Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How Studying Mnemonics Changed the Way I Learn

I have found myself repeating in conversation that studying mnemonics has changed my understanding of “learning”. I want to express what learning means to me now.

I’ll start with the basics, and lead you through my development. Say you want to remember the list “quail, Mars, roller coaster”.

The first mnemonic technique I learned was “linking”, and using that, I’d memorize the list thusly: First I imagine a quail. Then I link it to Mars by concocting an imagined scenario that includes both a quail and Mars. For example, perhaps the war god Mars, with his helmet and shield, impales the pet quail I’m holding and and waves it about on the end of his sword, leaving me scandalized, grief-stricken, and suddenly empty-handed.

Then I link “Mars” to “roller coaster” (sans quail). So now I and all the god-planets are lined up riding a roller coaster, and Mars has his arms in the air and is drunkenly bellowing Gustov Holst’s “Mars” at the top of his lungs as we go over the hills, to the dismay of the other planets (and myself).

After that, I might link “roller coaster” to “quail” so that I can start anywhere in the list and still retrieve all the items.

The linking technique is cute and sort of clever, and it’s handy for memorizing lists (which is in fact, on rare occasion, a worthwhile activity). And there are lots of other clever techniques that do similar things, all of which ultimately depend on linking.

But far more useful than linking per se proved my experience of failure to recall list items I’d attempted to link.

I failed a lot when I first started doing this.

Suppose that instead of the links I just described, I imagined a quail sitting beside the planet Mars. That’s still a link between “quail” and “Mars”, but it’s not a particularly memorable link, and there’s a good chance I’d drop it. I’d get to “quail” and go, “shit, I know the quail was sitting beside something, but what is it???” So then I'd go back, consult my written list, and make a new link between "quail" and "Mars", hoping this one would work better.

Just as knowing grammar and vocabulary isn’t enough to be an inspirational speaker, memorable thought is deeper than the tricks of the trade. It’s discovering that depth that has made all of this mnemonics stuff worthwhile for me.

As I’ve said in the past, I found I remembered more, and more easily, if my imagined scenarios were concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, personally engaging, and story-like. “A quail beside the planet Mars” is at most one of those things. “Mars impaling my pet quail on a sword and waving it around while I cry about my loss” is all of them.

An even deeper mnemonic principle than the terms of System 1 language is conceptual confluence. Conceptual confluence is the way systems of concrete symbols can flow together with the structure and significance of the abstract concepts they represent.

If I’m memorizing a recipe, for example, rather than learning one long list of ingredients, it might be good to group all of the wet ingredients separately from the dry ingredients. (In case you’ve never baked from scratch: making a wet mixture and a dry mixture before combining wet and dry causes more even blending.)

I might also want to include the concepts “wet” and “dry” in the method of grouping. Perhaps the eggs, water, oil, and vanilla are all in a kiddie-sized blowup swimming pool, being sucked into a spinning vortex by a giant whisk. Meanwhile, the flour, baking soda, salt, and sugar are playing in a sandbox, when a spoon comes out of nowhere, buries them, and mixes them all together with the sand. Then a flood pours in from a kiddie pool and fills the sandbox with a sticky dough.

Now when I recall my recipe, rather than just having all the ingredients lined up on the table, it will be natural to put the wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls before mixing them together.

Additionally, the chunking of the information in my head corresponds to my external behaviors and experiences. As I go about my baking, associations with the relevant information lead me to access what I’ve stored exactly when I need it. “I seem to have laid out two bowls. Why two? Oh, because one is a pool, and the other’s a sandbox.” The mnemonic has a built-in trigger-action plan.

When I say that mnemonics has changed my understanding of learning, I mean that these deeper mnemonic principles have seeped into every educational thought I ever have. Any time I notice myself struggling even the slightest bit while trying to learn something - be it a skill or the point of a philosophical argument - I automatically reach for the structure and significance of the information, and try to express it in concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, engaging, and story-like terms - just as if I had dropped a link.

For example, I was just reading about control theory, when I came upon this sentence in the fourth paragraph:

“The thing we're measuring is the input (to the controller), the level we want it to be at is the reference, the difference between those is the error, and the adjustment the control system makes is the output or feedback (sometimes we'll talk about the actuator as the physical means by which the controller emits its output).”

There are six central abstract concepts of control theory accompanied by seven terms, all of which are new to me, just in that one sentence. “That,” thought I, “is an Important Sentence. If I don’t make it a part of myself, the rest of this essay is going to be nonsense.”

Note that I am not interested in memorizing the terms. I don’t need to rattle them off in a hurry as a list. There will be no vocabulary test with bubbles darkened by a number two pencil. I do not need to memorize this sentence.

What matters is that I arrange some part of my mind into a coherent model of a “control system” - one that includes all the major components, their relationships to each other, and their impact on the system - with associations that will call the relevant parts to mind any time I see a word like “reference” in the text.

I paused, looked toward the meaning of the sentence, and began to associate.

I imagined a pot of heated water sitting atop a coal-powered stove. I’m holding a sensor that looks like a cross between a kazoo and a remote control for a television. I use an eye dropper to put a few drops into one end of the kazoo control, which happily gobbles up its input while making contented yum yum noises.

In my other hand, I am holding a large reference book, and I refer to a page on which is written a temperature that is the reference for this system. The control... defecates, I suppose, a bit of ticker tape out its other end, declaring the temperature of the input water. I compare the reference to the ticker tape number, and if they don’t match, I press a big red button on the kazoo control, which makes a grating “errrrrr, wrong!” buzzer sound, louder for greater differences between the numbers, indicating the error.

Startled by the sound of the button, a mechanical arm with an ax-like shovel on the end (the actuator) begins to act, shoveling coal, feeding it into the stove, grumbling as though it’s a bit put out by all this work it has to do (this behavior is the feedback or output). It shovels coal faster the louder the sound. The stove, exhilarated by its meal, burns hotter, returning the water's temperature to the reference written in my book.

Ok. At this point, I have explained control systems to the parts of my brain (and yours!) that actually matter for real learning.

I can tell because if that crucial sentence were suddenly deleted, I could compose something equivalent on my own, even if the lingo that comes out isn’t quite standard.

But I wouldn’t need to write down an equivalent sentence anyway, because my comprehension is beyond words now. The words have done their job, and I can leave them behind. They’re just triggers. I have built inside my mind a structure that directly supports further understanding of anything and everything about control systems.

If it turns out that there’s something wrong with my understanding of control systems, I’ll be able to notice because my control system will fail to behave the way it’s supposed to, and then I’ll adjust the structure. (…I’ll adjust it as much as is needed to align it with the reality of control systems, but will otherwise leave it be. Hey look, a control system! Yeah? Maybe? I guess I’ll find out when I read the rest of the essay.)

This is just how I think about things now, when my goals aren’t being effortlessly met. I think like this when I listen to people explain things, when I reason about problems, when I consider gaining new abilities, when I hear a poem that I want to fully experience, when I want to communicate with other people in a way that will help them hold onto the things that I tell them.

And yes, I can meet twenty people in five minutes and remember all of their names, if I want. Or recite a memorized speech. Or count cards. And that’s fun.

But it’s all silly party tricks compared to the deeper art of memorable thought.

Bonus problem:

To think memorably, you need to associate with abstract concepts in was that are concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, personally engaging, and storylike; while encoding the structure and significance in your system of symbols; with links to experiences you’ll have when you most need to call on what you’ve learned.

What structure can you build in your mind that will support the application and development of your art of memorable thought?