How smart do you think you are? Pretty smart, yeah? I mean, maybe not a genius, but you know a thing or two, right?

What if I told you that you don’t know as much as you think you do, and the reason for that is all the time you spend online? What if I said you’d outsourced a significant chunk of your knowledge to the Cloud? Sounds a maybe a bit preposterous, no?

Okay, WITHOUT googling these questions, can you tell me:

  1. How do zips on clothes work?
  2. How is glass made?
  3. Why do people laugh?
  4. Why does a deck of cards have Jokers in the pack?


Maybe you know the answer to some of these, and can explain it thoroughly! Maybe though, you feel the shape of the answer in your mind, or squatting on the tip of your tongue. Maybe you were sure you knew the answer, but when it came down to explaining it, it seemed a lot more complicated and difficult to express.

According to a study by Matthew Fisher, Mariel Goddu and Frank Keil, we have grown to believe that we know information we think we can find online, even if we don’t actually have this access at the time. From the Harvard Business Review interview with Fisher:

Interviewer: In some ways this seems obvious. If I know I have access to a mechanic, I’ll be more confident that I can keep my car running.

Matthew Fisher: We’re making a crucial distinction here. We didn’t see that people were more confident that they could find answers if they had access to search. We saw that people were more confident that they knew the answers—had the information in their heads—if they had access to search. It’s more like thinking you know how to fix a car if you have access to a mechanic.

Having these gaps in your knowledge isn’t an inherently bad thing. But sometimes you need your brain to step up and have the answers. You want a brain surgeon not to have to refer to a wikipedia entry during an operation. You want to know that you’re able to pass your exams or assessments.

But because most of us are so connected, it’s easy to realise only too late what we don’t actually know.



Identifying Gaps in Your Knowledge

There are plenty of reasons you might be wondering about gaps in your skills or knowledge. You might have a test coming up, or maybe there’s been a change in your duties at work, or you might just want to ensure you're actually knowledgeable in a subject.

Depending on your situation, you’ll find a tried and tested way of understanding what you’re missing here:

  1. Try a past paper or online test on the subject under exam conditions
  2. Actually try explaining it to a friend, colleague, or other student
  3. Write out the subject as if you were attempting to explain it


Past Papers/Online Tests

These are one of the most recommended ways of understanding your knowledge gaps. Though they are dull, sitting for an hour or two and attempting to fully answer a question on a subject will immediately let you know where you lack information or nuanced comprehension.

Depending on the subject matter, you might also find online tests that can do much the same, though the temptation to look things up can be much stronger when you’re sat at a computer.


Explain to a Friend or Colleague

Trying to teach or explain a concept to someone is a very effective way to realise what you don’t know. Not only are you forced to simplify concepts or create analogies to explain them, you’ll soon notice where you can’t manage to get your point across eloquently. These are the parts that you need to focus on.

Plus, the other person might ask a question or make a point that also helps you understand your knowledge gaps.


Write About the Subject

This is an alternative if the above methods aren’t suitable. Maybe you don’t have access to past papers, or your friends and colleagues aren’t available.

Pick a subject heading or a question to answer, and then give yourself an hour away from the Internet to just write about it. You can either attempt to answer it like an exam, or just write freeform to see what comes to mind. It’s easy to just jot down questions that occur to you this way.



Storing Information Effectively

What can you do to remedy the fact that your brain might be using your smartphone and computer as a crutch for real knowledge? Try some ways of retaining information more effectively, of course. Here are a few to get you started:

  1. Method of Loci, AKA the Memory Palace
  2. Flashcards and spaced repetition


Method of Loci/Memory Palace

This is a technique used by many memory athletes to perform feats such as memorising Pi to 70,030 digits.

People who are capable of such accomplishments don’t have brains that are any different to yours, at least according to research performed by Martin Dresler, William Shirer, Boris Konrad et. al. This study showed that people with powerful memories don’t have any region or regions in their brain structurally different to anyone else. What they did find was unique patterns of brain activity occurring as the athletes performed memory tasks, indicating that it was training, not genetics, that gave them these abilities.

