Memory and Learning
cognition | mood & emotion
In 2008, Steven Jonas read an article that pretty much changed his life. It was about about a program called Supermemo, written by Gary Wolf. Supermemo had this promise where it would help you remember 95% of what you’ve learned forever. Steven purchased the program and discovered it really worked. In this talk, he shares the lessons he learned from Supermemo.
So in 2008 I read this article that pretty much changed my life. It was in Wired and it was written by Gary Wolf and it was about this programme called Supermemo. And this programme had this promise where it said that it would help you remember 95% of what you’ve learned forever.
So I looked into it and I realized, what I found out the way that it worked was that it was a kind of a smart flashcard programme. So it’ll show you like a question and you give the answer and you rate yourself on how well you knew that answer or didn’t know it.
Then what it does it schedules a time for you to review that piece of information again, and what it’s doing in a sense is that it’s trying to make a prediction of when you’re going to forget it. and while it’s doing that is that it wants to catch you right before you forget it, because if it does that, if you refresh that memory right before then, then the amount of time you’re going to remember that piece of information increases exponentially.
So you can start off five day, and then 15 days and 45 days and go up to like 15 years. And so all I have to do is just enter information into it and then just sit down every day and open up Supermemo and go through all of my repetitions. Right now it’s about 200 items today.
So I read this article in 2008, but it wasn’t until about 2010 that I established a daily habit, and that’s when I saw some incredible results. For me it first started with definitions. So when I was reading and came across a word I didn’t know, I would you know get the definition and then memorize it.
And what I found was, obviously reading just comprehension just shot up as you would expect. But the unexpected result was that I liked it when I saw those words in the stuff that I read, and then further I wanted to challenge myself more. I wanted to get new words. I wanted to see those challenging words. So I was reading material that I never would have attempted before and so that was now.
So with that success I continued by experimenting with other things to seeing what sort of unexpected benefits I could get. So while I was learning about geography, you know let’s say you know the location of a country and its capital and something very interesting happened. And what that was you know let’s take Mali, so I learned and memorized the location of Mali and its capital was Bamako. And what happened was that if I came across an article say about you know the Tuareg rebellion in Northern Mali, then what would happen is that I would actually be more likely to read it because I memorized the location of Mali and it seemed more familiar to me. so I would be able to look at it and say, oh Mali, I know where that is, but what’s going on there and I wonder if they’re going to talk about Bamako in it.
And then as I read through the article I would pick up real historical, contextual information and add that into Supermemo. So what actually just started out was like a piece of trivia I was then able to take real information and attaching it and then slowly building up a real sense of knowledge around something. And so what I realized was that by memorizing things it actually made me more curious. It made me want to build on you know what I had already memorized and build on it more and more.
Another insight that came up that was interesting which is that when you’re doing this you’re actually working at the edge of your abilities because it’s trying to make you recall stuff that you are almost about to forget. So you learn things about the nature of your memory which is really interesting. So I learned how to structure knowledge better and code things better. So here’s an example of what I mean.
I was having a really difficult time, and we’ll use geography again memorizing the locations of Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana. The reason why is they’re three similarly sized countries, they’re all right next to each other in south America and I cannot keep them straight in life for me.
And so what I did was like I tried to find similar structure that I can borrow from that can help me distinguish the three. So what I used was actually three other countries; Portugal, Spain and France. So since Spain and Suriname were both in the middle of these three countries and they both start with “S”, I was able to make that connection. And then since French Guyana and France are both on the Eastern most side I was able to make that connection. Then after that I had no difficulty in remembering those things.
So that was a new skill intentionally thinking about how to encode something so I could remember it better later that was something I never did before.
Supermemo also has some other benefits beyond just the magical algorithm that’s predicting when you’re going to forget stuff. You can also just put information that’ll repeat in increasing intervals, so let’s say like a quote or something. You’ll see it for 20 days, 40 days, or 60 days. And we know the power of repetition because you think about like media, and you know you hear something enough times you then believe that’s then true, which is terrible. However, it’s something you can hack and use for yourself.
And so what I did, I used it with philosophy. So I’m a fan of the stoics, so I took the sayings of Seneca, and Epictetus and put it into Supermemo and repeated it enough so that those ideas would get engrained in me. And actually that’s what stoics did, as you saw Marcus Relias, he said he would repeat thing to effect the dying of the soul.
So here’s the last thing I’m going to share about that happened and was really cool. After two years of using this I would start having items that I hadn’t seen in about like a year or so. And when they’d show up it would be like a quote or a historical figure or this image, and it was almost like a visit from an old friend. There was something warm about it and kind of comforting.
And you know, we think about emotions and personal memories being linked up, but I never heard anything about factual information but I experienced that. And I realized that putting all of this stuff into this collection was a way of kind of scrapbooking my intellectual life and development. And as emotional coping, helped me to really appreciate all this stuff I decided to put in there, because it helped me value that investment that I made.
So here’s my contact info, and if you use face repetition or if you’re interested in it please come and talk to me. I really really love talking about this stuff, so thank you for listening I really appreciate it.