Semantic brain

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.


Semantic brain is a hypothetical status of a healthy brain early in development, which can be used as a springboard to high intelligence. Before metacognitive skills develop, the declarative brain relies entirely on semantic learning. This maximizes efficiency of learning. Semantic brain is characterized by high creativity, proficiency in problem solving, and poor asemantic memory. Efficient semantic learning combined with metacognitive memory skills underlie the development of high intelligence.

Active forgetting

It is possible that a young brain actively rejects content based on low coherence, and perhaps even, more generally, on low applicability. This helps the brain remain efficient, semantic, explicitly parallel, creative, and fast! This is the opposite of the popular perception of a brilliant brain. We are enamored in those who can perform incredible feats of memory. Kim Peek was a great memorizer, but his intelligence was not primed for high level achievement in research or engineering. Some researchers believe that waking up Kim Peek in the brain will boost our performance. I believe the opposite. Synaptic pruning in adolescence is aimed at efficient semantic processing.

High turnaround of memories in a young brain favors semantic learning, generalization, and makes it harder to build long-term memories (see: Childhood amnesia). This provides great advantages in many areas (e.g. natural language acquisition, grammar orthogonality, visual recognition, etc.), etc. The same process results in great disadvantages at school (e.g. memorization, programmed development, tolerance of boredom, attention, etc.).

Early instruction

Early learning at school is aimed at asemantic learning. For example, children sing the alphabet to memorize it. Memorizing poems is an early learning skill that starts in the kindergarten. There are countless mnemonics for mathematical calculations. All those mnemonic tools allow of reciting facts from memory, however, they negatively affect learning habits. After years of schooling, children may habitually attempt to use mnemonic techniques to commit new knowledge to memory. This undermines applicability and intelligence. See: 50 bad habits learned at school.

The entire evolution of schooling and curriculum was driven by an increasing emphasis on asemantic content. This is only because this is the type of content that seems to be hardest to master, esp. at early ages. This is why a multiplication table, which keeps being less and less relevant to modern's brain adaptation to problem solving has gradually been driven to an essential benchmark in math literacy for young kids. The entire reading instruction is pushed to lower and lower ages. If reading scores are unsatisfactory, the world of educators, not so familiar with neuroscience, will push for earlier reading as a form of prevention of illiteracy. In contrast, teachers of little children often see the extent of damage done by asemantic instruction (e.g. in the wake of No Child Left Behind).

Freedom and memory

I lost count of genius minds who trace their genius to freedom in childhood. The semantic brain hypothesis implies that for a child to develop high intelligence, all forms of intervention must be withdrawn. Instruction is permissible only with child's consent. The only way to affect the developmental trajectory without affecting semantic learning is to modify the environment. For example, if a child insists on having a microscope, the wish should be celebrated and granted, even if the child has a rich record of tossing away her toys. On the other hand, a well-wishing father cannot hope that a gift of a microscope will have much effect if the child never asked and never showed any prior interest.

I also lost count of my super-intelligent young friends who recall having serious problems with memorizing things in childhood (poems, multiplication table, days of the week, songs, etc.). I recall having pretty good memory as a little kid. I liked to show off with my memory skills. However, I have no recall of good memory performance at school in the first 6-7 years of attendance. My memory served my passions (e.g. memorizing fish anatomy, or memorizing complex chemistry formulas). Many of those future geniuses with strongly semantic brains struggling at school, should be celebrated. Instead, they are cast as dumb, stupid, or lazy. The problem of the semantic brain at school can be compounded by the precocity paradox. I have too little knowledge to explain Einstein at school. He might have been a classic case of a semantic brain that survived to adulthood. On the other hand, posthumous studies of Einstein's brain make me believe that the precocity paradox might also have played a role, even though great brains are born in great learning and great reasoning. Einstein was great at modeling and weak at memorization. His semantic brain seems to have simply survived the years of schooling to go on to explore his own paths to greatness.

School habits

A child is born with a semantic brain, while schooling and memorization foster asemantic learning habits. A parent may be tempted to push her kid to memorize the periodic table only because a Nobel-winning chemist appeared to be fluent at naming elements. This provides no benefit to little future chemist, and potentially can pose a great risk of discouragement or the risk of developing asemantic habits.

At later ages, those asemantic habits can lead to toxic memories or panic when confronting complex lectures, speeches, articles, videos, etc. Little kids or unschooled kids never panic when confronted with complex knowledge or rich experience of others. At worst, they get bored because of insufficient flow of value (i.e. learntropy).

Those bad teaching habits get magnified in the teacher population due to the fish tank perspective. When I hesitated whether the Vistula is the longest river in Poland, a jogging friend of mine, who is a teacher, made big eyes as if saying "30 years of repetitions in SuperMemo, and you do not know things 6 graders learn at school?" This is a typical asemantic expectation induced and perpetuated by schooling. Until I have a specific need to understand rivers in Poland with respect to their length, my brain is likely to never encounter or to actively ignore the answer to the question. Moreover, I have general semantically derived candidates for the answer: the river Oder, and even Poznan's Warta are at 80% of the Vistula's length. If 6 graders need to perform with such a pointless factoid in class, their love for geography is likely to plummet. I recall being forced to memorize top 3 producer countries in dozens of product categories (coal, gold, oil, etc.). Passive reading might be interesting with a bit of mature background knowledge. Memorizing facts that change annually is plain dumb.

