Creativity and problem solving in SuperMemo


Incremental learning promotes creativity by association of remote ideas coming in proximate sequences during the learning process. This characteristic of incremental learning can be used for all sorts of creative processes that need a boost from extra knowledge or better recall. The most useful cases of creativity enhanced with incremental learning are:

  1. incremental problem solving,
  2. incremental writing, and
  3. incremental brainstorming.

Incremental problem solving

Incremental learning can assist you in problem solving. It will be particularly useful for the classes of problems with the following properties:

Exemplary problems to solve

Many technical issues and bugs in SuperMemo have been solved with incremental problem solving methods. Incremental approach is most suited for complex problems with multiple reasoning paths or requiring rich input of new information. Some bugs in SuperMemo would be particularly intractable due to their complex technical background or difficulty in reproducing the problem. In most severe cases, it makes sense to set up a separate collection for working on a single issue. That collection can later be integrated with larger bodies of knowledge (incl. problem solving knowledge).

How does incremental problem solving work?

Incremental problem solving works as follows:

Advantages of incremental problem solving

Incremental writing

Incremental writing: Introduction

SuperMemo can be used in the process of creative writing, which combines two processes:

  1. writing texts and
  2. creative review and elaboration.

Both processes are based on incremental reading. By analogy to incremental reading, this process is called incremental writing.

The technique of incremental writing was used to compile some of the materials at Most notably, Good sleep, good learning, good life (2012), and the present Incremental learning (2013) article.

The main difference between traditional writing and incremental writing is that the writer is free to re-organize the material and review it with incremental reading tools.

The main difference between incremental reading and incremental writing is that the "big picture" of the article is built primarily within the collection, and to a lesser extent in the writer's mind. This is suitable for large fact-packed material that is difficult to organize sequentially. In addition, one's own writing may be the source of most input, as opposed to external electronic sources. Incremental writing is also suitable in a compilation of a large body of prior writing, esp. of materials that are repetitive, fact-rich, and often loosely connected. Incremental writing is less useful for texts with a linear line of thought.

Incremental article writing is an open-ended process that can be interrupted at any stage for the article to be exported to as a single document for text-flow rewrites.

Articles written using incremental writing may be particularly suitable for incremental reading. They can be compared to Wikipedia. Crowdsourced Wikipedia is an excellent source for incremental reading due to its incremental growth and solid local context. For the exactly same reasons, materials compiled with incremental writing are highly suitable for incremental reading. They may be bloated and repetitive, however, with incremental reading, they can be prioritized in a rational way. Incremental writing leaves the texts highly granular and the flow of thought is jagged, however, in incremental reading, this is an advantage as all individual articles and subarticles carry sufficient local context to be read independently.

Incremental writing algorithm

The incremental writing algorithm involves the steps presented below. Note, however, that these steps are not executed one after another. All steps are executed incrementally and interleaved in unpredictable sequences that assist the creative process. Unpredictable association of text component is also useful in:

  1. the development of the logical structure of the text,
  2. the elimination of contradictions, and
  3. deleting/reconciling the repetitive material.

The steps involved in incremental writing:

  1. import all the relevant sources, supplementary material, and supporting knowledge to a single SuperMemo collection
  2. build a knowledge tree branch at the root of the collection with the desired structure of the article (e.g. name this branch ARTICLE)
  3. keep all the supplementary material in a separate branch (e.g. TO DO)
  4. review the ARTICLE branch incrementally, rewrite, improve, and rebuild the tree structure to organize a logical entirety
  5. add figures, citations, links, etc.
  6. review the TO DO branch incrementally, copy and paste, or move incrementally processed texts from the TO DO branch to the ARTICLE branch in the tree. Attach snippets to the right branches in the tree. Reschedule and re-prioritize less relevant texts. Delete texts that will be of no use in the final article
  7. use incremental learning. This implies that you will see articles from ARTICLE and TO DO branches interleaved in unpredictable sequences moderated only by material priority. Always work on the topic that comes next. Do as little as necessary or as much as you like it. You can finish the processed topic in one go, or you can just pass a single sentence and reschedule
  8. use Mercy to re-distribute the excess of the material in manageable portions
  9. use templates to visually indicate the status of individual portions of the article (e.g. "to write", "to expand", "to rewrite", "to review", "finished", etc.)
  10. branches that bloat beyond manageability can be treated in the same way as the entire article with subset review, tree reorganization, topic extraction and merging, etc.
  11. once the job is largely completed, or a deadline looms, export the article branch with Export : Document (on the contents menu), which also automatically adds a table of contents

