Reading, rereading and ghosting effects

Quite often true memories are mixed up with false memories. Quite often this happens when we read too slow. For today’s article, you may want to read
here, here, here, here, and here. This article is inteded to be an overview: each of the subjects was already discussed in some other form on this blog.

What do we notice?

We find an article we want to read, we read it, we enjoy what we read, we understand how it could be useful, and we forget completely the whole thing after no more than a minute. Did it happen you? If so, you are in a good company.

The vast majority of texts are not written to educate. Some were written to describe clearly and accurately some process or phenomena, most others were written to inspire or ignite curiosity. In the first case, the structure tends to be boring, repetitive and unattractive. In the second case, you hardly have time you focus on something long enough to remember it, as something new catches your attention. Either you will be dreaming to throw the book away, or you would have a very hard time closing the book to think about it.

Our attention searches for prominent features: strange words, colorful descriptions, suspense, and tension. Quite often we notice unusually long or short sentences and paragraphs. Names, bold and italic fonts, headlines also tend to catch our eye. And we catch patterns.

The authors know this and masterfully guide our attention. If the author wrote a technical document, you will see a lot of repeating patterns: bullets, lists, tables. Then you will see headlines for every short section, then larger headlines for longer sessions etc. If the author wrote a fiction or something attended to entertain, we will see colorful language, unexpected use of words, a constant build-up of suspense, puzzling examples. If the text is online, we will quite likely see images that tend to mix with our own visualization process, sometimes in a good way, but mostly interfering with it.

Our attention span is limited. There is only one chance to make the first impression. Some people respond to the first and to the last paragraph of a text, the first and the last sentence in a paragraph in a very different way than the rest of the text, either with significantly more or significantly less attention. When presented with examples we quite often forget what was supposed to be demonstrated.

When I started working with Anna we used to interview people together and I had a first-hand experience of what people notice and what they tend to forget. I could go for ours describing various ways our minds work. Maybe this is a subject for another article. For now, let us continue with a more practical line of thought.

How to read a technical article and not doze off?

When reading a technical document, there are several useful techniques you may want to consider.

First, we can control our reading speed. If we read too slow we can easily doze off. When we read too fast we can probably miss most of the things. So we can read 3 times: preread very fast, read as fast as you can to understand and then reread purposefully. While rereading, we can either skim to the most interesting places to understand the fine details or scan the text very fast trying to make an order of the structure and memorize it. It is best to read several times significant sections of several paragraphs and limit this strategy to the more challenging texts.

Secondly, we can try and interrupt the pattern. Suppose we see 50 ways to do something as a list. We start reading the list and each time we progress to the next item we forget the items before it. After 50 items we read we still did not learn anything. So we can reread the same items, but this time chunk them arbitrarily into a hierarchical mindmap, say 3 to 6 branches per level. When we chunk we reevaluate each aspect and compare the aspects to each other. These are high-level mental tasks. As the result, we will remember the text.

The third option we have is introducing a new line of thought. This can be critical thinking, creative pondering or an emotional response. For critical thinking, try to argue with the author, check his facts and logic, evaluate his hidden agenda. For creative pondering, imagine yourself utilizing the ideas you read about in your life, ponder about the future and the endless possibilities it presents. For an emotional response, try to monitor your own feelings. Does the author motivate you or bore you? Do you feel fear or grid? Do you feel being manipulated?

The basic most profound option we have is simply asking: how did we imagine the subject before reading the article, and how the article made you think or feel differently. Every article tries to achieve some goal, each time we read an article we try to achieve some other goal. Not always these goals coincide, and we can always learn from it.

The reading speed is secondary to understanding. There is no reason reading something you do not understand or remember. While you may feel the elaborate evaluation is taking a lot of time, it is significantly more effective than slowly reading and rereading the text with very partial understanding and retention.

How to read a thiller and not be carried away?

If you read a “page-turner” you may want to find ways to control your progress.

