Jeremy Côté

Consuming and Absorbing

How much do you read in a day? How much do you remember?

As a scientist, one of my main jobs is reading papers. This is to learn about new work in my field, understanding the methods of others, and getting ideas for my own work. I also love reading fiction, which I do every day.

However, not all reading is equal.

A useful way I’ve found to think about reading is as a spectrum between consuming and absorbing. When you’re consuming, you’re passive, allowing the experience to wash over you. This is often my state while reading fiction. I pay attention to the pages not as individual units, but as a coherent whole. I focus on the story. Though I enjoy spotting techniques my favourite writers use, it’s not where my attention is.

Absorbing is much more active. Here, you focus on the technical details, on understanding what’s going on, and on incorporating (absorbing) the information into your point of view. This side of the spectrum is tiring. It requires work, and it’s not an activity you can sustain for prolonged periods of time. The reward of being in this mode is a better understanding of the material you’re studying and how it interacts with your current knowledge.

For learning as a scientist, I hope it’s clear that you want to be absorbing more than simply consuming.

When I was an undergraduate first getting into research, I consumed papers. I had this idea in my head that if I read the whole paper, line by line, then I was doing my job correctly. But I was only consuming the papers, reading the words but not absorbing any meaning from them. I read these papers multiple times, and because I focused on finishing the papers rather than understanding their message, I didn’t learn much.

Even now as a PhD student, I catch myself making this mistake quite often. I read papers to completion instead of to understanding. But science isn’t a reading contest, with the person consuming the most papers declared the winner. It’s about absorbing knowledge so that you can use what you’ve learned to generate your own ideas.

Reading is just one example, but this spectrum applies to many activities. Are you going through the motions of X, or are you doing it because you want to get something from it? Are you approaching the activity with purpose, or with the passive mindest of consuming? It’s easy to consume as a default because it’s less exhausting and feels good in the moment. But for some activities, this default isn’t helpful, which is why we need to do the difficult work of becoming better absorbers.