Superman And The Pyramids: A Memory Hack For You To Keep

Superman And The Pyramids: A Memory Hack For You To Keep

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Fun fact. All Star Superman’s Absolute edition calls Morrison a ‘chaos magician’ in his bio. Obviously he skimmed that in the proof?

Apparently there were only about twenty other final year high school students in the entire state who took 3 Unit History: Old And New Kingdom Burial Customs.

The next sentence on from this was that they were all in North Shore private schools in Sydney and it was their actual teachers who did the marking and -so the unsubstantiated gossip went- could presumably recognise handwriting.

I most certainly did not go to a North Shore private school and my ancient history teacher was the only one in the state who wasn’t one of the exam markers.

(This is probably for the best. I adored her but she was completely crazy.)

None of this swayed me at the time, neither did the fact that such a topic is largely useless in a commercial sense. Point of fact this is probably among the first in a series of dozens and dozens of “could have gone better” decisions that mean my career to date has been about as well planned as a chimpanzee casino.

And so the inevitable happened. The results came in and I had not done well. To be clear, no one in the state knew more about this than me. I carved and mummified a fetus (eggplant) over seventy days complete with spells and amulets. (Begin as you mean to continue.)

But that grading curve can be harsh with so few students… and if you don’t happen to be one of the pupils being taught by the markers… well, I’m not going to say it. I didn’t need to. My mother the psychonaut -a helicopter mom before her time- ordered a re-mark. My original essays came back and everything. There wasn’t anything they could point to for the low mark. Anyway, I didn’t care… I’d got an overall score that was high enough to get me into film school. (Chimpanzee casino!)

I also didn’t care because I knew it. Almost every morning I’d get up ninety minutes before I needed to be awake, go downstairs, make coffee, lie on the floor of the dining room and study. I’d pore over self-made notebook after self-made notebook.

Some days it would all be “right there” and other days it was just words on a page. The budding “experimental chemist” in me wondered idly if this had anything to do with the amount of caffeine I’d consumed so far that morning.

The budding experimental chemist was wrong. As Saint Taleb says:

The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and, what’s worse, the opposite.

To be clear, the budding experimental chemist wasn’t wrong about caffeine impacting memory, but he was about its impact on memory’s retrievability.

Long term memory essentially has two parts:

  • Retrievability
  • Stability

Retrievability is a function of how near the surface of our consciousness a particular memory sits. (This is presumably a familiar notion to you all.) Stability is a function of how deeply the memory is stitched into our minds. An example would be a phone number you had five numbers ago… you won’t be able to recall it off hand but if you were shown a sequence of phone numbers you could easily pick it out. It’s a stable memory, it’s just not very retrievable.

And twenty odd years ago, a computer nerd used this information to build a system that dramatically improves recall:

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.

Behold the curve of forgetting!

Your mileage may vary every so slightly but these are good numbers to work from. If you are trying to learn or even teach something, why aren’t you calendarising each module to follow this order? Why aren’t I doing this? (Don’t say because you forgot.)

[T]his technique never caught on. The spacing effect is “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning,” the psychologist Frank Dempster wrote in 1988, at the beginning of a typically sad encomium published in American Psychologist under the title “The Spacing Effect: A Case Study in the Failure to Apply the Results of Psychological Research.”

The sorrrowful tone is not hard to understand. How would computer scientists feel if people continued to use slide rules for engineering calculations?

What if, centuries after the invention of spectacles, people still dealt with nearsightedness by holding things closer to their eyes? Psychologists who studied the spacing effect thought they possessed a solution to a problem that had frustrated humankind since before written language: how to remember what’s been learned. But instead, the spacing effect became a reminder of the impotence of laboratory psychology.

This would probably comprise the other half to a hypothetical teaching order should we wish to imagine what that would look like today. (We have Victorian levels of inequality, might as well have orders with exams!)

Why this is weird

Memory is crucial in seeking an integrative approach to ‘where magic might live’. For instance, where are memories?

Let’s ask Dr Sheldrake:

 Memories can persist for decades, yet the nervous system is dynamic, continually changing, and so are the molecules within it.

As Francis Crick put it, ‘Almost all the molecules in our bodies, with the exception of DNA, the genetic material, turn over in a matter of days, weeks, or at the most a few months.

