- 1 Hate of school
- 2 What are toxic memories?
- 3 Toxic memory: mechanism
- 4 School: an unhappy institution
- 5 Early learning programs
- 6 Mathematics
- 7 Alzheimer's disease
- 8 Examples
- 9 Toxic memories in SuperMemo
Hate of school
The hate of learning, hate of school, or the hate of a specific subject, such as math, are all based on the same mechanism: toxic memory.
What are toxic memories?
For the purpose of this book, I propose new terms to describe unwelcome memories formed in the learning process:
- futile memory is a memory of abstract concepts that has a poor grounding in student's current knowledge (for an example, see Unpleasant learning at school)
- persistent memory is a memory with high stability that is hard to displace via interference (e.g. established early in childhood)
- parasitic memory is a persistent memory that is false and does not want to go away, i.e. it cannot be easily forgotten
- toxic memory is a persistent or parasitic memory that becomes associated with anxiety or fear
Futile memories are poorly formed and too irrelevant to be easily remembered. Toxic memories are most dangerous as they may result in fear of learning, fear of schools, and, possibly, some learning disorders.
The problem of toxic memory in education shows on a massive scale when students, under heavy pressure of deadlines, grades, and exams, use cramming without understanding. This can lead to many splinters of meaningless abstract memories that get associated with the state of anxiety. As a result, evoking those memories may lead to anxiety. For example, math anxiety is a term often used for the phenomenon that comes with toxic memories related to mathematics.
We need to differentiate the origins of toxic memories from the origin of fear in fear conditioning. Toxic memories can form with all the best intent from parents, teachers, and even the student himself. If a stern physics teacher evokes fear, we may have fear conditioning in action. If a physics diagram evokes anxiety, we may have a case of toxic memory. A fantastic teacher can also contribute to the emergence of toxic memories. In behavioral terms, toxic memories can form even in the absence of an aversive stimulus. The mere act of ineffectual learning may be the sole source of displeasure. The source of penalty that becomes associated with the learning material.
The introduction of the term toxic memory is important as this type of memory may lead to a lifelong inability to learn seemingly simple things like multiplication table, sequence of the months, map navigation, etc. It is possible that subsets of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia or stuttering, may in part be explained by toxic memory. It is also possible that strong toxic memories or a large number of toxic memories play a role in developing depression.
Toxic memory: mechanism
For a toxic memory to develop, only one factor needs to enter the picture in learning: displeasure. If a child, or even an adult, is expected to make an association between concepts A and B, the presence of the penalty signal may result in an association between A and the penalty.
Toxic memories, like all memories, are subject to generalization. This is how a toxic memory associated with particular knowledge, e.g. a math formula, may spread into the context, e.g. depiction of a school building, or the photograph of a specific teacher. Reciprocally, a stern teacher will facilitate formation of toxic memories in learning.
Toxic memories can be prevented easily by full compliance with the Fundamental law of learning.
School: an unhappy institution
The concept of toxic memory makes it easy to explain the inherent inefficiency of schooling.
Imagine you travelled to Japan and mastered a few phrases of Japanese. This gave you immense joy. You could impress your Japanese friends with your progress, your accent and your courtesy. On arrival home, on the wave of enthusiasm you decided to master Japanese. The best tool for that is, naturally, spaced repetition.
After a few months of SuperMemo, you build up a huge vocabulary of Japanese, but also build up a number of leeches that never what to stick to your memory. Those words you always confuse with others words. Soon you discover that the mere appearance of that yellow template you used for your Japanese items gives you an unpleasant feeling: "Oh. Those unmemorizable Japanese words are coming". To your amazement, the dislike also hit those lovely phrases that you mastered in Japan and that made you so proud. They are still easy, but as soon as you see them in that yellow setting, they give you shivers. Why? This is a toxic memory. In this case, it is toxicity associated with the context, not with a memory itself. The same word evoked again in some pleasant setting would make you proud as a year ago.
