I love efficiency. I hate waste. Most people do.
For years, I’ve been trying to figure out the most efficient way to memorize large amounts of information. When I discovered reviewing flashcards using spaced repetition, I thought I’d found my prize. This flashcard system worked incredibly well … at first.
Then, slowly, it began to fail. Reviews became onerous. I wanted to get them over with as fast as possible.
Others felt the same way. When I told people I’d memorized Mark, they wanted to know how long it took. The implicit question was obvious: how much annoying review work will this superpower cost?
We took it for granted that the reviews were undesirable. A maintenance tax. We wanted to remember, not have to review.
What exactly is the difference between reviewing and remembering?
The Chore and the Prize Are the Same
Why memorize? So you can think.
But memorizing is thinking.
The more I consider the question, the harder it is to separate the process of “memorizing” from the goal of “thinking”. The chore and the prize seem nearly identical.
This is a very odd situation.
Unlike, Say, Cookies
Compare this to cookies. People like to eat cookies. But to get those cookies, you need to bake them.
Baking cookies is a completely different process from eating them. Sure, some people may also enjoy baking. But for most of us, baking is something we do as fast, as efficiently, as possible. We don’t want to spend time baking. We want to get it over with, so we can eat the cookies.
This pattern dominates our lives. Bake the cookie, then eat the cookie. Work at the job you hate, then collect the paycheck. Do the chore, then get the prize.
Now, it’s true, this pattern has problems. Life is too precious for dead time. Maybe we should learn to enjoy baking. Maybe we should learn to quit horrible jobs.
But that point is irrelevant for memorizing. Why do you review? So that you can remember. But reviewing is remembering.
Reviewing isn’t like baking at all. Reviewing is like eating the cookie.
Is Review Practice?
Sort of. After I mulled over the cookie analogy, I realized that there’s a whole other class of skills I hadn’t considered. Skills like riding a bike, or running a marathon, or playing the piano. Skills you practice.
On the one hand, practicing the piano is a lot like playing the piano.
On the other hand, real piano practice is a grueling, lurching grind. The only path to the effortless dance of real playing lies through the marshes of painful repetition.
Is the answer that simple? Are reviews difficult the way that practicing the piano is difficult? Is missing a card like missing a note?
Tempting. But no.
Sure, a commitment to reviews has the difficulties inherent in any commitment. Some days, you won’t feel like it.
But review is not simply practice. You practice to acquire a new skill. Practice is hard, because you can only acquire the skill a bit at a time. You’re constantly conscious of the gap between how good you are, and how good you want to be.
But when you review, you’re trying to connect to something you can already do. You’re trying to think a thought that you’ve already had.
This is fundamentally different from almost every kind of practice I can think of. You’re trying to recapture a previous experience.
Thinking Takes Practice
And yet, that original thought is often hurried and vague. You hear a poem, and before it’s over, you’ve forgotten the first line.
When we think of reviewing as practice, we try to remember the poem simply by repeating it. Just as you stumble through a sonata the first time through, you stumble through the poem until you’ve said it ten or a hundred times.
But what if this is wrong? What if we should be practicing reading, visualizing, and thinking about the poem? What if we should be slowly tasting the poem, line by line? What if we should do this five or ten or even more times, before we even consider memorizing it?
Thinking and visualizing definitely take practice. I have a lifetime habit of blazing through text, trying to finish. I want to get to the ending, the main point, the takeaway. For thriller novels, this might be fine, but a text worth remembering is dense. Scholars talk about “unpacking” a text. That takes practice. Focusing on each line, conjuring up images, sounds, scents, connecting these new thoughts to old nooks in your mental world — this takes time and effort.
I have to admit, I think I’ve been hoping that memorizing would make all that magic happen automatically.
It doesn’t. Memorizing may be impressive. But thinking is the hard part.
In fact, what if we found that this slow reading, imagining, and thinking led to memorization as a side effect? What if huge chunks of the poem began to stay with you, automatically, because you kept thinking about it? That’s what happens with song lyrics, sports stats, movie lines, and pretty much anything else people love to think about.
Even if we didn’t find ourselves getting perfect recall, and we had to keep glancing down at the written text, we would face a question. If we’re using text to think, and spaced repetition to make sure that we keep thinking about important things … do we really need to memorize?
Isn’t thinking the point?
Review Time as Thinking Time?
Suddenly, the world turns inside out, and I finally see memorizing the way most people seem to see it. A waste of time. Why memorize the Bible, when you can pull up any chapter on your phone?
Up to now, my answer has been that you can only think with what you remember. But, that’s not precisely true. You’re reading this right now, and you’re thinking about it. The truth is, you can only think with what you take time to think about.
And when I rush through my flashcard reviews, I’m not thinking. I’m focusing on the wrong question: “Do I remember this perfectly?”
Instead, whether I happen to have perfect recall or not, I should focus on: “This is my time to think about this again.”
Imagine your reviews being slow and leisurely. Imagine looking forward to a hundred or so cards. Imagine thinking, “Whatever comes up, it’s something important. Every article and TV show is a gamble, but this stuff is solid. I enjoyed it the first time around, and I’m going to savor it now.”
Major paradigm shift.
Efficient Memorization Is a Slippery Slope
When I try to review as efficiently as possible, it’s like trying to eat cookies as efficiently as possible. It’s absurd. I’m hurtling down a mountain slope of diminishing returns. The more I focus on my own recall, on my grade, the less time, energy, and desire I have to think. I’m wolfing it all down, instead of tasting the knowledge.
For some skills, efficiency makes sense. You want to learn vocabulary as quickly as possible, so you can speak in the new language.
But for remembering what you read, or remembering texts, efficiency is a slippery slope.
The word itself sums up the problem. “Efficiency” really has two very different shades of meaning. We tend to want to be “efficient” when a task should be done as quickly as possible. The most efficient solution is to figure out how to avoid the task altogether. In this sense, the most “efficient” reviews would be no reviews at all: we could just download information to some mental computer.
But there’s a richer meaning to the word “efficient”. A process is efficient when it accomplishes the desired goal. We speak of a method’s “efficacy” — it really works.
In remembering, the first meaning of efficiency easily wars against the second. When we become obsessed with spending as little effort and time as possible on remembering, we forget why we’re remembering in the first place. Once that shift happens, reviews become absurd. Reviews are thinking. If you don’t like thinking for its own sake, there’s no reason to do it at all.
I’m a Human, Not a Computer
I mentioned a “mental computer,” and that analogy may be exactly what’s tripping me up. Computers can’t think. But they can copy terabytes of data in a few minutes.
If I view Anki as copying data into my brain, it will drive me nuts that it takes so many hours to copy so few bits of data. It makes me feel like a shoddy, vacuum-tube prototype mainframe that keeps chewing up its punchcards.
But if I view Anki as triggering thoughts, awakening whole networks of experiences and associations, then remembering will make me more human. I won’t review for the sake of awesome, high-quality thinking later. My reviews will be that high-quality thinking. Right now.
That’s exciting. I’d better go clean up my Anki decks.