Friday, February 21, 2014

Learning about the Mind through studying Mnemonics (Part 1)


Mnemonics and the Brain Attic

"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic..." said Sherlock Holmes, "... It is a mistake to think that the little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent."
It was back in the late 1800s that Sherlock Holmes first described the brain as a sort of attic with limited space. He described it as so small and limited that information, such as knowledge of the solar system, would clutter the room and would have to be thrown out.
Despite how dramatic the fictional Sherlock Holmes was in his insistence that his brain attic was constantly in danger of being cluttered, his vision of the mind was actually somewhat true.
A groundbreaking article by George A. Miller found that our short-term memory was able to retain approximately Seven plus or minus two clusters of information.

Really? Just 5-9 pieces of information? It seems quite odd when we think about it. After all, average people are able to easily list off over 10 movie titles, 10 book titles, and all their favorite foods without breaking a sweat. Average people can even recall 10 digit phone numbers or recite the alphabet. While memory geniuses are capable of memorizing decks of cards and entire plays quickly and without great effort.

So if our brains are really that limited? How is it that we are capable of remembering so much?

Well, one of the main reasons is because of Mnemonics. While typically the term refers to "memory aids" or "memory techniques" that are used by people to memorize large loads of information. I find that the techniques work simply because they mimic the way the brain naturally processes information.

So lets talk a little about mnemonics, and how they mimic the way our minds naturally organize and process information.
I'm going to be referring to a couple sources, the first is "Mastermind" by Maria Konnikova, the second is George A. Miller's famous piece on short term memory, and the last is from my compiled knowledge of Mnemonics and the method of Loci.
Let's get right to it
The first thing we can note is that our memories tend to be rather limited. There have been recorded cases of people with a seemingly infinite "photographic memory", but for the large majority, our memories tend to have a breaking point.
For instance, lets say we have a series of numbers: 1, 8, 9, 4, 6, 3, 7, 5, 2, 2, 1,6
I want you to read it like this:  one, eight, nine, four, six, three, seven, five, two, two, one, six, and try to remember and recite it back.
You will most likely fail somewhere between the fifth and ninth digit. As if you had run out of space to place it.
This was essentially what was found in George Armitage Miller's article, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two". Basically through several tests, Miller discovered that our ability to retain information in our short term memory was limited to seven plus or minus 2 spaces. So in a sense, there is a limit in how much capacity our memory has, sort of like an attic with only minimal space.
So how is it that we are able to easily remember 10 digit phone numbers when we couldn't even recall 10 numbers? Well, it is because our mind often uses a mnemonic technique without our knowledge.
There is a caveat to the Miller study. Miller notes that our short-term memory doesn't store things in their component parts, but rather in clusters. Allow me to explain with an example.
Remember our number list up there? Why don't you take every two numbers, and group them into a single unit: 1,8 will become 18; 9, 4 will become 94, and so on. Go ahead and read them as: "eighteen, ninty-four, etc"
What you'll notice is that you're probably able to remember about 5-9 pairs.
So why is that interesting? Well, we might think of 18 as something made of two different components: a "1", and a "8". But our brain doesn't think of it like that. Especially if we say it as "eighteen". This is even the case with "ninty-four", which we think of as a mix of "ninty" and "four".
This is not limited to just numbers, we have plenty of "clusters" of information all around us.:The concept of "kitchen" is packed to the brim with pots, pans, knives, food, refrigerators, and the such that are easily unpacked; the same goes for sports like "soccer", and other activities.
It's as if our brain said, "You can put seven plus or minus two things into the brain attic". But each of those things could be a large box or backpack filled to the brim with other small items. The key is knowing how to unpack it.
This would be a perfect time to introduce more artificial mnemonics. Take a look at this:
I'm guessing that if you have a background in art or have taken an art class you have probably come across it at one point or another. This is a mnemonic cluster for remembering the colors (and their order) of the rainbow.
O- Orange
This is what I meant about "being able to unpack the bag". In order to utilize this mnemonic, you have to know
  1. The cluster itself
  2. What it pertains to (colors of the rainbow)
  3. The colors of the Rainbow
Without those components you will be hard pressed to decipher the mnemonic. As far as I know, ROYGBIV means nothing in the field of biology, or in a football match. Additionally, if you don't know anything about the colors of the rainbow (don't know their names), it will be hard for you to unpack it. All you will know is that there is a color that starts with R, one that starts with O, etc.
So this part should have been a clear demonstration of mnemonics, and given a taste of how our brain utilizes them. Next time, we'll continue talking about mnemonics, and how clusters can be formed with words.
Click here for Part 2!
If you're interested in George A. Miller's article. Here is a link to the Wiki pageIf you're interested in Mastermind by Maria Konnikova (I recommend it), look here

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