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.
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.
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).
- My favorite Spaced Repetition Software: Anki
- Dr. Wozniak’s guide to making flashcards for SRS software.
- Gwern’s amazing literature review of Spaced Repetition Software.
- Janki’s Guide to using Anki efficiently
- QS Primer: Spaced Repetition and Learning