Why we feel the need ֵto augment long term memory
“My head is like a colander,” a friend muttered to himself. “Everything I put in just slips right out.”
I laughed when he said this, but the truth is that this is something that’s frustrating to all of us. Myself included. I love learning new things, but sometimes it hardly seems worth the effort.
What’s the point if I know I’ll just forget it the next day? Is it even worth the effort? That’s why there’s been a lot of discussion amongst lifelong learners surrounding how we can augment our long term memory.
Before we get into tricks and tips on how to augment our long term memories, I just want to say the brain is extremely good at maintaining long-term memory. The catch is that it doesn’t do it for everything, only the things that it deems as important.
So when we ask how to augment our long-term memory, what we’re really asking is: how can I convince my brain that the things I want to remember are actually worth remembering?
How augmenting long term memory is just like being a good party host
So it turns out that augmenting your long term memory is actually kind of like hosting a successful dinner party.
I’ll explain how.
Long term memory and dinner parties
Imagine you meet someone new and invite them to a dinner party you’re having tonight. But when they get there, you completely ignore them. They walk in the door, clutching the bottle of wine that you asked them to bring. You’re so busy laughing with your other friends that you don’t even notice they’ve come in. So they sit there all by themselves
Would you ever do that to someone you invited into your home? I know I wouldn’t.
And how surprised would you be if that dinner guest picked up and left? Never came back and didn’t answer any of your calls.
Probably not very.
Well it turns out that augmenting your long-term memory is actually not that different from being a good party host.
Because - like party guests - memories stick around for the long term when we make them feel necessary and wanted. Otherwise, they’ll just leave.
So, the rules for augmenting long-term memory are actually similar to being a good host. Give them your attention and check in on them regularly. Help them connect with your other guests.
That’s the metaphorical explanation. Here’s how all that works in practice:
Spaced repetition as a way to augment long term memory
One of the most efficient ways to commit something to long term memory is through spaced repetition. In fact many of the long term memories we have today are due to the fact that we repeated something over a long interval of time. For example, you are likely to remember your own phone number because you’ve had to repeat it many times, over a long period of time.
The combination of these two factors signals to your brain that this is something worth remembering. If you are consistently trying to access the memory of those 10 digits, you signal to your brain that they are important to remember.
This actually fits into the idea that augmenting your long term memory requires the same skills as being a good party host. If you want your party guests to feel welcome, you’ll check in on them. Not just once or twice, but regularly. Until you see that they are more comfortable and are starting to speak with the other guests. The same is true for augmenting long term memory. If you have something you want to remember, review it regularly. The more you review it, the more you signal to your brain that it’s important. Those of us who have learned second and third languages feel this acutely. “Use it or lose it” perfectly captures the necessity of reviewing something often in order to retain it. The more you use something, the more you augment your long term memory of that thing.
That’s spaced repetition at its most basic level, But how can we use this technique to consciously augment our long term memories?
Because, there are many things that we want to remember that don’t necessarily come up regularly in our daily lives. You might want to remember certain foundations of physics, but since this isn’t naturally repeated in your daily life your brain won’t instinctively put it into your long term memory. So what can we do to augment the long term memory process and remember the things we want to remember?
This is actually a question that has been getting a lot of buzz lately. Today, there are lots of lifelong learners looking for tricks to augment their long term memories and make their learning more efficient. As a result, flash card apps that use spaced repetition systems like Anki have gained new adherents. Anki helps you create flash cards and then tests you on them periodically. The app has an algorithm that determines exactly how often you need to review each flashcard, in order to commit it to your long term memory.
You can read more about how Anki works here.
People using Anki and systems like it are claiming that they have given us unprecedented power to augment their long term memories. And that’s also why Alpe has incorporated active spaced repetition into our courses. Now, when you take one of our courses, you’ll automatically be offered the ability to actively review the material.
And we have our own algorithm to determine how often you need to review each aspect of the material. So, when you use Alpe you’re automatically tapping into the power of spaced repetition. You can try it out for yourself here.
Because the cool thing is that once we understand this mechanism of the brain we can use it to augment our long term memories for all the information we want to remember.
Using retrieval practice to augment long term memory
Andy Matuschak is a researcher and software engineer who is also a lifelong learner. He wrote an article titled How to write good prompts: using spaced repetition to create understanding, where he discusses using spaced repetition intentionally to augment long term memory. He writes that, when you use spaced repetition intentionally “memory ceases to be a haphazard phenomenon, something you hope happens: spaced repetition systems make memory a choice.”
Matuschak is a big fan of quizzing yourself on flashcards as part of a spaced repetition system.
Retrieval is the key element which distinguishes this effective mode of practice from typical study habits. Simply reminding yourself of material (for instance by re-reading it) yields much weaker memory and problem-solving performance. The learning produced by retrieval is called the “testing effect” because it occurs when you explicitly test yourself, reaching within to recall some knowledge from the tangle of your mind. Such tests look like typical school exams, but in some sense they’re the opposite: retrieval practice is about testing your knowledge to produce learning, rather than to assess learning.
He terms this process “retrieval practice.” In actively forcing ourselves to retrieve information, we reinforce the memory pathway in our brain.
And the technique is surprisingly more useful than just helping you memorize facts. It can also help to augment our long term memories of more complex things like concept maps, open-ended questions, and how to use the knowledge you’ve learned to form inferences.
If you want to read more about how to augment long term memory by writing strong memory prompts, I definitely recommend checking out Andy Matuschak’s piece on the subject - I think it’s one of the best ways to tap into the power of spaced repetition to augment long term memory.
Personalization as a way to augment long term memory
So, one way to be a good host - and augment your long term memory - is to regularly check in on your guests. Another dinner party rule that can help augment long term memory is personalization. Just like a good host would go out of their way to spend a few minutes truly connecting to each of their party guests, memories stick around when they feel personal to us.
Barbara Oakely, one of the masterminds behind the popular Coursera course “Learning how to learn,” takes this a step further. She suggests when you’re trying to learn a complex new equation, you should try and utilize your own creativity as much as possible.
Let’s say you’re trying to memorize an equation. In Dr. Oakley book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), she writes: “one of the most important things we can do when trying to learn math or science is to bring abstract ideas to life in our minds.” She recommends actively trying to visualize the information, as a way to augment our long term memory of it.
How can we visualize abstract information? In the same book, Oakley quotes Kathleen Nolta, who has a PhD in Chemistry and received the Golden Apple Award recognizing her excellence in teaching, saying:
“Learning organic chemistry is not any more challenging than getting to know some new characters. The elements each have their own unique personalities. The more you will be able to read their situations and predict the outcomes of reactions.”
This is a great - and fun! - way to augment your long term memory. The more you use your creativity to truly visualize new information, the more you will be able to remember it. And an added bonus of Dr. Nolata’s approach is that not only will you augment your long term memory of the subject, but you will also be able to predict how “characters” you have encountered will “act” in future situations. In other words, you will attain true mastery in the subject, because you will be able to apply what you have learned to new situations.
Augmenting our long term memory is something which can help us all become better lifelong learners. The trick is to treat our memories as if they were guests in our home - check in on them regularly and make an effort to personally connect with them.