Monday, January 4, 2010

Incremental Reading and Meditation

As I was responding to a comment about Incremental Reading, the comment became very long. So I thought "Let's make it into another post!" Here it is:

One of the major features of Supermemo is called "Incremental Reading."

The purpose of incremental reading is to process reading material and turn its contents eventually into easily digestible flashcards. You start with a few pages of text, and similar to highlighting a physical book, you highlight and "extract" (Alt + X) relevant information, creating smaller and smaller chunks of text. This works best with digital text, but the same can be done by highlighting text in a physical book and manually inputting relevant information into Supermemo.

For example, let's say you want to incrementally read the article "White's Tree Frog" from Wikipedia.

Here is one paragraph from that article:

"The Green Tree Frog is larger than most Australian frogs, reaching 10 centimetres (4 inches) in length. The average lifespan of the frog in captivity, about sixteen years, is long in comparison with most frogs. Green Tree Frogs are docile and well suited to living near human dwellings. They are often found on windows or inside houses, eating insects drawn by the light."

This is far too big for one single flashcard, so we would highlight and "extract" pieces of this text so that we have smaller, more manageable chunks. Here are a few examples:

"The Green Tree Frog reaches 10 cm (4 inches) in length."
"The Green Tree Frog has an average lifespan of 16 years in captivity."
"The Green Tree Frog is often found on windows or inside houses because they eat insects drawn by the light."

Notice that the wording has to be changed slightly so that each chunk stands on its own without the other sentences. Replacing "they" with "Green Tree Frog," etc.

These three facts are now separate text chunks that would now be floating around in Supermemo. Eventually, we want to make flashcards out of these pieces of text; we don't want to simply read these three phrases passively over and over. So if we made them into flashcards, they might look like this:

"The Green Tree Frog is how many cm in length? 10cm (4 inches)"
"The Green Tree Frog has an average lifespan of how many years when in captivity? 16."
"The Green Tree Frog is often found on windows or inside houses. Why? They eat insects drawn by the light."

So with Incremental Reading, we are eating a big piece of text, digesting it, and extracting the nutritious useful bits of knowledge (Which will be retained forever, assuming that you are using an SRS program). One big benefit in doing this is that once a book or text has has been processed in this way, there is usually no need to read the book again. Useful concepts and knowledge contained in the book are now in your head; the book's job is done. It is like accomplishing a quest in an MMORPG. (Definition from WowWiki: "A quest is a task given to a player character that yields a reward when completed.") You completed the task, you have the reward of retained knowledge. Once you've done this, it's time to go on another quest and learn something else.

From what I read, "Swiss-cheesing" seems to be randomly looking at different passages within a text. While such a method no doubt is fun and satisfying, the purpose seems to be different then that of Incremental Reading. Incremental Reading is supposed to allow you to process information, extract valuable knowledge, then move on to other information. If a book or article has been read through Incremental Reading, never again should it be necessary to re-read the entire book. You might find smaller details that you missed (Like an artist "touching up" a finished painting), but the bulk of the information has been retained.

I'm not trying to criticize the "swiss cheese" method, I just think that the two accomplish different things.

Incremental Reading is like a slow-moving steamroller. It might take time to go over something (A large book, demanding class, etc.), but once it has been successfully read and processed, you'll never have to thoroughly read it again.

One benefit I've noticed is that when I use Incremental Reading to learn and process material, even though I am doing this by myself, I feel as if I am conversing with the authors of the material. Simplifying the wording of extracts and trying to make them context-free forces you to "kick around" different concepts in your head until you understand those concepts well enough to represent them in an articulate and concise manner.

I think that (For me) this is the most enjoyable part of Incremental Reading: As various ideas are running through my mind, as I try to follow the logic set forth in the reading material, making sense of it becomes almost like a mental dance; information from the past becomes as alive as ever, and as I work with those ideas, the universe ends up making a bit more sense than it did before. It feels similar to when I am in deep concentration, drawing a picture. I am totally absorbed in seeking symmetry of thought; the 'self construct' fades from my consciousness and for that moment I feel as if in a meditative state, as if I'm "at one with the world." Nothing has ever felt so mentally engaging and satisfying.

