Vol 19: Innate Experiences, Learning via Dreaming, & How I Read
I’ve always enjoyed the movie Limitless, and I recently realized why.The realization didn’t occur rewatching it though, it came when I was talking to a friend about Ukraine.
We were on a rooftop in the city and noticed the Empire State Building not too far away. The night before it was illuminated in yellow and blue, and that naturally brought our discussion to the current State of Affairs. I mentioned some of the points I brought up in last week’s piece on why Putin is doing this (based on a geopolitical lens).
My friend made a simple remark, but it was poignant: How do you know that’s right?
I don’t. I don’t know if anyone really does. But I mentioned all the reading I’ve done on geopolitics, and how that’s shaped my worldview. Books, I offered, can get you up to speed quite quickly. And given that most people don’t actually read them, it’s usually a pretty large informational advantage.
They pushed back, arguing that isn’t always true. Sometimes reading isn’t the best way to learn.
I found myself thinking about this a lot more over the past week. That’s why this random movie popped into my mind.
Limitless touches upon the idea of Becoming Better that I’ve been writing about for a while now.
The movie’s punchline — we only use 20% of our brains, this pill lets us use all of it — isn’t factually correct, but it does pose an interesting question. The protagonist, Eddie, changes his life, purely because he taps into his true potential.
But I’m not writing about that today. Instead, I’m focusing on the action that every character in the movie does once they take the pill: they read.
Knowledge is power, and right away, they all sought more knowledge. Even the antagonist, a Russian thug, brags about how he spent hours reading, expanding his vocabulary and understanding of the world.
This additional knowledge doesn’t automatically bestow special powers to any of the characters, but it gives them intel that they then use to make decisions and act accordingly. It makes them better.
That’s one of my takeaways from the movie: reading a lot is a superpower.
I’ve also gotten that same insight from other people too — Bill Gates often talks about how much he reads, and you hear other distinguished people mention that the smartest people they know spend at least an hour a day reading. If you do that, it puts you in the top 0.01% of people.
This pairs with another aphorism I’ve talked about on Embers: you are the average of who you spend time with. If you read a lot, then you’re in the company of some pretty special people. Some of that has to rub off on you, even if you aren’t fully conscious of it. Not being conscious of something doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and that gets to a more important point: we don’t have to necessarily know we are changing in order to change.
Something I’m really intrigued with is how people, with no experienced knowledge of a situation, can know how something will feel. Some people have described knowing what being burned feels like, before they (unfortunately) ended up feeling it.
I call it Innate Experiences, and it raises a few questions in my head, the chief among them is whether certain feelings or experiences are encoded in our DNA, passed down to each generation. Spiders aren’t taught how to weave webs, they just know how to do it. Humans probably also exhibit this far more than we realize.
In fact, this is one of the purported reasons for why we dream: our mind is practicing and preparing for a whole host of outcomes.Sometimes our dreams are meaningless, but oftentimes there is a lesson our mind is trying to learn. Run away from predators, stay away from high ledges, don’t get stuck swimming underwater. I’ve never fallen off a cliff, but I know what it feels like thanks to dreaming.
Dreams are our brain’s way of immersing us into a virtual reality, where we can practice, while our bodies are safe (and physically immobilized). I’m reading a great book called The Storytelling Animal, and it talks about how multiple studies have shown that cats (& some people) that are not paralyzed during REM sleep fully act out all of their dreams.It lends credence to the idea that we’re training ourselves while we sleep. Even if we don’t consciously know we are.
Dreams don’t explain every part of my Innate Experiences hypothesis, and I’m sure I’ll revisit this more now that I’m focused on learning more about it.
There’s another reason I mentioned dreams though — they, like any form of physical practice, change our brain. And oftentimes, we don’t recognize it because we’re not consciously aware of it. From The Storytelling Animal:
When you consider the plasticity of the brain — with as little as 10–12 minutes of motor practice a day on a specific task [say, piano playing] the motor cortex reshapes itself in a matter of a few weeks — the time spent in our dreams would surely shape how our brains develop, and influence our future behavioral predispositions. The experiences we accrue from dreaming across our life span are sure to influence how we interact with the world and are bound to influence our overall fitness, not only as individuals but as a species…
Since memories of our dreams are usually burned away with the morning light, they can’t be worth much to us. But as we’ve already seen, conscious knowledge can be overrated.
The time spent in our dreams would surely shape how our brains develop, and influence our future behavioral predispositions. The experiences we accrue from dreaming across our life span are sure to influence how we interact with the world and are bound to influence our overall fitness, not only as individuals but as a species.
In other words, it’s another way we’ve evolved, and our dreams themselves change who we are, individually and collectively.
What are dreams, but stories our brains make up? And what are books, but stories other brains have made up? The commonality between both is that they can change us, and we don’t even need to recognize it.
That’s why reading is so special, because even if we don’t consciously recall every detail from a story or movie, it still leaves an imprint on our mind. And that imprint can change everything. Because books (and their stories) may not always change your life, but sentences do.
How I Read
Last year, I came across this post, and it made me reconsider how I approach reading.
It’s short. It also makes the same argument I made to my friend on the rooftop:
Reading twenty books a year gets you a lot. Consider: one book gives you more knowledge about a subject than almost every other person on the planet, because people don't read. Two books on the same subject give you more knowledge than almost any reader, because people don't read two books about the same thing.
But that’s not why I’m sharing this piece; I’m sharing it because the author talks about how he actually approaches the act of reading. Not many people do that, and it turns out he has a pretty interesting way of doing it!
He reads books in clusters of 5 and uses them to study a particular topic.
