Friday, March 28, 2014

A Stroll Through My Palace

I’ve just picked myself up off the concrete floor of this basement. It’s cluttered, dimly lit, and smells of dust and bananas. Some of the scattered items have been here as long as I’ve known the place—the ballerina music box, the wedding dress, the journal—but I’ve recently made a few additions of my own.

Welcome to my memory palace. It might not be what you expect. It is not laid out very neatly, it is certainly not alphabetized, and it’s non-orientable in Euclidean space. It is not a catalogue of tobacco
varieties or a repository for trivia I could find far more quickly via Google search. My palace is a collection of stories, symbols, music, and memories, steeped in meaning and tangled up with reality and each other at every opportunity.

Don’t be startled by the emu. She’s just resting, hunkered down on a luxurious velvet cushion, making little cooing sounds that go “orff, orff, orff”. Another person’s mind can be uncomfortably alien, so I’ll understand if you’re put off by the mannequin of myself with pointed ears who stands nearby. If you make eye contact, she’ll turn inside out through her mouth a few times before vomiting a small plastic 747. She means you no harm. Do watch out for the slippery banana peel, smelling ripe and attracting fruit flies, that’s always directly beneath the trap door. It gets me every time.

This little basement is where I store everything important I learn about cognitive biases and heuristics that involve memory in ways directly relevant to memory techniques. We’re looking for just such a bias, so it’s bound to be here somewhere. I know because an elephant lowered his trunk so we could climb down through the floor of the IU Credit Union. Elephants, you see, never forget.

The banana’s definitely about humor, so that isn’t it. The emu’s name is Von Restorff, which is closely related but not quite what I’m after either. To the left of Von Restorff (velvet, resting, orff orff orff), I spot something familiar. The meaning hasn’t resolved into full focus, yet it feels right. There’s something round on the table, see it?, about two feet tall. Ah yes, a ferris wheel! You can see colors now as it spins slowly in place, sending quiet music drifting past as if from a great distance. Bend down to listen. Carnival music? What is that about? What do I associate with “carnival”?

Bazar! Of course. This is the bizarreness effect. It’s all coming back to me.

To review the details, we’ll need to go one level deeper into the imagined experience. We certainly can’t fit in one of those carriages at our present size, so let’s shrink down and hop in. It’ll be just like sticking your nose in a pensieve.

The basement room dissolves, and we’re at a carnival on the 4H Fairgrounds near my childhood home. The ragtime organ is bright and clear. Tiny people down below lick oversized lollypops, and clowns hand out balloon animals. The summer breeze is warm and smells like buttered popcorn, funnel cakes, and livestock. You can feel the mechanical jerking of the carriage as we rotate slowly toward the ground, where the operator lets us out.

The first thing we pass once safely on the ground is some sort of acrobat. On a stage, he dances on his hands—only his hands—to the carnival music, and I’m astonished at the complexity of the choreography and the grace with which he executes it given the strange—I mean, the bizarre—constraint.

I simply must learn, so I ask for a lesson. You can too, if you like. He obliges. He starts us out with the basics of balance, but I’m eager to try his flashy spins and stranger stunts. Soon, he leaves us to practice on our own. I remember the mechanics of the fancier stuff, but I can’t actually perform any of it because I keep falling over. It’s terribly frustrating, especially since I could tell during the lesson I’d likely forget the basics. Straightforward though it seems, I can’t maintain a simple handstand for more than a few seconds. That’s the bizarreness effect at work, in one of its two guises: Boring things don’t tend to stick in memory.

When I go back to ask for a review of fundamentals, I find that he’s teaching an entire class. They’ve been on handstands for quite a while, it seems, and though a few people are still struggling, at least as many are clearly getting bored. I’m struck by an idea for improving the class, and pursue that rather than further instruction. I’ll be right back, promise.

When I was first learning logic, my professor would assign problems she called “goats”. A “goat” is a problem that is much harder than anything that might appear on a test. The idea is that anyone who tackles a goat, whether or not she succeeds, will find the test refreshingly manageable. The name came from a parable involving a goat, a rabbi, a large Jewish family, and a shack that was far too small for them all. The story’s not important now, but its appearance in a logic lecture seemed quite bizarre at the time, so I’ll always remember it effortlessly. The other side of bizarreness: Weird shit’s hard to forget.

There’s a petting zoo just one booth over from the stage, so I borrow a goat and lead it to the hand-dancer. “Your students learn at different rates,” I tell him, “and are motivated by different kinds of challenges. Instead of having everyone do basic handstands over and over, you could challenge the advanced students to do a handstand on this goat while it trots around the fairgrounds.” He takes my advice, and soon the students up the ante by doing handstands on each other atop the goat. (It’s a very strong goat who doesn’t mind.) Thank goodness I remembered about the goat!

It’s getting dark and we should probably head back soon. The ferris wheel is all lit up now, a brilliant reminder of our purpose here, so let’s pause to review what we’ve learned. “The bizarreness effect,” I say to you. “If you want to remember something, make it weird. But there’s a little more to it, and it’s something more important. A use case we must always recognize in real life.”

My trigger is a feeling of going in circles. Sometimes information is very important, and I know it’s important, but it’s too mundane to be memorable. You know the feeling. You grasp at the information and let it repeat over and over in your mind, hoping mere repeated exposure will be enough to make it last. But it keeps spinning and going nowhere, because your native memory software just wasn’t made to learn boring things no matter how useful they may turn out to be.

When I fail to employ the knowledge stored at this carnival, I do nothing about that hopeless spinning, and invariably I forget. But when I succeed, I engage with the important but boring information in a genuinely memorable way—either by writing it down, or by calling on my other memory skills. And I know that anytime I feel the pointless spinning, I will be transported to this carnival, if only long enough to be reminded to act.

As you see the resolution of my renewed commitment to real-life application reflected on my face, the ferris wheel escapes its hinges with a screeching battle cry. It rolls off, blazing victoriously across the country side, actually getting somewhere for the first time in its life.

I imagine that sounds like a ridiculous amount of detail, and therefore work, just to be reminded that boring things aren’t as memorable as bizarre ones. It really doesn’t feel that way from the inside, though. Constructing the carnival in the first place took some effort, but definitely not as much as you imagine, for I follow algorithms that get ever easier with practice. If you knew exactly what I was doing, the same thing might take you ten minutes.

When I walk through this sequence, either from the IU Credit Union or directly from my trigger, it doesn’t happen in words. It’s more like a holodeck movie on fast-forward. A sequence of this length takes ten seconds at most. And the more often I play it, the more targeted become the details. Before long I’ve distilled it down to a handful of powerful symbols—not by any directed effort of my own, but just by the nature of remembering. So in practice, it’s more like this:

Memory-weirdness? 404-search-Palace. Biases portal, trap door, search, found: wheel, bizarreness. Carnival sensations, hand-dancing-flashy-moves-falling-over. Logic-goats. Trigger: boring-things-spinning. Action: bother-to-remember-wheel-rolls-away.

The story also means a lot more to me than it does to you. I chose handles for several abstract concepts out of my association network, and picked examples that I cared about. For instance, I’ve watched dance students retain the flashy stuff while neglecting the basics again and again, and I’ve been frustrated with their resulting frustration. If you haven’t grasped the boring fundamentals, all the crazy awesome moves in the world won’t help you progress much as a dancer—but unfortunately, the flashy stuff is easier to remember. So for the first guise of bizarreness, I chose a concrete example with a strong emotional effect for me. And I did the same with my example of the other guise. This is why no one can build your memory palace but you.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Symbols, Rituals, and Effective Buddhism

I recently realized my meditation practice has grown very irregular and infrequent. For a while this was due mainly to instability; I was moving around a lot so my schedule was chaotic. (All the more reason to meditate, but I'm naming causes, not justifications.) But my life hasn't been like that for a few
months now, yet I haven't reestablished my practice. I thought about it, and I discovered another reason.

I learned to meditate at a Zen temple where my primary official role was doan: the person in charge of the bells. But I was actually in charge of all of the ritual things that weren't strictly the priest's prerogative, so all of that goes hand in hand with meditation for me. Zazen just doesn't feel right if
there's no incense, chimes, candles, flowers, chanting, or altar. I didn't do anything about this for a long time because it felt really silly, which  is a completely stupid reason to not do something. Classical conditioning is a thing. If a specific atmosphere or series of behaviors puts me quickly into the frame of mind I'm after due to past immersion and repetition, then I have a cheat code that many others would pay thousands of dollars for (as evidenced by retreat and workshop prices at monasteries).

So now I have a zafu, traditional Japanese incense, a candle, and I've just ordered a chime. Most importantly, I have a room for nothing but zazen. But having a Buddha statue still feels really weird to me.

It felt even more so the first time around, especially when I was expected to bow to the thing constantly, but over time it became important as a symbol of why I was doing what I was doing. The statue we used was Kannon, not Gautama. Kannon is a Bodhisattva, an Eastern evolution of Avalokiteśvara, who vowed to put off final enlightenment until all sentient beings were saved from suffering. She is not actually a Buddha yet, and in Mahayana sects like Zen, practitioners walk the Bodhisattva path rather than seeking Buddhahood directly.

My altar feels empty and my practice undirected without a symbol of why I'm doing what I'm doing. But although Kannon seems close to right, I also feel like she symbolizes the misconception that it's possible to save the world merely by meditating, cultivating compassion, and acting compassionately on a small scale; and also the misconception that we have eons to get it right.

So how might an effectively altruistic atheist, whose meditation practice is the foundation of her art of rationality, symbolize her mission?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Change Your Own Mind First

Oh my gosh, I just learned this amazing thing.

Suppose I've had an argument with Ted. If it didn't go well or hasn't been resolved, I likely have this annoying pinging in my head that involves worry about how Ted feels about me, and worry that he believes false things about me. The worry is potentially productive, and is directed toward causing Ted to believe true things or to feel about me the way I prefer.

But other people's minds are really hard to control compared to my own mind. So before I reach out to change more distant parts of the world, I should say to myself, "Suppose Ted really does feel or believe exactly what you fear he does. Further, suppose it turns out that no matter what you do, you can't change his mind. How would you like to feel about how he feels about you?"


I've done similar things in the non-social realm (this feels close to "give yourself an escape route" and "bad news is good news"), but somehow I've never applied it to interpersonal conflict.

Mind. Blown.