Incremental learning myths


SuperMemo always had to struggle with myths slowing down its popularization. Preventing the reappearance of myths appears to be a never-ending battle. The knowledge about SuperMemo has grown to a substantial volume. Not all users can afford reading dozens of articles. Many users are bound to arrive to the same wrong conclusions independently of others. Some of these myths are rooted in general myths of memory. Others seem to spring from the common sense thinking about learning. Here are some most damaging myths related to spaced repetition, SuperMemo, and incremental learning.

Myth: Many people are successful without using SuperMemo, hence its importance is secondary

Myth: Many people are successful without using SuperMemo, hence its importance is secondary.
Fact: Neither Darwin nor Newton had access to computers, yet computer illiteracy may make today's scientist entirely impotent. Similarly, with a growing importance of knowledge, neglecting the competitive advantage of a wider and stable knowledge will increasingly limit your chances of successful career in science, engineering, medicine, politics, etc. You can live without SuperMemo, but it can definitely raise your learning to a new level.

Myth: Natural mechanisms for selecting important memories are good enough. We do not need a crutch

Myth: Natural mechanisms for selecting important memories are good enough. We do not need a crutch. The evolution produced an effective forgetting mechanism that frees our memory from space-consuming and perhaps irrelevant garbage. This mechanism proved efficient enough to build the amazing human civilization. Consequently, many believe that there cannot be much room for improvement.
Fact: The forgetting mechanism was built in abstraction from our wishes and decisions. It only spares memories that are used frequently enough. Nowadays, we are smart enough to decide on our own which knowledge is vital and which is not. A single peek into a dictionary may often take more time than the lifetime time cost of refreshing the same word in SuperMemo. This is just the least spectacular example. Human history is rich in monumental errors coming from ignorance. NASA's confusion of imperial and metric units cost a lost Mars probe. Confusion of comma with a dot in Fortran, cost a Venus probe. Errors in English communication caused many aerial and maritime catastrophes. A piece of knowledge in surgeon's mind may be worth the life of his patient. Forgetting is too precarious to leave mission-critical knowledge to your brain's own devices. SuperMemo puts you in the driver's seat. You can decide what your remember and what you forget. For more see: Memorization is not needed and Memory has an excellent ability to retain important information

Myth: We cannot improve memory by training

Myth: We cannot improve memory by training. Infinite memory is a popular optimist's myth. A pessimist's myth is that we cannot improve our memory via training. Even William James in his genius book The Principles of Psychology (1890) wrote with certainty that memory does not change unless for the worse (e.g. as a result of aging or disease).
Fact: If considered at a very low synaptic level, memory is indeed quite resistant to improvement. Not only does it seem to change little in the course of healthy life. It is also very similar in its properties across the human population. At the very basic level, synapses of a low-IQ individual are as trainable as that of a genius. They are also not much different from those of a mollusk Aplysia or a fly Drosophila. However, there is more to memory and learning than just a single synapse. The main difference between poor students and geniuses is in their skill to represent information for learning. A genius quickly dismembers information and forms simple models that make thinking easy. Simple models of reality help understand it, process it, and remember it. What William James failed to mention is that a week-long course in mnemonic techniques dramatically increases learning skills for many people. Their molecular or synaptic memory may not improve. What improves is their skill to handle knowledge. Consequently, they can remember more and for longer. Learning is a self-accelerating and self-amplifying process. As such it often leads to miraculous results.

