Supermemo, spaced repetition and time-structured randomness

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I've written about Supermemo before, a system for focusing your attention on things that you have previously learned in such a way that you reinforce long term memory. Given a set of items which you were confident in at a stage in the past, identify a way to re-test yourself on that confidence. Space out those retest intervals so that you keep the learning from decaying into nothingness. Repetition is the very soul of the net, and if you are careful you can repeat at intervals that don't overwhelm.

New to me this week is a similar spaced repetition training tool focused on short term memory. Referred to as "N-back" (Wikipedia), it looks at turning the process of matching repetitive items in a sequence into a game, with higher scores if you can recall that e.g. 3 letters ago there was also an 'x' in the string. The application Brain Workshop was created by Paul Hoskinson and lets you play with your current skills; I haven't seen anyone render this into hardware a la the old game of Simon.

To turn the random noise of the world into patterns that you understand and can manipulate and recognize, you need to find the useful connections and build upon them somehow. You can't just learn by remembering things out of context – it always helps to learn by doing. People love to make things into patterns, and an organized exploration of an otherwise random world can help you make connections which are key to understanding the world.

The space I keep trying to explore is remembering the names of people, some of whom I know rather well by face, others who I know only by their work. The index into this space that lends itself to randomness is the birthday, which you can be pretty sure to capture less than 1% of the set of people every day. Alas, Facebook has cheapened the opportunity for remembering someone's birthday as a distinguishing mark, so the challenge is to use this somehow else; if I happen to remember your half birthday, it's because I'm trying to remember and plan both forward and back 6 months. Even better if I send you a half-birthday postcard (to combine two unusual abilities). Wish me luck.


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