[Note: this is about humans, not about computers]
I wish I had a perfect memory... What if it is perfect? Why would I consider it not perfect? Hmm.. probably because I can't remember what I want when I want... But does it mean that my memory is bad?
This reminds me of my dad, who every now and then asks me to help him find a lost document. "How is it called?", "I don't know" - his typical answer. After some IT-intuition-based searching, I find a "new document1.doc" in an obscure folder, side by side with "new document1.doc.doc" and tens of other files that have similar names.
I can't blame it on the hard disk, can I? The hard disk has a perfect memory - it can provide the file when I ask for it, bit-by-bit, without a single error. The problem is in knowing where to look, i.e. in knowing the path to the file.
I will attempt to explain how this works with humans, and how our memory can be pretty good, if used correctly.
Memory is not only about storage space, it is about storage mechanisms, and it is also about redundancy.
Some pupils write everything the teacher says, others only write the essence. The former focus on writing, their goal is to keep up with the rhythm of the teacher, not to miss a bit of what is said. The latter category focuses on the content, and transforms the message before writing it down on paper. I am such a type myself, and after spending many years in academia, I can say that my notes are always shorter, and a lot easier to read. The other advantage is that I rarely have to review everything I write in order to 'actually memorize it'; it often happens that before an exam I spend my time doing something other than reading my copy-books.
- Imagine that you have a piece of information - X.
- X is a logical consequence of other pieces of information; i.e. you can find X if you put the other pieces together.
- Think of it as of a chain of interconnected nodes that have X at its end.
- If that chain is the ONLY way to get to X, then if one link in the chain is broken - you'll never find X again.
The original path is the black one. The path is a complete chain, so you can easily get from (a) to X. If you forget something - one of the links is lost; the red X is a broken link between (b) and (c). Once that is broken, you'll never get to X from (a).
The right thing to do is always build more than one path to a memory. If one of the paths is broken, you can use an alternative one to reach the information you were looking for. On the drawing, the alternative paths are marked with green and blue.
How do I do it?
If I have a thought, I play with it in different languages. If I forget the Romanian version, I can recover X by thinking about it in English, or by using my unique notation that uses charts, lines and dots.
Once I do that, I am able to re-build the broken path, and recover the 'lost' information.
Mnemonic chains in action
What is 'biology'?
path#1 - you remember the definition you heard at school: "science about life"
path#2 - in Greek it is Bios+Logos (i.e. life+knowledge)
Even if you forgot some bits of path#1, you can still answer the question (i.e. find X) by taking an alternative path; of course, it only works if you know Greek, or at least its basics.
path#3 - someone with a good photographic memory can remember a book with a nice cover-drawing they liked, or the fact that the biology teacher was pretty :-) so they can think "ah, it's about that pretty lady who talked about evolution of life & co... so it's that type of science about life"
There you go - three different paths to X. This is what redundancy is about - if one of the paths fails, you can use another one. Not only that it will help you find the information you wanted, but it can also help you restore the broken path.
Isn't that a waste of space?
Yes, redundancy comes at a price. I guess most of us see memory as a hard disk, and because of that all of us are familiar with the "low free space" message :-)
Our brain's storage capacity is large enough to handle all the stuff that life throws at us on a daily basis. There is a great mechanism that deals with this problem - forgetting. Forgetting is a feature!
With time you will get rid of the paths that are unused, or that are superseded by other ones. The other paths can be shorter; or they can be longer, but they contain segments that are shared with a lot of other paths (ex: if you follow the logic described earlier, you can figure out what the words "astrology" and "geology" mean, without reading their definitions).
What is the optimal strategy?
- Build as many paths as you can, by expressing a piece of information in other terms
- Don't worry about "wasting space", you will soon forget the paths that are inefficient
- If you speak multiple languages, take the lecture notes in a language other than the one the teacher uses. Not only that this forces you to build another mnemonic chain (one of them is in the original language, the other one is in the foreign one), but this also develops your linguistic skills. And there is another effect - when you translate, you try to optimize the sentence by using a more appropriate vocabulary, hence the resulting text is likely to be shorter.
- The next level is in optimizing the text at the logical layer, rather than at the linguistic layer.
Example: you did a terrific job translating the teacher's speech into English or Russian using your on-the-fly translation skills. You've used shorter words, so you only need one line of text, while your mates need three! That's a 3:1 compression ratio! ;-) But that's not all.
You can further reduce your workload by expressing the text via a series of flowcharts, hierarchies, arrows, or bubbles. It will take less space, and there's a nice side-effect: you build a couple of additional mnemonic chains. They are:
- the steps you took to convert text into a diagram (playing with words and symbols in your mind)
- the graphical representation itself (those with a good visual memory will find it handy)
- the mechanical work you did in order to draw the chart (those who have a good kinesthetic memory will enjoy this part)
Now that you've associated a thought with multiple things, you've built several mnemonic chains, either of which will bring you to the solution. That's the trick! If you're more into one type of memory (ex: visual, rather than audio) - you'll forget the chains you don't really like, so don't worry about free space.
There's one more thing left to say - forgetting is a feature when it's for an individual, but it's a bug when it's for a race. Don't get carried away ;-)
That’s awesome! I was already using the ‘compressing’ technique of shorter sentences (much of the material we get fed is repetitive). I intend to try the other suggestions too, especially the one involving multiple languages.
PS. New domain name – congrats! ;) I take it you still use Nytka for hosting?
Comment from: gr8dude [Member]
I’m glad you found this interesting. I am planning to write a series of stories with tips on writing efficient lecture notes; with sample screenshots taken from my copy-books (-:
Yep, new domain, and non-free hosting. Correct, the same provider, I chose Nytka for a number of reasons, I will soon write about this as well.
well, i think this methods will work greatly to most of courses. But what about physics or math? i don’t know how were your courses, but mine were almost totally based on demonstrations of some formulas with little text and at the exam you should rewrite them. Yeah, you could say that they are logical, based on previous formulas … but i am saying we wrote pages of formulat in one day :) And there wasn’t just one object, but about 6-8 with their own formulas and logic.. sometimes very similar :) So? You tried?
Comment from: gr8dude [Member]
Of course I tried, a great number of my courses were like that.
If you’re lucky and you have a good teacher, you will notice that for each formula they offer a real life example that explains how the formula works. Some teachers even make little demos with objects around them (doors, tables, books, people, etc).
Ideally, a formula in the copybook is surrounded with text with references to those examples, or some illustrations.
If you’re unlucky and the teacher doesn’t provide examples, you need to ask the ‘right” questions to force the teacher tell you more.
I know that there are teachers who don’t “allow” students to ask questions (how stupid, isn’t it?), but most often the explanation is not that the teacher is an asshole, but that the students are too lazy to ask. Asking is not wrong, not asking is.
The Russian version sounds better: не стыдно не знать, стыдно не спрашивать.
Most people in these parts have a mentality that makes them quiet and less likely to speak their minds. Some are like that because of “the regime", others are like that because they’re afraid to look stupid. Remember what I told you about “the spotlight effect” (the example with Hitler on the T-shirt;-) - most of the times nobody gives a damn, it is only our mind that thinks that everyone is looking at us and making notes that can later be used against us.
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