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A Different Type of Computer

December 27, 2021

I think spaced repetition is severely underestimated and underutilized. There is this idea that everyone should focus on understanding things, rather than memorizing and learning by heart. Trying to remember anything is deemed more or less useless, not true understanding, with the argument being that facts are so easily obtained nowadays that there's no need to store them in memory.

The problem is that humans are not computers. A human brain is not a programmable machine, but it seems like the two are being mixed up more and more. With the brain, the more time one spends thinking about a subject, the more nodes will grow related to that subject, and the more well-connected they will be. This is not something that usually happens over a one-time understanding/first-principle-thinking moment. It happens over time when one thinks about what questions to ask next and how it connects to other topics you know. First-principle connections arise over a long time. For a brain, it's the end, not the starting point. But for a computer, it's the other way around.

Take something that can be understood very well - like a math proof. You can follow it from the assumptions to its conclusion and understand it in perfect detail. Yet most people will forget it if they don't revisit it regularly, particularly in the beginning. I think everyone can admit to having something explained in a way that you understood, but since have forgotten. For a computer, that knowledge would be internalized for a very long time as soon as it's been translated to code. For a human brain, it decays rapidly if not revisited. The best way to make it stick is to use an algorithm for spacing revisits in optimal intervals.

Spaced repetition is an efficient learning technique and I think more people should be doing it. Not just in topics where it's an obvious benefit, like when learning a new language, but also when trying to learn knowledge where a solid foundational understanding is the end goal, such as physics, mathematics and biology. A great way to start is with Anki. Another way is to use the spaced-repetition add-on directly in Obsidian if you use that for note-taking.

Even though understanding is the end goal, a great way to get there is by using some spaced repetition.

By the way, it also works for chess.