Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year's Resolution

It's that time of the year again, for us to resolve to better our lives, breaking old habits and setting new ones.

I was fascinated when I read about an experiment where researchers tested individuals with conditions that prevented them from making new long-term memories. These patients are like the main character in Memento, unable to remember what they were doing even five minutes ago. The test went like this: The researcher introduces himself to the patient, and presents a puzzle (not necessarily a jigsaw puzzle, either) for the patient to solve. The researcher asks "have you done this puzzle before" the patient says "no" and the patient proceeds to work on the puzzle until it has been solved.

The results were fascinating. On the first day, it would take the patient, say, 20 minutes to solve the puzzle. On the second day, the patient would take less time to solve the same puzzle, say, 10 minutes. On the third day, the patient could solve the puzzle in less time still, despite having no conscious memory of ever having worked on the puzzle. This indicates that knowledge forgotten by the conscious mind is never lost. The implication is: if you learn, or even gloss over some kind of knowledge, even if you don't really understand it, even if you don't remember it, it will be beneficial should you desire to learn it later. For example, if you read a Master's Degree level physics text that is over your head, and don't understand it, take Bachelor's level physics courses, get a degree, then take a Master's physics course years later featuring that textbook you didn't understand, you will now learn that textbook much more quickly than if you had never read it in the first place.

This got me thinking. What could I do to provide a foundation for future learning. If I briefly gloss over the whole of human knowledge, then anything I learn in a formal education later in life, I will learn faster and retain more of it. In other words, I'd be supercharging my ability to learn.

Inspired by A.J. Jacobs' audacious project of reading through all of Encyclopedia Britannica in a year, I decided to do something similar, but a bit more modest. I have decided to read through Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language in one year. The text is 2230 pages long, which equals out to a little over 6 pages per day. While that may not seem difficult at first, here's an image of two pages of this dictionary:

Wish me luck. I think I'm gonna need it.