Modelling human memory, predicting forgetting
April 22, 2008 2:03 PM   Subscribe

Modelling Human Memory. Or, really, predicting the point of forgetting.
posted by weston (26 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I just lost.
posted by roll truck roll at 2:27 PM on April 22, 2008

Do you remember the future? Well, forget it.

Close B Clothes Mode. Prepare for shift-simulfax hue and form
posted by zippy at 2:31 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

And I thought the secret to having a good memory was to not learn the useless stuff in the first place
posted by uandt at 2:38 PM on April 22, 2008

Another good way to forget something quickly: Bury a 3 sentence set of instructions inside an article seven pages long.
posted by DU at 2:49 PM on April 22, 2008

Very interesting article—thanks!

He's baffled that Americans do not use the metric system. For two years he kept a diary in Esperanto.

Geeks are so cute! But God love him, he found a woman as geeky as he is.

posted by languagehat at 2:53 PM on April 22, 2008

I just tried running the freeware version of SuperMemo (SuperMemo 1998). It's UI is a simple flash card app, and loading the free flash card data they have (collections) just isn't working for me. It is, indeed, a frustrating application (perhaps the newer ones are better, but then, it would make sense to have a demo version of those instead).
posted by zippy at 3:14 PM on April 22, 2008

I recommend Anki, a free (GPL) cross-platform spaced repetition program which uses a slightly modified version of the SuperMemo algorithm. The author has posted several screencasts which give a good overview of the theory behind the program and how to use it.

I started using it several months ago for my economics and calculus classes and I've already seen significant improvements in my recall over traditional flash cards or the Leitner system.
posted by Amaterasu at 3:49 PM on April 22, 2008 [14 favorites]

Wait, an open-source app with a better UI than its closed-source equivalent?

You just blew my mind.
posted by zippy at 4:19 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Modelling Human Memory.

What, too soon?
posted by Refugio Nguyen at 4:40 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Someone summarize it!
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:46 PM on April 22, 2008

You want a summary? Apropos to the article, let's see what I can remember of the 7 pages:

So this old German scientist wanted to remember stuff. Decides that the best way is to space out your studying to right before you forget it. As you do this, each time you study it again you will remember it for longer, so eventually it will be fully remembered. Everyone thought this dude knew what was up but now no one uses this way of learning. That's because modern learning methods reinforce, er...reinforcing, which actually tricks people into thinking they're retaining a lot even when they aren't. Test scores don't show long term learning, so long term teaching methods aren't used.

So this Polish dude comes in and decides to do the same thing, independently (having never heard of this spacing theory), to improve his studies. This is a hundred years later. Dude eventually realizes he can do it with a computer. He wants computers to be able to teach us how to remember things. He writes down thousands of English words and biology facts and tracks when he has learned them. Eventually he develops a program which will ping you to remember things along the spacing curve. See Chart. He is so wrapped up in his own learning that he can't focus on developing his product in a way that will make him rich. It makes a bit of a splash in the mid-90s but hasn't got a good enough UI. He's basically using it for his own needs and has to set aside most of his communication with the outside world in order to keep on course with his goal of becoming some sort of genius. The author of the article goes swimming with the Polish dude in the icy waters and makes this overarching parallel to how the guy defies convention in his goal towards being like, a superbrain. Polish dude has six or seven steps to being a genius all set out for us, let me see if I can remember those, too:

- Do things over and over again
- Work hard
- Keep healthy
- something something
- Don't let anything get in the way of sleep
posted by SassHat at 6:15 PM on April 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

Going back and looking at the checklist, I wasn't too far off base (still a little embarrassing though):

I find myself thinking of a checklist Wozniak wrote a few years ago describing how to become a genius. His advice was straightforward yet strangely terrible: You must clarify your goals, gain knowledge through spaced repetition, preserve health, work steadily, minimize stress, refuse interruption, and never resist sleep when tired.
posted by SassHat at 6:18 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hooray, I'll read your comments in five days, SassHat.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:33 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anki looks awesome. I'm going to be playing around with this for a while.
posted by painquale at 7:09 PM on April 22, 2008

something something

I keep forgetting to do that one!
posted by P.o.B. at 7:24 PM on April 22, 2008

I found this article fascinating--not only because I find obsessive, genius freaks interesting, like Wolf's great profile of Ted Nelson, but because it taught me something about the nature of memory and how, when science runs against conventional wisdom, it is routinely ignored. I'm seeing parallels with Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories which is about bad science creating consensus.

