The world is a dynamic, ever evolving place, growing in complexity by the day. This makes it one of the most wondrous, exciting times to be alive in human history. It also means the potential for unintended chaos is unprecedented, and we have begun to see some of the monumental challenges that arise as a consequence of this dynamism. It is more important than ever to move through the world with a conscious intention to maximize not just our own individual potential, but the potential of our species for generations to come because our actions now will have an outsized impact on what our world will look like in the near and more distant future
One of those monumental challenges is the climate crisis. I spent more than a decade studying and working on ways to stem environmental destruction and enable our economic systems to better align with sustainable development. While the collective progress made toward these ends has been immense, there has also been an underlying distrust of science that has acted as a continual headwind in this drive toward enlightened self-interest.
I am able to hold empathy for those being asked to sacrifice to protect a future world that is removed from their immediate experience and requires significant expansion of their imagination to recognize. However, I find it hard to accept a world in which a large percentage of a powerful and influential populace denies the reality of our best collective understanding of the principles that govern the natural world. Those same principles underpin the technologies and systems that are a part of every aspect of life, literally the ground beneath our feet. This denial has the potential to manifest in very dangerous ways, the most notable recent example being the anti-vaxxer response to COVID-19.
The root cause of so many of the problems we face lies within the domain of education and, until we address this fact, all the effort we direct to our biggest challenges will be like treating only the surface symptoms of an underlying and lingering disease that will continue to manifest in new and destructive ways.
Josh Dahn, the founder of Ad Astra School and Synthesis, believes that the three key abilities people will need in the future, regardless of the specific context of their experience, will be the ability to:
All of these capabilities are deeply interconnected and important, but when I look at the world through the unique lens my life experience has given me, I see the greatest roadblock as our ability to make sense of the world. I have witnessed people successfully working together to great effect while tackling incredibly difficult problems.
Although a consistent issue seems to be agreeing upon what the problems are, to me this dynamic arises from the different approaches or heuristics we employ to deal with 1) information overload, 2) when we have too little information to see the big picture, 3) the need to act quickly, and 4) how to allocate our limited memory (categories compliments of Buster Benson). Call it judgement if you will, but to me these are all methods we use to make sense of the world.
I deeply believe that people in general hold good intentions for themselves, their loved ones, and their world, but armed with a strong belief in a wrong set of facts about the underlying truth of the natural world, we all have the potential to create great harm. This is a particularly insidious problem because when facts get corrupted, especially those we use as the basis for heuristics to reduce complexity, our universe shrinks in unrecognizable ways, judgement is skewed, and a degradation feedback loop takes effect. At this point, we can’t rely on “judgement” alone to break out of the cycle.
What we really need is a cognitive upgrade, the ability to hold more information in our minds at once (or quickly switch between chunks of information before their impressions fade). Armed with this ability, we can begin to see information in context and understand the network of ever-expanding relationships and connections to which it is related. Once we have regained our footing in scientific truth, we need ways to maintain our understanding over time so that we can avoid wasting energy rehashing what was previously learned and, instead, build upon collective fields of human knowledge.
"What we really need is a cognitive upgrade, the ability to hold more information in our minds at once."
At the core of these abilities is an attitude shift into a grounded openness, a humility, that is most commonly found in those people who can truly connect with the feeling of awe. Never do I experience that enlivening expansiveness more than when learning something new. In the spark of that moment, I am able to project beyond myself and am given an astonishing glimpse of our innate potential to expand and grow.
Memory Maps Inc. is founded upon this spirit with the vision of a world where the innate potential for brilliance is recognized and cultivated in all people. For the Memory Maps Team, that starts by helping people rediscover their true capacity for learning.
The good news is we are living during a time in history when more people have access to education and are dedicating more time than ever to educational activities. Even so, students are rarely if ever given instruction on best practices of how to learn. To the credit of educators, what constitutes effective pedagogy is continually evolving, informed by new advancements in neuroscience and behavioral/cognitive psychology. Nonetheless, the world continues to become more complex and our capacity to hold and interact with an exploding volume of information has never felt more limited. We need tools and techniques that can help us more efficiently convert our learning efforts into retained knowledge, now more than ever.
Undoubtedly the type of learning needed goes well beyond semantic information alone and includes skill acquisition like critical thinking, problem solving, working collaboratively with others, using specific tools, etc. However, the inefficiency of fact-based knowledge building activities means a huge portion of time has to be dedicated to them. A 2010 review article on the long-term retention of basic science knowledge found that students had forgotten 50-60% of what they learned after only two years. There has to be a better way and, if we can retain knowledge more easily and durably, perhaps the classrooms of tomorrow will look more like Josh Dahn’s Synthesis and less like Bart Simpson’s detention.
The learning process for acquiring information stored in semantic memory (memory for facts) can be thought of as two distinct processes: comprehension and retention. They are both critical and intimately connected. Without comprehension, what we learn is meaningless with no utility or value. Without retention, we don’t just lose knowledge we have previously worked to acquire but our ability to gain new knowledge erodes because we are unable to comprehend new information within its proper context.
What might these knowledge building tools be that could help us retain knowledge? While search engines and personal note-taking apps are powerful ways to help us navigate the deluge of information, they are a double-edged sword. They give us the illusion of competency while bypassing the internalization of key principles required to truly orient ourselves to the world and empower us to deepen our understanding and gain new insight.
Innovators and researchers like Andy Matuschak have begun to reimagine what learning can look like by finding ways to embed metacognitive learning strategies, including a modern grasp of long-term memory development, directly into the learning media itself. Other companies like Dualingo and Brilliant have taken the approach of making content more fun, trying as much as possible to gamify the learning experience, reduce the perception of work, enhance engagement and, as a result, increase retention.
While these approaches seem like ideal solutions for newly minted educational material, the reality is that in practice our information sources come in a wide variety of forms and we need tools that give us the flexibility to easily learn and retain any type of source material, no matter how dry.
"We need tools that give us the flexibility to easily learn and retain any type of source material."
Memory techniques rooted in spatial mnemonics such as memory palaces, the journey method and other methods of loci have unequivocally demonstrated the immense potential to expand our memory capacity to truly remarkable levels. This is evidenced by feats achieved with regularity at memory competitions (memorizing and accurately recalling the first 70,000 digits of pi, memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 12.72 seconds, memorizing 224 names and faces in 15 minutes, etc.). These techniques typically include some variation of 1) generating visual images that represent the information to be memorized, and 2) mentally visualizing those images at locations (or loci) along a route. Practitioners describe these techniques as fun and engaging because they 1) provide a well defined framework for encoding information to memory which gives confidence that the information will be retained once the process has been completed, and 2) utilize different capabilities of our mind such as visualization and creativity.
However, these methods have a myriad of shortcomings that have made them difficult to put into practice within a traditional learning environment for all but the most ardent enthusiasts. For starters, making spatial mnemonics for information where pre-existing encoding images don’t exist is time consuming and arduous while generating memorable, relevant visual images is a skill that takes a lot of practice to master.
Although remembering the details of a location you’ve been to is incredibly easy when special attention is paid to the location, creating routes without the details of the locations readily available for reference is very difficult. If you forget some part of the spatial mnemonic you’ve spent time creating, you are out of luck because there is no external reference that can be used to recover your memory. Finally, while mnemonics can drastically increase memorability over other techniques, the information still needs to be recalled periodically (spaced repetition) for the mind to prioritize and consolidate it into long-term memory.
For all these reasons, this method of loci has largely been viewed by the larger academic community as a neat parlor trick, albeit an incredibly impressive one. It is seen as something that is not readily applicable to the learning process within a true academic context, and cannot be used regularly and consistently to build knowledge of standard subject matters for a typical student population. Nevertheless, the power and potential of these techniques to unlock abilities once considered superhuman are tantalizing, and cannot be simply ignored.
The Memory Maps Team has set out with the mission to use technology to redefine the paradigm of knowledge acquisition and creation. Our approach is to take what we know works and make it applicable for the general public.
To that end we have developed a software application that is part personal knowledge management platform and part transformational learning tool. By bringing the method of loci into the digital age and building it into a software workflow, we are able to address all of the major problems that were previous stumbling blocks. We have taken this incredibly powerful method from the realm of a skill to be mastered to a tool (patent-pending) that anyone can use for general academic or lifelong learning purposes.
"As I look back on all the time and effort spent on my academic journey, from kindergarten through a PhD program, this is the tool I wish I could have used. And this tool can work for everyone."
Starting with the problem of not having details of locations available when creating spatial mnemonics, Memory Maps is built on Google Maps which means journeys can be created anywhere in the world where there is Google Street View coverage. Even places you’ve never been to before, and that you could have never used in the past, become accessible and suitable for creating journeys. This alone has the power to transform a mentally confining study space into an active and engaging exploration of the world, bringing a sense of adventure to each learning session.
Generating memorable, relevant visual images to encode information is difficult but, fundamentally, it is a transformation of one form of information to another like any translation process. Structuring this otherwise open-ended creative process into a well-defined workflow helps you know how to begin and what steps are necessary to get from an idea to an effective corresponding image or scene to visualize. Furthermore, by taking advantage of natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML), we can give you a powerful copilot that can help with generating images each step of the way. Benefit from 1) auto-suggestions of potentially viable images, 2) reminders of past associations that have already been made for similar types of information, and 3) the flow that occurs from staying engaged and quickly moving through the process.
Remembering when to actively practice recall of the memorized information is key to its consolidation into long-term memory. Memory Maps has you covered with built-in spaced repetition practice. Metrics related to your progress help you gain insight about how your knowledge base is developing over time. Memory Maps on mobile allows you to take that practice on the go, effectively utilize free time and enable you to maintain a large knowledge base at the forefront of your mind.
Even if you don’t consistently practice everything you learn, your journeys and notes are stored in digital form. References to everything you’ve ever learned are available to quickly prime your mind. That doesn’t just mean the materials you’ve studied, but also the specific mnemonic aids you created to help you learn and remember the materials.
Envision a scenario in which you know you will be doing something professionally related to a course you took five or ten years ago. Instead of trying to find your old textbook, old notes, or a random refresher article, imagine being able to relive the journey you created for the course you took. Every detail of the course returns as you are immersed in the same virtual environment of the journey in which you were introduced to and learned the material for the first time. This is the level of resolution with which we should be able to access what we’ve worked so hard to learn and it will soon be possible with Memory Maps.
Now, imagine a map of the world that shows every journey you’ve ever created during your decades of focused studies, growing with each passing year as you transition from a full-time student to a lifelong learner. In a single glance, every book, every lecture, every problem set solution, every video course, every podcast, every article you have ever studied comes flooding back to you. Anywhere you look, the details of your studies re-emerge in your mind, like a high resolution map loading as you zoom in.
As I look back on all the time and effort spent on my academic journey, from kindergarten through a PhD program, this is the tool I wish I could have used. And this tool can work for everyone.
If a tool can help dispel the myths about our abilities and open us to the potential for brilliance we never knew we had, then, hopefully we can begin to see and respect this potential in ourselves and others. Thank you for reading and for setting out on this journey with us. To learn more, visit memorymaps.io and consider joining our email list to be notified when we launch, earn rewards, and keep up on all of our exciting developments.
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Dr. Konrad will focus on providing subject matter expertise on memory techniques and learning processes.