Archive for May 6th, 2008

Informal Learning and the Eternal Memory

May 6, 2008

How Quickly We Do ForgetWhat if you could remember everything you ever memorized with such precision that you could throw away all your books? What price would you pay? [And as we’ll see, the price I’m talking about is not money.]

 

That’s the question I asked of myself after reading Gary Wolf’s intriguing profile of Piotr Wozniak, the Polish inventor of the software program called SuperMemo that can help you recall things you’ve memorized at close to 90 percent. Forever!

 

The profile goes on for 6,000 words. And do read it. It’s a terrific piece of reporting on a man who has become prisoner to his nearly perfect memory. But I can spoil the how of it in just a couple of paragraphs.

 

For most of us short-term memory has a lifespan. That lifespan varies per individual, but memory’s fade is predictable. What Wozniak discovered… or really, rediscovered… is that the best way to keep a memory is to be reminded of it just as you’re about to forget it. Keep the reminders properly spaced and you can sell your library of books on eBay.

 

But here’s the kicker; memory fades in waves that are especially steeply-sloped early on. (See the diagram on the left). To keep memory sharp you have to be reminded at just the perfect crest of forgetfulness. With each properly-spaced reminder the wavelength of memory grows longer over time.

 

The phenomenon is well known and now called ‘the spacing effect.” That’s it diagrammed on the left. It was first identified in the 1880s by a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus memorized a series of nonsense syllables and rigorously measured how long it took to forget and then relearn them. His analysis led to the first description of the spacing effect.

 

But wait a minute you say, American educational theory scorns memorization as unhelpful and uncreative.

 

Or as Wolf puts it: 

“The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.”

 

“The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it’s false. “The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?” asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. “You can’t escape memorization,” he says. “There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That’s a stage we all go through. It’s all the more important to go through it rapidly.” The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.”

 

“Once we drop the excuse that memorization is pointless, we’re left with an interesting mystery. Much of the information does remain in our memory, though we cannot recall it. “To this day,” Bjork says, “most people think about forgetting as decay, that memories are like footprints in the sand that gradually fade away. But that has been disproved by a lot of research. The memory appears to be gone because you can’t recall it, but we can prove that it’s still there. For instance, you can still recognize a ‘forgotten’ item in a group. Yes, without continued use, things become inaccessible. But they are not gone.” 

Bjork for instance, has studied the oddity of the elderly who can often remember distant events with perfect clarity, but forget what they had for lunch. It’s small proof that it is recall that fades, not memory.

 

The key to putting the spacing effect to work in enhancing recall was clearly the computer. And as Wolf puts it, turning the spacing effect into software required someone who was not so much an academic, although Wozniak has a PhD, but a kind of intellectual ‘tinkerer’ with a gift for math and certain ‘literal temperament.’

 

The result was the effective if not always easy to use SuperMemo.

 

It’s Wozniak’s literalness that makes him a prisoner to his studies and something of an eccentric. For instance, scientists have long suspected that there’s a link between sleep and mental capacity. But there’s never been a good way to find the data. Since 1999 Wozniak has been keeping detailed logs of his sleep and tracking it against his “daily performances on study repetitions.”

 

You read that right, Wozniak has been loading data into his brain for decades and… using SuperMemo… has kept up the repetitions required to never forget it. He doesn’t foresee leaving Poland because the travel would disrupt his routines. He keeps himself in fighting trim in no small measure because his body houses his mind. For the same reason he avoids travel in Poland because the local motor vehicle accident rate is so high.

 

I’ll end where I started; as an informal learner what price are you willing to pay to never forget what you’ve learned?

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