By Greg Samways; January 10th, 2017

The key to studying, understanding and learning is not just being able to find the information, but being able to organise it in your mind so that it is retrievable when you next need it.  It is not sufficient to simply listen and “understand” what is being said or shown to you.  You have to actively process the information, organise it into logical patterns and locations in your brain, so you know where to find it when you need it.  Sherlock Holmes calls this his “Mind Palace”, which he is constantly working on to keep it tidy and accessible.

So how do you keep the information tidy and accessible in your brain?

You need to organise the information in to logical, memorable frames of reference. What is a frame of reference?  Ideally it is something graphical, because the brain remembers images far better than lists of words, or at least is something that easily conjures up images, like a story  Just think what you do when somebody describes something to you using words.  What do you do in your mind?  You try and imagine what it looks like.  Far easier and more memorable to just look at a picture!  But to make it really stick in your mind, you should draw the picture yourself, which involves taking the information in through your eyes and ears, processing the information in your brain, instructing your hand to draw, then re-evaluating your work with your eyes to check it is correct.  This is all part of the internalization process: the process by which physical memories are actually formed in your mind.

One of the best ways to learn is to teach.  I have learned more in the last thirteen years teaching courses than I did when I was studying!  Being able to explain something clearly demonstrates that you understand and that the subject has become part of your personal knowledge base.  This technique was used extensively by Richard Feynman.  Check out the video below from Sprouts for an explanation of the Feynman Technique.

The Feynman Technique

When you are experimenting with this technique, try recording your out-loud explanation and play it back to yourself.  You will soon see which bits make no sense!  You could easily make these videos on your smartphone, and when you are happy with your explanation, you can share them with your colleagues for their feedback.

Now lets look at some of the different ways we can organise our ideas.

Classification and Categorisation

As geoscientists we do this all the time, classifying rocks and fossils, log responses and depositional systems, to name a few.  Remember that the classification system is not the end point.  The classification system is just a means to an end.  It is the means by which we systematically group infinitely variable natural entities into a manageable set of categories.  Something that we can actually comprehend and visualise.  Once we have established a classification, we should have attained a new higher level of understanding, at which point we should start again and see what more we can learn by reclassifying in new and different ways.

The GeoLumina philosophy is to use a lot of classification schemes to make sense of the world.

Causal Link Diagrams

One of the key aspects of the natural world is the way in which the natural entities are linked and interdependent.  Classification systems give us a taxonomy, but it is the study of the links that really helps us understand how the system actually works.  This is systems thinking.  With an understanding of the links we can build a model, which we can possibly use to make predictions about how the system will behave.  For an “insight” in to systems thinking and causal link diagrams take a look at the free online systems simulation application Insightmaker.

The courses in GeoLumina will use a lot of Causal Link diagrams to make sense of geological systems.  We are also in the process of creating our own web application to allow GeoLuminaries to create their own causal link diagrams.


Before writing and reading became widespread, information was passed on by stories and plays.  The human brain is predisposed to organise information in to stories.  Something with a clear set of characters, a storyline, a beginning a middle and an end.  The story is typically also entertaining and hence memorable, as we all learn more when we are happy, smiling and receptive!  We use stories a lot in geoscience, for example plate tectonic history, basin history, depositional history, burial history, maturation history, migration history, production history (in French the word for story is “histoire”).

Stories can be told in many ways:

  • Words:  We can simply paint the picture with words.  However, it is much better to just provide a picture, especially when working in a multi-national workplace.
  • Images:  They are, after all, a thousand words.  We can convey much more with a good picture.
  • Storyboards:  Why not create a series of pictures, showing how the picture changes through time, like a palaeogeographic reconstruction.
  • Animations:  The logical extension of the storyboard is an animation.
  • Videos:  The ultimate communication is all of the above combined in a video.  Our favourite video production tool is Camtasia.  You can also get a free desktop app called Tiny Take which is very useful for short desktop recordings.


Once we have worked out what we are doing and why, we need to know how to do it.  The best way to organise your ideas on how to do it is a workflow.  It could be a simple list of instructions, or a more complex flow chart showing each step in the process.  We use a free online business process mapping tool called Bizagi to document workflows.  Take a look at this example of the oil industry life cycle that we are currently working on.

Decision Trees

A large part of what we do as geoscientists is interpretation.  Just like Sherlock Holmes, we make observations, consider the possibilities, eliminate the unlikely options that do not fit the evidence and finally decide on an answer.  For recurring problems we develop a decision-making process to make sure we make the right observations and consider all the possibilities at each stage of the process.  The more we practice these decision-making processes, the better we become at problem-solving.  It is a skill, after all.  If we want to pass on that expert decision-making skill, we need to document the decision making processes.

While you are working, think about how you use these skills and how you might improve them.

Tell your friends!