By Matt Trevithick
In 2015, I read a book called A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science Even if you Flunked Algebra by Barbara Oakley. It has some great tips, advice, and reflections on learning math and science-related material more easily. I enjoyed the book because it contained some great thoughts on inter-leavening material while studying, which I’ve tried to put into practice, as well as focused and unfocused learning.
I highlighted 18 concepts / names / sentences I found useful and created 12 cards to add to my ‘Books / Life’ Anki deck where everything from what I read that I want to remember ends up. There are some great nuggets that I review periodically:
- The best way to avoid procrastination is to avoid focusing on the product (an outcome) and focus only on a process (like working, or writing, etc). (Kindle Location 1455)
- We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable (Kindle Location 1254)
- Taking responsibility for your own learning is one of the most important things you can do (Kindle Location 2932)
But the single best sentence I came across, with direct implications for spaced repetition, was this:
“You must have information persisting in your memory if you are to master the material well enough to do well on tests and think creatively with it” (Kindle Location 993).
I modified this, perhaps a bit aggressively, to “the ability to think creatively requires information to persist in your memory” and have repeatedly discovered the wisdom in this concept.
Creativity + Memorization
In my experience explaining spaced repetition, folks immediately leap to seeing spaced repetition as a boring (if functional) tool to help them overcome distant goals – graduating medical school, learning vocabulary while studying a foreign language, or writing a PhD. This view frames spaced repetition entirely as a tool to help them perform better in academic settings or settings where learning is required, and nothing else.
That is also how I started using spaced repetition, to assist me in learning Afghan Farsi while living in Kabul after Alex introduced me to it. But I then realized that I could add things in from books I was reading, finally solving the conundrum of how to remember what I was reading. My previous method was to spend weekends at a café writing out by hand things I had underlined in books into a single notebook to imprint them a bit more firmly in my brain, then re-reading those writings every few weeks. It was absurdly time consuming but helpful. But spaced repetition naturally blew it out of the water.
A year or so into using Anki on a daily basis, I started adding in basic events and notes from my own life, and the lives of friends, starting with dates and places. I then added in almost everything I found interesting or had ever looked up. It went from the profound to the mundane, and most topics in between, largely because it was fun. (As an aside, Alex and I have joked about the tendency when you first discover that spaced repetition is working to want to add in literally everything you could possibly want to know. If you're curious what that looks like, check out this video of a man who memorized his daily life for one year. The impact on his sense of time was really interesting.)
The result was that I increasingly had more data points in my head than ever before. And if creativity is nothing more than a new connection between existing ideas or dots in your head (every idea does come from somewhere) then this method would stand to greatly enhance creativity. From my own experience, this was the exact result. Courtesy of spaced repetition with its regular reviews of material, ideas and thoughts stayed illuminated in my brain, which enabled the creation of more ideas than ever before because as I went through my daily life, small and insignificant triggers would repeatedly launch new, creative thoughts.
In different words, Daniel Coyle in The Little Book of Talent discusses both the science and the art of this, with your brain re-wiring itself depending on how you are accessing thoughts.
But the bottom line is the same: to think creatively requires points to stick in your head so you can connect them in new ways. More points, more possible connections, more creativity.
Memorization: A Key to Creativity?
Far from being a boring tool to help you get a better grade in Spanish class, I’d posit that the creative classes – artists, poets, writers, and everyone along those lines – would also benefit enormously from using spaced repetition as a learning tool to inspire new approaches to their work. A bit of basic memorization will go a long way in helping people be more creative, innovative and original than ever before. It has certainly helped me in my creative endeavors and developing solutions to problems demanding cognitive flexibility. And if we're living in the creative economy, this would be an indispensable tool in helping us all succeed.
NB: Whether the ideas are good or actionable or profitable is an entirely different issue – but the first step on this path is simply to collect ideas. Then you can put them into a list, and weed through as appropriate.