The same happens at school. Kids quickly get conditioned to see school as a place of coercion and oppression. A vast majority begins to dislike the experience. This overrides their natural learn drive. Things they would love to study at home become as burdensome and unpleasant as the rest of the schooling experience. Enter a young, enthusiastic, and smiling teacher with flashy experiments and videos. She is quickly disheartened by the difficulty to awaken the crowd. Her enthusiasm meets with indifference. This can break the most passionate heart. Best teachers in best schools are often helpless. It takes just one Mr Johnson to ruin the whole experience for everyone. This is that hated physics teacher who seems to enjoy his power and his oppressive tools. He conditions kids to hate school, and, as a consequence, he also conditions all those good teachers who bend over backwards to change the status quo. The enthusiasm of young teachers slowly turns into discouragement and loss of joy.
Early learning programs
It is an adult-centric point of view: the whole learning process is based on reading, reading is based on decoding texts, texts are made of letters. As the alphabet is the underlying basis of whole learning, it is easy for an adult to believe that kids should learn the alphabet early, and take on reading early. Early reading programs make it explicit: early reading makes your kids smarter. In reality, the opposite may happen. Early reading program can condition a dislike of reading and make your kids dumber.
The child-centric point of view is that alphabet is a set of abstract symbols that have no semantic connection with reality. The alphabet cannot be easily placed on a tree of knowledge via a natural learn drive mechanism. The only way to memorize the alphabet fast is through drilling, possibly supported by mnemonic techniques that are never easy to use with children. Children love to learn and they enjoy learning the alphabet. However, for the learn drive to the be the sole healthy mechanism behind such a learning process, kids need to be given space and time. It may take 3-6 years for establishing all necessary semantic connections that bring the alphabet in a live healthy form to a child's memory. However, all connections established via the learn drive are likely to be durable and nearly never become toxic.
Little wonder kids get to know the letter "O" first. "O" is used often and its shape is easy to recognize. However, kids drilled on the alphabet and numbers can quickly produce a toxic confusion between O and 0 (zero). The harder the drill, the stronger the connection, the more toxic the memory and the greater the negative consequences. Instead, getting to know numbers and the alphabet should proceed naturally.
Digits 6 and 9 can easily get confused. To a child's brain with unprimed sensory processing, they look the same. Drilling, esp. with spaced repetition can have disastrous consequences. Discrimination may become conflation. Toxic memories can last through childhood if the review is frequent enough. This prevents establishing healthy connections. Instead, the kid should be free to roam the world and look for a meaningful connection for those numbers. An animated cartoon movie '"9"' could do the job, or perhaps Percy, the engine #6. Once a mnemonic association is made, it can get established well deep in the neocortex in the right context, and serve a lifetime of number juggling for a novelist or a mathematician alike.
Kids drilled in alphabet, especially if this happens too early, and if they are drilled reluctantly, can easily develop toxic memories. Toxic memories can lead to problems we would classify as dyslexia, even if there is no underlying neurophysiological cause.
The same is true of math. Kids drilled on digits, numbers and counting, may develop a dislike of arithmetic or long-lasting problems with number memory. They fail to develop natural mnemonic props that help them juggle numbers easily. This is how we get adults who still fail multiplication table and consider math their least favorite subject at school.
For some adults, multiplication table integrates with their math brain and is employed dozens of times in a single day. For others, toxic memories formed by early drilling keep it out of reach for lifetime. Some adults never confuse left and right, others will try to recall on which hand they keep a watch or where the heart is located in their chest. These minor inefficiencies are nearly always a result of heavy drilling in childhood. Two factors are to be blamed in most cases: (1) stress or (2) coercion.
Mathematics is the queen of science. It is also a queen of toxic memory. The reason is not that mathematic is more difficult than chemistry or literature. The key reason is that mathematic uses its own language of formulas. Formulas form a perfect abstraction if they do not get associated with the meaning of individual variables or terms. If you fail to remember the answer to What is the capital of Thailand?, you are soothed by the fact that the question is posed in English and you might have heard of Thailand. If you fail to remember log(x*y)=?, you might have just experienced gibberish and your only reaction is an increase in stress levels. Math anxiety is nothing else but a sufficiently large set of toxic memories associated with mathematics. Those memories may generalize onto many contexts in which you meet mathematics. It may even happen that you will be traumatized for life. You may hate all books in yellow cover just because of that most hated book in math that had a yellow cover too.
