Monday, February 24, 2014

Learning about the Mind through studying Mnemonics (Part 2)

This is the second part of an article, I highly suggest you read the first part before continuing with this segment. You can find the article here.
In part 1, we were introduced to the idea that our brains are much like a little attic, and have limited capacity to remember things. Only by grouping and packaging ideas together into clusters, were we able to hold a large amount of things in our mind at one time.
So basically, the concept of "clustering" a core component to our ability to think about more complex topics and ideas. It allows us to hold more things in our short-term memory at one point in time.
Clustering is also not limited to numbers, in fact it is probably most prevalent within words and ideas. For instance, take this sentence:
"I tipped the waitress at my restaurant."
While it differs from culture to culture, this is basically a completely intelligible sentence to most people. The thing is, the amount of things you have to understand in order to comprehend this sentence is far exceeding the limits of our short-term memory.
Let's take the simple idea of "restaurant" for instance. For many of you, its pretty clear and obvious right? You might say: "A restaurant is a place you go, where you pay people to cook and provide you with food."
It is so commonplace that we don't realize that we have to understand several things before being able to grasp the idea of a "restaurant":
  1. The idea of eating
  2. The idea of food
  3. The idea of money
  4. The idea of a place to go
  5. The concept of payment
  6. The idea of cooking.
  7. etc

The idea of a "restaurant" is a cluster of many ideas and thoughts, and yet we can use it and refer to it without overburdening our minds. We can also pull the list of ideas from it without much effort.
Also, this goes without mentioning "waitress" and "tipping", which are also clusters in themselves.
So we know that we obviously use clusters on a daily basis and have them. But how are they made?
The Making of Idea Clusters
Let's demonstrate the formation of a cluster through conscious means by using a mnemonic.
Let's say we had a list of items that we had to memorize:
  1. Banana
  2. Trumpet
  3. Shoes
  4. Confuscious
  5. Beer
  6. Optimus Prime
  7. Bicycles
  8. Television
  9. Socks
  10. Raccoon
Take a look at this list of words. I want you to look at it, and then recite the contents of the list in the right order back to me (from memory obviously). Go ahead and try it before coming back here:
Having some trouble? It shouldn't be too surprising as every item in that list appears to be completely unrelated to every other item on that list.
But never fear, even the clusters of "Kitchens", "Football", "Star Wars" and "Space" were a collection of seemingly unrelated items to us at one point. Over time, we were able to formulate connections between all those unrelated items into a single cluster.
Despite the fact that all these concepts are essentially completely random and unrelated, we should still be able to unite and cluster them together into a single unit. We just need the glue to do so, which brings us to:
The Linking Method
The Linking Method is a mnemonic people use to memorize lists of things and their order. It uses visual imagination and absurd imagery to create memorable links between items in the list.
I first heard about the Linking method in an audiobook by Derren Brown, a famous magician/mentalist. The idea he presented was simple: link the objects together one after another as if they were links in a chain; As we keep pulling on the chain, each item will remind us of the next item, which will remind of the next one after that.
Allow me to demonstrate. We will start with the first two items on our list:
1.Banana2. Trumpet
I connect these two items together by imaging something bizarre or absurd involving the two:
I picture a banana, and imagine peeling it back. But instead of seeing the inner fruit of a banana, I instead see a trumpet.
The image is so crazy and strange that I can't help but remember it. With that, I would have connected two links. The next step would be to link the second link with the third:
Again, I imagine an absurd image that involves the two items:
After the trumpet is peeled from the banana peel, I zoom in on the trumpet buttons, and imagine them fitted with crazy slippers, high heels, and tennis shoes.
This crazy and yet memorable image would help me connect the second and the third items together. I would continue this process for the third and fourth, and then the fourth and fifth, and continue likewise until I finished with the list.
Note: I personally try to imagine one item leaving hints to the next item, or even morphing and becoming another. You should try out a few methods and see what works best for you.
My disgusting Amalgamation
After I finish the list, I would begin with the first item of the list and think back on the absurd image I created. The banana would then remind me of trumpet, which would remind me of shoes, which would remind me of Confuscious, and so on.
  • Banana-> Trumpet
  • Trumpet-> Shoes
  • Shoes->Confuscious
  • etc
In the end, you would have created a sort of imaginary filmroll, with which we could come up with things like "beer", "optimus prime", and "socks" from the imaginary image of a "banana".
Go ahead and try to remember the list again. You should be better equipped for the task now.
We've in essence, created a sort of artificial cluster. Now if I mention "The list", you're very likely to be able to rattle off the contents such as "Confuscious", or "Optimus prime".
What Does this Mean?
So what have we learned from all this? Well, we should have begun to understand that it is through the clustering of ideas that we are able to hold more complex thoughts and ideas in our head, which help us understand more complex topics.
Additionally, we've learned how to make artificial clusters through the linking method and imagery.
One thing to note, however, is that the linking method works for a reason: absurd and bizarre imagery appeals to our minds and is very well retained. Mnemonics only work because they take advantage of the way our minds are naturally organized. The Linking method utilizes the fact that our minds put a great importance on retaining memories that are strange and absurd.
A mnemonic known as the Method of Loci, or Memory Mansion, was utilized by the Ancient Greeks, and will be the topic for the next part.
Until then.
If you're interested in Derren Brown and his Mnemonics Podcasts, click here for his wiki, and here for his website.

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