Myth: SuperMemo repetitions take too much time to make it worthwhile

Myth: SuperMemo repetitions take too much time to make it worthwhile. Many users struggle with an increasing load of repetitions and may conclude that the effort is not worth the outcome.
Fact: Just 3 well-selected items memorized per day may produce a better effect than a hundred crammed facts. This means that even a minute per day will make a world of difference, as long as you pay a close attention to what you learn. Not all knowledge is worth the effort of 99% retention. High retention should be reserved only for mission-critical facts and rules. Last but not least: knowledge formulating skills may cut the learning time for beginners by a wide margin. For more see: High retention results in slow learning

Myth: As you add more material to SuperMemo, your repetition loads mount beyond being manageable

Myth: As you add more material to SuperMemo, your repetition loads mount beyond being manageable. No item added to SuperMemo is considered "memorized for good". For that reasons, all items are subject to review sooner or later. There must therefore be an inevitable increase in the cost of repetitions.
Fact: It is true that a large number of outstanding repetitions is the primary excuse for SuperMemo drop-outs. However, computer simulations as well as real-life measurements show that, with the constant daily learning time, the acquisition of new knowledge does not visibly slow down in time except for the very first couple of months. In other words, from a long-term perspective, the acquisition of new knowledge is nearly linear. Older items are repeated less and less frequently leaving room for new material. The exponential nature of this "fading" explains why we can continue with a heavy inflow of new material for decades.

Myth: People differ in the speed of learning, but they all forget at the same speed

Myth: People differ in the speed of learning, but they all forget at the same speed.
Fact: Although there are mutations that might affect the forgetting rate, at the synaptic level, the rate of forgetting is indeed basically the same (independent of how smart you are). However, the same thing that makes people learn faster, helps them forget slower. The key to learning and slow forgetting is representation (i.e. the way knowledge is formulated). If you learn with SuperMemo, you will know that items can be very difficult or very easy. The difficult ones are forgotten much faster and require shorter intervals between repetitions. The key to making items easy is to formulate them well. Moreover, good students will show better performance on the exactly same material. This is because the ultimate test on the formulation of knowledge is not in how it is structured in your learning material, but in the way it is stored in your mind. With massive learning effort, you will gradually improve the way you absorb and represent knowledge in your mind. The fastest student is the one who can instinctively visualize and store knowledge in his mind using imagery that provide minimum-information and maximum-connectivity.

Myth: Hypertext can substitute for memory

Myth: Hypertext can substitute for memory. An amazingly large proportion of the population holds memorization in contempt. Terms "rote memorization", "recitatory rehearsal", "mindless repetition" are used to label any form of memorization or repetition as unintelligent. Seeing the "big picture", "reasoning" and leaving the job of remembering to external hypertext sources are supposed to be viable substitutes.
Fact: Knowledge stored in human memory is associative in nature. In other words, we are able to suddenly combine two known ideas to produce a new quality: an invention. Hypertext references are a poor substitute for associative memory. Two facts stored in human memory can instantly be put together and bring a new idea to life. The same facts stored on the Internet will remain useless until they are pieced together inside a creative mind. A mind rich in knowledge, can produce rich associations upon encountering new information. An empty mind is as useful as a toddler given the power of the Internet in search of a solution. Biological neural networks work in such a way that knowledge is retained in memory only if it is refreshed/reviewed. Learning and repetition are therefore still vital for the progress of mankind. This humorous text explains the importance of memory: It is not just memorizing

Myth: We do not need SuperMemo, all we need is to build an index to knowledge sources

Myth: We do not need SuperMemo, all we need is to build an index to knowledge sources. With multiple on-line sources of knowledge, some people are tempted to believe that all we are supposed to learn is a sort of index to these external sources of knowledge.
Fact: Even "index to knowledge" is subject to forgetting and needs to be maintained via repetition or review. All creative geniuses need knowledge to form new concepts. The extent of this knowledge will vary, but the creative output does depend on the volume of knowledge, its associative nature, and its abstractness (i.e. its relevance in building models).

Index to knowledge

A less extreme version of "memorization is not needed" myth, is that "we only need to remember an index to knowledge". It is true that abstract knowledge and general concepts are most useful. However, this type of knowledge is also subject to forgetting. Moreover, not all knowledge is inferential. To reason about Antarctica, we often need to know that it is cold. We might derive the temperature conclusion from the position of Antarctica on the map, but we need the knowledge of the map, the knowledge of the climate, and the knowledge of the earth's position in reference to the sun. Any kid will admit that it is simpler to just remember that Antarctica is white and cold. In this case, rules are more useful, but facts are easier to remember.

