Augmenting Long-term Memory
August 12, 2018 7:57 AM   Subscribe

In this essay we investigate personal memory systems, that is, systems designed to improve the long-term memory of a single person. In the first part of the essay I describe my personal experience using such a system, named Anki ... The second part of the essay discusses personal memory systems in general. Many people treat memory ambivalently or even disparagingly as a cognitive skill: for instance, people often talk of “rote memory” as though it's inferior to more advanced kinds of understanding. I'll argue against this point of view, and make a case that memory is central to problem solving and creativity. A detailed long read from Michael Nielsen including a discussion of how he prepared himself to write an article on AlphaGo for Quanta Magazine.
posted by Wolfdog (27 comments total) 173 users marked this as a favorite
I’m only part way into it but this article is already a fascinating read. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:50 AM on August 12, 2018

This is a really excellent article and incredibly timely. I'm 34 and am 1 year into a 4 year back-to-college mission to get a BA + MS. My BA, as it happens, will be in Cognitive Science. I've always had a pretty decent memory and that has gone a long way to helping me get back into the groove of taking difficult courses. Still, the last time I was in college was 2002 and technology has obv. come a long way since then. I've been casting about for a better way to retain information than the system of physical paper index cards I've been using, and Anki sounds perfect. Definitely gonna explore implementing this before the fall semester kicks in. Thank you!!
posted by lazaruslong at 8:53 AM on August 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Great article. I'm in the midst of looking for the best Anki clients for my Macbook and Android phone. I always install some sort of spaced repetition software and then let it languish, but this article, with its practical examples of workflow, might push me over the edge.
posted by craniac at 10:22 AM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this. I, too, have used Anki to learn UNIX commands and found it incredibly effective.

I fell off the Anki bandwagon after I finished my university coursework, but this article's a big inspiration to get back on. There are so many subjects I'd like to be able to speak about with greater expertise, and in practice a big part of that is being able to remember specific facts, anecdotes, and definitions. That's not something that's ever going to come naturally to me, but with continual practice and technological assistance it seems achievable. The Anki best practices described in this article seem like they'll help a lot too.
posted by Kilter at 10:25 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Has anybody tried using it to learn music theory? I consider myself a guitar player instead of a musician because my theory is so weak. It's really tough for me to make this stuff stick at my age.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:28 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I use Anki every day on my bus ride to study Chinese with one of the community Chinese HSK decks. I have really learned a lot. It also makes me very aware of my own cognitive limits---I can rock the flash cards for about an hour, making progress and learning new things, and then I hit a wall and end up repeating the same few cards over and over because my brain has seized. If I'm very tired or stressed, that hour drops to a few minutes.

I haven't tried to make my own deck since grad school, IIRC the deck editing software was kind of fiddly and there were deck compatibility problems between Android and desktop . This makes me want to give it another try.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:52 PM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

While Anki is an extremely simple program, it's possible to develop virtuoso skill using Anki, a skill aimed at understanding complex material in depth, not just memorizing simple facts.
This. Though Nielsen says he will defend rote memorization, using flashcards to develop deeper understanding is not "rote" memorization. The "rote" in "rote memorization" refers specifically to memorizing facts without trying to develop context or understanding.

A major component of that is developing a framework that connects all of the items to be memorized, so that they are an interrelated knowledge base rather than a whole bunch of separate facts. Building this framework is what Nielsen is describing here, in the first of the two goals he had in his initial read-through of the AlphaGo paper:
I began with the AlphaGo paper itself. I began reading it quickly, almost skimming. I wasn't looking for a comprehensive understanding. Rather, I was doing two things. One, I was trying to simply identify the most important ideas in the paper. What were the names of the key techniques I'd need to learn about? Second, there was a kind of hoovering process, looking for basic facts that I could understand easily, and that would obviously benefit me. Things like basic terminology, the rules of Go, and so on.
Some more detailed discussions of making best use of flash cards (referencing some cognitive science and education research) include: Both of these also talk about spaced repetition, which is the feature that it sounds like the Anki system automates that made it particularly useful for Nielsen. But they include more detailed tips as well.
posted by eviemath at 1:07 PM on August 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

As a longtime student of Japanese (which I'm pretty sure is the purpose for which Anki originated - it means "memorization" in Japanese) I'm very familiar with Anki, as well as with the Anki supernerds who hack the hell out of the program and then yell at each other about how if you're not going to bother optimizing you should just jump off a cliff or something (I hate my fellow Japanese learners sometimes). So I really appreciate what he has to say about not giving it up because you're not using it perfectly. I owe most of my reading ability to Anki and Heisig, which is another thing that triggers endless yelling among Japanese language nerdboys, but he has some really interesting things to say about memory in the intro to his "Remembering the Kanji." (A lot of it is about the kind of mnemonic devices that are glossed over in this article.)