You must have heard that learning prevents Alzheimer's. Scientists noticed that years of schooling add to reducing your chances for that disease. However, few reports seem to consider the difference between good learning and bad learning that involves forming toxic memories. The root cause of Alzheimer's is network overload and associated excitotoxicity. This is compounded by genetic predispositions, diet, lifestyle, etc. However, without network abuse, the neurodegenerative process might not show up. The same problem might be occurring in Down syndrome kids. Their brain processing power is simply diminished. This is why toxic memories might also be bad for brain health. For more see: How schools can contribute to Alzheimer's disease and Bad learning contributes to Alzheimer's.
I have built up a large collection of stories about the origin and character of toxic memories. I will mention a few examples here.
Fear of fractions
I spoke to a young lady who uses a calculator at work for a few hours per day. Despite this, her math skills are negligible. She is interested in sociology. Even in sociology, considered a branch of humanities, math plays a big role. She never reads books soaked with formulas, but even statements like "one third" of a population or "one tenth" of a population are scary. Somehow 33% and 10% sound much friendlier because she meets percentages on a daily basis at work. How can an intelligent lady with college education struggle with such seemingly simple concepts? I could track it back to her childhood. She claims she was not under a tremendous pressure to learn math. Just the opposite. Her teachers did not seem to care. However, I quickly disproved that claim by finding out that at older ages, the pressure started mounting up. She would not want to disappoint her parents and meeting math class minima started getting harder and harder. Today, fractions "make her stiff". When I explain that the problem of 1/10 and 1/3 can be easily solved by just memorizing 8 pairs: 1/2=50%, 1/3=33%, ... 1/10=10%, she smiled as if I summarized the Book of Revelations. How is that possible that for nearly a decade since college, in a job that involves math, with intelligent reading, with interest in the news on TV, etc. she did not come up with a simple idea of memorizing 8 numbers? The explanation might only be in toxic memories. Her brain developed a pathological reaction to the sight of fractions: panic! In a panicky state, she cannot see the big picture, she cannot slow down, she cannot think straight. This is not math anxiety. This is math phobia grown to the size of math panic.
Fear of reading
A child can have dramatically different reactions to the same letter or to a sequence of characters depending on the context. Coercive programs for early reading are notorious for sparking toxic memories. A sequence of letters mastered in the context of happy play may bring aversion and hate of learning if presented in the context associated with learning coercion. A hypothesis says that this is how dyslexia may develop in a subset of cases. Democratic schools boast of knowing no dyslexia. In a democratic school, kids can learn to read at their preferred age, sometimes even in teen years. Raymond Moore insists that reading remedial programs are populated primarily by kids recruited from early reading programs, and other programs where coercion might be in use. It is enough for an early reading program to generate minor gaps in knowledge, e.g. knowledge of phonics, those gaps may later snowball into reading difficulties that will be interpreted as a penalty. This penalty signal is enough to develop a toxic memory: dislike or fear of reading.
Many adults fail to master the multiplication table. It is amazing to see people who deal with numbers on a daily basis, and still struggle with simple multiplication. An omnipresent calculator masks the phenomenon. I personally know a few cases of high-IQ individuals who struggle with multiplication table. They seem to agree that heavy drilling in early childhood is the chief culprit. Once toxic memories get etched in young networks, they are very hard to dislodge. For anyone fluent in multiplication, struggling with 7*8 seems hardly possible. If smart people who struggle with 7*8 did not keep hiding their problem, we might finally stop attributing this to lesser cognitive capacity. A toxic memory can easily make anyone look less clever than they really are. It is not about intelligence or memory, it is all about "brain panic". The question 7*8=? brings the following response in the affected mind: OMG! Multiplication table again! I will sure fail ... was it 49, 56 or 63 ... I knew it, ... is anyone looking? ... no, no chance .. no idea ... I hate my life ....
Sequence of months
I have documented a case of a girl who struggled with memorizing the sequence of months in childhood. The case might go unnoticed in a mass of similar cases, if the same girl did not show that learning the same sequence of months in German a decade later appeared surprisingly easy. Even more, the newly established sequence of month in German served as an early prop for memory issues with the same sequence in Polish. Amazingly, this highly intelligent lady, now in her late twenties, still uses the German sequence of months each time she confuses Polish names. To add spice to this unusual case, her German is now in serious retreat. She does not use the language too often. However, the sequence of months is absolutely unforgettable. She now uses it as a mnemonic skeleton to cover up the set of toxic memories developed in childhood.