Here is a simple Incremental Reading chart to help visualize it.
Here is the Incremental Reading entry on Wikipedia.
Here is the Incremental Reading section on the Supermemo web site. While I can't say that I understand every aspect of the claims made, I can't disprove it. I have a feeling I'll agree once I'm more skilled at using Incremental Reading.


  1. I did this for my modules in the second semester of my second year at uni. I was a terrible student that semester: lacking drive, focus, discipline etc and did virtually all my study for these modules in the week before my final exams in them. These modules were heavily weighted on these final exams and one, a history module, had 100% of the final mark determined by that one two-hour exam paper.

    The result was that due to incremental reading (though at the time I'd never heard this term used for making flashcards out of prose) I did okay in all of them despite a bare minimum of study.
    I'll focus on the history module though. In that entire semester I went to three of the lectures, and around four of the seminars. I read maybe 30 or so pages of the recommended textbooks at the START of the semester, and did so in a leisurely unfocused way.
    In the week before my exam for this module I incrementally read two textbooks. They were fairly short, maybe 300 pages of fine print combined, but I covered them entirely. I worked at this for around two hours a day, and then on the night before my exam I didn't sleep. Armed with four bottles of cola I finished up in about nine sugar-crazed hours. I took the exam that morning, having been awake for around 24 hours but with the ability to regurgitate the textbooks in my own words and to pluck any major point from the books at any time, in any order. I KNEW these books.
    There were 12 essay questions to choose from (and you had to choose two). I chose: what was revolutionary about Nazi fascism as opposed to other forms? And: explain the differences between revolutionary socialism and reformist socialism.

    I passed with one mark off a 1:1 (A grade). I do not endorse studying the way I did - it was reckless and extremely failure-prone (what if I had fallen ill in the final week or been unable to think clearly in the exam due to sleep deprivation?) but incremental reading really saved my arse and produced a result which, given my modest cerebral capacity, is pretty miraculous.

  2. Thanks for the in depth response. The information I'm putting into my SRS, besides Japanese, is all a little more abstract so it won't really conform to a Q&A format. For example here is a recent extract of mine from Thoreau:

    "So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to life, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle that is taking place every instant."

    I cant think of any way to make this into a Q&A, and even breaking it up would change the meaning. I am just starting though, so I might figure it out more as I go. I think this is related to the criticism of SRSing being just rote. Wozniak says that it can improve creativity, and of course he is probably right, but I feel that there is a dangerous line we walk between free association of ideas and simply putting facts into your head.

    I do want to learn facts, but there are some things that cannot be simplified that way either. I studied the sciences in college, and although SRSing would've helped a lot in a lot of areas (and God knows I couldve benefited a lot by it (I phrase it like that but I'm an athiest)), but I think there are some things, like a two page integer solution of an electron orbital, or the overall arc of a novel, that could never be SRSed. Do you ever run into this type of long text problem?

  3. Yes, this was a problem for a while, but this ended up becoming one of the things I enjoyed most about using Supermemo. I have tried delving into the works of various philosophers, theologians, etc., and I've found that the most beneficial things I take away from those (Or ANY) works are the things that can somehow BE MADE TO conform to the constraints of Supermemo.

    As I read something, I might find a certain statement inspiring, interesting, or otherwise taking my thoughts somewhere new, connecting two things that were not previously connected. Sometimes I can't explain WHAT makes a statement (Or series of statements) interesting, but if I find such a statement I throw it into the Incremental Reading process. With incremental reading you are shown the same imported information every so often, as dictated by Supermemo's algorithms (If something is imported today, maybe I'll see it again tomorrow, 2 days later, 5 days later, etc.).
    So here is my method of "digesting" something kind of difficult to understand: when I see the imported text, with each "pass" I try to simplify it as best as I can. So if I have three sentences when the text is imported, I'll try to shorten one or two of those sentences on the first "pass," then do the same thing the next few times I see it. This forces me to cut away any bit of "fluff" that might exist, and this helps get down to the basic, bare-bones principle or statement of truth that resides within the text.

    In this way, it feels as if I am "conversing" with the author; I try to apply their outlined pattern of logic to their argument and arrive at the basic principle that makes their argument tick. That principle can be remembered using Supermemo (Cloze deletion), and if you did it right, then that principle will come to mind when it can be applied to a situation. If it doesn't come to mind, then it must be revised again.

    Sometimes I've put stuff into Incremental Reading, and after a few passes realize that "this was an obvious, common-sense conclusion wrapped up in fluffy coating," and then delete it.
    But I think I am still an amateur at this process, as I am always learning new ways of representing abstract knowledge (Meaning I mess up at it, and figure out why I messed up).

  4. "Simplifying the wording of extracts and trying to make them context-free forces you to "kick around" different concepts in your head until you understand those concepts well enough to represent them in an articulate and concise manner"

    I find that this is one of the greatest advantages on incremental reading, this processing of information per se creates strong neural pathways that lead to better learning and hence much better storage and retrieval of memories. However, many times I find my self in need to have the original text at hand, perhaps to re-evaluate a previous statements, of some statement that contradict some previously review data. I'm currently using this same approach of reducing pieces of information, but I still preserve the original text in the lower part of an article. This results in a flashcard that item with the summary and the original text underneath. When you try to make a question out of this item, I have trouble if the original text should be kept or not.

  5. Hey little fish
    just wanted to say thanks for your awesome blog
    I'm using SM and loving it. I've looked at or tried all the competitors and nothing comes close
    I'm still working on incremental reading . . . It still seems too time-consuming, but I know that I'm not using the full power of the program
    in any case, I just wanted to say "thanks"

  6. I do something similar like this for learning languages without a standard textbook. Currently I'm working on learning Swedish, and I'm bored of the regular textbooks about how to go shopping and buy train tickets. So I'm basically doing something similar to your Incremental Reading, except with a translation of The Hobbit in Swedish.

    Since my vocabulary is small, this involes a decent amount of word lookup. I try to understand each sentence on my own, and then look up some problem words, and try to get a feel for the whole thing. If the sentence seems interesting somehow, and isn't filled with too many useless words that I won't use, then I'll add it to Anki.

    The words from these sentences stick very well in my mind, because they are accompanied by the context in which I read them. Whenever I get one of those sentences as a card for review, then I also remember the surrounding section of the story and what was happening, which aids with understanding and remembering the particular words in the sentence.

  7. "It feels similar to when I am in deep concentration, drawing a picture. I am totally absorbed in seeking symmetry of thought; the 'self construct' fades from my consciousness and for that moment I feel as if in a meditative state, as if I'm "at one with the world." Nothing has ever felt so mentally engaging and satisfying."

    You might find the following video interesting. It describes in detail what you experience when learning.

  8. Thank you very much, that is indeed a very interesting video! Csikszentmihalyi is a very interesting person to listen to.

    I have read the books written by him about "Flow." The contents are somewhat abstract, but they are useful in understanding the mind and how we approach problems (And solutions).

  9. Is there a reason why you are putting the word "The Green Tree Frog" at the beginning of each flashcard? For example

    "The Green Tree Frog has an average lifespan of how many years when in captivity"

    Couldn't you just say:

    "What is the average lifespan of a Green Tree Frog when in captivity?"

    I know this might sound stupid but I am genuinely curious. Does your way of structuring a question make it easier to associate the facts with the "Green Tree Frog"? :)

  10. Well done, by far this is the easiest article to understand on the subject. Simple and to the point.