Anyway, I've only ever used Anki for Japanese (and then only for simple 1:1 memorization of things like kanji and vocab), but I've been reading some history lately and worrying about retention, and this article has inspired me to create a deck for questions and answers from my reading, as an experiment. I'm excited to see how it goes!
posted by sunset in snow country at 2:17 PM on August 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

I have also only used anki for language learning. This article makes me curious about trying out his technique of having a massive deck where he puts in anything of interest.

Falling behind is really what kills anki use for me. I was on a four day vacation and had over 200 cards waiting after. That was two weeks ago, and I've only used anki once since then because i dread opening it up and seeing those numbers.
posted by tofu_crouton at 2:23 PM on August 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

For remembering my reading, I usually write a paragraph or two about what I read. Every now and then I will browse back through my notes, thus giving my brain a refresher after an interval. It's not as scheduled as anki but much less time consuming, and the writing allows me to respond to it more creatively.
posted by tofu_crouton at 2:25 PM on August 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have used Anki for memorizing facts for bar trivia. I had a deck with all the U.S. presidents, their terms of service, their parties, their home states, and a few other facts like information about assassinations and unusual elections. I also had a deck of U.S. states, their capitals, the year the entered the union, and stuff like “Which state is the granite state?” Etc. At one point I had a deck with all winners of the Best Picture Oscar going back to 1950. I really could recall all these things too. It is surprising and almost uncanny how Anki lets you cram random facts in your brain.
posted by chrchr at 5:32 PM on August 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

This is an amazing essay! Or really, an amazing short book. I'm only a small way into it so far, but the writing style is so organized and clear it's a pleasure to read. Thanks for this awesome link, Wolfdog!
posted by Kevin Street at 9:49 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Interesting. I have always considered myself as having a pretty terrible memory. It's less like a sieve, more like a bucket with a big hole in the bottom. I do, however, find it easy to grasp theories and processes. They stick. But nouns tend to fall out of my head. I did do a degree in STEM, and hit a wall hard when they started requiring memorising citations in papers, because I could only remember so many at a time. It was like one-in, one-out, like how he describes his brain seizing up. In fact, what I ended up doing was writing several practice essays, memorising them in their entirety, and writing them out over and over, because past papers showed that they re-used the same set of basic questions. Of course, almost all that information is now gone from my head, but I'm not sure it could be actually useful to me anyway - the concepts are useful and still hang around, remembering which paper to reference? Not so much. I have to admit, I instinctively revolt against the idea of using Anki to "read" papers. I don't think it would gel with how I like to learn, which is in reading paragraphs.

My actual issue is in everyday life, I can't remember names of people or streets or actors or books or films. I blank regularly, sometimes about people I talk to every day. I often describe tv shows like "Oooh... that one.... they had to live in a basement for a while?" because I cannot remember the name of any actors, or the name of the show, or sometimes even the theme. Once, I had a moment where for a good ten seconds I couldn't remember what my parent's house looked like. It was just gone from my head. They've lived there for years. Maybe I could set up an Anki system to test me on all these things but... I don't know. I'm not sure it would improve my life. Memorising things for the sake of it strongly doesn't appeal to me for some reason, although if I get a new job I might use it for people's names because that does get embarrassing.

Would "practicing" memory using something like Anki help me with those occasions where I put something down somewhere, stare at it and go "I must remember that this is here! I put my wallet here. When I go to look for my wallet, it is in this place", and then two hours later forget completely and can't find it? Does it actually improve your abilities overall, or just in the things you're studying? I would be really interested in something that could improve my memory *overall*.

And yet, creativity and problem-solving are usually considered my strong points, so it can't be that reliant on memory.
posted by stillnocturnal at 4:25 AM on August 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Vera Birkenbihl did a lot of work on improving memory, with emphasis on paying attention to things in the first place (Hermione was right!) and exploring the memories you're got.

