(Note: this article is heavily influenced by Augmenting Long Term Memory by Michael Nielsen, combined with The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and research on spaced repetition. I highly recommend reading the original if you have the time and interest.)
Human memory is unlimited.
Unlike our working memory, which can only hold about 7 things at a time, our long-term memory is basically limitless. The only bottleneck between these two is the speed at which we can move memories from the working memory to storage.
“Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble”.
If we take information in a steady drip, we can transfer the information bit by bit into long-term memory: if we get overloaded, most of the information we scan past gets lost.
In the internet age, we’re likely to consume more information than we can remember.
But why bother memorizing when we can search it up on Google?
Long-term memory isn’t just a warehouse of facts. Brain scientists have found that understanding itself is based on long-term memory, where we store “schemas”, patterns of knowledge that give our thinking depth.
Learning something literally changes our brain. The brain continues to process information long after it is received, and every time we bring a long-term memory back into working memory, the memory evolves.
“The brain that does the remembering is not the brain that formed the initial memory. In order for the old memory to make sense in the current brain, the memory has to be updated”.
New connections are formed to an old memory, and the living schema is again implanted. Even just the act of remembering something seems to make your brain better at learning new things in the future.
Anki is already popular as a rote learning tool.
What’s less widespread is using Anki for everything else, from important facts in daily life to memorizing books. Some people already record these in a personal content library, where you can note down the most important parts of books, conversations, or videos.
Why not put that notebook into your brain?
If you store this content in your long-term memory, it also allows your brain to subconsciously make connections and solve problems with the knowledge. Given that you thought it was important enough to note down, wouldn’t it be great to always have that information at your disposal?
Anki is just a framework to make remembering easy.
15-20 minutes a day is enough to store a database of 10,000 cards, and jotting down key moments and thoughts is something everyone can do in a matter of minutes.
You can’t quite Anki-fy everything: A quick calculation suggests that you trade around 5-10 minutes of your life for every extra fact you remember. However, in almost every case getting stuck into something first will give you a good idea of what’s most important to retain later.
Michael Nielsen’s rules of thumb for whether to Anki-fy something are:
“First, if memorizing a fact seems worth 10 minutes of my time in the future, then I do it. Second, and superseding the first, if a fact seems striking then into Anki it goes, regardless of whether it seems worth 10 minutes of my future time or not.”
There’s an obvious subjective element here, so as long as you’re within your own boundaries it should be fine.
There’s also a great argument for using Anki to understand hard concepts, especially in research papers. That’s a slightly different process, involving multiple re-reads and building up a knowledge from very basic questions about the concepts.
An example was when Nielsen tried to understand the AlphaGo paper.
Learning about complex Machine Learning topics started with: “Who plays first in Go?”, “Where did AlphaGo get its training data?”, adding up to hundreds of questions that got steadily more complex as he kept re-reading the article.
The original blog is a great place to have a detailed walkthrough if you want to learn exactly how this works – if you’re like me, this would require too much extra work to apply to most things.
For now, I’ll stick to committing important ideas into long-term memory: digital and biological memory are fundamentally different, but we can use computers to supercharge our brains.
Thanks for reading! Most of what I’ve covered here is relatively well-established in the literature/based on books I am assuming to be truthful. Again, I’d highly recommend checking out the following resources if you have time, and forming your own opinions: