Why do we get upset with ourselves when we forget information?
Surely we should be able to remember at least 30-40% of a book. But it seems to slide through our brain like semolina in a sieve. Yet, there is a way to remember things—and there's also a big reason to forget. Find out why forgetting is just as important as retaining facts. Find out exactly how to go about it in this episode on memory.
Joshua Foer, a journalist for Slate Magazine, decided to something quite bizarre.
Foer was given the task to write a little 1200 word essay for Slate on the topic of memorisation. His goal was to find out how some people seem to have the gift of extraordinary recall.
The task seemed pretty much like any journalistic assignment, except for the fact that Foer, took it one step further. Out of sheer curiosity, he not only studied the masters but also decided to participate in the US Memory Championships himself, just for a lark and to see where he'd end up.
He started his journey in 2005. By 2006, he'd beaten everyone, including the grandmasters he'd been studying. He'd unexpectedly, been crowned the US Memory Champion. By Joshua's admission, he's not very good at remembering things.
And he's in good company, isn't he? We all seem to share at least that part of Joshua's issue. We seem to read books and forget most of what we've learned.
We might watch a documentary, remember the name and a few sketchy details, but seem to wonder why we seem to forget everything else. Whether we're listening to podcasts, audiobooks, sitting in a workshop or seminar, we seem to want to scribble down notes, so that we can remember?
But how important is memory recall? And is there a way to remember things more efficiently? Most important of all, what if there were a strategy? What kind of trip somersaults would we need to do just to make this system work for us, consistently?
1 – How spaced repetition dramatically improves acquisition of facts and details
2 – The ideal frequency needed to make information stick
3 – What to remember and what you should leave alone.
1 – How spaced repetition plays a big role in memory acquisition.
Here's a little test.
Let's say you had a bunch of kids, all in the third grade. You have two options, and one of these options are proven to improve their memory. Let's see whether we can make an accurate choice, shall we?
Option 1: The kids are taught a concept twice a day—and for five days.
Option 2: The kids are taught a concept once a day, for ten days.
Which of the two improves the potential of memory recall
Hard to say, isn't it? Twice a day sounds pretty solid to me. You learn something, then a lot of the day passes and in five days, and with ten passes, there's no reason why you should not be able to ace that memory test.
However, as it turned out, once a day was enough. That research project, run in 1992, showed that the ten days recall system made “slow and steady” to be superior to the speedier version.
In the book, How We Learn, author Benedict Carey goes on to describe other tests done on school kids Middle school kids, when saddled with tongue-twisting definitions of mitosis and chromosomes, did far better when learning in spaced sessions than in a single class.
Not surprisingly, this is the way we learnt a language—or languages—as children
I suspect, C-A-T wasn't exactly taxing on our brains, and neither was M-A-M-A. But the moment we ran into more significant words, we'd need to be reminded. And since most parents have no language teaching skills whatsoever, we'd have to somehow learn words solely through spaced repetition.
You hear the term on one day, you'd mumble it a few times, and then it would show up a few times until you seemed to get the hang of it. And even as a grown up, you may not know what the Hindi word “jeera” means in English, but if I tell you a few times, or over a period of time, you'll remember it's “cumin”.
It's incredible how quickly you can learn through spaced repetition.
When my niece Marsha was just nine, she and I set about learning approximately 150 countries and their corresponding capitals. Marsha would then roll them out in one long five-minute memory recall, stopping only briefly to access her memory.
Today, at 14, we're on an equally exciting mission to learn the location of every country, then possibly the capitals and if we're patient enough every mountain range and river.
As daunting as it sounds, it's a matter of spaced repetition. She and I can already point out the location of 47 countries in Europe, and it was done bit by bit, and certainly not day by day. If you looked at the process we followed, it was random, almost haphazard.
And yes, it works. At nine, Marsha was able to learn them all from Christmas to Easter. And now we've both barely had the app for about three weeks.
But how does this help us with remembering information we've learned
It doesn't, and that's probably the whole point. The good news about memory is that our brain tends to forget or bury most of what we see, do or experience. The brain has been called “nature's perfect spam filter” because remembering everything is not much use at all. At one point we may have stored several phone numbers in our head.
That need to store your grand uncle's number is now redundant with your smartphone. That business book you just read might seem pretty “new” to you a few months from now, but the words are in print.
Why would you need to hold all of that information in your head? Most of what we see, hear or learn is meant to wash over us and fade away unless it's essential.
It's important for a student to remember the definition of mitosis
It's also important if you're learning a language to remember that the word, “jeera” means “cumin”. You might also need to learn the definition of mitosis and chromosomes.
In such a situation spaced learning is going to come to your rescue
In the past, this might have needed rote learning, and a lot of handmade flashcards. Today, we have apps like Anki. You might have apps like Memrise, Quizlet, or Tinycards. I use Anki when learning Spanish.
Anki is free if you use it on the computer, but don't be fooled by the “free price tag”. A developer needs to pay their bills like everyone else, and hence Anki costs about $25 if you choose to have it on your devices.
It's worth every cent because it means you can learn while outside, instead of being chained to your computer. My Spanish has improved more in the last two years than in the preceding 19, that's how much use it has been for me.
It also helps that the words I put in are based on my conversations and not at all based on pre-set decks or someone's else's conversation. It's pretty much like when you were a kid. You learned the words that were useful for you, and you'd only pick up a term like “jeera” if it was valuable for you.
The beauty of an app like Anki is that it monitors the frequency of what you remembered and how much you forgot. Let's find out why frequency is so important to memory recall.
2 – The Ideal frequency needed to make information stick
When we started taking vacations, we misjudged how long we needed to be away.
The first vacation was literally three months long. When we got back, it was like we were zombies. It was hard to get anything done, let alone get to the office. We then tried six weeks at a time. That seemed to be better, but only slightly so.
Finally, we were able to work out that about four weeks away was the ideal amount of time to bounce back to work after a relaxing break.
Four weeks are likely to bury most of us when it comes to learning
Memory works based on repletion and space, but as you've already figured out, it's futile to have too much of a break. The problem we face is how much is too much? And what might be too little—because high frequency, is a significant irritant.
If I told you that “jeera” was “cumin” for the third, or is it the fourth time, well, that's starting to grate on you, isn't it? But what if you needed to access that word three days from now, and then a week, and possibly 1.6 months from now?
That's where Anki does a splendid job
Over the years, memory enthusiasts and experts have worked out a system of how quickly you should bring back the memory before it fades away. But with technology literally at the tip of your fingers, the app gives you the options to bring it back sooner.
Possibly in a minute, ten minutes or to dismiss it into the far reaches of the program, because you know the information pretty well.
If you're struggling, you're likely to see the same information pop up quite frequently over the next few days, and in doing so, it does approximately what the third-grader experiment did. It brought up the information just often enough for you to grab onto it, before showing up a little—or a lot—later.
The spacing is also important because of the layering
When I'm learning Spanish, for example, a word isn't too much of a bother to remember. Yes, it may take a day or two, but not much longer. Take a convoluted sentence, though, and all hell breaks loose.
Which is why I'll learn a bit of the sentence, then wait for the software to bring it back the next time. And in between, I eat, sleep, drink beer, and then approach another bit of the sentence.
You noticed what's happening, right? Yup, the learning is rolling out like a lasagna, layer by layer until I've had my fill and I can say something like: La cerveza que dejamos afuera durante la noche está congelada.
Sometimes I'll say that sentence when at my computer, but sometimes at the cafe
And this is precisely why the free option of the software isn't as great as we would believe. The free choice is outstanding to input the words and pictures (yes, please use pictures too), but it almost always ensures you're sitting in the same place. If you're at your desktop computer, you're likely to be even sitting in the same chair.
Most of us barely use laptops these days except to work, which is why the mobile version is essential. And here's why all of that preamble was so very important. When the location changes, so does the way your brain stores the information.
When you learn something at the cafe and learn that very same something in the library, the context is different. Your memory is embedded in two contexts, not just one.
Which is why we'd get Marsha to study at the dining table, on the floor near the sofa, in the garden or under the pergola.
The reason for all this constant change of location was helpful when it came to her learning, and while your kids may or may not be as co-operative, you might want to try out seeking out different locations to aid your recall.
Finally, and not surprisingly, spaced repetition helps fix errors
When you run into a memory meltdown, the brain tries to find another way to fix the problem. It seems to reach for different cues and different methods to avoid making the same error. “With more extended spaces, you forget more, but you find out what your weaknesses are and you make corrections.
You find out which mediators, which cues, which associations or hints you used for each word. Which ones worked and which ones failed. And if they crash and burn, you find new ways to get the problem solved.
All of this complexity is happily on an app and within reach
You don't have to, or even need to, work out the frequency. You have options on the software and colours—red, green and grey, prompting you what you can choose in a matter of a second.
It keeps track of what you forget and brings it back at a frequency that's assigned by the software itself. Much like our vacation, it's long enough to get us rested, but not too long that we become sloths.
