Principles of Ultralearning: 7) Retention

Try to remember the faces of everyone you met the first day of school…
Photo by GoaShape on Unsplash

Remember, remember, the 5th of…Something.

Do you ever struggle to remember the Pythagoras’ theorem, even though it was drilled into your head in school?

Memory isn’t perfect.

We forget things.

Scott Young, who wrote Ultralearning, says there are 3 reasons we forget:

  • Decay
  • Interference
  • Forgotten Cues

Decay

Memories fade over time.

Try to remember your Reception teacher’s face. What colour was their hair? What about their eyes? Did they have a soft or harsh voice?

Now do the same for your boss at work.

Much easier, right?

Memories lose their potency over time, because our brain has retrieved them recently, so the pathways in your brain become less defined, they decay.

Interference

Your existing memories can actually make it harder to make new memories.

There are 2 forms of Interference:

  • Proactive
  • Retroactive

Proactive

Something you have already learned makes learning something new more difficult.

Think of all the connotations you have for the word “Negative”.

Bad? Moody? A downer?

Then it may confuse you, when I say that in Psychology Negative Reinforcement can be a good thing.

Negative Reinforcement means to take something away.

This is neutral, it can be good or bad, the thing being taken away could be pain, which would be good. Or you could take away pleasure, which would be bad.

For example, you could have horrible pains that go away the moment you press a button. Eventually, through Negative Reinforcement, you will learn to press that button to take away your pain every time you feel pain.

Retroactive

This is where a new memory pushes out an old memory.

To be honest, I don’t know the neuroscience on this one, but I can tell you what happens.

An example, would be if you started to learn spanish and you began to forget your french.

Forgotten Cues

This is the feeling when you are so close to remembering something, but you just can’t quite get the words out.

You know if you just hear the first letter or the start of the phrase, you could remember the name of the actor who played Professor X in X-Men.

The little jog you need to remember is your cue.

If you know your cue for remembering something, this can be very useful for triggering a memory when needed.

Like when people make L’s with their hands to remember left and right.

How To Remember

There are 3 main ways to retain memories long term

  • Spacing
  • Proceduralisation
  • Overlearning

Spacing

Spacing means learning your new skill over gradually increasing time-intervals, rather than all at once in one big cram session.

Spacing works best for things you can get right or wrong: facts, definitions, vocabulary ,etc.

Spacing needs to be done within reason, once a twice a week would be sensible, rather than once or twice every 10 years.

Too long a gap and you will have forgotten so much there won’t have been anything to retain.

I talked about Spacing in the post on retrieval.

Proceduralisation

Procedures, once learned, are easier to remember than concepts you have to describe.

You can test this right now.

Type the word “shunt” without looking at the keyboard.

You may make a typo but it was easy, right?

Now tell me the two letters either side of “u” on the keyboard… I guessed “i” and “w”.

If you look at your keyboard you will see I got one right and one very wrong.

Did you find typing the word or remembering the letters easier?

Automating skills makes them easier, this is why you can ride a bike your whole life, but describing how to do it to a newbie, so they can actually do it, is very difficult.

Overlearning

Overlearning is where you take your learning of a skill to the next level, to make sure you’ve really mastered it.

By learning something so tightly that you can do it without thinking, you make the pathways in your brain so strong, that even if they start to decay you will still remember most of it.

Fans of “Learning How to Learn” will already know about Overlearning.

There are 2 ways to Overlearn:

  1. You can keep practicing even once you have mastered the skill. You may be able to play a song end to end. Can you do it 5 times in a row with no mistakes and no hesitation? Can you play the song with no warm up? Just pick up the guitar and strum it out? If no, then you can still overlearn some more.
  2. Practice at a level that is more difficult than required. The famous cartoon threat of “I could beat you with one arm tied behind my back” may actually have some relevance here. If you can master a song at a faster tempo than is actually required and with added accents on notes, then the real thing will be easier. If you forget your own harder version, your memory may just decay to the actual level needed.

Retention is easy to confuse with retrieval, but they are different. Retrieval is about being able to recall a memory or learned skill when needed, retention is about maintaining the same level of skill or ability to remember over a long stretch of time.

To learn about the other Principles of Ultralearning, click here.

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