How then is memory stored in the brain so that its trace is relatively immune to molecular turnover?’

He suggested a complex mechanism whereby molecules were replaced one at a time so as to preserve the overall state of the memory-storage structures.

No such mechanism has been detected.

For decades, the most popular theory has been that memory must depend on changes in connections between nerve cells, the synapses.

Yet attempts to locate memory stores have proved unsuccessful over and over again.

It is hard to believe that a caterpillar chewing a leaf is the same organism as the moth that later emerges from the pupa. In the pupa, almost all the caterpillar tissues are dissolved before the new structures of the adult develop. Most of the nervous system is dissolved as well.

In a recent study, Martha Weiss and her colleagues at Georgetown University, Washington, found that moths could remember what they had learned as caterpillars in spite of all the changes they went through during metamorphosis. They trained caterpillars of the Carolina Sphinx moth, Manduca sexta, to avoid the odour of ethyl acetate by associating exposure to this odour with a mild electric shock. After two larval moults and metamorphosis within the pupae, the adult moths were averse to ethyl acetate, despite that radical transformation of their nervous system.

If memories are chemicals stored in the brain, how do they survive molecular replacement? If amnesia is the result of physical brain trauma, how does a victim’s memory ‘return’ if that part of their brain is gone?

Clearly a scientific understanding of memory is quite a ways down the road. (And I predict Dr Sheldrake will feel rather vindicated before we get there.)

As such, there’s no explanation for how SuperMemo might work. Like so many “explanations”, it is better considered an “observation”.

But it is undoubtedly magical.

There is something about this staggered approach to bringing things up and down through different levels of consciousness that looks… familiar?

Memory squats at the spooky edge of our limited map of consciousness. Like remote viewing and telepathy, it is a demonstrable human capacity that tantalises us with the promise that we are really, really wrong about what we really are and what we really can do.

In All Star Superman, Lex Luthor ultimately comes undone because when he assumes Superman’s power he also gets his senses… his ability to perceive the universe… down to subatomic levels, across dimensions… Luthor perceived that we are one unifying whole. His toxicity and rage couldn’t stand in the light of that Knowing… that Gnosis.

We might not be at a Kryptonian level of awareness but our existing consciousness still has a few tricks up its sleeve… especially once we find the little hacks and keys to boost it. We can get glimpses. We can get leg-ups.

I don’t know what’s going on. Neither do you. But things like this work. Last word to Saint Taleb:

It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own.


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  1. 1

    Pimsleur advocated a technique similar to this, but I sort of think he took the wrong approach to it by trying to base an entire language learning course around the technique and by jumping straight to phrases. However, for the building blocks of something (in this example, language) the basic parts that actually need to be engrained into one’s memory in order to understand the rest of it (that’s what we have dictionaries for), the interval method is quite useful.

    I’m pursuing a Chinese (language) degree and have found that writing the characters at timed intervals (5 minutes, 15 minutes, 1 hour, 6 hours, 1 day, 3 days, etc…) is a much more efficient method of memorizing both the form AND the meaning. My teacher’s suggestion, on the other hand, is that we write each character a minimum for about 10-15 per day (sometimes we have as many as 30 new characters to learn in a week–more for us majors who have to memorize traditional and simplified). This is a lot of work, and I’ve found that writing characters over and over is great for muscle memory, but it does me no good to know the form but not the meaning. With the interval method, I write each character maybe 10-15 times per week before it’s reliably (for the most part…) memorized.

    Similarly I’ve also discovered that if I come across a character I’ve used the interval method for that I haven’t seen in a few weeks, or even a few months, I only have to look it up once and then I generally don’t forget it again. On the other hand, the early characters wherein I followed my teachers advice, I’ve discovered I generally have to look them up three or four times again in the future before I actually get them down for good.

    Really interesting, and a really handy time saver.

  2. 2

    I can’t tell you how often your posts seem to line up with something going on in my life. As it happens, right now I’ve got Anki (an SRS program) sitting on the side of my screen, while I try to memorize Japanese grammar and vocabulary points.
    Keep on being awesome, dancing to the beat of the universe, man.

  3. 3

    Yeah, what Shadow said, only in a very different way for me, as I’ve been contemplating the aftereffects of gaslighting, alas, and what I might be able to do to have faith in my memory. Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, has been on my mind a lot.

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