And that kind of sorts out the issue of frequency
Which is pretty useful if your child is cramming for an exam or if you're learning a language. That doesn't solve our overwhelming problem of memory, though. Shouldn't we remember more of what we read, hear and watch?
We tackled this issue earlier in this article. The answer is no; we don't. But let's bury that nagging feeling of having to remember, once and for all. Let's get to the root of this “memory obsession” and hopefully sort it out permanently.
3 – What to remember and what you should leave alone.
If you look at Australia from the sky, it seems dry. And hot.
Hot it may be, but it certainly isn't as dry as you'd imagine. Because while the surface of Australia is semi-arid, and temperatures routinely climb to above 40°C (over 100° F), there's plenty of water.
That's because Australia sits on a thick slab of sandstone and below it, yes, it's all water. So much water in fact, that it's enough to submerge all the land on the planet a foot and a half deep.
And the Aboriginals, the ancient keepers of this land, they know all the spots where the ground is broken, and you can find water. All the water spots are secret, written in the song. The information is crucial, which is why the memory of every water hole is equally essential.
In our world, we have elements that are clearly important
We have to remember how to go about our lives, so we don't get into trouble, or where we can find a result. But that's where the usefulness of memory seems to stop. Why is it then, that we're so obsessed with memory?
The answer seems to lie in tests and exams
Most of us have a distinct memory of being told to study; to work hard. But in reality, what we were being told is merely to retain information, that would then be “regurgitated” on a test paper.
Once the test was complete, almost everything we'd learned seemed to be reformatted, only to be replaced by a new set of facts for the next test and exams. Take away the quizzes and reviews, and you don't need this encyclopaedic memory at all.
What's doesn't help is that some people seem to be better at remembering things
And yet we never stop to ask: what is the purpose of retaining it all? What if you were suddenly bestowed a superpower to remember the next 500 books you read? What if you watched movies, documentaries, and remembered every sequence and every possible piece of dialogue?
It sounds both interesting, yet slightly terrifying at the same time, doesn't it? And the slight twinge of uncertainty comes from the fact that all of that memory isn't going to be as useful as it seems.
It certainly would have been of great use in my Physics paper
I remember this new professor we had in the seventh grade. He was a load of fun. All the boys would gather around his desk, and he seemed to have an endless amount of jokes. No class was more fun than Physics, because we barely spent any time on the subject matter.
The physics teacher told us to study a fixed number of pages, and he assured us the test would be based on those pages alone. When the test rolled along, not a single student passed the test, because the funny physics teacher chose to ask questions that were from another portion of the book. In such a condition, that photo memory would have been just fine.
You and I learned that memory was an essential part of that success model
Yet once we get into the real world, it's hardly that important. If we have a book, and we forget 95% of the book, what do we have to lose? If we're sitting at a seminar and there are 300 brilliant ideas, why do we feel the pressure to write down every single point so that we can recall it later?
There's a reason, and it's a crucial one. Notes aren't frivolous. They help us understand, and to some extent remember. A fact that's on a low dimmer switch in our brain might one day coincide with some other, and the cross-pollination might help us greatly in the future.
This isn't a rant against notes. It's a little nudge to stop getting frustrated
Your memory isn't bad. It's doing exactly what it's supposed to do. It knows the spoons are located in the top drawer, and the chocolate is in the red tin at the back, somewhere.
It identifies the critical stuff and facts that we learn in books, audio and video are essential to keep control. That feeling of control is vital to our well being and therefore memory, or at least the pursuit of recall is what we need on an ongoing basis.
And here's how I deal with information
I take in vast amounts of information, and it's knowledge I seek, but also implementation. When I hit a spot where the information is implementable, I stop reading; stop listening and turn off the video. I make a note of why it was so important that I had to throttle the flow of information. And often, I'll go back, many times.
Three weeks ago, I was watching a series by Dan Brown, and he's a good teacher. But then at one point, he talked about villains. That grabbed my attention. Almost a month later, I've heard other stuff, read other things, but I keep going back to that one episode. I've made notes about it and implemented it in the info-products presentation that I did in Munich.
Which brings us full circle to the value of retention
The Aboriginals need the memory to find water. In school and university, we too needed the memory to ace our tests and exams. But in almost every case, this type of memory is intentional. We learn it because we want to use it, not simply as a storage device. Learning Spanish needs storage, but if you're reading that book, be happy if you can remember just a tiny portion of the facts. And yes, then take one point and start implementing.
That's not the only reason for memory, but it's a pretty good way to change our lives and move forward. And if you catch yourself saying: “I have a bad memory”, know that your brain is doing a pretty good job at being a spam filter.