOOOO boy, that was more intense than I expected. I thought of lots of stuff while reading but had to focus on continuing, so I’ll try and quickly throw them out here.
It was really stressful!
It was more stressful than I expected. I quickly realized that my phone method wasn’t going to work, because there were many blank/sparse pages where I could immediately skip to the next. I was also definitely having to concentrate on hitting the reset/start button, which is too much effort when you have 5s a page. So, I ended up pausing at the very beginning and making a rough schedule, saying I’d have to do 150 pages/15 minutes, which gave me a little flexibility within that range, but some rough markers I really had to hit.
But it was still pretty stressful. I was basically in a constant state of “ooh this is actually pretty interesti– oh shit I have to go to the next page” for an hour straight. I’d basically get to look at images (which were a pretty good bang for their buck) and read headers and lists. This book was fortunately very well designed for this, with most lists having the important parts bolded.
Another stressful aspect was that, since I wanted to try doing it an an hour straight, I couldn’t stop and think about stuff much. I kept stopping to consider something I had just read, but then realizing I really didn’t have time.
Good overview, not great for learning anything substantive
I’m not gonna say I learned a ton exactly, but I also didn’t get nothing. I’d say I got a pretty decent quick overview of highschool senior level biology, like flying over a region and getting the rough lay of the land. I found that a lot of it was actually more familiar sounding to me than I expected, I guess from my highschool freshman biology course — phrases like “Krebs cycle” and “Punnett square” came back to me in a rush.
I think the most valuable information came from just knowing that certain stuff exists, that I didn’t know before. For example, I knew there were carbon and water cycles in ecosystems, but I hadn’t really heard of or considered that there are also nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. I didn’t know that plants also have hormones, or there are different types of “survivorship curves” for different species. I still basically know nothing about these, but I know they exist now. To be honest, I think that’s one of the most valuable types of information. I mean, it’s obviously better knowing how stuff works in finer detail, but when I think about subjects I’ve learned in actual classes I’ve taken, most of the information is of the “existence” or “significance” types. That is, I learn that certain techniques or knowledge exists, or the significance of that knowledge, but I really can’t draw upon most of the details off the top of my head. If I need it, it’s only because I know it exists, and then I can go look it up and use it. To ramble on slightly more, I suppose it’s possible that if you have the inner workings more internalized, you’ll get more insights in the world. That’s definitely possible, but that depth comes at the cost of breadth, which probably gives rise to different types of insights.
Pretty inspiring, though
Probably the most valuable thing I got from this wasn’t the information itself, but that it really made me want to learn more about it. That is, before today, I was aware of how little biology I knew, and was mildly ashamed of it, but clearly finding out more wasn’t high on my list of priorities. After even just the cursory speed reading I did, I’m really interested in reading it again, but more carefully. There were so many parts where I was like “damn, I’ve always wanted to know how that works!”, but had to keep going. I’ll definitely be revisiting this book in more detail.
The “optimal rate” is probably closer to this
Part of the motivation for this silly experiment was to get a sense of the “information vs time” ratio for different points of time spent reading. I’ve been on one extreme, spending hours going over small parts of a textbook trying to understand something, where the knowledge gains are pretty incremental for the amount of time I’m spending, so I wanted to try the opposite end, spending barely any time. I mean, this isn’t super useful for lots of cases: if you’re reading a textbook for a class or serious pursuit, unless you’re doing some heroic cramming before a test, you probably want to really dive in deep. So it doesn’t matter that some smaller amount of time has a better “ratio” in that case.
But, for me there are lots of areas like biology where I know so, so little, but should probably have a basic grasp on them. Off the top of my head, I know super little about, but would like to have at least the tiniest of knowledge, about: biology, neuroscience, art history, music history, geology, etc. So while maybe this “book in an hour” experiment isn’t that practical, I bet I actually could have learned some significant basics if I spent, say, 5 hours reading this book instead, which is still a fraction of the time usually spent on a textbook or novel. But, having tried this really convinces me that the highest rate (whether you want to hit that or not) is probably a lot closer to this end than I thought.
Here’s something related to this that I’ve thought about before. What I essentially did for this experiment is akin to Breadth First Search reading, just going over the subjects super roughly. Normally, textbooks are written in a Depth First Search way, just totally linear, in 100% detail. Some textbooks (good ones) do a bit of BFS, going over major sections of a chapter at the beginning of the chapter. But then it’s usually highly DFS within those major sections. I think that that’s not an ideal way of conveying the info. If DFS is going through a subject kind of “continuously”, BFS is getting the whole picture, but in finer and finer resolution through different iterations, which I think keep giving you the highest ratio stuff sooner (at least for me).
Well, this was a fun little thing to try. I actually took some speed reading seminar very early in college, and remember thinking that there’s no way someone can read that fast and still get all the info, but now I realize that maybe I was missing the point — it wasn’t meant to be something to replace careful, slow reading, but to just get you the basics down much quicker.
Something else I thought about trying is, doing this with a totally different book, like a fictional novel. But, that’s probably inherently worse, because with fiction, usually one of the main points isn’t just the information (plot, etc), it’s how it’s written. The point is (at least partly) to empathize and believe, not just pick up plot points, so I think this technique would be extra pointless with fiction.
I also wonder how much better I’d get at this technique if I did it more. For example, several of my friends and I all listen to podcasts/books and watch videos at 2.0x speed. If you’re not used to it, it sounds insane. But you get used to it very quickly, and you work your way up from 1.0x in steps anyway. I wonder if I did this several times (maybe doing 3 hours instead of 1), I’d actually be decent at picking up the info.