Repeat After Me

Repetitio est mater studiorum.

Repetition is the mother of learning. You might have heard this old Latin proverb before, and it’s true: Repetition is key to memorizing something because with each iteration your brain builds up stronger connections in the neuronal networks which then makes it easier and easier to recall this piece of information from memory. Neuroscientists discovered that this process of learning through the development of so-called “cortical memory traces” happens faster than previously thought: After repeating a word for 160 times in 14 minutes, the new memory traces of contestants were virtually indistinguishable from those of already familiar words.

So it really is that simple: Repeat something often enough and your brain will have formed a whole new network of neurons specifically tasked with remembering that information. Your brain adapts to the need of retrieving this information.

But there’s more to it.

The way you repeat something has a profound impact on how well you remember things. And as Robert Bjork, Distinguished Research Professor in the UCLA Department of Psychology and a renowned expert on human learning, explains in this super interesting UCLA Faculty Research Lecture, we tend to remarkably misunderstand our own learning. Although we have a lifetime of learning, we don’t seem to learn how the system works and carry around a flawed mental model of how we learn and remember. For example, taking notes in a sort of stenographer mode actually represses learning instead of supporting it. We also highly overestimate the success of our learning, thinking that we are well prepared, while in reality, our brain has already started to forget most of what we studied. That might also be the reason why we unknowingly favor short term successes over long term learning when we restudy the same information or do the same physical exercises over and over again over a short period of time. This “massing” of learning looks like this:

Repetition Learning 01

Yet, studies show that there is a clear benefit of spacing your study sessions meaning that you do something completely different in between those sessions, like going for a walk or watching a movie or whatever you like to do. Like this:

Repetition Learning 02

While this seems to be counterproductive, because you start to forget what you just learned, it is exactly this process of forgetting between the study sessions that actually enhances long time learning significantly. Cramming everything in your head still has a slight advantage if you test your knowledge immediately after learning. Forgetting after mass studies is very rapid though. Consequently, if you test after a longer period of time, for example after four weeks, there is a large advantage for spaced learning.

So where am I going with this?

There are things that are worth repeating over an over again: That we should build products and websites for everyone, inclusive and accessible. That we should care about web performance because it, too, is a way of making a website more inclusive and also resource-efficient. That we should take care of each other and guide those who are younger and less experienced than we are. That there is no place for racism and misogyny in our community and our societies. That we need to design the upcoming machine learning and robotics revolution with ethics in mind. And that we are responsible for anthropogenic climate change and that this certainly is the greatest challenge we face in our lifetime.

At the moment though, many of those topics only surface for a short moment every once in a while, like peaks that briefly stick out of a sea of constant noise. And every time a topic raises to the surface, for a short moment we are reminded that this indeed is an important topic and that we should do something about it. But then, it disappears again. And we carry on. We need those peaks of interest, of course, because they raise awareness. But just as much, we need constant reminders, constant repetition that helps us to not forget those things in the long run, once the dust has settled.

So if you have a topic you deeply care about – equality, accessibility, security, climate change, whatever it is, big or small – keep repeating it over and over again. Write about it, tweet about it, tell other people about it. Constantly and persistently and even if it might feel like you are, well, repeating yourself. Because, as we have seen, repetition is good. Not only because there will always be people who hear about something for the first time, but also because repetition is the mother of all learning and how you change culture for the better.


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