Memorizing My Days
During the past year, Steven Jonas tried to memorize the daily stuff of his life. To do this, he used a tool that is called Supermemo. It’s a piece of software and it uses a technique that is called spaced repetition. Basically, it's an intelligent flashcard system, to help him remember the interesting things that happen to him during the day. In this talk, he shares how he thinks about memory and what is possible to remember about one's own life.
So the simplest way that I can explain how Supermemo works is that it’s kind of like a smart flashcard program and what I mean by smart is that instead of just log on and review your cards, it schedules cards for you. And when it schedules cards for you what it’s trying to do is optimize the efficiency in which you review the cards. And the way to do that, the way to most efficiently review flashcards is to review it right before you’re going to forget it. So it uses an algorithm that tries to predict when you’re going to forget a flashcard.
What’s crazy about it is that it’s actually really really effective, and there are a couple of great examples of people using it to great effect. Jeremy Howard, gave a talk to this group, a couple of years ago about using it to make tremendous progress in learning Chinese in then only a couple of years. And then Roger Craig, he was to become the fourth highest winner in Jeopardy, so there’s these incredible applications of it.
Myself, I’ve always been interested in the non-obvious applications of this kind of superpower. And so rather than trying to wind pub trivia night, like I said I decided to try to memorize individual days, so let me explain how that actually worked.
So starting last year every morning I would create new flash card in Supermemo, and the question side I would list different things that occurred that day, and on the answer side – well he day before actually on the answer side I put the date. So that’s a basic concept, and when I embarked on this I knew it was a crazy idea. This shouldn’t work, this should fail, but I wanted to see how it failed.
And so what I found is during the July of the past year, I was successful in creating cards 87% of the time. Right now, the cards, the average interval is 61 days, which means the average time I will wait to see the next card is about two months. And the card with the longest interval is about nine months.
And what I found is that yes, that this actually works, but I quickly learned that I thought it would be the case is that it’s actually harder to remember the exact date that something occurred. But I realized it’s kind of like a logic puzzle. I would see these four different events and each one would be a clue. So like one, I would say that I broke down my aquarium from work and took it home. Okay, that must have been on a weekend. I knew I did that on a weekend, and then I see another thing that says oh, we went in costume shopping. Well okay that’s October. And deerstalker cap, okay well that’s my Sherlock Holmes costume and that was 2013. And I happen to remember in 2013, Halloween was on a Thursday and I think this card represents a Saturday, so 31 minus five because that’s the difference between two days would be October 26 2013. Seriously this is what is going through my head.
But often, this internal dialog goes pretty quickly, but sometimes it’s actually a very slow and difficult process as I’m pulling each thread and trying to figure out the most probable date. But an incredible thing happens is that then when I sleep that night and my brain consolidates all that it writes down that memory with all those connections that are going down around it.
And so what I found is that it’s not just that I’m keeping my memories fresh, I’m actually building a new mental structure. A sort of architecture of all these days sit in, and because I have to call on these related memories to reach an answer, those memories get written back down like I mentioned. And even the mundane days where nothing really significant happened work to help create this structure and you create this interdependent latticework of memories that all hinge on one another and make an entire mental structure stronger.
And I realized that I found out having my memories organized and being able to recall them fairly well does not help me win at Jeopardy or anything else. But it’s really weird and different to take such an active role in constructing your memories, and I found that to be deeply satisfying.
And that’s also a funny thing to, because you get to see the process of your brain working because I could feel memories converging together, trying to blend together and me like fighting it and like no, you were in September you know. Then like your friend Thomas came again in January and those were two different conferences that he was in town for are not the same. You know this memory goes here and that memory goes there. so it’s like I’m tending to the garden of my mind.
Another thing I found which is interesting is it’s really hard to say that’s true, but I actually feel like it’s slowing down time, and it could be that constantly revisiting the recent past and refreshing the novelty of each day, the novelty is what by saying this is what’s unique about this day that can make time slow down.
I think about when I was in tenth grade, the whole year seemed that it took so long, but now as an adult a summer will just fly by in a blur. And since doing this I feel the last year did not fly by, because I’m constantly thinking about everything that occurred.
So like I said earlier this can still fail at some point. I mean what happens when you get to the point like you remember every day from the past 10 years I don’t know. But until I reach that point it has changed my relationship to my personal memories. And just having that experience in what that is like I find to be incredibly invaluable.