Incremental writing example #1

Let us consider Good sleep, good learning, good life (2012) as an example. The source material for the article included its decade-old original version, several articles related to sleep and published at, as well as a great deal of basic knowledge taken from various scholarly sources involved in sleep research. Those materials were supplemented with the review of knowledge of sleep from a general knowledge collection compiled by the author. The whole process started from a massive review of the entire material with incremental learning. The construction of a rough outline of the structure of the article proceeded in parallel (in the Contents window). Supplementary materials were imported to fill in or complement individual pieces of knowledge. Figures, annotations, links, and literature citations were also processed incrementally in order of priority. This process quickly resulted in an article bloat, however, this was a bloat of valuable information rather than a bloat of excess writing. Towards the end of the process, individual topics from SuperMemo were imported to a single-page wiki. Some manual wikification was necessary at that step. Alternatively, multi-page wikis, blogs, or plain-HTML sites could have been used as the target of exports from SuperMemo.

Incremental writing example #2

The presented article: Incremental learning (2013) has been compiled from a number of older articles on incremental reading, priority queue, incremental video, visual learning, as well as older articles such as Devouring knowledge, Flow of knowledge in SuperMemo, FAQ pages, SuperMemopedia, etc.

Advantages of incremental writing

The most tangible advantages of incremental writing in SuperMemo are:

Fun of writing boosts efficiency

When the fun of writing is gone, the writer's block can ensue. SuperMemo makes writing fun as compared to traditional methods (e.g. writing in a word processor). If you are in no mood to write about one topic today, you might be more inclined to try something else. If you are in no mood for writing anything, tackle some minor clean up jobs. Very often, once you start writing, you get sucked into the effort and the mood returns. A piece of information can trigger new ideas. If it happens in your writing slot, you can instantly write down new ideas. You can write them rough and short. But you need to write them instantly. If you keep waiting, the memory of the inspiration whittles down to just the need to write about a subject! This is how forgetting affects your own ideas! Strike the iron while it's hot. Process inspiration incrementally, and pick the pieces that raise most enthusiasm at any given moment. Those pieces will generate most new creative value.

Creative explosion vs. deadlines

Excess creativity and wish to include valuable information or ideas may cause an unstoppable bloat of writing materials and a never-ending writing loop. It is vital to keep all ideas well prioritized in a TO-DO branch, while the article grows independently in the ARTICLE branch.

Separating TO-DO from ARTICLE is the best solution that makes it easy to cut off the writing process at any stage depending on the writing goals, opportunity costs, and/or deadlines. Whatever is left in the TO-DO branch can be processed later or not at all. As long as strict priorities are applied, loss of value to the main article should be minimized.

Disadvantages of incremental writing

Incremental writing will always be superior over linear writing for a class of non-fiction texts, however, the toolkit is difficult to master, and the strategies are not obvious. This is a new set of techniques that requires a high degree of innovative thinking on the part of the author. This is why we do not expect any significant degree of adoption at the moment. Incremental writing should primarily be considered by authors who are already masters of incremental reading.

Incremental brainstorming

If you combine incremental learning with incremental problem solving and plain old brainstorming, you will arrive at incremental brainstorming. The brainstorming part may be executed face-to-face or over e-mail.

Incremental brainstorming sounds like an oxymoron. Incremental brainstorming has very little to do with "storming", but it makes a very good use of the brain's capacity to build creative associations in fertile knowledge-rich conditions. Incremental brainstorming might be slow, but it can deliver more than plain face-to-face brainstorming. At worst, the outcome will be different, and in creative work, this is always a desirable complementary effect.

In face-to-face brainstorming, two or more brains, preferably with different strengths, specializations, and biases, engage into a fast exchange of ideas, where Idea X from Brain A might generate ideas Y and Z from Brain B, which in turn may cause a chain reaction of creative inspiration in other participating brains. Moreover, brainstorming requires a degree of mental discipline that may be missing in brainstorming with oneself (in one's mind, i.e. without incremental learning). Converting thoughts to speech slows down the thinking, but increases the discipline and may dramatically enhance creative outcomes.

