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What should you memorize?

person trying to memorize something with what should you memorize text

Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) is a powerful way of improving your memory. Most people use it for language learning and knowledge for exams. But memory is something that affects our day-to-day lives, while greater memory could potentially make us smarter and more creative. So it begs the question – what should you memorize?

Common things to memorize

I’ve been using Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) to help me learn languages for around a year. It not only feels really helpful to me, but it’s backed by a considerable weight of scientific evidence 1 But as I’ve used SRS more, and read more about how others use it, a question has been nagging at me – if it’s possible to remember lots of things this effectively, isn’t there other stuff I should be trying to remember?

As much as I tout the benefits of creating a ‘Second Brain’, we’re not yet fully integrated with our digital devices. Nor would you necessarily want to be. And there might be ways we could significantly improve our lives if we remembered certain things. But what are those things?

I put a version of this question to the Anki community on Reddit, which had 91.7k members at the time of writing. The answers I got (I’ve paraphrased) were:

What Redditors are using SRS for

  • Lyrics of songs in foreign languages, as a means of learning a language
  • Friends’ food preferences
  • The names of the children of cousins
  • Recognizing crops/plants
  • Bird identification
  • Geography, in preparation for retirement travel
  • Excerpts from personal development, psychology and business books
  • Statistics (for debating)
  • Inspiring quotes
  • Faces of colleagues
  • Jokes
  • Drawing technical diagrams
  • Salary negotiation tips and scripts
  • What to say when friends ask for advice / feedback
  • Nutrition information – might take a pill and then forget why
  • Religious passages
  • Technical analysis for financial markets (developing analytical skill)
  • Quizzes
  • Account information, passport number etc (but done on a paper-based system so as not to have the information online)

These mostly seem like worthwhile use cases. Other uses I’ve considered (with sources, where applicable) include:

Other possible uses for SRS

  • A word a day2
  • Learning musical notes3
  • Job interview answers
  • Knowledge required in work (obviously a pretty big and varied category, which requires further elaboration)
  • Especially useful checklists
  • Fragments of things in your Second Brain (maybe the titles of individual notes), so you know what’s in there
  • Important arguments e.g. Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, or reasons for your political views (ties in with the debating idea above)
  • Recipes you use frequently
  • Key dates from history
  • Biases (and perhaps other psychological effects)
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • Stats that might come up in conversation
  • Anecdotes that illustrate a point
  • Learning passages of writing from authors you like, as a means of improving your own writing
  • Using lessons you’ve learnt from everyday life to avoid future mistakes

These use cases all seem to have some merit, and will be attractive and useful to different people in different degrees. But before deciding to actually spend time on these things, it’s worth stopping to consider awhile. How long will it take to memorize those things? And how big is the benefit? Could there even be downsides to remembering these things? After all, what you remember influences your perception of today’s reality – and if you’re putting garbage in, you could be getting garbage out.

Memorize this framework – the five minute rule

Thankfully, Gwern Branwen has calculated how long it typically takes to make a card and memorize it over the course of a lifetime. The rough answer, allowing for being a bit slow at making the cards: five minutes. He therefore proposes the following rule for deciding whether to enter something into SRS or not:

“if, over your lifetime, you will spend more than 5 minutes looking something up or will lose more than 5 minutes as a result of not knowing something, then it’s worthwhile to memorize it with spaced repetition”4

Branwen also suggests that if you’re going to need the information within the next five days, then it’s probably better to learn it ‘massed’ i.e. try to cram it in, rather than space it out.

Should we be doing more than this?

This five minute rule is a nice framework to opportunistically add things to your giant SRS life deck. But it only really provides a decision process, rather than telling us which things to proactively go looking for. It seems there might be more ‘five minute worthy’ opportunities out there than you have time in your lifetime, and that some information might be generally useful to most people. What are those things?

One limit will be the amount of stuff you can reasonably have in an SRS deck whilst keeping up with the reviews. This will also vary person to person, but if you put garbage in there, your motivation is likely to wane. At the time of writing the post, Branwen maintained a deck of over 18,000 cards in about 20 minutes per day. The key seems to be keeping your deck interesting, manageable, and useful.

Could memorizing more make you significantly smarter?

Another more alternative use of SRS I came across is described in this essay by Michael Nielsen. He goes into the detail of how he used Anki to deeply understand concepts in machine learning. In short, he takes concepts from a research paper, starting with the most simple, and uses Anki to remember them. He then keeps re-reading the paper, adding more complex ideas to his Anki to remember. After several rounds, he is much better able to understand the paper, as well as more of the scientific field around it.