I settled on clusters of five and almost never read a single book in isolation. Less than five feel lacking; more than five gets repetitive. Every cluster has a goal of the form "study
Study American history through technological expansion, or study failure through one term presidents are just a few examples.
I try to be creative and make
Yunusual. For instance, everyone likes to read about presidents who are believed to be successful. A simple trick is to inverse it and read about unsuccessful ones instead. Or skip the presidents altogether, and read about vice presidents. It doesn't matter what
Yis because you're trying to study
X, and it's more fun to make
I’ve been thinking more about how I read, because it’s honestly the fastest way I’ve seen personal change.
Maybe because of that, I used to care about reading books quickly. But recently, I actually slowed down, because I found that while I may be still innately experiencing them, I wasn’t fully grokking them.
For example, sometimes when you read (or hear) something profound, you can’t help but put the book down and stop. These points are almost like a splash of cold water on your face.
I now make an effort to feel that water drip down my cheeks, so to speak. Soaking it all in may not be particularly efficient, especially if it brings your run to a halt.But some sentences are worth stopping in your tracks for. It’s one of the special aspects of learning that you can’t really replicate.
Given my newfound focus on parsing through the books I read, I’ve also seen a commensurate explosion in the number of highlights and notes I take. This part, I’m not so sure about. Sometimes it breaks up the reading flow, but it also helps me remember everything much better. So it’s probably another example of an area in life that you have to find balance in.
One of the ways I can tell I’m reading enough is based on the number of new tags I create in my notes. Innate Experiences was a very recent addition, as are a few other ideas I have yet to write about. That’s the best learning metric I have: the number of things I write per week against the number of new tags. These tags could be themes, ideas, Truthisms (ineluctable kernels of truth I’ve discovered) — or they could be related to new posts or world events (New Battle Lines, and the Ukraine War are illustrative examples).
I guess what I’m trying to say, is that now I read in a deliberate fashion. Sometimes I skim, particularly when it comes to news. But by and large, reading has become a deliberate practice, something where I try to play with my highlights and notes, and nibble away at what they’re telling me. I’m also employing the "study
Y" concept mentioned above.
In aggregate, these strategies help me figure out what the world looks like. They help me figure out Truthisms. They help me understand Humanity. They help me identify the current State of Affairs. And they help me figure out Where We’re Going.
When Reading Fails
Not everything can be learned from a book. Often the most important of insights aren’t neatly written out for us. Charlie Songhurst told me that the best business secrets are never shared, because once they are, they don’t work anymore — they’re arbitraged away. Only after the effects have worn off are these secrets shared.
This concept of advice having an expiration date isn’t new. Morgan Housel talks about it a lot — great investors rarely succeed across multiple investment paradigms. The world changes, and it’s hard to keep up with it.
This invokes another idea called The Half Life of Investing that a great twitter account I follow posted it back in 2020:
MBI takes Samuel Arbesman’s book named The Half-Life of Facts, and applies it to the world of investing. The half-life of facts is the amount of time that has to elapse before half of the facts in a particular field are shown to be false.
MBI posits: as new knowledge is built upon the foundations of old ideas, new companies emerge, and the only way to persistently generate alpha is to pivot to match the changing nature of time.
I could (and probably will) spend more time writing about this, but the takeaway for now is that the world is always changing, and so while books often have timeless wisdom in them, not everything is consistently applicable. And some things are better learned through action.
This is what my friend was talking about.
I’ve learned more of what I know about life from people than from books, and I’ve learned much of what I know about people from the food they eat.
— Danny Meyer, Setting the Table
I agree with Danny. At the same time, you and I are both reading that quote together right now, so there is value in reading, because otherwise we never would have seen it. I guess it’s all about figuring out when to lean into books versus the other sources of learning you can have.
Reading isn’t the perfect way to learn, but it’s one of the best ways to. I use reading as a way to understand things, and I consciously pair it with an impetus to action. It’s one of the reasons why I write, and also one of the reasons why a career is very important. Because careers offer something that we can physically practice (even if it’s knowledge work).
Charlie Munger says you should aspire to be a “T-Shaped Genius” — develop broad knowledge across a wide range of fields, and a deep expertise in one. That’s probably what the right combination of mental (reading) and physical (doing) learning look like.
The best part is that there are no rules to follow. You can just explore what you want. I’m never going to stop learning, both mentally and physically, and I will strive to keep trying new things too.
Maybe there really is something that can unlock the rest of your brain — it’s called learning, and if you keep doing it, you may be astonished at who you can become.
It’s not a great movie, but it’s plenty entertaining and gave my high school self plenty to think about. And the soundtrack is pretty good too.
The other, more important takeaway is that we are all a few decisions away from being the best versions of ourselves.
This is also similar to the idea I mentioned in What I’m Here For:
It’s kind of disappointing to realize you don’t have enough time to try everything. It’d be really special to operate in a hospital, fly a helicopter, and hunt for dinosaur fossils, for example. While these aren’t in the cards (at the moment), sometimes I let myself mentally wander and pretend I’m living through these different experiences. It’s nothing more than 5 or 10 minutes. I have no way of knowing these abstractions are accurate interpretations without trying it, but at the very least it gives me things to think about. So many experiences we never get a chance to feel. Sometimes it’s entertaining to imagine what some of them are.
Some of the anecdotes are pretty crazy — cats also seem to have dreams about important dangers: fighting, hunting, etc.
That’s how we learn how to ride a bike after all — we gradually pick it up, but there’s no one instant when we know exactly what to do.
I’m sure it looks odd to someone from afar: someone on an afternoon run suddenly stopping, muttering to themselves while their face has a look of astonishment or bewilderment. Oh well! What can you do.