The scenario here is pretty typical for similar cases of troubled development. In a highly literate and highly intelligent family, the pressure to learn fast and learn early is magnified. At the same time, talented kids often show prolonged period of exuberant brain development. This means hitting all milestones with delay as compared with the average. All delays are seen not as a chance for the brain to develop but as a case of retardation. To make things worse, the girl has an older brother who excelled at school and is now a prominent lawyer who I know from Polish TV. Not only was a smart girl behind the average, she was instantly being compared to her brother who got 3 years of a head start. Needless to say, the girl developed a pretty universal hatred of academic subjects, and a deep dislike of school, which lasted into her teens. When she was 10 years old, and she still struggled with counting months, the whole world seems to have noticed. Little wonder, there were whispers in the family that the girl is not as sharp a pencil as her brother. In the end, she effortlessly graduated from college, and is now extremely successful in her professional life. She is a great mom too. Her kid knows no pressure to perform at school.
This case hints powerfully at a wrong interpretation of the case of bilingual boy with monolingual dyslexia described in Cognition (1999). While experts would like to see that case of dyslexia as a proof of superiority of languages based on phonemic orthography, I would urge researchers to pay a closer look to toxic memories that result from early academic instruction. There are no obvious differences between names of months in Polish and in German. There was only one striking difference: while Polish months were learned under pressure, German months were learned for pleasure as a hobby at much later age. Cognitive readiness and joy of learning made for a world of difference.
Paradoxically, early instruction is rampant in highly intelligent and highly literate families. In addition, all delays are noticed earlier, and intervention is more likely. This usually makes things worse.
Delaying math instruction
When people I love are in a fight, the subject deserves double attention. Peter Gray is the most inspiring contemporary light in the area of unschooling. Larry Sanger is a fantastic homeschooling dad. Incidentally, Larry also invented Wikipedia for which I will be forever grateful. When Larry got upset with Gray, it was all about understanding the power of toxic memory. See: Peter Gray under attack from Larry Sanger.
Fear with no purpose
Toxic memories can paralyze the mind. They can turn an otherwise smart human being into a replica of an enslaved robot. The not-so-funny joke below delivered one of the most convincing personal moments in my investigations:
This is how I see the events occurring in a panicked math brain. It all begins with a recognition of a typical math task. This instantly triggers a toxic memory that associates math with the state of anxiety. The fear of math paralyzes all intellectual capacities that might lead to a rational solution. In neural terms, well-polished networks trigger fast, high performance, high stability circuits that instantly take over the job of finding the solution. Those circuits are characterized by low coherence and do not integrate well with the world knowledge. They are targeted at providing a robotic solution by employing fast thinking. The algorithm for finding the solution might have, over years, through interference, lost all its vestiges of responding to the actual logical input involved in the task. Instead, the brain strips the problem to bare bones and follows the algorithm:
- if two numbers appear in a math task, employ 4 basic operators: +, -, *, :, and choose the result that is most plausible
- if there is little time left (for solving the test), pick addition, which is easiest. In a multiple-choice test, it still provides 25% chance of success
- if numbers are too big to employ the operator, give up and jump to the next test to solve. In real life, play a diversion game, and cover up your tracks. Be sure you do not get caught with hot ignorance in your hands. Don't let anyone see you with your math pants down
That last part of "covering up" may compound toxic memories that lead to math anxiety.
Contrast this with a toddler who plays Lego bricks, and will keep re-shuffling that wall of bricks until it gets even and provides room for moving to the next level. The little snot will internalize number sense and coherently and consistently integrate it with his world knowledge using his learn drive and his knowledge valuation network.
Outwardly, our abstract adult brain can see the same math problem to solve. Our empathy is too weak to escape the abstraction. On the other hand, for an immature brain, the same powerful learning mechanisms can be employed for two entirely different jobs: (1) solving a real life math problem, or (2) surviving in a classroom.
Do you know history? Did you know that
... at the request of cesario Pizzorato, Charlatid the Great conquered all of Egypt from the Charlemagne Delgado beginning in 637 BC?