Nielsen speculates that memory is actually linked more closely to intelligence than we typically think. Just as the best chess players are said to see the board in ‘chunks’5, and can thus hold multiple games in their mind at once, maybe people who seem really smart actually just see the ‘board’ differently. The ‘chunk’ of information an expert will have is more complex than the novice, and so they can solve higher-level problems by using those chunks in their working memory.

“someone with a lower IQ but able to call on more complex chunks would be able to reason about more complex situations than someone with a higher IQ but less complex internalized chunks.”

A good analogy is language. To me, a non-Chinese speaker, memorising more than a handful of Chinese characters would be incredibly difficult, or require a technique like a mind palace. To a Chinese speaker, memorising a long sentence – potentially including hundreds of characters – would be straightforward. But where else does this apply?

Can memorizing things make you more creative?

If this is correct – and Nielsen makes clear it’s a ‘speculative informal model’ – then perhaps some of the validity, such that there is any, of the 10,000 hours rule6, is that it gives you time to build up more, and more complex, chunks in your memory. Perhaps The Beatles could write great songs because they could remix complex chunks of songs in their minds, and combine them to make something great.

I would not argue that memorising lots of things will necessarily make you much more creative. There is clearly an important difference between knowing the facts of what fingers need to go where on a piano to make a particular note, and being able to write a concerto. But the knowledge, and particularly the fluency with underlying chunks, seems to be a pre-requisite. And if that is the case, could more people having those pre-requisites lead to greater creative expression?

Does this always work?

To me, this seems intuitive. If an intelligent person comes into a new field, they are unlikely to produce many breakthroughs. But if they could also ‘upload’ all of the relevant knowledge for that field, it would not seem surprising if they produced some breakthroughs, given at least a little time for their subconscious minds to ponder the questions.

But what fields, if any at all, does this apply to? Chess and languages are bounded, and have rules. Music less so. Does speeding up the acquisition of knowledge in science make a difference to someone’s scientific breakthroughs, or is it likely to take years for ideas to percolate anyway? Does memorising mathematical concepts even speed up true understanding of them?

Changing your present through your memory

A less obviously ‘productive’ but nonetheless worthwhile application of remembering more things would be to enrich your day-to-day consciousness. For example, reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities has given me a better appreciation of how different land use contributes to the culture of an urban environment. It changes the things I notice when I walk round a new city. What art, literature, music, film could also give me a richer experience of life if I were to remember it better?

Could I also select some of my own memories to embed more deeply in my memory, and retrieve more easily? Would eating a delicious meal be more worthwhile if I could more easily summon that feeling again? Could I shape my memory to make myself happier, or ‘better’ in some other way?

The future of memory

The recent history of memory seems to be about offloading more and more of it to computers. I generally think that’s a very good thing. We shouldn’t waste our precious – and fallible – memory remembering what tasks we have to do, how to do things we can automate, the list of 25 things we need to buy from the supermarket, obscure and useless facts we can easily google, or our complicated passwords.

But if we have ways of directing our memory much more than ever before, thanks to Spaced Repetition Software, it could be that instead of offloading to computers, the future of memory is one where we use computers to upload more and more to ourselves.

Key takeaways from what should you memorize

  • Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) is a powerful way of memorising things 🧠
  • It’s typically used for language and exam learning, but alternative uses are emerging 🗣
  • One calculation suggests that the average flashcard takes 5 minutes to create and memorize over a lifetime. So if something is worth that 5 minutes, you should enter it into an SRS system. 5️⃣
  • There are many things that might meet this threshold. It’s also possible that remembering more might make you smarter, or more creative. 👍
  • We tend to offload more and more of our memory to computers, but arguably we should be using computers to upload more and more to our memories. 👨‍💻

Further Resources

If you liked the theme of this article, but found it less directly applicable than usual(!), then I’ve also written about How to use effective learning techniques for arts subjects.

I also highly recommend an essay by Michael Nielsen called ‘Augmenting Long-term Memory’.

If you’re interested in the scientific literature behind Spaced Repetition Software, this review by Gwern Branwen should be for you.

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  1. See Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning, and Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2013 Jan;14(1):4-58. doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266. PMID: 26173288.
  2. mentioned in Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning
  3. mentioned in Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning
  4. Of course, this can vary wildly, depending on how quickly and well you make the cards, how complicated they are, how good your retrieval skills are etc. The value of your time will likely also fluctuate a lot over the course of your life.
  5. Adriaan de Groot, Thought and Choice in Chess, Amsterdam University Press (2008, reprinted from 1965)
  6. popularised by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008)