Memory and Learning: Myths and Facts

Dr Piotr Wozniak, August 2003

Those who plan to improve their learning skills must be alert against a volley on false claims that are ripe in books and materials devoted to accelerated learning. This short and concise list should help you avoid books or websites that do not stick to the basics of science. In addition to memory myths, you will find, at the bottom, a summary of other myths described extensively at other places of this website.

Remember to remain skeptical. Hone your skepticism and treat this list with skepticism too. Consult reputable sources. 


Memory myths

The list of myths is by no means complete. I included only the most damaging distortions of the truth, i.e. the ones that can affect even a well-informed person. I did not include myths that are an offence to our intelligence. I did not ponder over repressed memories, subliminal learning, psychic learning, or remote viewing (unlike CIA). The list is simply too long.

See also: Memory FAQ

Sleep myths (see: Good sleep for good learning for a more comprehensive list)

See also: Sleep FAQ

Creativity myths (see: Genius and Creativity for a more comprehensive list)

See also: Genius and creativity FAQ

SuperMemo myths

Ever since it was conceived, SuperMemo had to struggle with myths slowing down its popularization. Preventing the reappearance of myths appears to be a never-ending battle. The knowledge about SuperMemo has grown to a substantial volume. Not all users can afford reading dozens of articles. Many are prone to arrive to the same wrong conclusions independently of others. Some of these myths are rooted in general myths of memory (as above). Others seem to spring from the common sense thinking about learning. Here are some most damaging myths related to spaced repetition and SuperMemo:

See also: SuperMemo FAQ

Language learning myths

Antimoon has compiled another myth list related to language learning: Language learning: Myths and facts.

I personally disagree with classifying the tolerance for language errors as a strategic mistake (myth: "It's OK to make mistakes"). Antimoon's approach assumes that the student's goals is to reach a perfect command of the language, while most students are rather interested in maximum communication fluency in minimum time. When learning English myself, I was primarily interested in communication while accepting a large margin of tolerance for non-semantic errors. This left me with a legacy of wrong habits that are hard to root out. Yet my communication goals have been accomplished on target. Given a choice, I would chose the same strategy again. This is why I would cut Antimoon's myth list by one position 


Remain skeptical. Read more about the myths listed above. Drop me an e-mail if you disagree. Or if you believe I missed a dangerous myth that should be included. You can rant about this article here.

Some websites devote all their energy to dispel myths that propagate throughout the population. Myths are friends of ignorance. They do damage to individuals and societies. They are also food for ruthless scams that currently breed rich on the net. Here are a couple of links to websites that I would like to praise for their commendable efforts in the struggle against ignorance, superstition, as well as plain deception:

What is not myth?

Sometimes I receive requests for the evaluation of legitimate learning methods. I will only shortly list here the keywords that are worth studying and that are legitimate! You will find plenty of information about these on the net. 

Legitimate concepts and authors that might be misunderstood at best and dismissed at worst receive our stamp of approval: mind maps, Mega Memory (never mind Kevin Trudeau's reputation), mnemonic techniques, peg-list system, loci method, Mind Manager, ThinkFAST, Tony Buzan, Sebastian Leitner, expanded rehearsal, reactivation theory, SAFMEDS, bright-light therapy, chronotherapy, melatonin, neurogenesis in adulthood, brain growth through training, neural compensation (e.g. in brain damage), and physical exercise as a brain booster.  
See also:

Apology (March 2005)

I have received mail that the passage about American beliefs on the age of the Earth may be considered offensive. It is not my intent to offend anyone. I believe that stating facts of science resolutely is an obligation of anyone involved in myth-busting. Unlike far blunter James Randi, who I admire immensely, I try to use a gentler language. If submitted, I am ready to accept a less offensive rewording of the said passage as long as it plainly expresses my belief that most rudimentary scientific consensus leaves no place for infinite memory or young earth. In addition, the passage must include most telling data on how basic science remains little understood by a vast proportion of population in industrialized nations of which the US is probably the best example of contrast. You can leave your comments at SuperMemo Wiki