Learning through narrative
Something in the human mind is highly attuned to narrative and narrative structure. When I was listening to books on tape, it was ever so much easier to focus on and listen to a novel than to a non-fiction work. Gossip is attractive in part because it’s a narrative. When we want to describe someone we know, we tend to think of stories that involve him or her.
Given that our minds find narratives memorable, it makes sense to construct a narrative from what you have to learn and remember, even if what you’re studying is a collection of chemical formulae. Here’s a good post from Lifehack.org that details the process:
Storytelling is a demanding craft. Not only do you have to be able to write or perform the story accurately, you need to create vivid descriptions. Boring, complex or difficult to understand metaphors can turn an imaginative journey into a lifeless plot.
You may not think of it deliberately, but learning is very similar to storytelling. You need to give yourself vivid, memorable and emotionally descriptions of the information. When you learn with compelling metaphors, information seems to stick easily. Without metaphors, ideas are dry and slip through your ears without a second thought.
Metaphors and Holistic Learning
Awhile back I mentioned about how I use holistic learning to get good grades with little studying. My current GPA sits between an A and an A+, and I’ve aced many of my finals with no more than a fifteen minute scan before walking into the exam room.
Holistic learning is based on the principle that learning works as a whole and not through rote memorization. When all of your ideas are connected together, it becomes far easier to remember them. When you have many different associations to the same idea, you can still retain the information even if you forget one association.
The storyteller’s art of metaphor is crucial in holistic learning. Remembering mathematical concepts is easier when you have metaphors that relate them to real life events, not just symbols and equations. Becoming a storyteller with your subjects and using powerful metaphors can make even the driest subject stick.
How to Create Good Metaphors
After writing extensively about holistic learning and metaphors previously, I’ve received comments from people asking how they can find metaphors for math, physics, biology, philosophy or some other subject. The problem with this approach is it believes that there is some universal metaphor for a subject. And that once you find that perfect metaphor you can use it to explain everything.
Storytellers understand that there is no perfect metaphor. There are good, if incomplete, descriptions. I used the word “create” deliberately in this subheading. Attaching good metaphors to information you are learning is a creative act, just as it would be if you were describing a story.
That said, there are a few ways you can improve the quality of your metaphors and your ability to think of them. Coming up with metaphors isn’t as difficult as it sounds, but it requires that you drop your search for the perfect description and look for multiple, simplified images. Here are a few thoughts on becoming a storyteller with your studies:
- Isolate a Characteristic. Novelists often try to pick a single remarkable feature of a character to describe. Trying to give a complete image of an entire person would be incredibly difficult. Do the same thing with your studies. Pick apart only a small formula, concept or system that you want to create a metaphor with and build from there.
- Vivid is Better. Which creates a stronger image in your mind, “She was cold”–or–“She felt as if the wind was biting at her with small, icy teeth.” When looking for metaphors, visual impact is more important (at least early on) than perfect accuracy. You can fix up problems with false analogies later, focus on getting a good picture first.
- Quantity over Quality. Having ten metaphors to describe a topic puts you in a far better position than one really good metaphor. The more ways you can describe something, the more links you create to that idea inside your head. The more links, the more memorable your ideas are.
- Draw it Out. If finding a metaphor is difficult for you, pull up a piece of paper and start drawing concepts out. Forming rough diagrams make it easier to look for patterns or possible metaphors.
- The 10-Year Old Rule. Ask yourself if you could explain your metaphor to a ten-year old. If the answer is no, reformat it until you come up with a more vivid and easily understandable metaphor. Your goal with metaphors is to take an abstract or complex idea and anchor it down into something easy to understand.
- Processes Become Stories. If you need to learn a sequence of steps, or a process, use a story. Processes are mechanical, stories are human. What was once an abstract formula, computer algorithm or chemical transformation can become an interaction of different characters. Your brain was formatted to understand incredibly complex human interactions easily, apply that power towards non-human interactions.
Taking Metaphors Further
Who do you think could create a better story on the spot: you or Shakespeare? Ignoring the fact that good ol’ Bill has been dead for some time, in his life he had a lot of practice creating metaphors. All of that practice helps him as a storyteller.
Similarly, if you want to use metaphors to cut down your studying time, you have to practice. You have to make finding metaphors to lock in ideas a habit. If you are curious about building storytelling techniques into your studying I recommend taking on a short and simple 2-week challenge when you start hitting the books again:
- Once a day, every day, for the next two weeks, pick at least one idea, formula or concept from your studies.
- Write out that idea on paper and break it down until you can see it in front of you.
- Then time yourself to come up with as many possible metaphors for describing the idea or part of it in the next 3 minutes.
Repeating this metaphor exercise improves your ability to naturally see possible descriptions and images when you encounter new ideas. When metaphors happen automatically, any ideas you encounter become easy to remember.