Deciding What To Forget

Recent news articles discussed how Google is changing human memory. Here's one example:

The basic finding is that people are relying more on external memory storage (computers and the internet) and less on their biological memories. The tone of these articles is invariably negative, but they don't usually contextualize this effect-- it's not new. Books have had the same effect. Wouldn't you try harder to memorize some things if you did not have the option of writing it down, or reading it out of a book?

Recently I read an interesting book (Moonwalking with Einstein, recommended) which, among other things, included a history of our memory techniques. There was a time when books were very rare. If you could get to a book at all, usually a bible, it might be your only chance in two years to be with it. So readers tried very hard to remember what they were reading. Nobody's complaining about books, as well they shouldn't. By freeing up our memories with books (and writing in general) we have cognitive resources freed up for higher-level reasoning. 

At some point, I believe we will have wearable computers with constant, worldwide internet access. When this happens, our need to biologically remember facts drastically reduce. But we're not there yet, and there is still a great need to memorize things. Years ago I was arguing with Thad Starner, a researcher of wearable computing, about the need to memorize. I was of the belief that it wasn't as important to know the science literature by heart because we could search it so easily. Later in the conversation, I could not recall a paper that would have established one of my points. He told me that I'd just disproved my own theory. He was right. 

I spend a good deal of time memorizing facts: about 10 minutes per day, on average. I use a computer flash card program that, every day, only shows me the cards I most need to study. I've written about using spaced repetition learning systems before:
In that entry, written two years ago, I was using Online Supermemo. I have since switched to Anki, which I now recommend. 

Using flash cards to memorize changed how I read for the better. Rather than taking in the book with the faint confidence in my understanding, I now force myself to process the text more deeply-- if I read something important that I want to memorize, I need to reconstruct it in my mind as a question and answer that is appropriate for Anki. Even this simple reconstruction makes the information more deeply processed and less easily forgotten. Once it's in Anki, though, I'll never forget it. The software won't let me. 

Having used Anki and Supermemo for several years now has also changed my views on writing. I'm working on a textbook, and in it I'm putting questions and answers appropriate for flash cards at the end of every chapter, to facilitate the use of flash card systems. I would love it if Wikipedia pages came with their own Anki decks that anyone could download. I don't see this happening, though, because I don't think flash card systems will every be popular enough to warrant the effort and screen real estate on wikipedia. So I'm forced to make cards myself, and force my students to make them in classes. 

I call the kind of reading I do "active reading." When I read something important, I force myself to figure out what to do with it. I do come subset of the following:

  • Flag the page it's on with a sticky plastic flag
  • Mark the passage with a pen (or highlight if it's a PDF) 
  • Create flash cards so that I'll never forget it
  • Incorporate what I read into a book I'm writing
  • Put a note about it in one of my various "literature review" documents, which keep track of everything I've read about particular subjects
  • Forward the information to other people

Making these choices requires decisions about how the information's importance and urgency. I also have to make a call about whether I need to memorize it or merely have it easily accessible with a computer. Every time I put a fact into Anki is a commitment to reviewing it, albeit more and more sporadically as time passes, for the rest of my life. It's a big commitment. 

It's hard when I read something interesting, but not important enough to warrant a note nor an Anki card. Such ideas are little more than pure entertainment. By not committing them to some memory system, either external or internal, they are doomed. I enjoy the something, and then read on, knowing, kind of sadly, that I'll probably forget it. 

A chameleon, b
y steffen (fRedi); andreas (andi.vs.zf) (originally posted to Flickr as the modern pet) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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