Tag Archive | Understanding


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is intelligibility?”

“It’s a little conceptual tool I created for myself. A measure of how easy something is to understand by others.

How intelligible is x?

You can think of it as a spectrum, from low to high.

Intelligibility has two components:


  • Plain language, using the most basic vocabulary.
  • Expressing the complex in terms of the simple.


  • Clear language, and clear thinking.
  • Defining concepts.
  • Making the implicit explicit.
  • Expressing the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

“What about brevity?”

“Brevity is beautiful, but compression often comes at the cost of intelligibility.

Intelligibility can be used to evaluate individual concepts, and texts as a whole.

It can also be used to evaluate yourself, your capacity to make yourself understood.

How intelligible are you?


The Feynman Technique

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is the Feynman Technique?”

“It is a technique for understanding inspired by the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman.

It is possible to think you understand something without really understanding it. I call this phenomenon, pseudo-understanding. Pseudo-understanding is indistinguishable from genuine understanding. The only way to tell them apart is by testing.

The best way to test your understanding is by explaining. Expressed as a principle, I call it Learning by Teaching.”

“What if you don’t have someone to explain it to?”

“Explaining it to someone else is ideal because it gives you immediate feedback. The next best thing is simulating the experience by explaining it to yourself.”

“What is the technique?”

“Take a concept you want to understand and write it at the top of a page. Then, underneath it, try explaining it as if to someone else. 

How would you explain x? (level 1)

It helps if you actually verbalize your explanation. 

Use examples, analogies, or diagrams to clarify your thinking.

Once you’ve written down your explanation, test your understanding by checking the definition or the source material.

Then start deepening your understanding by adding challenge

How would you explain x to someone who knows nothing about it? (level 2)

This forces you to simplify. 

In essence, we understand concepts by using other concepts. To explain to a beginner, you need to identify the fundamental concepts, those that are not derived from other concepts.

Repeat the process from level 1 and refine your explanation.

Then get to level 3.

How would you explain x to a six-year old? (level 3)

This forces you to simplify even further. 

To a child, you need to explain even the most basic concepts. This helps you discover the concepts you’re taking for granted. 

Every stage is a process of progressive simplification. Every stage forces you to dig deeper until you get to the essence of it.”

Two types of knowledge

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“I recently read about the scientific distinction between two types of knowledge: declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge.”

“What is the difference between them?”

“We might think of 
declarative knowledge as knowledge of, and of 
procedural knowledge as knowledge how.

They correspond to what I’ve identified as two important aspects of the learning process: Understanding and Implementation.

The efficient output of declarative knowledge is the formation (and refinement) of mental models (model-making). You’re forming a schematic mental map of what you’re learning by connecting it with other information nodes [network model].

The efficient output of procedural knowledge is the formation of habits and skills. You’re forming optimal neural patterns through strategic mindful repetition (deliberate practice).

Visually, it looks something like this:

“So this is an example of declarative knowledge.”


Efficient learning requires striking a balance between these two types of knowledge. I call it the declarative/procedural ratio.”

The Purpose of Learning

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is knowledge?”

“Is it information?”

“Knowledge is organized and integrated information.

Knowledge is Understanding.

Having knowledge is not enough (passive knowledge). It’s important to be able to access it efficiently whenever you need it (active knowledge). Being unable to access it when you need it is as if you didn’t have it.”

“How can you access knowledge efficiently?”

“By converting it into skills.

Skills are essentially habits – persistent neural patterns.

Learning is building knowledge. (input)
Learning is converting knowledge into skills. (output)

Learning is ultimately about converting passive knowledge into active knowledge.

On Knowledge 3

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is knowledge?”

“Knowledge is organized information.

I like to think of it as a network. A network has two components: nodes, and connections. In the knowledge network, the nodes represent potentially useful information, and the connections represent understanding.”

“So useless information is not knowledge?”

“Not in my view of it.”

“What if you don’t know whether a piece of information has the potential to be useful?”

“That’s a skill you can develop. Edward de Bono calls it ‘Value Sensitivity‘.

Useful information is instrumental. We might think of it as creative building-blocks.

The output of useful information – and of Thinking, more generally – is Creating Value. It can be in the form of problem-solving, optimization, conveying meaning, etc.

You can increase your knowledge in two ways: by creating more nodes, either through direct or indirect experiences [<link; medium], and by creating more connections between the nodes.”

“What about externally organized information. Does that count as knowledge?”

“We can make a distinction between internal and external knowledge. External knowledge is useful only insofar as it creates internal knowledge.

As Scott H. Young put it,

Knowledge that is not in your head can’t help you to solve problems.

The Output of Leaning

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is the output of Learning?”

“On one level, the output of Learning is Growth.

Growth is incremental change.

Growth is both change and non-change.
Change in that it involves the movement from one state to another.
Non-change in that it involves the creation of persistent structures.

On a pragmatic level, the output of Learning is the creation of persistent structures.
Persistent behavioral-structures – Habits.
Persistent mental-structures – Insights. 

Insights are the essence of Understanding, and the building-blocks of Knowledge.”

Learning Combo: Anki + The Feynman Technique

If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it. (Richard Feynman)

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is the Feynman technique?”

“It’s a beautiful technique created by Scott H. Young [<link], which was inspired by the great physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman was extraordinary in his ability to explain the most complex concepts in simple terms. 

I want to become a great explainer like Feynman.

There’s a quote I love by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

I’d say this applies to understanding as well. The essence of understanding lies in simplicity.

“What does the technique look like?”

“The essence of the technique is learning as if by teaching someone who doesn’t know anything about it. The beauty of it is that you don’t actually need someone to teach it to – thought the feedback in such a case might be useful. 

The goal is to simplify as much as possible, both the language and the explanation.
The language by rephrasing in your own words, using as few words as possible, and eliminating jargon.
The explanation by capturing the essence of the concept using analogies and images.

This is an iterative process. 

The technique aligns with an important principle of Learning: Testing (your understanding). When trying to explain something, you’ll often discover that what you took to be understanding was nothing but pseudo-understanding.”

“How do you practice the technique?”

“To retain what you learn requires Repetition. This is another important principle of Learning. The optimal frequency of repeating what you’ve learned is called  Spaced-Repetition. One way to make use of this is by using a flashcard system [<link].”

“Which one do you use?”

“I use an open-source software called Anki [<link]. 

I practice the Feynman Technique by combining it with Anki.

I create flashcards using Anki, and whenever I review them, I test my understanding using the Feynman Technique. So every review is an iteration of the process.”

Learning as Teaching

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

To learn something, testing your understanding is essential.

“What’s the best way to test your understanding?”

By trying to teach it to somebody else.

“What if I don’t have anyone to teach it to?”

“You don’t need an actual person to teach it to.

Think of it as if you’re trying to teach it to somebody else.

Better still,

think of it as if you’re trying to teach it to a child.

If a child can understand your explanation, that’s a sign you’ve really grasped the essence of it.”