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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Kalt? Kalt?"

The winter sun sets in mid-afternoon in Kolobrzeg, Poland, but the early twilight does not deter people from taking their regular outdoor promenade. Bundled up in parkas with fur-trimmed hoods, strolling hand in mittened hand along the edge of the Baltic Sea, off-season tourists from Germany stop openmouthed when they see a tall, well-built, nearly naked man running up and down the sand.

"Kalt? Kalt?" one of them calls out. The man gives a polite but vague answer, then turns and dives into the waves. After swimming back and forth in the 40-degree water for a few minutes, he emerges from the surf and jogs briefly along the shore. The wind is strong, but the man makes no move to get dressed. Passersby continue to comment and stare. "This is one of the reasons I prefer anonymity," he tells me in English. "You do something even slightly out of the ordinary and it causes a sensation."

Piotr Wozniak's quest for anonymity has been successful. Nobody along this string of little beach resorts recognizes him as the inventor of a technique to turn people into geniuses. A portion of this technique, embodied in a software program called SuperMemo, has enthusiastic users around the world. They apply it mainly to learning languages, and it's popular among people for whom fluency is a necessity — students from Poland or other poor countries aiming to score well enough on English-language exams to study abroad. A substantial number of them do not pay for it, and pirated copies are ubiquitous on software bulletin boards in China, where it competes with knockoffs like SugarMemo.

SuperMemo is based on the insight that there is an ideal moment to practice what you've learned. Practice too soon and you waste your time. Practice too late and you've forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you're about to forget. Unfortunately, this moment is different for every person and each bit of information. Imagine a pile of thousands of flash cards. Somewhere in this pile are the ones you should be practicing right now. Which are they?

Fortunately, human forgetting follows a pattern. We forget exponentially. A graph of our likelihood of getting the correct answer on a quiz sweeps quickly downward over time and then levels off. This pattern has long been known to cognitive psychology, but it has been difficult to put to practical use. It's too complex for us to employ with our naked brains.

Twenty years ago, Wozniak realized that computers could easily calculate the moment of forgetting if he could discover the right algorithm. SuperMemo is the result of his research. It predicts the future state of a person's memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time. The effect is striking. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains. But for Wozniak, 46, helping people learn a foreign language fast is just the tiniest part of his goal. As we plan the days, weeks, even years of our lives, he would have us rely not merely on our traditional sources of self-knowledge — introspection, intuition, and conscious thought — but also on something new: predictions about ourselves encoded in machines.

Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we've read, help us track whom we've met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak's scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.

The reason the inventor of SuperMemo pursues extreme anonymity, asking me to conceal his exact location and shunning even casual recognition by users of his software, is not because he's paranoid or a misanthrope but because he wants to avoid random interruptions to a long-running experiment he's conducting on himself. Wozniak is a kind of algorithmic man. He's exploring what it's like to live in strict obedience to reason. On first encounter, he appears to be one of the happiest people I've ever met.

In the late 1800s, a German scientist named Hermann Ebbinghaus made up lists of nonsense syllables and measured how long it took to forget and then relearn them. (Here is an example of the type of list he used: bes dek fel gup huf jeik mek meun pon daus dor gim ke4k be4p bCn hes.) In experiments of breathtaking rigor and tedium, Ebbinghaus practiced and recited from memory 2.5 nonsense syllables a second, then rested for a bit and started again. Maintaining a pace of rote mental athleticism that all students of foreign verb conjugation will regard with awe, Ebbinghaus trained this way for more than a year. Then, to show that the results he was getting weren't an accident, he repeated the entire set of experiments three years later. Finally, in 1885, he published a monograph called Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. The book became the founding classic of a new discipline.

Ebbinghaus discovered many lawlike regularities of mental life. He was the first to draw a learning curve. Among his original observations was an account of a strange phenomenon that would drive his successors half batty for the next century: the spacing effect.

Ebbinghaus showed that it's possible to dramatically improve learning by correctly spacing practice sessions. On one level, this finding is trivial; all students have been warned not to cram. But the efficiencies created by precise spacing are so large, and the improvement in performance so predictable, that from nearly the moment Ebbinghaus described the spacing effect, psychologists have been urging educators to use it to accelerate human progress. After all, there is a tremendous amount of material we might want to know. Time is short.

Posted by Ajay :: 9:35 AM :: 0 comments

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