In incremental brainstorming, this process is taken a few steps further. Incremental learning is a form of brainstorming with oneself, as mentioned in the Creativity section, however, it can also be used in remote brainstorming via e-mail. The main tools of remote incremental brainstorming are:

  1. incremental learning (for processing knowledge),
  2. incremental mail processing (for processing exchanged ideas), and
  3. e-mail communication (which may be supplemented by live video).

Incremental brainstorming may be slow, and yet it adds an additional degree of discipline with an archive of written communications. Most of all, it adds more sources of inspiration to the mix. In addition to the participating brains, incremental brainstorming adds inspiration from external sources of knowledge (with non-participating authors providing further inspiration). It also adds from the history of the communication. Due to forgetting, incremental brainstorming makes it possible to brainstorm with one's past self. In other words, the participants of incremental brainstorming include:

  1. participating brains,
  2. past versions of participating brains, and
  3. non-participating authors from the past and the present.

Advantages of incremental brainstorming

The main advantages of incremental brainstorming are:

Disadvantages of incremental brainstorming

The main disadvantage of incremental brainstorming is its snail's speed. Naturally, it won't be of much value right before a project's deadline. However, despite the hype speed receives in the media in reference to technological progress, the hardest problems are always solved by collective efforts of multiple brains working over generations. Incremental brainstorming might be less useful in hurrying a new iPad model, but it would be handy in slowly developing or slowly adopting theories like those of Darwin, Mendel, Wegener, and the like.

Future of brainstorming

Incremental brainstorming is not intended to replace face-to-face interactive collaboration. However, it should serve as its rich supplement. It carries all the advantages of incremental learning: creativity, attention, prioritization, meticulousness, consolidation, long-term sustainability based on long-term memories, and more. It requires a lot of training before it brings fruits. Therefore, if problem solving or creative work are vital for your progress, you might consider mastering the following progression of skills: classical SuperMemo (for better memory), incremental reading (for processing text), incremental learning (for overall learning), incremental problem solving (for employing knowledge in solving problems), to finally arrive at incremental brainstorming, i.e. combining incremental learning with classical brainstorming.

User's take: Creative elaboration

Elaborative IR

  • I type up the main points of my intended article as a topic in SuperMemo, and then extract them.
  • When SuperMemo shows me these fragments, instead of simplifying them (as you would when trying to learn knowledge) I elaborate on them, using my newly learned knowledge from SMIR.
  • As my knowledge grows, so does my article, and some of the original extracts can undergo further extracting, in order to elaborate on individual points.
  • When I am satisfied, I can collect all the elaborated extracts (located in the children) and bring it back to the parent article, resulting in a well-developed article.
  • The problem is that I don't want individual fragments to increase their intervals to 200 or 300 days or more because then I may never finish writing the article. So I have to adjust the intervals manually.

The advantages of a slow and incremental approach to writing articles (and possibly in any other type of creative endevour) are similar to regular SMIR. But because the creation process is in most ways the opposite of the learning process i think that this opposite process may need its own features although i'm not sure what, exactly :)

Anyway, it's just something for you to experiment on if you'd like, if you haven't already.

-- Georgios Zonnios

Yours is a very healthy and creative way of using incremental reading. This is not exactly "opposite to learning with IR". This is more like a creative way to enhance your recall and understanding. Few things contribute as much to your learning as formulating other people's ideas in your own way. Long and complex articles can often be effectively summarized in 2-3 short sentences and thus contribute far more to your comprehension and long-term recall of the essential knowledge. One thing remains unclear, why should this function be separated from SuperMemo, and what tools are missing from incremental reading toolkit to enhance this process. -- SuperMemo Support
When writing an article in this style the outcome that I have reached time and time again is a large tree structure (in the Contents window) with the most important information at the leaves (something like the outcome of incremental reading). To turn this information into an "article", one has to go to each leave individually and copy the text, then return to the original parent and paste it in order. Hence, I see the need for a "recomposition" tool that can take all information in the leaves and paste it into a single element using the order specified by the tree structure. -- Georgios Zonnios
You could:
  1. open all elements relevant to a given article in the element browser
  2. Sort the contents of the browser by the order of the knowledge tree
  3. Export the contents of the browser as a single HTML document (which should make editing of the final article much more efficient)
-- SuperMemo Support