A mere mortal will usually be aware that doughnuts are foods that should better be avoided by people who fear a heart disease. The fact "Doughnuts ain't good for heart" contributes to an average man's knowledge about health. This fact probably does not need SuperMemo. After all, most of us will refresh the knowledge about doughnuts and the heart each time we see a tasty doughnut. The Doughnut Fact contributes also to our index to knowledge. It is enough to jump to Google and type +doughnut +heart to make a good use of this particular entry in our index. The search will help us recover more knowledge about the relationship between doughnuts and the heart.

If we want to enhance our ability to think and conclude about doughnuts and the heart, we might try to remember the following:

  1. Fact 1: Doughnuts are high in trans fatty acids
  2. Rule 1: Trans fatty acids in foods tend to lower HDLs (high-density lipoproteins)
  3. Rule 2: Lower blood HDLs are a major risk factor in cardiovascular disorders (e.g. arteriosclerosis)

There is an advantage to knowing the above facts and rules: upon finding out that French fries are high in trans fatty acids, we will be able to use Rule 1 and Rule 2 to derive a new fact: French fries ain't good for the heart. The awareness of the above rules will increase our reasoning ability. In the terminology of knowledge engineering, we will be able to derive new facts and rules from the existing set of facts and rules. In plain language, we will know more than we have actually learned. We will be able to conclude more. We will become more intelligent (if intelligence was defined as the inferential ability of the human mind).

Yet there is a downside to remembering the trans fat rules. They are not as plain as the Doughnut Fact, and they may not effectively be refreshed upon a sight of a doughnut. Consequently, we may simply forget the link between doughnuts, trans fat, and the heart. This is where SuperMemo comes to play a role. It will help you refresh the trans fat rules. It will minimize the number of reviews in lifetime. In other words, it will help you keep the trans fat rules in your forgetful memory. Thus SuperMemo makes sure that your "index to knowledge" remains intact in your mind.

Myth: In incremental reading, you spend mere seconds reading a topic

Myth: In incremental reading, you spend mere seconds reading a topic.
Fact: The time devoted to a topic depends on your needs. It may be a few seconds (e.g. for a low priority boring subject), or it can be an entire day (e.g. before an exam, or when doing research, or just when following your passions).

Myth: Memorization is not needed

Myth: Memorization is not needed.
Fact: If all students followed the suggestion that memorization is not needed, we would live in a different world. Here is a humorous take on how this world might look like.

The advantage of keeping knowledge in your head as compared to keeping it in external sources can metaphorically be compared to the advantage of going from primary through secondary to university education as opposed to getting a week-long course on digging info from external sources. Nearly all parents seem to prefer to choose the former for their kids.

Myth: High retention results in slow learning

Myth: High retention results in slow learning.
Fact: You need to understand a clear distinction between the two extremes of learning:

Reading books belongs to the low-retention category, while memorizing 10-20 items per day with SuperMemo belongs to the high-retention category. The optimum reading strategy will find the golden mean between these two. You should not give up traditional reading. Neither should you expect to put all your study material into SuperMemo. You should choose a middle-ground strategy. For example, if you consistently spend 90% of your time on reading and 10% of your time on adding most important findings to SuperMemo, your reading speed will actually decline only by some 10%, while the retention of the most important pieces will be as high as programmed in SuperMemo (i.e. usually 95%).

Incremental reading provides you with a precise tool for finding the optimum balance between speed and retention. You will ensure high-retention of the most important pieces of text, while a large proportion of time will be spent reading at speeds comparable or higher than those typical of traditional book reading.