I don't know, to me this seemed like a great, extended example of tantalizing, but failed life hacking.
posted by mecran01 at 7:34 PM on April 22, 2008

I'd be interested in using something like this for studying Chinese, but I'm guessing you have to make your own cards. There also happens to be a freeware flashcard app that already has cards specifically keyed to the book I studied in College.

And the other problem, of course, is that most of the information I'd want to know couldn't be stored on flashcards, mainly methods of doing things, like mathematics, programming, etc.
posted by delmoi at 8:05 PM on April 22, 2008

delmoi: really, the methods recommended hold true for processes as well as sheer information dumps. your concept of what you are spacing and what you are repeating just has to be adjusted. for example, i'm learning some analytical chemsitry techniques. i revisit some texts on the theory every couple days, and it's starting to become really clear. differential equations, well, when i used to have to do them, i'd go through a couple problems of all the major types i had to work with, just to keep them fresh. it's the same as reviewing (to go back to the mandarin example) the differences between the structure of the language or just whether you know how to write a certain character or its pronunciation. try it. it works ;-)
posted by n y my at 8:20 PM on April 22, 2008

- Do things over and over again
- Work hard
- Keep healthy
- something something
- Don't let anything get in the way of sleep

i've got those last two down. is there some link between hardcore depression and memory development?

if so, can i get a grant or something, so i can just go back to sleep?
posted by CitizenD at 8:58 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, if this actually works I'll earn serious points with my dad. He's always memorizing thousands of words for Scrabble. And believe me it's bloody hard to keep those words memorized. He's always learning words, any spare time he has and yet they slip out of his memory suddenly.
posted by peacheater at 9:47 PM on April 22, 2008

Delmoi, pre-written libraries are available to add to the program, I noticed one for Chinese characters
posted by dibblda at 10:35 PM on April 22, 2008

If you have the discipline to keep up with this program regularly, I don't doubt it would work. It would require some commitment, though.

I had a professor who followed the same method as Wozniak. He was a venerated professor of linguistics and classics, so he had fluency in several ancient and modern languages -- Latin, Greek, Coptic, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and several other obscure tongues. He told me that if he didn't refresh each one within a two week period, his proficiency in a language would start to atrophy. To maintain his regimen, he was practically an ascetic, living in an efficiency apartment on campus and immersing himself in research.

He committed suicide a few years after I graduated -- he had been diagnosed with an Alzheimer's-esque memory disorder, and shortly afterward swallowed pills with liquor and slit his wrists for good measure. What a cosmic joke for a memory disorder to be visited on someone whose entire life is contingent on memory. At least Wozniak has a wife and other interests, from the sound of things.

Fascinating article. Thanks.
posted by Locative at 1:09 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

predicting the point of forgetting.

I know it didn't work this way, but I like to imagine a couple of guys sitting around in the early development of this project, and trying to time how long it took to forget something, but the 'something' being the project that they were working on;

*man clicks stopwatch*

"Ok, it's gone. I don't remember it anymore"

"Don't remember what?"


"I don't know. I thought you said something."

"Did I?"


And so on.
posted by quin at 8:30 AM on April 23, 2008

This seems to be potentialy very useful for people on the autistic spectrum, but for others, not so much...

I've never seen an article before that didn't even mention the effects of emotion on memory, for example. Typically, people increase memory by tagging it onto things we are evolutionarily designed to remember: other people (especially potential sexual partners or enemies), threats and sources of pleasure. What this seems to do is bolster cognitive memory for boring stuff, which is not what our brains were designed for and hence requires abandonment of a key aspect of our species: sociality.

It also completely excludes another reason why specialists learn things related to their speciality easily: for them, it's exciting and this excitement and passion enhances memory, perhaps by giving the sense that it's important to survival.

Either way, something like this that completely ignores how most people's brains operate is destined to be a niche product at best.
posted by Maias at 1:02 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I downloaded the multiplication tables database and Anki onto my fifth grader's palm pilot. I'll report back.
posted by mecran01 at 6:48 PM on April 23, 2008

Ok, i briefly looked at the paper-based version of Supermemo. Now unless i'm mistaken, it seems to have hardcoded values for the length of the spaces between each repetitive review. That sounds off to me. Are we all so similar that the same hardcoded values are going to work for everyone? Does the computer-based version adjust the period length according to how much you forget? (i.e. try to tune in on your particular forget-span?)
posted by storybored at 1:53 PM on April 25, 2008

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