Incremental learning can make you smarter


User of classical SuperMemo, T. Sz. wondered:

If I use incremental learning for a couple of years. How will that affect how I am perceived by others? Will they see the difference? Will I be smarter and appear smarter? Will I be able to shine with knowledge in social circles? What do people say after 20 years of using incremental learning?

Incremental learning is just a few years old. For example, incremental reading was introduced in 2000. The essential concept of the priority queue was introduced only in 2006. Without the priority queue, massive learning may lead to massive chaos. Incremental video was born in 2009. So you won't find users with 20 years of experience.

Incremental learning is faster

Despite the young age of incremental learning, it is easy to theorize about its power. This is because learning incrementally isn't much different than its ultimate effect as other forms of learning (e.g. extensive reading, studying for the university, research, etc.). For that reason, the results will be comparable. The main difference is that you will get to the levels of higher knowledge much faster (assuming sufficient skills). This way, someone with a few months of intense incremental learning, may get the knowledge and act not much different than a university graduate. Naturally, incremental learning will not substitute for laboratory practice, problem solving, discussions with friends, and professors, etc. So there will be differences. You can then ask: How does the university education make me into a better person?'. Once you answer that question, you will have an answer about incremental learning.

No amount of learning can eliminate ignorance

If you hope that incremental reading will make you universally knowledgeable and smart, you are wrong. Human knowledge is vast enough for a 2-year-old to know things that a PhD does not know (esp. if the kid is trained for the trick, e.g. to answer "What is the capital of Burkina Faso?").

Incremental readers are different

Incremental reading is more likely to be less focused and more general. At the university, you may learn extensively on a specific subject, while in incremental reading you are more likely to stray to multiple related areas depending on your interests and the encountered gaps in knowledge. Your priorities will reflect your individual profile and your knowledge may be far more customized to your own needs and passions. All in all, an incremental reader will not differ much from a well-learned person. The main difference may show in personality. Not because of incremental learning but due to the fact that only a few have the mental characteristics needed to get interested and then sustain the incremental reading process. Thus incremental readers may appear more knowledgeable just because of their natural curiosity or even obsession with knowledge. This quest for general knowledge may result in short moments of amazement with the gaps in knowledge exhibited by other people. In September 2013, scientists announced that Voyager 1 entered the interstellar medium. A panel of high-IQ journalists on a respected news channel discussed that historic moment. One of the journalists mentioned that Voyager 1 was launched in the 1990s and has now left the solar system. The other journalists nodded. This is where an obsessive incremental reader may pause and realize that he or she is indeed a bit different.

Nobody likes a smart aleck

It is not how others perceive you that matters, but how you change your thinking and the ability to solve problems. In most cases, few people in your surroundings care about your problems and your goals. The knowledge you obtain for those goals will be of little interest to others (beyond a narrow circle of close friends). If you ever attempt to show off at parties, you will rather be politely dismissed as an annoyance. Being a smart aleck is universally perceived in a negative light. If you shine with your knowledge in a relevant context (i.e. not for the sake of shining), the perception will be different. We all love the doctor that can provide an accurate diagnosis at a glance and instantly come up with a solution to your health problem. However, chances are rather slim that you will be able to show off your specialist knowledge at a party (unless it is a professional party of your colleagues in the field).

Reward in higher awareness

The greatest advantage of incremental reading may show in the areas of general knowledge. These are the areas that most of people neglect due to a simple lack of time and lack of sufficient pressure or motivation. A student may need to study for his geography course, a medical researcher may need to read dozens of papers, but they both may have too little time or need to refresh the ABC of physics that might otherwise be useful in understanding things that happen around them. An obsessive incremental reader might therefore reach a sort of higher level of awareness. If you hear about a chaffinch for the first time in your life, you might likely say "I have never seen that bird". However, you might then be amazed if you see the bird a few times in the course of the following week.

With a narrow focus, few people are able to point to the galaxies that are likely to collide with the Milky Way. Knowledge and understanding of similar facts and processes may seem to have little application to daily activities, however, it does seem to change how people view their place in the universe. Ignorance is blind. Knowledge makes you see things that others do not see. That should be sufficient reward.

Smart learning makes you smarter

As explained in Roots of Genius and Creativity: Smart and dumb learning, smart learning will help you get smarter. However, bad learning practices can result in a monumental waste of time. SuperMemo helps you eliminate the problem of forgetting. As such, it can also help you remember time-wasting garbage. The main rule of smart learning is: learn what is highly applicable. Learn things that change your life. Learning things that help you change the life of others. Rules are better than facts. You can employ probability or statistical formulas in dozens of contexts. If you memorize phone numbers, it won't make you much smarter.

Incremental learning can make you dumber

We believe that incremental learning is the acme of learning in 2013. However, it can also make you dumber. If you take on heavy learning, you are bound to suffer from serious memory interference. This means that you will also forget much faster, esp. the things that you do not keep in SuperMemo. Instead of looking smarter, to the outside world, you might appear more forgetful and even absent-minded. You might forget events, promises, encounters, jokes, movies, and all those little memory things that we take for granted. Incidentally, this forgetfulness is also produced by Facebook, Twitter, and the like. In this chaotic modern world, we hardly ever have time to stop and ponder important things. These days you can buy a shower cabin or a sauna with speakers built in. It's a matter of time before you can engage into a conversation with your toilet. Perhaps you already chat with your Facebook friends while sitting on the toilet? This means that the last preserves of peaceful thinking and creativity are in danger of being swamped with information overload. This makes us smarter in a different way. However, without your rational intervention, it may work against your long-term success. The same is true about incremental learning, you must stay vigilant and learn only things that are highly relevant and applicable to your goals and your position in society. Turn off your phone in the night, leave your MP3 player at home when you go for a jogging, and keep your incremental reading in check and order.

Understanding your own ignorance

Incremental learning helps you quantify your knowledge. If you do incremental learning, this might be your most distinguishing feature: you know what you do not know and why. You better understand the limitations of human memory and its value!