Human Memory and Academic Writing

Academic writing
This is an issue of my newsletter focusing on the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, particularly remote work, online economy, and cognitive load.
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I do not trust my memories, and neither should you.

I just published an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis about Source Monitoring Errors– the instances where the brain makes a “wrong call” and misattributes a fictional memory as a true one. The brain stores information surprisingly well, but it is terrible at distinguishing where it comes from. As a result, it often confuses fact with fiction, hearsay, dreams, and conjectures.

Our brains count on the real memories (contrary to the imagined ones), typically having more texture, details, smells, colors, and emotion. The information about the source of information is not stored in your memory at all. Instead, each time you recall a piece, your brain is using heuristics to remember, “Did I hear that from a reputable source or seen it in a TV Show” and it’s never 100% confident in the answer.

Fry’s brain is trying to distinguish fact from fiction.

Source Monitoring Errors can have grave consequences:

  • Early eyewitness testimonies are usually taken by low-ranking law officials that can accidentally distort the memories by asking leading questions. Half of wrongfully executed death penalty victims lost their lives (according to one study) because of this mechanism and weight of (distorted) eyewitness testimonies in court.
  • Interaction of rich content, and the emotionally charged discourse on social media can create real memories, which can lead to extreme beliefs, which can lead to more charged content, which can lead to more distorted memories…

Read more about Source Monitoring errors and the Misinformation effect here.

Writing things

Note-taking, journaling, and writing things are superpowers. They compensate for the deficiencies of human memory and turn your thinking into a multiplayer sport. Here are some benefits to publishing your thoughts, especially if you are a student:

  • Explaining things to others is a best way to deepen your understanding (It’s called the Feynman Technique).
  • Following your curiosity will make you more interested in what you are learning about, compounding your recollection.
  • Putting your ideas out there will get you the attention of others, interested in similar topics.

Publishing content as a student seems like a no-brainer, but why do so few of them participate?

Writing things in academia

Academia is a credentialed system, reinforcing the idea that you need permission to write your thoughts, and only if they are captured in the most boring way imaginable. It took me a few years to recover from the traumatic experience of writing like a pretentious robot allergic to simple words. When I copied the content of my master thesis into WordPress, three different tools started complaining about passive voice, the readability of sentences, and the use of complicated terms.

It seems like everything you need to succeed as a writer is to follow the exact opposite of academic writing:

  • Write like you would for a layman.
  • Use short sentences and simple terms.
  • Break the text with punctuation, feel free to bold and underline.
  • Don’t be afraid of showing your human side, because that will help your readers connect.

Academic papers use the “impartial” and “professional” language to signal objectivity. Still, as the ongoing replication crisis proves, this is pure posturing, only making these papers harder to read (which may be for the better). As Paul Graham points out in Write Simply:

Of course, fancy writing doesn’t just conceal ideas. It can also conceal the lack of them. That’s why some people write that way, to conceal the fact that they have nothing to say. Whereas writing simply keeps you honest. If you say nothing simply, it will be obvious to everyone, including you.

If you are a student, you are often required to submit academic writing. I implore you to publish your notes and pursue simple writing on the side. Translating academic papers into simple words is one of the best niches out there and will do wonders for your understanding. After a few years, your blog may become a better asset than the degree.

Surprising things.

The secret heart of academia is… Wikipedia.

Academics are looking down on Wikipedia, blogs, and other “unreliable” sources, but at the same time, they use it extensively to their own and science’s benefit.

In an experiment, this paper found that a single quality Wikipedia article written by chemistry experts influenced the content of 250 published peer-reviewed academic papers! Articles referenced in Wikipedia also become more cited.

Basically, Wikipedia is used like a review article: “Wikipedia is either the largest or second-largest repository of up-to-date review articles articles in the world… Wikipedia is highly likely to also be the first- or second-most influential repository”

Time millionaires

This article introduced me to a concept of time millionaires – people who see leisure as a true value in life, not their career track record:

time millionaires measure their worth not in terms of financial capital, but according to the seconds, minutes and hours they claw back from employment for leisure and recreation

If society was truly progressive,” she says, “it would not work people to the bone in the first place, or make the assumption that leisure, time to rest, time to be with your family, is only for the wealthy.”

One of my millionaire friends, Paul Millerd, recently released a book urging you to pursue a “Pathless Path”. You should check it out if you are curious about making your career serve you vs. the other way around.

Greek translation for “work” was literally “not‑at‑leisure.” In Aristotle’s own words, “we are not‑at‑leisure in order to be‑at‑leisure.” Now, this is flipped. We work to earn time off and see leisure as a break from work. Pieper pointed out that people “mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity.” To Pieper, leisure was above work.

Sweaters for the penguins

Australia’s oldest man is knitting sweaters for the injured penguins. Nuff said.

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