Self-Experimentation, Dogged and Useful

Studying himself, Piotr Wozniak, a Polish computer programmer, learned some useful things:

In 1985, he divided his database into three equal sets and created schedules for studying each of them. One of the sets he studied every five days, another every 18 days, and the third at expanding intervals, increasing the period between study sessions each time he got the answers right. This experiment proved that Wozniak’s first hunch was too simple. On none of the tests did his recall show significant improvement over the naive methods of study he normally used. But he was not discouraged and continued making ever more elaborate investigations of study intervals, changing the second interval to two days, then four days, then six days, and so on. Then he changed the third interval, then the fourth, and continued to test and measure, measure and test, for nearly a decade.

Based on his results he created a popular program called SuperMemo.

Wozniak has ridden SuperMemo into uncharted regions of self-experimentation. In 1999, he started making a detailed record of his hours of sleep, and now he’s working to correlate that data with his daily performance on study repetitions. . . . Wozniak has also invented a way to apply his learning system to his intake of unstructured information from books and articles, winnowing written material down to the type of discrete chunks that can be memorized, and then scheduling them for efficient learning.

Thanks to John Kounios, Robert Simmons, and Navanit Arakeri.

3 Replies to “Self-Experimentation, Dogged and Useful”

  1. That is an extremely cool and provocative article. So, I can’t help but to think about what kind of an effect omega-3 + the “spacing effect” would have together. I’m guessing that maybe omega-3 would “flatten” the forgetting curve a little bit. Maybe I’ll experiment on my kids a little.

  2. There’s also an open-source version of a similar concept, at http://www.mnemosyne-proj.org/. It supports pictures and sounds as well as text, and uses a somewhat older version of the SuperMemo algorithm.

    Personally, when I saw this, I was really excited at first, and then I realized I don’t have much use for jamming my declarative memory full of facts. It would be much more useful to have a way of quickly adding things to your procedural memory: then you could install new eating or exercise habits, or other daily routines. (Let alone the whole, “let’s download Tae Kwon Do and how to fly a helicopter” scenario in the Matrix movies.)

    Know of anybody who’s got software for that? 😉

  3. That site is one of the biggest black hole of consciousness I’ve visited on the net since like the 90’s. The guy is probably mentally ill.

    I used Supermemo for a couple months. The program is analagous to the website. So much crazy crap added in, and it still doesn’t have basic usability features. Content creation is pretty tough, so I think you need dedicated peers to make it work.

    If I were to start doing it again, I’d lower my projected retention rate. It was definitely not working for learning new material–the sets just blew up.

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