I suspect that forgetfulness is the single largest hindrance to me improving my rationality. This isn't something I've seen others report on LessWrong, so I'm suspicious that I'm in some kind of self-serving spiral, or that I'm doing something obvious wrong. So, I'm seeking feedback on (a) whether the above statement is true -- whether forgetfulness is likely to really be a dominant hindrance; (b) what I can do about it; and (c) why others haven't reported this.

Ways that I suspect forgetfulness harms me:

  • I forget past experiences that would otherwise allow me to observe correlations and extrapolate time-series style. Did my mood improve last time I called this friend? Was I more productive during that period where I got less sleep?
  • I fail to recall evidence that would be salient when evaluating probabilities. This includes evidence relevant not only to coffee-time discussions on abstract topics, but also questions that occur to me about akrasia and the like.
  • I can't remember names of authors and papers that could be relevant to ideas that arise during my research. Searching online for papers is fine for major literature reviews, but enormously expensive to evaluate hour-by-hour conjectures that occur to me.
  • When I encounter the same problem multiple times, I forget how I solved the problem last time.
  • When a new productivity/social/rationality strategy *does* work, I forget to keep using it. This isn't only about laziness: sometimes I actually wonder explicitly whether strategy X worked, and I can't remember.
  • I forget names, faces, places, facts and figures. But I understand this one is quite common.
  • I forget all the ways that forgetfulness frustrates me.

Steps I've taken:

  • I keep an elaborate diary with appointments like "bring USB drive home from work" and "purchase bread en route to Sam's house".
  • I keep an elaborate e-notebook where I try to record my "brain state" so that I can more quickly pick up where I left off with my work.
  • Every time I solve a technical problem, I write it down.
  • I use a memory app called mnemosyne to memorize foreign language words, names of jitsu techniques, etc.
The write-everything-down strategy has helped some, but it's *orders of magnitude less effective* than recalling stuff right from my brain. It's like replacing a CPU's L1 cache with a magnetic hard drive and expecting performance not to drop.
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Think about using Mnemosyne to drill the things you notice yourself forgetting, like the authors of papers containing interesting things, solutions to problems you've solved and so forth. This might be tricky since there may be too many problems and papers to feed them all into the spaced repetition system, and you only want to recall them randomly. A weird approach here might be to insert a random fraction of the stuff into spaced repetition, so that the maintenance cost doesn't grow to be prohibitive, but you still get some bonus for extra stuff at the forefront of memory. The SuperMemo guy has gone all-out with the spaced repetition approach to doing memory stuff, and seems pretty happy with it.

Try learning some mnemonic systems for fun. The Dominic system involves learning a list of 100 memorable people and using them as a peg system for storing lists of stuff. Memory Palaces are the classic technique, from way back antiquity, which uses people's ability to visualize familiar environments to store items to memorize.

The mnemonic systems seem kinda useless since they're very much geared towards straight up memorization rather than understanding things, but they could still serve as a mental exercise and develop habits that make you remember useful stuff better.

The basic advice to students on mnemonics is to come up with ridiculous and unusual imagery linked to the surface form of whatever you're trying to memorize, which has always sounded like adding a bunch of noise and junk to your head to me. An Abstract Art of Memory is an article that tries to apply a mnemonic system to imagery that's actually conceptually relevant to the subject.

I used to discredit all rote memorization as annoying activity that just takes time from actually getting to understand things, but so far my record for actually understanding anything that requires sizable effortful study hasn't been too good, and I suffer from pretty much all of the problems you listed. I've started to think that a habit for memorizing stuff, even if some of it is objectively pretty useless trivia, might have a general beneficent effect on being able to learn and recall important things effectively.

Thanks, this is helpful!

Very cool suggestion! Mnemosyne/Anki/Supermemo, in my mind, usually seem to lend themselves to learning facts about "topics/subjects" -- I am quite intrigued by the idea of using it to memorize items from one's own life! I'll be pondering this for myself.



Better memory would be awesome!


I hypothesize that a lot of the problems here are less "forgetting" than "not remembering"-- you find yourself needing information that was never committed to long-term storage in the first place, perhaps because it was not tagged as important the first time you were exposed to it.

This is based on my own experience of being "bad with names": I fixed the problem simply by training myself to think that people's names are important to me, and to pay more attention when I hear a new one (mentally repeating it to myself, and then using it in conversation as soon as possible). I am now not particularly great with names, but good enough not to be embarrassing, and sometimes even to impress people.

So maybe you would get good results by working on your attention as well as your memory? For me, this is part of the purpose of the writing-things-down habit; I only occasionally refer to my notes because I remember things so much better once I've made the effort to write them down, or even just identified them as something I should write down.

Yes, it's been shown that you remember facts better if you think it will be tested later on.

It sounds like you may benefit from a nootropic stack. Start with Piracetam/Choline/Sulbutiamine. Of course, if you aren't getting enough aerobic exercise, then fixing that will have a larger marginal benefit in terms of memory than any stack I know of.

  1. Totally agree. Even if you disagree, or are scared of using nootropes, just trying it out short term may give you great insight to how your memory works and what your specific problem may be. For me, I realized that it was not my recall that was the problem, it was putting thoughts/ideas to memory in the first place = the encoding and storing of memory. The problem best described as brainfog. This became clear after trying Piracetam/Choline. This may however not work for everyone. There are many nootropes to try, but piracetam is well tested with few comments on any side effects.

  2. Along with exercise as Jayson mentions, diet is also key. I recently moved to a paleo diet and it made a huge difference in my digestive health and thus my brain clarity as well.

  3. Focus/concentration exercises in the form of meditation can do wonders for many people. Especially if you are a scatterbrain.

In any case, don't let the BS idea often repeated by specialists that "memory is hard for everyone and that everyone has the same potential for an excellent memory if you just concentrate and use memory techniques" discourage you. Individuals have different problems with their memory and different causes. Keep on trying different methods. The above are excellent. I believe a strong memory should come naturally, or there is something wrong that you or your doctor should work towards improving.

Memory Palaces could be something you want to look into. The Wikipedia page doesn't seem to have a fantastic description, but I think wikiHow has a decent set of instructions, and I'm sure there are many more good places online.

I find this is frequently a big problem. Out of all the shortcomings I have, "not remembering" is probably the most disastrous for me.

For most of my life, I had assumed that this was something inherent about me. This led me to develop lots of tricks not for remembering, but for being good at not having to remember. I have thousands of text files stored on my computer's hard drive that I can search. When I started doing this, I'd never be able to find what I was after because I couldn't even recall a single keyword that would identify the right file for me. But over time I've gotten better at choosing smart ways of phrasing my notes, such that they're easier to search. Similarly for programming -- I carefully document even fairly trivial programs and try to keep a very strict folder hierarchy so that I'll be able to find what I need when I need. Sometimes I find useful programs that I can't even remember writing.

I now think that I was at least partially wrong in assuming that my memory cannot be fixed. I am looking forward to reading advice on this topic.

Thanks for the advice. I hadn't thought of keeping code snippets but I do keep more general notes and it's definitely a strange-but-pleasing experience to find a detailed solution in a note that I have no memory of writing.

I'd really like to see a list and discussion of your and others' "tricks" for not having to rely on memory.

Do you have other symptoms of ADD? Scattered memory goes hand in hand with it (along with scattered everything else).

My memory has gotten better since I started treatment.

Quick and dirty test: do stimulants calm you down? If so, you might be an ADDer.

I'm fairly sure I don't have ADD. Would I observe this with caffeine? (Is caffeine a stimulant in the sense you mean?)

Yep, some of us do self-medicate with caffeine. The theory is that the stimulants give your brain the input you'd otherwise get from being fidgety, context-switching often, etc., freeing you up to focus on whatever's at hand. (The usual medications for ADD are in fact amphetamines and the like; my Concerta(tm) is a Schedule II controlled substance for that reason, so I have to use non-refillable paper scripts. Thanks, War On Some Drugs...)

I had ADD diagnosed before, then retracted. Currently I am working on convergence insufficiency, which is significantly co-morbid with ADD.

One fun technique is silly mnemonics. It requires a bit of creativity, but, for example, take the defining expression for entropy : Entropy (S) = boltzmann's constant (k) times the sum of p*log(p), where each p is the probability of a microstate. If I wanted to memorize this using a mnemonic, I might make up a story about it. Boltzmann is a wizard building a wizard tower, and the wizard tower is made out of logs. He makes these logs out of a huge pile of peas he is standing beside, and also makes from these peas the pea-green paint that he will paint his tower with. The tower is called "the tower of entropy," and it will have a big S on the top. Boltzmann floats the peas past him, and some of them turn into logs and some of them turn into paint, and then he paints each log and adds it to the tower.

So now I'll remember the formula for entropy.

Thanks. I've experimented with this for remembering lists and long numbers, hadn't thought of it for equations and technical stuff more generally. Will give it a go.

Great ideas in this topic.

However, mnemonics are suggested over and again. I'm not very fond of mnemonics nor creating relationships between fictive objects (method of loci) unrelated to what you are trying to remember in order to support what you are trying to remember in the first place.

Instead, I would be very interested in hearing some strategies of how to reinforce the relationships within the actual topic being learned. By perhaps when trying to devote something to memory, consciously performing a mental routine. For example taking a mental photograph of yourself in front of your car with the appropriate background in order to remember where you parked your car. Or visualizing yourself dialing a phone number you want to remember. Mindmapping a new term with similar words as well as antonyms. Even better, pseudocode for putting something to memory.

What methods work for you?

I would just like to chime in that you're not alone. My memory problems are horrendous, and I've had too much akrasia trouble to consistently do things like Mnemosyne or dual n-back.

As for memory techniques, I dislike mnemonics and my brain does not seem to be the type that can visualize things easily.

I also find my memory is nowhere near adequate to store all the information I need, but I've adopted the strategy of explicitly outsourcing that function to the machines; like you, I write down to-do and how-to notes etc (in text files), but things that are public knowledge like foreign language words I just rely on running a Google search whenever I need the information (or for more technical information that's described in a paper, I download the PDF, rename it to something more descriptive and put it in a documents folder). I don't bother trying to memorize things.

This is certainly slower than being able to recall stuff from on-board storage, but in practice I don't find it makes enough difference to be a major productivity bottleneck. I don't off the top of my head have a theory about why our experiences differ in that regard. I don't suppose you have any idea whether you have an unusually large working set?

Interesting, perhaps our views differ mostly in how much benefit we believe we could get from a good memory. Some of my reflections:

  • When I have managed to join previously disconnected concepts during my research, it's been productive. This suggests to me that a better memory could help me connect many more ideas and hence improve my productivity. The N^2 search over all pairwise concepts is really difficult to execute with off-board memory.

  • When I write papers or blog posts, I spend most of the time chasing down studies/essays/articles that I remember the gist of, but not the title, author, or journal. This suggests a better memory could significantly.speed up my writing.

  • Losing memories of how successful some productivity strategy was seems particularly harmful, as I could otherwise have updated from these valuable data points.

I use the write stuff down approach a lot, and one vital aid for me is a bookmark synchronizer for my browser. I even switched back to Firefox from Chrome, based on glowing reviews of their Sync. It has worked smoothly for me.

Just followed up on this thread to see what people had suggested since it was started. Clicked the link and at present, there are 1,189 reviews amount to two stars (out of 5). That's a pretty good sized sample as far as internet reviews. Where did you see glowing reviews?

I seem to recall that I consulted online versions of computing magazines. My recommendation is primarily directed at using some synchronizer or other - I guess at that rate, you should be able to find a better one.

I have these problems a lot, but it might not be relevant because it's a case of actual medical memory problems not just everyday forgetfulness.

How did you find out that you have an actual medical problem? How would I know if I had that too?

I noticed I seemed to have abnormally bad memory, and got myself tested by a memory specialist.

If it will help anyone, I'd like to chip in with a memory/note-taking technique I am using at the moment. Mindmaps. I find it extremely powerful for very fast information retrieval, since it's inherently hierarchical. I do digital mindmaps, using Freeplane. I use it for storing key ideas from books, articles, workflows, step by step howTos, programming snippets, even for my own thoughts. You name it.

Only downside I can think of is that my memory no longer has any incentive to retain the information I come across so you could say my memory only gets worse, using this technique. Does anyone know of any studies on long term effects on memory when storing information externally, rather than forcing your brain to do it itself?