Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

Remember Anything. Forever.

Let’s assume we’ve effectively learned a skill. We have climbed through the higher order cognitive skills of Bloom’s taxonomy through the use of Buzan mind maps, memory palaces, and have even taken advantage of the cognitive benefits of teaching our target skill (whether it be computer programming, systems analysis, or even language learning). We have now internalized the axioms of knowledge necessary to make divergent neural connections and produce creative output. However, there is one enemy lurking in the corner threatening to  throw away all our hard work: memory decay.

just_how_you_feel_out_of_memory_351575

This evil bastard will start eating away at our newly acquired knowledge the moment we finish internalizing it, and if we’re not careful,  will deteriorate it until it is no longer a part of our mental repertoire of skills.  There is, however, a scientifically tested way to defeat memory decay indefinitely. This can be done through spaced repetition,  or more specifically Spaced Repetition Software (SRS from now on).

 

The Spacing Effect And Spaced Repetition Software

The spacing effect is the phenomenon whereby we place a piece of knowledge to long-term memory through rehearsing it at longer time intervals (as opposed to “cramming” the information the moment we learn it).  In fact, if we get it right we can make sure to review a piece of information right before memory decay begins.

This is exactly what SRS allows us to do. SRS prompts reminders of the target information through “flashcards” that are perfectly timed to beat the memory decay found in the forgetting curve. In other words, this software acts as a neural prosthesis through which we can make sure a piece of information stays in our memory forever, ready for active recall at any moment.  Who said superpowers were only for superheroes?!

Visualization of the forgetting curved and the strategically timed SRS reminders.

Visualization of the forgetting curved and the strategically timed SRS reminders.

 

Guide and Tips for Using SRS

Now that we have the neural prosthesis that will give us the key to superhuman memory, what is the best way to use it?  I think it would be extremely inefficient to use this information to memorize stand alone facts that can be easily archived in the internet. For the first time in history we have ubiquitous, instant access to unlimited amounts of information. Not even the best of us can be better than a computer at storing information, so it would be useless to try (apart from being wasteful of our precious review time). Instead, I think we should commit to memory information that encourages skills and mental models (and information that would be advantageous if we had memorized, like romantic poems 😀 ) . 

For example, I have written before about the limitations of our  thinking. The human brain is by design prone to cognitive biases that prevent us from making optimal, rational decisions. These biases are ingrained into our subconscious thinking and the only way to work around them is to be able to diagnose situations when they might happen and prevent accordingly. In order to do this, we must have perfect recall of these biases and use them to analyse our most important decisions. This is why I’ve decided to memorize all the known cognitive biases using Spaced Repetition Software.

Similarly, we can use SRS to memorize other meta-cognitive skills that will allow us to understand the world around us (my personal recommendations being Bayesian statistics, Game theory, Heuristics and Biases and foreign languages).

Lastly, we must make sure not to confuse memorization with true learning. I realize this might be a hard distinction to make given the “mindless-memorization” focus of most modern schooling (see this article for more information). When you use SRS, you are just choosing information that you want to remember forever. IF you want to actually learn something, you need to do much more than just memorization. (for an overview of the science of learning, I recommend this book or this online course).

Resources

  1. My favorite Spaced Repetition Software: Anki
  2. Dr. Wozniak’s guide to making flashcards for SRS software. 
  3. Gwern’s amazing literature review of Spaced Repetition Software.
  4. Janki’s Guide to using Anki efficiently 
  5. QS Primer: Spaced Repetition and Learning
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6 responses to “Remember Anything. Forever.

  1. chakshuRA September 1, 2015 at 2:34 am

    Again some more common interests here. I have taken Barbara Oakley’s class too and was an active participant on QS meet-up groups here in Seattle, WA.
    If you put together the list for memorization, please share it on this blog. ‘My Mental Models Index’ published on my blog was an attempt to create a list that I was thinking of committing to memory for easy recall.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luis Francisco Contreras September 1, 2015 at 4:43 pm

      Yes of course! Actually your Mental Models Index (http://chakshura.com/mental-models-index/) is the perfect example of the types of things I would commit to memory through SRS. Not coincidentally, my current list is similar to yours:

      -Heuristics and Biases (including “de-biasing” techniques, which is different from just memorizing biases. I recently came across this information and will be writing about it soon)
      -Formal Logic
      -Game Theory
      -Markov Models
      -Bayesian Reasoning
      -Design Thinking (http://dschool.stanford.edu/dgift/)
      -Systems Thinking (http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/1603580557)

      I will be writing a blog post about the list once I have had time testing it and adding to it.

      PS. I just got Robert Cialdini’s book on persuasion and notice (what a surprise, eh?) that you have written a post about it and it seems very interesting. Have you found his principles useful in everyday life?

      Liked by 1 person

      • chakshuRA September 1, 2015 at 6:19 pm

        Absolutely… two books that help me tremendously in daily life as it relates to influence and persuasion are Robert Cialdini’s book and Dale Carnegie’s How to make friends and influence people… its a timeless classic. I may have read that book like three times and still every time I refer that I find something interesting… I think Dale Carnegie’s book is the mother of all books on influence / persuasion.

        Liked by 1 person

      • chakshuRA September 1, 2015 at 6:24 pm

        I love Donella’s Systems Thinking book. Its a bit more academic but captures the principles every elegantly. ‘The Fifth Discipline’ by Peter Senge (student of Donella) is more practical from an application perspective and that is still on my to-read list.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Luis Francisco Contreras September 3, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    You enrich my reading list so much, my friend!

    Like

  3. Sarah Edwards September 21, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    Really useful post, I’ve just finished some post graduate exams and found that the only way I could learn everything was using spaced repetition software. Initially I had a go at Anki (http://ankisrs.net/) but more recently found something like Mem-note (https://www.mem-note.com) worked better. The advantage is that now I’ve built a database of material I can keep everything under review and make sure I can still remember it all.

    Liked by 1 person

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