Unusual applications of spaced repetition memory systems

While a Spaced repetition memory system is primarily designed to help people remember facts, their flashcard mechanism can be used for a variety of other purposes.

  • Salience prompts
  • Unusual objects for recall tasks, more about creating a context for reflection than about literal recall:
    • Something clever or beautiful a writer or artist did: why did it work? What might have made them think of it? What was its effect on you?
    • Flashes of insight: what was the critical observation which unlocked a profound realization? What was the context?
    • Model-breaking moments: someone said something you didn’t expect them to say—it’s a different way of looking at the world. What made them say that? What’s the delta between that way of seeing and your own?
    • Changes in intention: what made you realize that your old intention isn’t serving you well? Why wasn’t it serving you well? What’s your replacement? What difficult changes does this mean?
    • Failures: very precisely, what was your error? What were the proximate causes of that error? What were the causes of those causes? When those causes are present in the future, what strategies do you intend to use to have a different outcome?
    • Tough past decisions: what were the key factors that helped you make a call? How did you frame the decision? What were you surprised by in hindsight? (via MN, 2020-06-31)
    • Good operational patterns (e.g. in email or meetings): what effect did the pattern have on how you and others felt or acted? When might it be appropriate (or not)? What seem to be important considerations for its success/failure? In what types of future situations do you intend to try the pattern? (via MN, 2020-06-31)
    • Memorizing quotes: use intermediate prompts which e.g. present only the first letter of each word (via Divia Eden, 2020-07-01)
  • Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to develop or change habits
  • Broader cognitive task types: Spaced repetition memory systems can be used to prompt application, synthesis, and creation
  • Visualization exercises to reinforce happy memories; e.g. front: “visualize your trip to Trapani with Sara”; back: photo(s) (via Taylor Rogalski, 2020-06-11)
  • Prompts to stay in touch; e.g. front: “visualize your friend Rob; is there anything you’d like to say?”; back: imessage:// URL to send him a message if you like (via Taylor Rogalski, 2020-06-11)
  • Motor memory prompts; e.g. play a C# minor scale on your thigh
  • Aesthetic kindling; e.g. front: an interesting image you found while browsing the web, perhaps with a non-prompt like “what do you find striking about this?”; back: nothing (see also Kawara, which centers on this type of prompt)
  • Lightweight, optional, non-urgent tasks: “have you looked at who’s linked to your blog recently? maybe there’s something interesting there: (link)”
  • Exposing yourself to thoughts you flinch away from: e.g. “Project X failed because I knew that Sal opposed it from the start, and I just let that fester instead of addressing it.” Using cloze deletions to make yourself complete the observation may be effective here. (via Divia Eden, 2020-07-01)

Outside of the simple flashcard format, the general spaced repetition mechanism can be applied to many domains; see Spaced repetition systems can be used to program attention for more. Related: Spaced repetition systems as catechism.

On emotional reinforcement

Ava (bookbear) suggests that love is, in many ways, about repetition—choosing the same person or idea or way of being over and over again.

I haven’t figured out how to write about this without it feeling too squishy, but spaced repetition has been a really interesting venue for experimenting with this sort of feeling. I have lots of prompts whose primary purpose is reinforcing my emotional connection to a person, or a place, or an ideal, or an idea. It sometimes feels like a misshapen emotional crutch, but sometimes it feels like it expands my capacity to love!

Last updated 2023-07-13.