If you want to train yourself to use the Method of Loci, also known as the Memory Palace technique, you might have to spend a bit of time getting a handle on it. Some of its requirements seem counterintuitive, or frivolous, but that’s actually part of how it works.

You start by picking a place for your memory palace. A real place, and somewhere you are very familiar with is recommended. Pick a series of locations within this place, in an order that makes sense. So walking from your front door to your back door would be a possible route, or one that follows your morning routine from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen.

Focus on moving through the route until you can strongly visualise it. Then you can begin to add objects to it. A standard example is your shopping list (though why you’d want to expend so much effort on that is beyond me). So if you wanted to memorise milk, eggs, sugar, and washing powder, you’d need to put one of each in a location of your memory palace.

So if you start at your front door, you’d begin by finding a strong image to associate. Perhaps the milk leaks through the keyhole, or there’s a milk bottle smashed against the door. It’s down to you to find the one that fits most effectively.

It’s worth noting that the image needs to have some kind of emotional impact as well. You can do this by making it funny, disgusting, visually striking, or appealing. This is important - your image cannot be boring!

Now that you have an understanding of the basics, you can start finding ways to create other associations for use. A very simple one is to rhyme numbers with objects, so that you can more easily place them in your loci. Examples would be:

  1. 1: Sun
  2. 2: Shoe
  3. 3: Tree
  4. 4: Oar
  5. 5: Beehive
  6. 6: Bricks
  7. 7: Heaven
  8. 8: Grate
  9. 9: Wine
  10. 10: Pen


When it comes to other information such as study topics for a test or parts of a speech or talk you have to give, you can create strong associations based on key phrases or words in the text.

So for instance, if you’re memorising parts of the cell for a biology test, you could have associations like:

  1. A prison cell with rubber stretched across it to associate with cell membrane
  2. Gooey ectoplasm to remind you of the word cytoplasm with its similar ending
  3. A bottle of Ribena to make you think of ribosomes, with their similar beginning
  4. A mushroom cloud coming out of a seed to to associate with the nucleus (the ‘seed’ of the cell) and the nuclear membrane


This order is also useful as it moves from the outer to the innermost part of the cell, allowing the order you give them in the memory palace to be meaningful as well.

You can read more about memory palaces here. They’re a tried and true system, but as you might be able to tell, they require a lot of effort to create.


Flashcards and Spaced Repetition

The spacing effect is a well-known phenomenon when it comes to studying: learning is more effective when you use increasing intervals of time between revision of material. There are a number of theories as to why this works, but whatever the mechanism, studies show that the system works.

This also means that there are a number of theories for how many repetitions you should be using, and how wide the spacing should be. One is the Pimsleur graduated-interval recall system, which is rigid:

  1. 5 seconds
  2. 25 seconds
  3. 2 minutes
  4. 10 minutes
  5. 1 hour
  6. 5 hours
  7. 1 day
  8. 5 days
  9. 25 days
  10. 4 months
  11. 2 years


Which seems like a lot of work and organising and probably a bit too rigid. Sites like Duolingo use a more flexible system that is automated for you, so you just need to log in and you’ll be told what to revise, and if you don’t do too well with your revision you’ll be given the opportunity to revise in depth.

Spaced repetition can be handy for those without a great deal of free time: because it doesn’t demand daily or weekly maintenance like regular revision, you can mete out your review periods across increasing time periods.

One of the best ways to perform spaced repetition is with the use of flashcards. You can make your own by hand, buy a deck if there’s one available, or use a free site such as Tinycards which offers both pre-made or community-made flashcards, as well as the opportunity to create your own.

As always, it’s up to you to experiment thoroughly and find out what works best for you. The method of loci is great if you have the time to spare in order to master it, but for those short on time, the spaced repetition method might fit your life more effectively.

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