It is worth noting that the learning speed limit in high-retention learning is imposed by your memory. If "memorizing" one-book-per-year sounds like a major disappointment, the roots of this lay in human memory. Our current knowledge of psychophysiology and pharmacology does not provide any means that could allow of breaking beyond those limits. We are left with the choice between high-speed and high-retention. Incremental reading gives you a full hands-on control over finding the optimum balance.

Myth: We are good at remembering important things

Myth: We are good at remembering important things.
Fact: The evolution of the brain proceeds too slowly to have helped us adapt its structures to abstract thinking. What was excellent for survival 200,000 years ago does not suffice to process modern abstract knowledge. Simple computational tasks such as multiplication or division proceed in a shamefully inefficient way in the human mind. After all, early humans did not need to multiply (explicitly and a lot). At the same time, for long, computers found it hard to compete with the visual cortex in pattern recognition and processing. Recognizing the enemy or prey was critical not only for Homo sapiens but also for birds, reptiles, fish or even insects. The only measure of the importance of knowledge our brain synapses have at hand is the pattern of repetition, levels of circulating hormones at the time of exposure, and a limited impact of conscious attentive labeling of information as important at the moment of encoding. Forgetting is needed to optimize knowledge storage; hence we have to forget less important things. Repeated use of the memorized knowledge is a good but far from perfect measure of importance (see: We remember useful things because we use them)

Modern life has changed the hierarchy of value and importance of knowledge. The link between importance and repeated use has been severed. A flashy lingerie billboard we see every morning is not likely to be more important than dozens of volatile facts pertaining to our professional life. Regrettably, there is no circuit in our brain that would let us consciously etch important memories: This is important! I must not forget it! All we can do is to use the trick of reverberation or mnemonic techniques which... still will usually not last long unless we apply spaced repetition as in SuperMemo.

If memory had an excellent ability to retain important information:

  1. you would not tremble before an exam and confusingly run through the notes to be sure that at the zero hour you won't suffer from a blackout. At the same time, you could easily recall details of a Schwarzenegger movie seen last evening or even weeks before the exam. Clearly, Arnie beats the ups and downs of the Ottoman Empire. And if you think the Ottoman Empire had much greater an impact on humanity than the island shootout in Commando, you are still likely to remember the muscle and the machine gun far better than the timeline of the sultans
  2. you would never have problems with recalling the date of your mother-in-law's birthday. This is a piece of data that is critical to your marital harmony!
  3. you should instantly forget the Olympic champions in football in Atlanta 1996 or Munich 1972. After all this might be a classic case of unimportant knowledge. Yet few Africans would forget how Nigeria beat Argentina 4:3 in 1996. Similarly, few Poles would forget the most memorable moment in the history of Polish football: Olympic championship in Munich.

The truth is that we excellently remember only things that are both easy to remember and repeated frequently enough. The brain does not have an internal measure of importance (other than limited volitional control or control via repeated exposure)! Your memory storage ruthlessly deletes your career-critical knowledge with the same ease as it ravages the traces of last year's golf scores or contributing names listed at the end of a boring soap opera. SuperMemo will ensure you remember your mission critical data. What is in, stays in your memory. What is out, is free to go.

Myth: We remember useful things because we use them

Myth: We remember useful things because we use them.
Fact: Not only are we limited in our ability to remember things that we consider important. We cannot even rely on the fact that frequently used memories are remembered better. There are two main reason why frequency of use is not sufficient:

Opponents of SuperMemo often say: "Whatever knowledge I need, I use often. If I use it often, I do not forget". This is a false conviction. Spacing effect and forgetting are unpredictable. The whole world of useful things escapes your brain on a daily basis. You may say that if need to fly to Mars, you can just read about math tools that you find useful. However, the tool that is useless today might be useful in 5 years, or tomorrow, when you tackle a different problem. You need the whole toolset ready in your mind. The associative power of the extra knowledge just makes you a better problem solver and a stronger thinker.

Tunnel vision effect may be counteracted with extensive reading, however, there is no better way of reading than incremental reading.