First, try to stop after a random paragraph and take a Pomodoro break. If you are dying to see what happens next, you know you are beeing manipulated by a skillful author. It is a very pleasant feeling, and you may want to experience it to the end of the text. Once finished, it is best to reread the text, this time in a more consciously aware manner.

Secondly, stop to visualize. Every good book shows great characters and locations. Then we jump to action and dialogues. Usually, we do not spend enough time to visualize the descriptions. As a thumb rule, we can spend 7 seconds on each great description, to visualize it in detail and enjoy the process. Occasionally we need to do quite the opposite: mute our spontaneous visualization and subvocalize the text. Reading the text aloud or through text-to-speech, we can notice some wonderful rhythmic effects and games of sounds. Certainly, we should do that each time we see a new name or an extremely rare word.

The third possibility is independent research. Great rhetorics increase our passion and gullibility. The least we can do is use our passion to counter the gullibility. If we are passionate about something, probably many others got passionate about it. There will be many on-line resources, evaluations, analysis. Take a short break from the main story and make a research inspired by it. You will learn new things and maybe even find new friends.

When we read something we are passionate about we might use our most basic and automatic responses. People focused on details will miss the big picture and vice versa. You should know the kind of person you are and try deliberately to get both the big picture and all the details. Consider other people you know and how they would handle the same task. Having good and bad role model is a great way to enrich our experience.

If you read this blog you might imagine what kind of a person I am and how I might think. So if you find it helpful, you are welcome to ask yourself how Lev would respond to the same inputs. A hint: I would probably search it on this blog and online.

Is rereading actually a good idea?

If a text is important for us we will probably revisit it in the future. We may see it in a different media, like a book vs a movie. We may discuss it with our friends. We may review our notes. And we may go back to the original text and reread it.

Each time we revisit the text, we are adding some of our experience to the text. We may add our own memories, the stories of our friends, the interpretations of other media, historical references and so on. Each time we revisit the text we modify the way we remember it, mixing our current state with the original understanding of the text. Eventually, we have carried away from the text, mixing the content of the text with the fabric of our life.

When we reread the text we may go back to the sources. Only this time there is a dialogue between how the subject is represented by the authors and how we remember it. Rereading is usually much faster than the original reading, the subjective feeling of time is also different. We notice great phases and worthy quotes we missed in the first reading. These quotes may be a part of a larger dialogue, but we may want to save very short catchy phrases for our life. In the technical texts, the rhetorics are presented in a form of numbers and formulas. The numbers which do not mean anything to us in the first reading, are placed in context and appreciated as we get hands-on experience.

Ghosting effect

If we read two similar texts we may get a ghosting effect, to the point that some of the visualizations and memories we have about one document seem to be present in another. There are several simple strategies to fight off this effect.

First, try to focus not on the similarities but on the difference. Even identical twins are different in the eyes of their mothers. As we focus on differences these differences are encoded into our visualizations as details, enabling separation between the texts. The differences can be in style of the document, in the role of the document, there may be some tactical differences based on each specific case.

Secondly, try to read the texts with different predisposition or priming. When we want to implement the text in our life, or when we are trying to catch the mistake made by the author we will generate different memories. If we place the visualization in technicolor of 60s, black and whites of 30s or practical 90s, the results will differ. A dark comedy is different from a true horror movie, although similar effects will be used.

You can usually find a research comparing the text you read, analyzing their creation and the events that made them the way they are. If there is no such formal research, you can have a discussion with your buddies. If nothing else works, you can always try and reread the texts side by side, looking for the things that make them different.

From my personal experience, taking and reviewing notes reduces the ghosting effect greatly. You have a separate context of your own comments and thoughts to distinguish one resource from another.


Quite often we will read a text and remember nothing, or read two texts and think they are the same. There are strategies to deal with this situation. It will take time and effort, but the effort is usually well-spent.

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