Trouble with counting
20 rules of knowledge formulation warn that memorizing sets can lead to toxic memory. That warning is applicable to adults, let alone children. Lists are easier, but also hard. At the same time, early schooling programs are peppered with lists to memorize. One of the first elements of early instruction is counting. While counting fingers is strongly mnemonic, going beyond the number 10 enters the realm of abstraction. Forcing kids to go into abstract territory is always dangerous. It is far better to patiently await the point of readiness. This sad story illustrates why: Videogames are better than teachers.
Toxic memories in SuperMemo
Futile memories are poorly formed and hard to remember even with SuperMemo. Persistent and parasitic memories may be perpetuated by SuperMemo. Toxic memories are most dangerous. They will result in learning displeasure, dislike of SuperMemo, and might be the number one reason for a high dropout rate in spaced repetition.
I have a unique insight into the problem of toxic memory. I have seen hundreds of user materials for learning with SuperMemo. Those materials usually contain a small proportion of questions that we call leeches. Those are the questions that are particularly hard to answer, mostly due to interference, or lack of meaningful connection with reality. I can see the birth of toxic memories in small incremental steps in the learning process. A little leech of a question can pester student's mind for months or even years. Without a resolute action undertaken, the student can see a question grow into a problem. At some point, the mere sight of the question will result in a jolt of a response: Oh no! I will never remember that. Skip!
Toxic memory is one of the two prime reasons that SuperMemo carries a huge dropout rate. The other reason is the psychological impact of the Outstanding parameter, i.e. the impression of never being able to get of from the heavy load of the outstanding material review. Both factors are remedied pretty well with incremental reading. However, this does not help SuperMemo much because incremental reading carries a steep learning curve. This explains why the most effective method of learning has not conquered the world yet. Of the tiny fraction of those who ever get convinced to try, the vast majority is heavily inhibited by the psychological impact of overload and toxic memory.
Unwelcome memories are a norm in SuperMemo. It is never possible to fully predict the actual configuration in which a memory dovetails with student's knowledge. Unwelcome side effects are always possible. Outside SuperMemo, those memory impurities are quickly eliminated by forgetting. In SuperMemo, they require vigilance. With an experienced eye, they can be easily spotted once formed and remedied with reformulation tricks. For a less experienced user, a leech elimination system simply counts the number of memory lapses and alerts the user when a given memory has a parasitic nature. Many users take a different route though. Instead of combating parasitic memories with re-formulation, they employ dangerous tools of SuperMemo such as low forgetting index, lax leech criteria, cramming, forced review, and more. When leeches keep piling up and the elimination is not prompt and radical, toxic memories can form and discourage further use of SuperMemo. We lost thousands of users to this process.
Inefficiency of SuperMemo
Toxic memories in language learning
On occasion, an unwelcome memory connection may be established. For example, English words indigent and indigenous can easily be confused due to their similarity. If B is similar to C, at some point, A->C confusion may set in. There is a very simple tool for breaking up all unwelcome memories: forgetting. Unwelcome memory A->C is unlikely to be useful in natural contexts and will remain unused for a while until it dissolves naturally. However, if repeated drilling is enforced, e.g. at school or with spaced repetition, the unwelcome memory may become a parasitic memory (i.e. unwelcome memory that would not go away). This phenomenon is one of the main reasons many users get discouraged in their use of spaced repetition. When used inappropriately, optimum review may optimally set in parasitic memories that can be very hard to eradicate. Programs like SuperMemo can quickly establish long-term memories than can last month, or years or even a lifetime. If a parasitic memory is established, it can do more damage than just causing confusion via its falsehood.
In the extreme case, parasitic memory can become a toxic memory. When a parasitic memory A->C is drilled regularly, it is likely to cause stress to the user via all forms of penalties. There will be one more memory connection established between the stimulus A and the penalty, which may be as trivial as a mild trigger of anxiety. Questions related to A will become punitive in nature. The student will gradually get conditioned to dislike learning. This can be a dislike of a particular portion of the learning material, or the whole domain (e.g. chemistry). In the most extreme case, toxic memories can lead to a dislike of learning in general. This happens all the time around the planet as a result of schooling. Toxic memories are one of the prime reasons schooling does not work and why kids hate school.
Toxic memories in Advanced English
- indigent - indigenous
- fictitious - factitious
- daft - deft
- asperity - aspersion
- to decoct - to concoct
- to decry - to descry
- complacence - complaisance
- trapezoid - trapezium
- perspicuous - perspicacious
- an assent - an ascent