One of the Virtues of Rationality is Scholarship. I believe that knowledge about memorization is not as widely known as it should be, considering how learning things efficiently would save a lot of people a lot of time, and I think that it should be discussed more on the EA Forum and LessWrong. I don’t refer to only studying efficiently, I am referring to anything that you might want to store in your long-term memory.
This is a post for anyone that wants to know about how to learn more efficiently using memorization techniques. If you want to know more than is said in this post, I recommend checking Art of Memory Forum for learning tools and literature recommendations.
How to do it
The type of rehearsal that is meant to store information in the long-term memory is called elaborative rehearsal. It involves understanding the information that is rehearsed, and relating it to other information. Another type of rehearsal is maintenance rehearsal, which is for storing information in the short-time or working memory. It usually involves repeating something over and over again. Repeating something over and over again, without thinking about its meaning or relation to other information, is not an efficient way of transferring memories to the long-term memory. Memory techniques can generally be viewed as methods for performing elaborative rehearsal.
Our brain has selective preferences of what it is good at transferring to long-term memory. For example, it likes visual stuff. If you want to learn a new concept, visualize it! It likes stuff related to yourself (self-reference effect). It likes stuff that you yourself make (generation effect). It likes well organized information. It also likes absurd things, and things that evoke strong emotions like disgust, anger, joy, etc.. It likes stuff that stands out, stuff that really surprises it.
We can look at an example. The Overton window is the range of political policies that are publicly acceptable to the mainstream population. I want to memorize it. Overton sounds like “over ton”, so I visualize a large window, with frames weighing a lot over one ton, made of diamond. Now, I relate it to the meaning. A politician is leaning out of the window and discussing allowed policies. He/she states something that made the public below go “boooo” and the window shuts itself in his/her face. Even better: you are the politician (self-reference effect). It is visual, it is absurd, it is very annoying, you are a part of the visualization, you generated it. At this point, you might realize that someone with a vivid imagination, expressive fantasies, and perhaps daydreaming tendencies have a clear advantage.
Of course, you don’t need to use every single piece of advice for every single thing you memorize.
Now that we know a bit about how to make information easily transferable to long-term memory, we still need a bit more to keep it there. The gradual decline of memory retention is called the forgetting curve. The solution is spaced repetition, which means repeating something with longer and longer intervals in between repetitions. It can for example go from 10 min, to 1 day, to 4 days, to 2 weeks, to 2 months, to 8 months, to 2 years, to 8 years. You repeat something 8 times, and now know it to the day you die. Unless you get dementia or something. Also, if you neglect elaborative rehearsal methods you will likely need several times more repetitions, as you would need to start over several times (perhaps I just have a bad memory?).
This is probably the step where most people fail. The norm is not to remember things forever, that takes slightly more effort than cramming before a test and then forgetting everything afterwards. When you memorize a lot of things, you will need to rehearse a bit every day.
The grand solution for making spaced repetition more effortless is called Anki. It’s an app, free on android and computers, as well as online. You can synchronize it over platforms. It is (to my knowledge) the gold standard for spaced repetition, and uses flashcards. Check out this article for advice specific for Anki.
There is more to be said about repetition. Firstly, the brain is not always good at retrieving information from long-term memory. You can know a word, then when someone asks you about it, you suddenly forget about it! By repetition, you train your brain in retrieving the relevant information, making it easier to recall later. This is called the testing effect.
My second point is more hypothetical. I believe that when you rehearse some information within a certain subject, you will remember related information and information within the same subject a bit better. It means that if you memorize something and use spaced repetition, not only do you remember it for the rest of eternity, you also remember more about the subject as a bonus.
Thirdly, when you add a flashcard to anki, your brain recognizes that it is something that it is supposed to learn. The brain remembers stuff better if it recognizes that it will be tested on it later.
I also want to say a few words about memory palaces and memory journeys. It is very useful if you want to memorize a lot of related things, like a sequence of historical events, a long list of numbers (e.g. pi), all Greek gods, medical names of bones in your body, the Twelve Virtues of Rationality etc.. The palace is commonly your house/apartment, your body, or your neighborhood. Every item you want to memorize is visualized like the Overton window example. Then you place every visualized item in your palace along a set route, so that you can then travel along that same route to retrieve the items later. If you use your body as the palace, you place objects on different parts of your body, and normally go through them from top to bottom or bottom to top. Here is a more complete guide, with an example. A similar method is to construct a story, where every event is bound to an item that you memorize.
Is memorization useful?
Is memorization useful in the age of Google? How about the age of ChatGPT and other LLMs? The answer is that there are certain contexts where it helps knowing things yourself, where it is obvious that memorization is useful. The memory is an internal database, where any relevant information is automatically retrieved. It is in that sense a way more powerful database than the internet. If you have things in your head, they are extremely accessible. The internal database is practically always better when it is feasible, as it is so much faster to access information from it. Although some information is not easy to store in the internal database, and some information is actually so easy to look up that storing it is a waste of time.
A lot of tasks become easier and more efficient. As an example, almost all information in this post is directly from my memory (although I double-checked most of it). It would have taken me several times more time to write this if I did not already know everything.
It also helps to know what questions to ask. If I want to research something, knowing a lot of relevant concepts to use as search words makes the process less time-consuming.
One of the major perks of having a large database in your head is for problem solving. When I encounter a problem or a task, I write down everything relevant that I know, and write down a lot of different paths to take to solve it. I might apply this technique when writing a forum post, starting a business, investing, planning my time, or basically anything else. For every problem I encounter, I already know a lot about it. I never get stuck, because there is always something else to try. This process needs an internal database, because otherwise you would not find all relevant information. If I searched for good planning strategies online, I would likely never find things like Murphyjitsu or Premortem, they are not common enough strategies.
Most people don’t use memorization techniques or Anki. Most people are doing quite well anyway. Is memorization actually important? First of all, the question is weird. It is like saying “Is it important to know stuff?” Second of all, “doing quite well” is relative – I don’t think people are performing as well as they could perform if they knew more. I believe that the reason it seems like most people seem to be doing fine without memorization is that the competition doesn’t use memorization. No one expects anyone else to know a lot.
There are many memorization techniques that I did not talk about, because this post is already long and there are already good instructions elsewhere. Check out how to memorize names and faces, and how to memorize numbers for example. Remembering dates or telephone numbers is really easy if you know how to do it.
That is all I had to say, have a great time expanding your internal database!