Is There Value in Ideas You Can’t Remember?

When I give learning advice, as a rule, I suggest active recall. That’s the process of giving the answer to the question without looking at the solution.

The best way to understand active recall is to look at more passive review strategies. Rereading notes, for example, is not active recall because you never need to produce the answer to a question without looking at it. Instead you are simply making the ideas increasingly familiar.

Students, for the most part, should focus on active recall strategies, not passive ones. The majority of testing methods for academic subjects focus on being able to retrieve an answer, from a question, without looking at your notes. Even open-book exams or assignments require recall, since you have to recall at least enough to know where to locate the answer in your notes.

For practical subjects, recall is also important. To speak a language, you need to be able to produce sentences without a translator. It doesn’t suffice to enter the sentence into Google Translate and feel like you knew it all along.

Given the prevailing importance of recall for both students and practical learners, it might be worth asking whether there is any point in learning something if you can’t recall it later. Despite the weaker value of unrecallable information, I believe there are still a lot of cases where it can be useful to have learned things you can’t recall.

What Does it Mean to Recall Information?

First, I think it makes sense to clarify a definition of recall. I would define recall as being able to retrieve a piece of information, given a particular prompt. The choice of prompt is important, however, as some information may be recallable under certain prompts but not others. (I’d add that I suspect that all information requires some prompt to be able to recall it, but that for really flexible knowledge the range of prompts is large enough that specifying it isn’t necessary.)

This point may be confusing, so I’ll give an example. I’ve spent the last two years learning Chinese characters, with around half of them having been learned during my stay in China. According to Anki, I’ve learned roughly 2500 characters, and with a successful recall percentage of 85%, that means I probably “know” about 2100 of them.

However, in all of these cases, what I “know” is being able to correctly state the pronunciation and meaning of a character, given its image as a prompt. This is a skill very useful for reading and writing characters using alphabetic input.

I have learned how to handwrite some characters, but it is far less than 2100. If being able to successfully recall and handwrite a character counts as “knowing” it, I would guess I only “know” around 100 characters.

So which is it? Am I able to recall 100 characters or 2100?

It simply doesn’t make sense to talk about what information you can recall without also including the prompt. In this case, I can recall 2100 characters’ meaning and pronunciation, given the image, but I can only recall how to produce the image given the definition in a small fraction of those cases.

The same is true of learning other foreign vocabulary words. Often it is possible to recall the meaning of a foreign word, but not be able to produce the word, given the meaning. Saying that I only “recognize” the word in one case but “recall” it in another is incorrect. It’s more accurate to say that I am able to recall the meaning, given the word, but not recall the word given the meaning.

For information to be truly unrecallable, there would be no prompts that could bring the information up. However, as a practical measure, I’ll call information unrecallable if the only prompts that can bring the information up contain so much of the original information that they aren’t going to be useful in practice (for example, showing 95% of the image of a Chinese character isn’t a useful prompt for “recalling” the remaining 5%).

Is There Any Benefit to Unrecallable Information?

Given our definition—that recallable information is information that you can access, given a range of at least somewhat useful prompts, does unrecallable information have any value?

Maybe it will be helpful to reword this example more specifically: if you read a book which you can’t recall any of the contents, the thesis, ideas or suggestions, was there any point in reading the book?

Obviously a book you can’t recall anything from is less valuable than one you can. But I’d like to argue that, contrary to popular wisdom, there is still value in a book you can’t recall.

The value of unrecallable information could potentially come from two different places.

  1. Unrecallable information can be relearned faster.
  2. Unrecallable information can have unconscious influences on how you process future information.

Relearning Information You’ve Forgotten

The first value of unrecallable information is that it can be relearned faster. One way this might work is that recall requires a certain threshold of activation to retrieve. Any pattern of memory laid down that is below this threshold can’t be accessed directly.

However, just because it can’t be accessed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If you were to relearn the information, those inaccessible patterns might get boosted back to threshold, and be retrievable again. Since the pattern was already there in a weakened form, it will require less practice than learning the first time.

Forgotten Ideas Influencing What You Learn Now

An alternative effect could be that forgotten information will influence future learning, even if it is no longer directly accessible. Paul Graham has an essay here where he muses about this possible value of forgotten ideas.

It’s hard to come up with examples of this effect because, in order to be a true example, we must necessarily be unaware of its impact. But I’ve had many experiences of information that was only weakly recallable influencing my beliefs, so it’s hard for me to believe that the effect would suddenly have zero impact once they go below threshold.

One pseudo-example of this type, was when I was reading an article that was supportive of group selection in biology. At the time, I had not remembered reading a book arguing against group selection and the specific arguments made against it were completely lost to me. But I recall feeling skeptical of the new article I read, nonetheless. It was only later did I stumble upon the old book and realized that I had read an argument against group selection previously.

Similarly, I might forget how to say a particular word in Spanish, but if someone suggests an incorrect word to me, I may have a feeling it is wrong, even though I’m unable to recall the correct word.

Why Value Forgotten Ideas?

Obviously recall matters. And, as a rule, I still recommend practicing active recall when learning, with few exceptions. But I worry that by promoting active recall as a successful strategy, there is a tendency to believe that information which can’t be recalled might as well not be there in our brains.

I sometimes hear from people who stress because they feel they’ve forgotten most of the things they learned in school, books or past experiences. While this is unfortunate, the conclusion that they draw, that therefore there is no current value in any of these experiences is wrong. Information, even if it feels forgotten, can still have subtle, useful effects.

If I spend my life reading books, and I end up having read 5000 books, it would seem quite a shame if I couldn’t recall the main ideas and arguments of 3000 of them. But, I wouldn’t argue that I would be exactly as smart about all things had I only read the 2000 for which I can actively recall. The silent 3000 influence my ability to relearn and shape what I believe even if their traces in my brain are no longer directly accessible to me.

Why Focusing Can Often Feel Lazy

A lot of ideas sound right when you hear them, but don’t feel right when you do them. This is often because they have unseen side effects that aren’t immediately obvious when you first learn them.

One such idea is that focus matters more than time management. That is to say, it’s better to have focus on a limited number of ongoing projects, than to perfectly optimize all the time usage in your day.

The intuition behind this idea is simple: we have less ability to focus than we have time in the day. Since focus is the real bottleneck of our productive output, it makes more sense to optimize for focus than for efficient time usage.

Of course that intuition about the idea could be wrong. Focus could turn out to be less restrictive than time of day, either in general or in some specific case we care about. Focus could turn out to not really be a resource at all, so optimizing for its use doesn’t make sense. But, even so, I think the intuition is a compelling one.

How it Feels to Prioritize Focus

So let’s say you accept, at least for the moment, that prioritizing focus matters more than time management. All’s good you say, now just to burrow that specific idea into your routines and planning for your work.

But then you notice something strange. You’re now wasting a lot of time with this approach.

There are days in which your projects are waiting on a critical step. Maybe you need to hear back from a designer. Maybe someone you’re coordinating with needs to be briefed before you go further. Maybe you have a creative block, but need to finalize a particular idea before you can move to the next step.

Of course, this is exactly what the idea of prioritizing focus over time really implies. If you prioritize focus and also happen to have perfect time management, then you didn’t really need to prioritize either over the other—neither was a bottleneck and they are all perfectly consistent.

Perhaps you realize that the fact that there is wasted time in your schedule is an inevitable consequence of deciding to have fewer projects, and you continue to apply this philosophy to your work.

But still, it doesn’t feel productive. After all, if you have a big goal, and you end up spending a couple days working on low-priority tasks, deliberately avoiding starting a new project which would be more “productive” to maintain your principle of focus, it can feel very lazy.

This isn’t hypothetical, it’s something I’ve been wrestling with since finishing the year without English. With my learning goals, the projects rarely, if ever, hit delays based on other people or creative blocks. With my business goals, such occurrences are fairly common.

With the MIT Challenge, a work philosophy prioritizing focus was fairly trivial. The demands of the challenge basically forced me to single-project, and the ability to do assignments, projects and exams whenever I was ready meant there were never any delays.

But that also means that as a work philosophy, prioritizing focus didn’t mean very much. It simply described what I was already compelled to do anyways.

Now, without such an intense learning project, my focus is on business projects. Except these frequently have stopping junctures. Periods where the project can’t move forward because progress depends on another person, or a decision I’m not ready to make.

For the moment, my current strategy for dealing with these gaps is to spend them working at my queue of things I want to learn. But it still feels very lazy to spend a Wednesday afternoon reading a book because all your main projects are tied up and you don’t want to risk starting a new one.

Being Lazy and Feeling Lazy

Here’s a common pattern: idea X sounds good, and quite possibly is the best strategy for a particular problem, but when you apply X in your life, it feels suboptimal in some important way, so you feel compelled to abandon it.

I’ve seen it with habits. If you follow a microhabit approach, you do easy-to-do placeholder habits while building up a real habit. This could mean you decide to, at minimum, go to the gym and touch the door every day, even if you don’t work out. Then you find yourself not pushing really hard at the gym and you feel bad about this, so you give up the system. But not pushing hard was an obvious implication of the approach in the first place!

I’ve seen it with people who have used my weekly/daily goals system. The point of the system is to write out your weekly and daily tasks. When you’re done your daily tasks you’re done for the day. Except when I followed up with people implementing this system, they found that, even when they got all their work done, they still felt lazy and unproductive.

None of this denies the possibility that these ideas are wrong. Prioritizing focus might be a bad idea, or I might be implementing it poorly with respect to my situation in some way. Microhabits might be an inferior approach to pushing with full intensity at the gym. Weekly/daily goals might not be an effective productivity system.

But, I believe if you think it through for a moment, nearly every coherent strategy is going to suffer from these same effects. Situations where you feel like you’re underoptimized, but that underoptimization is directly implied by the strategy you’re using.

I’ve given a couple examples: focus, microhabits and weekly/daily goals. Have you ever had this experience before? What was it for? How did you combat the feeling to abandon your previously decided strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments!