Memory & Learning Breakthrough: It Turns Out That The Ancients Were Right

Memory & Learning Breakthrough: It Turns Out That The Ancients Were Right

Have you ever wondered…

What’s the fastest, most effective way to learn?

What’s the secret to remembering what you learn?

When it comes to learning how to learn, these are the big questions. If you have a better answer to them, you will be more successful. Period.

Learning faster than others is the ultimate, lasting competitive advantage. Self-made billionaire Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-time business partner, captures this truism in the following quote:

This is why I’ve spent the last several years researching, writing about, and teaching the subject of learning how to learn to thousands of students and more than ten million readers.

As time has passed, a few methods have proven particularly life-changing and have now become pillars of my daily learning routine. These include the practices of:

This article introduces a fifth pillar that is both profound and obvious. It has been tried and true for thousands of years, yet it’s also a modern breakthrough backed by research.

The idea is simple: Teach what you learn — as soon as you learn it.

Research shows that when we teach what we learn, something magical happens in our minds. We suddenly notice mistakes in our thinking. We have more creative insights. Our ideas become sharper. We remember what we learned for longer. We see patterns more effectively. We get feedback that improves our idea. This magic is what I call the Explanation Effect mental model. And it even applies when we teach concepts to ourselves by journaling, mind mapping, or talking out loud.

You’ve experienced the power of the Explanation Effect mental model if you have ever:

Here’s what’s happening on a deeper level that creates the magic of the Explanation Effect mental model

Learning is NOT just about taking in information. In my experience coaching hundreds of people on learning how to learn, almost no one has a system for processing information. It’s almost as if people just expect the learning to happen automatically after they read a book, listen to a podcast, watch a lecture, or have a life experience. Looking at text and expecting to learn is not far off from looking at food and expecting to get its nutrients. We need to digest our life experiences just like we digest our food. Without some form of active processing, almost everything we read is lost within weeks.

As the diagram below shows, absorbing information is just the first step in the universal process for learning, which I call the learning loop.

The information we absorb must be transformed in our brains to make it understandable and usable. Then, we must take action in the real world to get results. Finally, feedback from the real world helps us improve the whole learning process before we go through the loop again.

Teaching is powerful because it helps at ALL four stages.

When we incorporate teaching into our daily lives, we exponentially increase our learning potential, build deeper relationships with those around us, and make a bigger impact on the world.

Not only that, teaching is compelling on a whole other level NOW because we live in a digitally connected world…

At the end of the day, we are ALL each other’s teachers on some level — whether it be as colleagues, friends, mentors, parents, or spouses. As a commenter on this article wisely noted:

We all can and should incorporate the Explanation Effect mental model into our daily lives.

In other words, teaching isn’t just for teachers. We are teaching when we:

Teaching others what we have learned is one of the noblest things we can do with our short time on this planet. Knowledge is an innately social organism. It wants to move, to land in other’s minds, to connect to other knowledge. When we connect two ideas in our head into a new insight, we get a rush of bliss. Eureka! We get a second wave of bliss when we share that insight and others find it genuinely useful. Teaching is the oxygen knowledge uses to spread, grow, and thrive. We humans are designed to learn and teach.

This article is the most comprehensive overview of the Explanation Effect that I’m aware of. It is the result of more than 150 hours of research over three years from a team that includes myself, a PhD student (Thanks Kavya Sharman!), and several others.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the Explanation Effect, let’s dive into some of the most interesting research on it and learn how the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, leaders, and executives use it to become smarter…

In 2014, two veteran education researchers published a learning framework that encapsulates and synthesizes hundreds of studies on best practices for learning.

The following chart summarizes the findings. To sum up, teaching ourselves and teaching others are the most effective ways to learn:

This power of teaching has been echoed throughout time, all the way back to the Greeks and Romans. The famous Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca once proclaimed, “While we teach, we learn.” Socrates pioneered the Socratic Method of using dialogue to both teach and learn. And Aristotle lauded the power of teaching repeatedly, calling it “the highest form of understanding.”

Many of the world’s top entrepreneurs, creatives, scientists, and leaders have used the Explanation Effect mental model as a central approach to their work. These include Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Ray Dalio, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Charlie Munger, Oprah Winfrey, and many more. They’ve done this through various methods:

These brilliant individuals have focused on the sharing of knowledge because they knew, or intuited, what modern research is now confirming. Here are just three examples of recent studies attesting to the power of the Explanation Effect mental model:

Collectively, all of the studies paint the following picture of how teaching to learn helps you before, while, and after you teach:

Despite these case studies and the mounting research, in today’s modern world, the value of teaching is drastically under-appreciated at all levels of society. I can think of no better example than the old saying we’ve all heard before:

As a result of the research and case studies on the Explanation Effect, we can reframe this cultural meme toward something much more accurate:

Now that we understand WHY teaching to learn is so powerful, let’s dive into HOW we can actually take action to reap its value.

On the most basic level, explanation can be broken into two types:

There are also levels within the internal and external levels:

As you move down the pyramid from internal to external, the benefits of the Explanation Effect mental model increase exponentially.

The increase is exponential because:

When you put it all together, it looks like this:

The Exponential Explanation Pyramid helps you think about a whole range of actions you can take to become a better learner.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something super simple to get started with so you can build momentum, I recommend the following teaching habit:

The easiest way to get started with the habit of teaching is by creating a daily “Today I Learned” email. The idea is inspired by the popular Today I Learned subreddit. In this subreddit users share one big thing they learned that other users would find interesting. Then others comment or downvote/upvote it.

How It Works

Near the end of your day, spend 15 minutes writing down one big thing you learned during the day. This simple habit builds on the Harvard research that spending 15 minutes at the end of the day can increase your learning for the day by 23%.

The Two Versions

You can either just keep it for yourself or share it with others and invite them to share what they learned with you:

And, if you want to get started this minute, share one thing you’ve learned today in the comments.


With the “Today I Learned” journal, you:

Case Studies

There are a lot of interesting variations of a “Today I Learned” journal that others have explored. Here are a few of the most interesting ones I found:

If you want to become a celebrity teacher, get a flood of “true fan” readers and customers, teach what you love full time, and transform the lives of others, here’s another action you can take right now…

In my article, The #1 Mental Model For Writers Who Want To Create High-Quality, Viral Content, I reveal the exact strategy I used to go from zero to tens of millions of views in publications like Forbes, Fortune, Time, and the Harvard Business Review — by simply teaching my best ideas for free. If you want to write high-quality, viral articles that make you a celebrity teacher, then you’ll love it.

Memory & Learning Breakthrough: It Turns Out That The Ancients Were Right

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