Unfortunately, this somewhat expensive course is the only example of her work that I know of which is available in English-- everything else is in German.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:47 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anki Tips: What I learned making 10,000 Flash Cards is pretty good, especially on the importance of "Why?" questions.
posted by storybored at 7:54 AM on August 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

(For a little context, this is apparently the Michael Nielsen of Nielsen and Chuang, Quantum Computation and Quantum Information, which is more or less a standard textbook, to the extent there can be such a thing in a newish field like quantum information.)
posted by golwengaud at 8:32 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was/am using Anki to help learn Spanish. The bit in the article about the intimidation after falling behind is real - I had skipped months of review and managed to forget a lot, but fortunately it is coming back somewhat quickly. I don't pay much attention to the numbers of cards queued up, but instead just work through what I can.

It's tempting instead to use Anki to stockpile knowledge against some future day, to think “Oh, I should learn about […]”. These are goals which, for me, are intellectually appealing, but which I'm not emotionally invested in. I've tried this a bunch of times. It tends to generate cold and lifeless Anki questions, questions which I find hard to connect to upon later review, and where it's difficult to really, deeply internalize the answers.

This also seems related to the style of Anki cards recommended in Fluent Forever that have photos rather than a simple word and translation, and this person's complaints regarding Anki. One excuse for me falling off my study was that I didn't want to put in the work to make new cards to replace my 630-card deck I'd built up of Spanish/English words. Anyway the Fluent Forever app is supposed to arrive pretty soon which should get me back on track, I hope.
posted by exogenous at 10:26 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've never tried Anki. Now I will!
posted by xammerboy at 7:23 PM on August 13, 2018

Does it actually improve your abilities overall, or just in the things you're studying? I would be really interested in something that could improve my memory *overall*.

Anki is aimed at long term memory, so it's not going to specifically help you find your wallet.

On the other hand keeping your brain active on a daily basis will help functioning across the board, so if using Anki became a daily habit I'm sure you'd see improvement elsewhere.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:19 PM on August 13, 2018

The bit in the article about the intimidation after falling behind is real

Yes! I am currently digging my way out of a four-day lapse. It is painful.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:59 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks to this post, I have been working on my anki implementation for the past few days. Not easy! But rewarding.
posted by lazaruslong at 4:49 PM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Went up to hike mountains over the weekend and didn't do my anki review for 2 days. Sat down this morning to catch up, and reviewed 162 cards in 14 minutes. Didn't feel that painful, though I could see how catching up after a week would get rough.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:34 AM on August 20, 2018

Partially thanks to this thread, I'm working my way through the ~2000 card backlog that I've let slide over the past 2 years. I used to be a daily reviewer.

Thankfully, I'm taking the attitude of not giving a fig about the huge number of "due" cards, liberally suspending or deleting cards I don't want to deal with, and the cards I actually did remember get a nice long interval of 5+ years, meaning they are more or less totally cemented in my long-term memory and I'll never have to review them again. (And since this is for language learning, I'm also 'reviewing' vocab outside of Anki any time I read a text)

These are my principles:
- Anki is your tool, not your master. If Anki is causing stress or not helping you to learn, change your approach or get rid of it.

- Anki is for reviewing and remembering, not for first-time learning. Any time you add a new card, it should be something you have already seen before in context. Shared decks are not nearly as helpful as cards you have created yourself.

- In the case of language learning, an individual word is not precious. There are 20,000+ other ones to learn. If there is a word that really gives you trouble (a "leech"), set it aside. If it's really important, it will come up elsewhere in your studying. Devote more time to learning other words, rather than wasting your reviews on one card that won't stick in your mind.

- If a card is actually easy, use that Easy button! I trust the algorithm to show me the card again at the right time - it does actually work well for me. If you err on the side of choosing 'hard' for answers you know, you end up with more daily reviews than you actually need to do.
posted by Gordafarin at 3:06 AM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would love to have a note-taking app for my Calculus class that integrated Anki.
posted by rhizome at 2:06 PM on August 23, 2018

The best advice I've ever received on Anki was how to adjust my thresholds to get rid of leeches appropriately. It was from a blog post that I can't find now that based the numbers off of your success percentage today. Because of that, the optimal numbers might be different for you, but these are mine right now:

Under Lapses:
Steps = 10
New interval = 0%
Minimum interval = 1 day
Leech threshold = 7 lapses
Leech action = suspend card

Under Reviews:
Interval modifer = 120%
posted by tofu_crouton at 2:50 PM on August 23, 2018

Using the interval modifier -- not the blog I previously read, but this one explains a bit why you might want to adjust those settings.
posted by tofu_crouton at 2:55 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Gordafarin wrote...
These are my principles:

Those are very helpful. Thanks for posting them.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:04 PM on August 23, 2018

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