Building a better memory system - Michael Nielsen

doc_type: hypothesis-highlights
author: Michael Nielsen
url: ''

Some very thoughtful comments from Michael Nielsen unpacking unusual directions for design research in memory systems. Particularly valuable are the background remarks, which emphasize meaning (The dominant culture around spaced repetition memory systems is fixated on meaningless goals); depth of understanding, emotional connection (The critical thing to optimize in spaced repetition memory systems is emotional connection to the review session and its contents), sociality (Think harder about sociality and memory systems).

I'm particularly taken with his point that "many easy-to-measure things are relatively unimportant; many important things are hard-to-measure". This is a trap I've fallen into repeatedly with my work on the Mnemonic medium. I've had trouble getting a real handle on depth, or emotional connection… so I've fallen back on measuring memory response curves and the like. Some part of me wants to "look legitimate" with "data" and "statistics". This is silly. What will matter in the long run are the squishy facets I've been mostly avoiding.

Michael also proposes as a central prompt: "What does a memory system look like for a driven creative genius who is an expert with the system?" This is a prompt I've been exploring in my recent memo-to-self on upcoming research plans, prodded by conversation with him on 2022-11-22. I think this is a place I've been quite wrong, trying to aggregate large groups of people in a misplaced search for generalizability.


Q. Michael Nielsen's objection to the typical framing of memory systems?
A. "Spaced repetition" is only a part of the story: we can design systems to mold our memory and cognition.

How to increase the depth of understanding being encoded? How to raise the emotional stakes? How to make it more social, so memory becomes something we do together? How to strongly connect it to meaningful projects? How to support people in greatly improving how they use memory systems?

Indeed: effective use of memory systems sometimes means not using them. But it can also mean using them extremely intensively. The trick is to have an accurate and strongly felt internalized model. A major challenge in communicating about memory systems is helping people form such a model

In my personal memory practice, nearly all the benefit has come from learning how to: better digest material; make better questions and answers; better connect the memory system to my life and creative work.

I suspect such difficult-to-quantify targets are far better targets if you actually want to improve memory systems, and not merely hit your OKRs.

Q. Danger MN notices in metrics around memory systems?
A. The easy-to-quantify things (memory response curves) are relatively unimportant; harder-to-quantify things are what matter.

Q. Give some examples of important-but-hard-to-quantify things in memory systems.
A. e.g. better digesting material, better connecting it to my life, creating prompts which promote richer understanding

Q. MN's proposed prompt for working on memory systems (in his 2022-11-24 note)?
A. "What does a memory system look like for a driven creative genius who is an expert with the system?"

Q. "If you were designing the piano with modern software design practice in mind…"
A. "…it would have 8 white keys, no black keys, and no pedals!" The point is that they're designed for experts.

Q. "We teach five year olds to write, but…"
A. "…no one ever really masters writing."

Q. For almost all of our most powerful tools for thought, how does capability rise with time invested?
A. You can keep getting better, for thousands of hours.

Q. What design lesson should we take from the observation that 90% of the value of Anki comes from simple q/a prompts, with no bells/whistles?
A. Powerful systems often come from identifying and doubling down on one really powerful idea.

Suppose you got together for 90 minutes once a month with a coach who would help you write better questions. They'd go through 10-20 questions with you, and help you improve those questions. You'd also discuss what types of questions you should and shouldn't be asking, and how it connects to your life goals and projects more broadly

Enacting the questions and answers: This is something that bugs me. Anki's context is all wrong. If I learn a new part of the Javascript API I don't want an artificial question and answer within Anki's context. Ideally, I want a real use case to arise, within my text editor, and then to actually enact the solution. And this should all happen on the right schedule. And I don't just want this for tasks at the computer. I want it for everything I'd like to remember.

I expect that if a memory coach simply wrote short critiques of a few thousand questions, then either a classifier or a large language model could be used to critique and help improve people's questions

"We need to go deeper": I use hundreds or thousands of strategies to more deeply encode understanding in my memory system. These strategies have been evolved over years9. Other serious users of memory systems report similarly. Unfortunately, I only have a few means for transferring these strategies to or from others: one-on-one going through the practice; seeing examples from other people and asking "why did they add that question"; telling people that question-asking is, in my experience, a skill it's possible to get continually better at. Sometimes, simply knowing it's possible to be much much better at something is valuable in its own right.

Memory is something we do together: This is just a general intuition pump. Meaning really is something we construct together, to a remarkable extent. I know that if I want to improve my understanding of something, I should teach it, or write about it, especially in a highly interactive medium (like twitter). It greatly heightens all my emotional response around what I've written. In this sense, speaking or writing with the direct engagement of people you care about is a terrific aid to memory and more broadly to understanding.

This is an interesting unexpected benefit of the mnemonic medium: feeling that people are going to read my prompts has a very interesting vividness effect.

Memory is not the point: The point of using memory systems is to make a better life, not memory in and of itself.

Last updated 2023-07-13.