Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Flashcard selection based on core values and abstract patterns

Committing things to memory can be beneficial or detrimental to one's life. For example, one could memorize the entire phonebook and waste a great deal of time. On the opposite end, you could memorize how to do the Heimlich Maneuver and save someone's life. So one important thing is the SELECTION.

So the next question is: Which knowledge is most beneficial? It depends on a number of things, but the most important one is this: What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to understand Indian culture? If so, learning the history of bubble gum might not be a good idea. If you were trying to compete in the bubble gum industry, though, learning the history of bubble gum seems much more useful now. So much depends on your CORE PRIORITIES.

This is what guides my overall intellectual life: "Learn something about everything and everything about something." It is my goal to learn a great deal about a few subjects, and learn a bit about many other subjects. The few subjects that I want to really know well are (Broadly speaking): Foreign languages (And language acquisition), history and neuroscience/social psychology. When it comes to these subjects, I crave new knowledge like water.

Other subjects are like soft drinks; I drink them every now and then, but they don't receive as much attention as my core subjects.

So when you look at something you could memorize (Math equations, jokes, quotes from books), the only one that can make a proper judgment call on this is yourself; "Do I want this in my mind forever?" If so, make a flashcard out of it. It will only require two or three minutes in your lifetime, so the long-term "damage" of committing a few extra seemingly trivial things to memory is very slim (As long as you don't commit a great deal of trivial things to memory).

Certain information might not seem very useful, but it becomes EXTREMELY valuable later. What is the value of having JUST the right joke or anecdote to say at the dinner table with friends? What about having JUST the right romantic quote to say to a pretty girl? Or a succinct metaphor that contributes to a discussion on a subject? While many factual flashcards have a definite value (Foreign language vocab words, test material from medical textbooks, etc.), certain things are more abstract but are also very valuable; saying the RIGHT THING at the RIGHT TIME is a great feeling for yourself and others.

Success in most fields boils down to recognizing and properly anticipating patterns. If you know what kind of situations you are going to encounter, you should commit to memory enough patterns of knowledge relevant to that field. The more abstract those patterns, the more creative you must be to articulate and anticipate them. If you can hit the sweet spot by anticipating the right pattern at the right time, good things can happen on a small or large scale; I am convinced that most breakthroughs in various fields (Science, computer design, etc.) is a result of this process. Like Wayne Gretzky said, "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." If you can do this in whatever your field of study, the time investment in SuperMemo has more than paid off.

This serves to reinforce that SuperMemo (Or any other flashcard software) is only a shovel to be used not for the sake of using it (To dig holes), but to find buried treasures of knowledge beneath the many patterns we encounter in life.


  1. I've been questioning the need to rember things just the way Supermemo enables us to.

    True, it's enjoyable to learn things and be able to recollect them.... but these days most of this stuff is easily available on the internet.... so if I want to do some research for my work it usually boils down to searching those things efficiently. What is most important it usually is so that the needed information/knowledge (in your work) DOESN'T overlap with what you're learning just because knowledge scope is so HUGE it's not possible to fit in.... Which brings me to conclusion this kind of learning is mostly for fun :).

    1. But even if you do research on the internet, you are taking time to bring something into your consciousness long enough to manipulate it and draw a conclusion based on it. Unless you are quoting a stock price or something that is subject to immediate change, it is beneficial to articulate the basic rules and principles behind whatever it is you are doing, and commit those valuable conclusions to memory. Many breakthroughs have occurred because someone applied the rules or principles of one field to a different field. I would argue that this kind of learning is fun, but it also is VERY likely to yield positive results in the future.