Spaced repetition systems as catechism

In James (“Brad”) DeLong - Quantum Country interview - 2019-11-22, Brad jokingly suggested that the Mnemonic medium represents a new kind of “catechism.” It’s an amusing comparison, but it’s also worth pondering seriously!

A typical example from the Westminster Shorter Catechism :

Q1: What is the chief end of man?
A1: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.

On their surface, catechisms are about memorizing doctrinal knowledge, but they also effect a change in identity through repeated exposure.

Likewise, a Spaced repetition memory system’s review sessions help readers remember the material of a book, but they also trigger readers to re-engage with material they’ve read over time. That’s practically useful because many readers will see new connections after they’ve sat with the content for a few weeks. But maybe it also fosters a change in identity: you’re not just a person who read that essay one time, you’re a “student of that topic” in some more continuous sense.

My own experiences here are mixed. Sometimes I’ll see a question for the twentieth time and answer by rote, with no emotional connection at all to the original source. Other times I’ll find myself wondering new questions about the topic, feeling gradually more “in contact with” that topic over time.

That’s all an indirect effect, creating a change in identity by memorizing details associated with that identity. But it may also be possible to use spaced repetition systems to program one’s identity more directly. Sticking with quantum computing for the moment, one simple example card might be: “At this instant, what unsolved question do I instinctively find most fascinating about quantum computing?” (there’s nothing on the back). If you saw this question on a regular basis over the next few months, would you identify with the problems of the space more personally?

You can imagine creating cards about new habits (“Think of a new concrete situation in which I’ll have trouble leaving space for others to speak.”) or values (“What’s an unusual recent situation in which you thought on the century scale?”); see Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to develop or change habits. More exotic Spaced everything systems can be used to schedule arbitrary fine-grained tasks associated with some new identity, like iteratively reaching out to interesting people in a new field.

At this point, it feels like we’ve moved quite far away from catechism, but this Anglican catechism has the same flavor:

Q: What is your Name?
A: …
Q: Who gave you this Name?
A: My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

A nice suggestion from Michael Nielsen: (2023-04-04):

There’s a Stanford anthropologist who wrote a book “Making God real” who argues that it’s the repetition of those acts which makes God real to believers

Another related observation from Michael Nielsen (2021-11-10):

In everyday life an astounding number of things happen. A tiny few seem really significant. Memory systems let you distill those things out, so that you will return to them again and again. They’re a way of concentrating your experience.

Related: OS-level spaced repetition system, Unusual applications of spaced repetition memory systems


This became a tweet: Andy Matuschak on Twitter: “In a recent chat with @michael_nielsen and me about, @delong suggested that the mnemonic medium is a new kind of catechism. We laughed, but… that’s a pretty interesting lens! (thread)…”