Asemantic learning

Semantic brain stands in the way of early academic instruction, which is largely asemantic (see: Asemantic curriculum). In free learning, a child's brain is an excellent discriminator of asemantic content due to the natural guidance of the learn drive. Whatever is learned under coercion will be actively rejected by the semantic brain (often in mere seconds).

At school, that semantic discrimination is quickly conditioned out. Well-schooled kids become excellent crammers, however, they lose their semantic learning skills. When a little kid is sensitive enough, he may quickly become a good student. Memorizing poems and songs will be easy. However, this should not be taken as a sign of high intelligence.

For a little kid, SuperMemo does not work too well. If the item is associated with unpleasant context of schooling, it can become a toxic memory. If the item carries good associations and clicks semantically, it can be reasonably successful. However, nothing can compete with "real life" in the efficiency of encoding semantic memories. These memories can then efficiently be perpetuated with spaced repetition.

It takes years of practice to develop metacognitive skills that make it possible to abstract the essence of knowledge from its inconsequential context for the purpose of learning with SuperMemo. Having used the program for three decades, I am entirely insensitive to the color of templates, which I use as domain-specific context indicator. This is why my love for SuperMemo is untarnished by secondary cues. However, this ability to abstract the essence of knowledge is a metacognitive skill. Little kids cannot do it effectively. Many well-schooled adults cannot do it. Schooling favors literal memorization of knowledge. Striving at building abstract knowledge in free learning does the opposite.

Free learning is unmatched in its efficiency at younger ages. Intervention is usually harmful


There are many examples of highly successful individuals who seem to have retained semantic brain into adulthood. Metacognitive memory skills may be helpful in productivity, intelligence, or success in life, however, they need to be developed with caution (esp. in youth). It is possible to interfere with the proficiency of the semantic brain by drilling memory. Metaphorically speaking, the brain may look for memory shortcuts that will free its resources from the needs of reasoning. In expert system terminology, it can seen as the efficient balance between facts and rules. In many ways, semantic brain is the opposite of the idiot savant syndrome.

John Taylor Gatto describes the case of Richard Branson. In particular, how little Richard faces major challenges of high autonomy provided by his mom. In adulthood, Branson is an icon of business success. At the same time, he seems to have a Trumpian habit of paying little attention to detail. He even takes pride in his inattention and the ability to delegate (see video).

Another iconic personality is Albert Einstein. His semantic brain made him abhor school. At the same time, it helped him build up excellent abstract knowledge that made reasoning about the world of physics as easy as it is to plan a shopping trip for you and me.

Dr Maryanne Wolf refers to the semantic brain as a dyslexic brain (i.e. the brain the precedes readiness for reading). The label originates from the fact that poor memory for asemantic knowledge favors the development of "educational dyslexia". Humans have always been excellent problem solvers. They may occasionally struggle with reading because their semantic brain has few adaptations for reading mastery. Each and every individual needs to figure out how to harness dedicated areas of the cortex to decode print. Natural whole language approach boosted with phonics in free learning setting is a simple, slow, incremental and efficient strategy.

Semantic brain in SuperMemo

Semantic brain seems to defy the rules of SuperMemo. In the case of an ideal semantic brain, knowledge seems to fall into only two categories: well remembered (because relevant) and unmemorizable (because not coherent). This fact was made visible when Algorithm SM-17 tended to radically split knowledge into easy and difficult items (older algorithms provided a more equally dispersed distribution of difficulty).

A second important observation could be uncovered with the new algorithm in collections used by children at very young ages (i.e. before schooling). In SuperMemo does not work for children, I argued that the semantic brain is pretty bad at memorization, and SuperMemo should only be used voluntarily and in the self-learning mode. Many users of SuperMemo, who could witness its power, tried to use SuperMemo with their children. However, the results were always somewhat disappointing. SuperMemo run by the hand of a parent isn't much different from school. It rarely works as well as for adults. An important conclusion was that the "flat" forgetting curve seemed to indicate that all learning occurred outside SuperMemo. In such cases, SuperMemo served only as the algorithm for identifying items that are not remembered. SuperMemo was not a learning tool.

An equally interesting observation is that the flat forgetting curve may express the recall level that is directly associated with material difficulty. For example, while learning Korean (less familiar), the average recall would keep a relatively flat recall at mere 20%. However, for the same child, while learning Italian (more familiar), the recall might hover at 70%. When collections of different difficulty are merged, they can produce the first forgetting curve that seems to indicate improved recall at longer intervals. Such inverted curves have also been observed in adults who merged collections of different difficulty. However, in a mixed collection where the difficulty levels vary, and items receive the first interval that is optimized for the entire collection, the semantic brain may still produce a normally looking forgetting curve that follows the power function.

A forgetting curve from a preschooler's SuperMemo collection
A forgetting curve from a preschooler's SuperMemo collection

Figure: A forgetting curve from a preschooler's SuperMemo collection. The absence of forgetting indicates the absence of intentional declarative learning. The decay constant is nearly zero which makes optimum interval meaningless. 1706 repetition cases have been recorded. This flat forgetting curve would go unnoticed in older versions of SuperMemo due to the adult-centric assumption that on Day=0, retrievability is 100%. Overtime, this forgetting curve will lean down to produce a graph typical of adult learning. This process may take a few years and should not be artificially accelerated, e.g. by means of coercion. This curve is a hypothetical expression of the semantic brain

See also

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru