How Remembering Better Will Change Your Life

Spaced Repetition is more than a #lifehack

“The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

How many times have you wished you had an eidetic memory when you were in school? The idea that you could effortlessly recall anything you have ever seen or heard would make anyone’s life significantly easier. Of course, while the concept of a “Photographic Memory” crops up throughout pop-culture, there are serious doubts about whether this power even exists.

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Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

For the average learner, all to often it feels like your brain is conspiring against you when you are trying to learn something new. Concepts, words, and images that are clear one moment seem to disappear and evaporate within hours of learning.

Our big brains and the many abilities they have improved our survival chances significantly. So, who do we forget? The current science on the subject has a few theories, but no absolute conclusions. The only thing that is truly clear about forgetting, is that it is inevitable.

And yet, a simple memorization practice technique can make remembering a ton of information easy. Causes of forgetting may be not entirely known, but forgetting itself falls into a regular pattern, described by “the forgetting curve”:

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From Wikipedia

Enter, Spaced Repetition. This technique is based around the idea that timely reminders of information can actually reduce the incline of the curve, boosting your level of recall up significantly. By testing and reminding yourself of the information you are learning at regular intervals, you significantly slow the decay of memory.

Here is what the forgetting curve looks like as it gets “reset” through strategically spaced review sessions:

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The space between repetition gets progressively longer as you learn the concept. A more or less standard review schedule would have you review a new concept at 1 day, 1 week, 1 fortnight (2 weeks), and 1 month delay from the start of learning.

Typically, the review sessions take the form of simple flashcards divided into 5 boxes. Each new concept starts at box 1. For the repetition session, you take a card, look at the prompt, try to answer it, and then confirm on the back whether you’ve answered correctly. If you answered correctly, you promote the card up to the next box. If you get it wrong, you demote it back to box 1 (or back 1 box in an alternative method). This is called the Leitner system, after Sebastian Leitner who proposed this system in the 1970s.

Of course, if using multiple boxes of flash cards sounds like a hassle, there are a range of apps available that automate the whole process. One of the gold standard go-to programs is Anki, a desktop app named after the Japanese word for “memorization”, and a companion app “AnkiDroid”. Both of these apps are free, and you can sync information between desktop and phone, as well as browse flashcard decks created by the community (also free!). Of course, you will memorize a lot better by creating the flashcards yourself.

Maybe eidetic memory really exists, or maybe it’s just a superpower fantasy, made a little more believable by the human desire to remember things quickly and easily. While you can’t get yourself one of those, a simple memorization tool (and maybe a memory palace to help store all of that knowledge) will help you recall a lot more of what you learn. If there ever was a “simple trick to help #lifehack your education”, this is probably the one.

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