How to improve creativity with SuperMemo?

January 27, 2016

How to improve creativity with SuperMemo?

SuperMemo 16 uses a concept called incremental reading. We claim that incremental reading can be used to creatively come up with new ideas. This raises some skepticism:

How can interruption be good for creativity or problem solving? Isn't it that all great discoveries come from continual, persistent and focused effort? It is those who can dedicate themselves to a cause that achieve best results (e.g. in science, business, etc.). Most people fail because they major in minor things. They do many things superficially. They are jacks of all trade and masters of none. Incremental learning seems like an effort to major in everything. Putting too much on one's own plate.

This question keeps popping back in various variants. Here is an illustrative answer based on the fact that creativity and problem solving are based on forming new connections in your brain.

Incremental recall: bringing back things to memory, piece by piece

Imagine you had a very eventful day. For example a visit to an exotic city, meeting an old good friend, or attending a breakthrough conference. Imagine that your inspiration is so rich that you want to write a detailed report of the day (assuming you did not capture it all with Google Glass). The first thing to do is to sit down to writing a report and list all essential keywords for rebuilding the memory of the day. Once you write the outline, you can quickly notice that it does not take long before you come up blank for new memories. You cannot recall any more details. This is normal. Sitting down over a blank piece of paper for an hour may not be the best use of your time. It may be pretty unproductive. However, if you keep your piece of paper handy, you may notice that it keeps filling up with new memories as they keep popping up in your head in different contexts. An image, a smell, or an article in press may all contribute to unexpected recall. If you happen to execute incremental learning in the meantime, you will notice that the process of recall is intensified. If your learning materials are rich, you are likely to read about dozens of unrelated subjects in a single day. All those subjects produce new associations. Your blank piece of paper will fill up much faster than it is the case in the course of ordinary life or if your learning was less varied. What you witness here is incremental recall.

There is a short step from incremental recall to incremental creativity. Both are based on incrementally building a mental structure in your mind. In case of recall, you will recover past memories. In case of creativity, you will additionally add new thoughts and memories you have not experienced before, and ideas you have not thought of before. Finally, in problem solving, you will direct this creative process towards accomplishing a specific task: solving a problem or answering a question.

Neural creativity: employing neural activation to produce new ideas

In the previous blog entry we wrote about the place of SuperMemo 17 in the SuperMemo Galaxy. If you are a user of SuperMemo 16 or earlier, you will be happy to know that the concept of incremental creativity will receive a major boost in the future. It will evolve into a form of semantically-oriented incremental creativity.

There is a very exciting concept we are working on at the very moment. Its working name is "Neural creativity" (if you got a better name in mind, please write). Neural creativity employs the incremental learning process to produce new ideas in a neural fashion. In neural creativity, closely related concepts are more likely to show up when executing a neural review of a studied subject. If you are fluent in incremental learning, you may wonder how a neural review differs from a semantic review. The main difference is that in semantic review the whole burden of juggling the semantics is in your hands. You need to know the tools of incremental learning to execute a semantic review well. In neural review, the whole process will be reduced to pressing a single button in SuperMemo. Here is the general outline of the idea (you may need to know SuperMemo 16 to understand the terminology):

  • Concepts in SuperMemo are special elements that represent an important idea.
  • Concepts can be linked to elements (incl. other concepts). Elements can also be linked to each other.
  • Neural review is a subset review based on the concept of spreading activation known from neural networks. Like impulses in the brain, spreading activation in a network of elements and concepts feeds new elements into your incremental review. This way, if you tell SuperMemo "Go Neural", it will serve you with associated ideas for the purpose of semantic review, big picture review, creativity, problem solving, etc.

If you worry about the cost-vs-benefit equation in building concept maps in SuperMemo, remember that properly executed incremental learning builds a semantic structure of the processed knowledge in the shape of the knowledge tree. Parents, siblings and children are related to each other in terms of their meaning. Concept maps are the chief framework for spreading activation in neural SuperMemo, but the knowledge tree also forms a fine dendritic framework that helps you capitalize on all your prior work with incremental learning. If you are familiar with mind maps, you will be happy to know that the cost of building your concept maps is far less. At times, all you need for your creative purposes is a conceptual link between two different subjects where you expect to find creative associations. To execute your neural review or to engage in neural creativity, pick your concept, element or a registry member (e.g. a picture) and Go Neural.

For example, if you are a doctor who is to make a diagnosis for a specific patient, you can set up a diagnostic concept and link chief suspects in a concept map. Go Neural to see what new ideas come to your mind while learning new topics at the same time.

I am super-excited about the whole idea because it feels like equipping the users with Einstein's brain in slow motion. You can build a brain of knowledge as big as you wish. You can make your networks of ideas as complex as you wish. And then you can press just one button to start your genius train of thought at your own pace while watching all new ideas form in front of your eyes.

Piotr Woźniak