Monday, May 12, 2014

The Most Useful Mnemonic Technique

The other day, I was talking to someone about potential applications of biometrics to gaming and web based education. He mentioned a really interesting study I'd never heard of before. Roz Picard and her students have figured out how to track someone's emotions through heartbeat and respiration via webcam using changes in skin tone as blood circulates. I definitely wanted to look it up later. As I repeated back "Roz Picard?" to make sure I had it right, I made a mental note with the name and a brief description of the study, situated it in my memory of the restaurant where the conversation took place, and associated it with the trigger of opening my laptop.

If I'd not already had a fair amount of experience with the art of memory, it would have been much easier to whip out my smartphone and drop it in my Workflowy right then, and it would have been worth the slight disruption to the conversation. Given how many people object that they could "just write it down" when I mention mnemonics, I expect you might want to update on this about how quick and easy mnemonic techniques get with practice. Storing it in my brain cost less time and attention.

I'm going to sketch roughly what happened in my head when I made that mental note, because I want to illustrate the most foundational principle of the art of memory--a principle I've never once seen laid out explicitly in anything I've heard or read about mnemonics. (Why??? I'm not quite sure. It's very frustrating.)

The most practical insight I've gained by studying mnemonics is this: System 1 runs your memory, and it does not speak English. If you want to convince System 1 to remember something System 2 thinks is important, you have to translate it into the language of System 1. For the same reason you would not train a dog to sit by carefully explaining in words how to execute the procedure of sitting, repeating "remember about Roz Picard and biometrics" should not be your go-to method when you want to remember or learn.* System 1 is in charge of your memory, and it does not care about your proper nouns and abstract concepts.

Here's what System 1 does care about. It likes things that are concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, personally engaging, and story-like.

So I translated the content System 2 flagged as important into the language in which System 1 could actually store it. I imagined the very fluffy black hair of my friend Roz, and stuck it on my mental image of Jean-Luc Picard (to encode the name). I imagined his face flashing bright red, then white, and back again as his facial expressions cycled through intense joy, sadness, and anger while he laughed, cried, and yelled (to encode "you can measure emotions by monitoring heartbeat by watching change in skin tone"). To make sure I accessed the memory when I could do something useful with it, I imagined that big fluffy black hair protruding out from between my monitor and keyboard as I opened my laptop, and then Picard's color-changing, emotional face hovering in front of the screen. Finally, to increase the odds I'd simultaneously access other potentially relevant memories associated with the context of the conversation, I imagined Picard's head rolling off of my laptop--which is now sitting on the restaurant at the very table where the conversation happened--and knocking over my glass of wine, which then spills all over my conversation partner.

Because it's how I operate in real life and I wanted to give a real example, there were other things going on in that mental note besides "translate for S1". But the main thing I want to point to is the translation of "Roz Picard" and of why she matters. The central image is concrete; you could pick up that head and use it like a bowling ball if you wanted. It is clearly emotional. It is multi-sensory because you can feel the fluffy hair, you can hear Picard's voice, and you can see the changing colors. It's fairly vivid, since Roz has some pretty big and interesting hair. It's dynamic, since the colors change and the emotions cycle. The basic image isn't personally engaging, though you could easily make it so by putting yourself behind a video camera that is taping the color changes for the study; in the expanded version, I'm opening the laptop myself. The basic image isn't especially story-like either, but the trigger-action technique employed in the expanded version makes that part automatic (I open the laptop and the head rolls across the table and knocks over wine that spills on my friend).

So next time you want to remember something--or learn an abstract concept or skill--notice when it's mostly System 2 doing the talking, and see if you can explain in System 1 terms instead. It takes practice and maybe training to get really good at this, but I bet you'll see big results from small preliminary efforts if you give it a try.

*Yes, repeating things strengthens associations via classical conditioning, but you can do orders of magnitude better than that.