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Is there an ideal amount of knowledge to be taken in on a daily basis? I've different kinds of conflicting information. From the list of ideas I've seen, which, if any, is most correct? Here are the ideas I've seen:

  • New information either refines old information or pushes old information out.
  • New information is stored and old information is not pushed out.
  • Memory degrades at a slower rate when people are actively learning and at a faster rate when people are not trying very hard.
  • Nothing escapes the human memory. The more organized a person is, the greater the illusion of larger mental storage capacity.
  • Sorry. Nature..., not nurture.

While I am generally of the opinion that practice makes perfect, I find that this is not the case with certain things. For example, some Japanese kanji are very difficult for me to memorize. While I remember some after only reading and writing them one time, there are some kanji that I have learned and re-learned but never fully adapted. An example would be 奇麗. It's a very difficult kanji to remember how to write, but it's a nice kanji. So I practice it. When I try to write it, my mind always draws a blank, even though I have practiced writing it ten times in a row at least fifteen times.

So, is it possible I over-studied and built a blockade? Is it possible that I have trouble remembering this because it's a tangent to some other regular study path, and so it's untidy/disorganized? Is it possible that I forget because of the amount of studying that has preceded it? Have I under studied, as seem most likely? Not spend enough time just closing my eyes and picturing it? Or am I missing something?

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How do you quantify an "amount of knowledge"? –  Dave Newton Oct 26 '11 at 19:17

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I think there are elements of truth in all your points. I don't really think information is pushed out, it is just less current.

There is a layering technique I have seen used to great effect, and which I try to use, which assumes 3 layers of memory: immediate, short term and long term.

If I do something once, I can probably do it again straight away, as long as it fits into the very small immediate memory. It might end up in short term memory, but if it is one of 100 things all done once in a short space of time it probably won't be accessible unless triggered by something.

Repeating something a few times in quick succession pops it into short term memory - this is a reasonable staging memory, but will fade if not used again. I might need a number of repetitions if the item is complex (remembering pi to 50 decimal places for example) or it might only take 3 or 4.

To get something from there into long term memory I need to revisit it, generally at a 3 day mark and then again after a week or so. After that it is pretty much there for life (so far)

It basically comes down to practice - get some intensive practice in when you first try something, then some follow up practice later that week and possibly longer.

Interestingly the same seems to hold true for muscle memory - I can still perform the kata I learned in karate 20 years ago, despite not having practiced for 15 years - because at the time I practiced each one for 30 - 40 times a day!

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Wow, man. That's amazing. I wish I could give you more than a thumbs up. I'm going to go read your other posts and spam the ones I like with +1's. Thanks, homie. I have a lot of faith in your method, and it seems to make a lot of sense. I'm exited about testing it out on animals, too. –  Wolfpack'08 Oct 21 '11 at 16:36
    
@Wolfpack'08 This is basically the theory behind spaced repetition. –  Dave Newton Oct 26 '11 at 19:18

I had similar problem with memorizing kanji at some point.

I could see two main reasons for it:

  • linear approach to memorization which lead to overwhelming myself when trying to learn certain set of kanji (and vocabulary) within limited timeframe;
  • artificial focus on writing (or reading) of certain set of kanji without meaningful (natural) background to it.

I addressed first one with adopting "Spaced Repetition" approach, utilizing Mnemosyne, Anki and self-written software to automate and structure my studying according to it (doing it manually is just too tedious). This approach saves you from developing blockades towards overstudied pieces and prevents you from skipping certain pieces from your kanji set. It basically can at any point tell you what to study next and takes this burden out of your head altogether (which is a big deal with kanji or learning vocabulary).

Approach I took to address the second contributing cause was more difficult to formalize and therefore was less friendly to automation and turned out to be not as deterministic as I wanted. But, as a long term approach, it worked. Idea was to write/read kanji not because I needed to write/read particular subset of, say JLPT1級, but rather to pick some materials I'm passionate about and maybe know already and just read up on it in Japanese in Wikipedia and other online resources and then write an essay. The issue was, obviously, that it was hard to target certain set of kanji with this approach (unless you had a pre-baked set of specialized learning materials). However, applying this technique over the span of one year - I ended up being able to recognize the majority of 1級 kanji and beyond. Pareto rule kicks in here - as not being able to recognize less frequently used kanji of said set didn't cause me much trouble in life so far, as learning was driven by real-world materials, and therefore it naturally prioritized right bits of knowledge to be picked. Essentially, it makes studying more natural, makes it closer to what one experiences when learning Japanese as a native language.

Both techniques allowed me to push learning limit farther away.

Both techniques are not really specific to learning kanji and have to do with general mechanics of memory and learning. Second point I make about driving your studies from what you want to be able to do (say, to be able to read Japanese text without help of dictionary) rather then from what you have to learn (in my example, to learn 2000 kanji from the standard set Asahi newspaper or JLPT foundation has decided upon).

My answer partially repeats some great points made by @Rory Alsop, but I tried to provide some specifics from my personal experience with handling learning limit while learning kanji (and foreign languages in general).

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Oh. Could you recommend some nice reading material? I loved Anki at first, but now the pace is too slow. It develops very slow--it's practically unsupported. –  Wolfpack'08 Mar 4 at 22:19
    
It's hard to recommend as I don't know your current level - it would help if you could describe it. I personally liked a series of two books called "Read Real Japanese" - it allowed me to make a smooth transition from textbooks to small novels. Have you tried it? –  Dmitry Aleks Mar 5 at 3:55
    
@Wolfpack'08 Another thing that helped me was to use Rikaichan plug-in for Firefox when reading Wikipedia and online resources in Japanese. It allows you to hover the mouse over the word/phrase and get a pronunciation/translation written in the overlay pop-up (hope it helps, though I suspect you might know about it already): addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/rikaichan –  Dmitry Aleks Mar 5 at 4:54

Memory can be a funny thing though I think everyone has different aptitudes when it comes to learning and memory. Some people can absorb new information quite well and others struggle trying to remember what they just read two minutes ago.

I'd wonder if there are other strategies for trying to remember that kanji. How is it linked to other things in your mind? Perhaps you have to figure out how you organize things in your mind and then you'll have a better idea of what else besides just practicing writing it you could do to help remember it. How complex is the pattern? How do you read that symbol? Have you considered different ways to write it and if so how did that go? Some people remember best through muscle memory, some have photographic memory, and some remember best if they hear something. Don't underestimate how this is only seeing and writing something rather than trying to do other things like describe it verbally or teach someone else how to write it that may be useful other ideas to try.

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JB King, I started to write the kanji backwards, and that helped a lot. I think I needed to diffuse my physical memory and my visual memory so that I could target them individually. Actually, I had some spect scans done on my brain and discovered that the physical area isn't as active as it probably should be, and the visual a bit hyperactive. Everyone's brain activity is a little different, they say. So, maybe the story would be different for others. Some of the more complicated kanji just seem impossible to remember, especially because they look very different in different fonts. –  Wolfpack'08 Oct 28 '11 at 12:27
    
Recently, I've been trying to disconnect from the material world more and more. The less I am attached to things--fussing around with things--, the more I am able to enter into the creative space in my mind and develop richer memories. It's been very useful. I picked the concept up from old Confucian readings and themes in their art. I can create a broader mental space, and I can remember things more clearly. –  Wolfpack'08 Feb 12 at 0:41

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