Posts Tagged ‘memory’

I recently had my first experience standing in line to get a favorite author to sign his current book.  I’ve never done this before and had some somewhat skewed expectations for the experience.  So when it didn’t go as expected I didn’t end up making the most of the experience that was somewhat different than the one I had scripted in my head.  And then I spent the fifteen minutes driving home going over the scenario over and over in my head whilst beating myself up about how I could have managed things differently.  Fortunately Alicia, who has more experience with readings and signings, did an excellent job of pulling me out of that loop quickly.

But I think this is a good (or bad) example of something that I ran across in the Memory and Human Lifespan lectures.   Professor Joorden’s example is that when taking a trip he just assumes that three things will go wrong, so rather than obsessing over each thing that goes wrong he just counts them off.  The thing is, I had a great time at the reading that preceded the signing.  I want to remember the good parts of that overall experience.  But because I tend to obsess over my mistakes, if I don’t cut that out, the part of that experience that will be the clearest is the bad part.  This is classic elaborative encoding.  Pick at the problem from a whole bunch of directions until it’s completely etched in your memory.

On the other hand, I think there is a reason to pick apart mistakes.  Because if you never think about your mistakes at all you are doomed to repeat them.  But figuring out how to stop as soon as you’ve done the initial analysis and landed on a thing or two to do differently the next time seems to be the hard part.  I think one of the ways to make this easier is to find ways to practice important skills in more incremental ways.  This was one of the key takeaways from The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. where one of the examples was the claim that Brazil became a hotbed of soccer greats only after a street game became popular that used similar skills but in a much smaller space which allowed children to make (and correct) mistakes at a much more rapid rate than children that just played soccer.

So if I want to have a better experience at book signings, one way would be to go to more signings.   And going from once in a lifetime to once a year or even a few times a year might work somewhat.  But that doesn’t really meet the goal of quick iteration.  Perhaps a more effective idea might be to spend more time engaging strangers.  So if you see me on a bus anytime soon, watch out – I might actually speak to you!

And more importantly, I suspect that the right take-away from the book signing experience is to go back to enjoying readings and not spend the time and money on the actual signing part of these events if that detracts from the overall experience.  And to cherish the memories of the part I enjoyed rather than pick apart the part that I think could have gone better.  As obsessed as I am with learning, picking my battles is an essential part of the process.

Anyone who knows me is quite aware that I’m an atrocious speller.  The advent of the spell checker is nothing short of a miracle as far as I’m concerned.  And I’ve been writing in English in excess of four decades.  And I write quite a bit.  And I read even more.  Well, I finally figure out why this is so.  Okay, so call me slow (you won’t be the first).  The relationship between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is only marginally related at the best of times.  And it requires an expert in descriptive linguistics to even put forth a plausible theory about why we spell things in a particular way in some of the more extreme cases.

This doesn’t appear to be the case in Spanish.  I’m only six weeks into an introductory course on Spanish at this point so I’m sure as I dig deeper things will get more complicated.  But at least for now things are almost completely rational.  Hallelujah!  I may just switch permanently (sorry, non-Spanish speaking friends and family – we’ll figure out some way to communicate).  Had I known this at 13 maybe I would have taken Spanish rather than French in high school and kept it up.  Then I’d be writing this blog in Spanish (or living in Spain).

So what does this have to do with Multiple encoding?  First, multiple encoding is a term that I learned in this lecture series about memory but haven’t found a great reference for on the interwebs.   I like the term though, so I’ll use it.  Briefly, think about the different methods you use to etch information into your memory (which is generally described as coding or encoding) – these are things like repeating something verbally over and over again, trying to visualize something, embedding the information in a broader context or solving a problem related to the information so that it can be retrieved.  If you use more than one of these methods, this is what one would call multiple encoding.  Almost every memory trick or technique I’ve seen can broadly be described as multiple encoding although some rely most heavily on one method of encoding with minor support from others.

Professor Joordens uses the example of the “ROY G. BIV” acronym for remembering the colors of the rainbow — each color is associated with a letter, and the letters are encoded as a name.  Coming up with your own acronym would then add elaborative encoding to the system and make it even more effective.

And that brings me back to spelling in Spanish.  It seems like as I actually internalize the pronunciation (see, needed the spell checker for that word) rules for Spanish, I find that I can work at memorizing vocabulary from two directions, the spelling and the sound.   At least for me this has significantly improved my rate of vocabulary acquisition (this time auto correct took care of it).  And I think this counts as a form of multiple encoding as describe above.  The flip side of this is that it is probably part of the reason that I was making very little progress by doing a predominantly audio series, even one that was recommended and apparently pretty well designed.

The other aspect of multiple encoding that I’m finding to be pretty compelling is use of the link words system.  This is the idea that for each word in Spanish you find an English word or phrase that sounds like the Spanish word and then you build an image that relates the sounds like word and the definition word together.   As an example – The Spanish for RICE is ARROZ (pronounced ARROS), so imagine ARROWS landing in your plate of RICE.  As a supplement to other study, combined with the rational system that Spanish uses to spell that gives at least three, possibly four different memory systems a chance to grab onto new vocabulary and reinforce each other.  Much improved over just hearing the word, I think.  Of course once the word gets really embedded all of the learning techniques will drop away and I’ll just be able to retrieve the word, but that’s a bit in my future, at least for a broad vocabulary.

I just finished reading (actually listening to) the book Moonwalking with Einstein.  It’s a description of how the author gets involved in the U.S. Memory Championship and goes into great detail about how he studied to compete in the championship as well as many entertaining stories about the personalities of the current people on the world memory scene and the history of memory techniques.  I highly recommend the book and I’m trying to decide whether or not he convinced me to spend time working on specific techniques to enhance my memory.  I’ll get back to you when I figure that out.

The thing that stuck with me the most though was Mr. Foer’s description of what he calls the Okay Plateau.  The general idea is that for most skills, you learn rapidly for some period of time and once you’re good enough you don’t get any better.  His main example is typing – many people ‘practice’ typing for longer each day than I’m spending on most of the skills I’m currently trying to master.   Yet they aren’t any better than they were shortly after they learned to type.

Now I don’t know that I’m going to add typing to my list of things to improve.  Especially because once I started talking to friends about it the suggestion came up that I learn the Dvorak keyboard rather than trying to incrementally improve my QWERTY skills.  Which is interesting enough that I’ll have to do some further research to decide which way to go, if any.  And also probably a comment on how off the wall my friends can sometimes be, that’s what keeps life interesting, right?

Since I am actively working towards acquiring a number of new skills this year and improving some old ones, I am very interested in avoiding the okay plateau.   By my reading, the idea is that once you learn a skill sufficiently to meet your needs, you start ‘practicing’ in in an automatic way that requires less concentration but that also precludes much improvement.  The suggested methods for breaking out of this ‘Autonomous’ mode are to do three things.

  1. Spend more time practicing outside of your comfort zone.  An example is that the best figure skaters spend more time practicing the jumps that they can’t land while mediocre figure skaters practice the jumps that they can.
  2. Make sure that you are practicing in a way that you can get immediate feedback.
  3. Act like a scientist – examine what you’re doing and how you’re learning and try to figure out what you’re doing that is good and what you’re doing that is sub-optimal.  Of course, I still maintain that doing to much of this while actually practicing can lead to issues.

I think the above are all things that are worth considering while learning a new skill.  But here’s another thought on breaking out autonomous mode.  I think that changing between depth first and breadth first learning could shake one off the okay plateau.  My canonical example of this is my experience with yoga.  I spent a number of years practicing the standard bikram series of poses and while I think my learning curve didn’t necessarily plateau at a zero degree angle, it had settled into a very gentle slope.   For reasons not directly related to trying to improve my Bikram practice I ended up practicing a very different kind of yoga and lo and behold I started seeing breakthroughs in bikram poses that I hadn’t improved in months or even years, even though I was spending considerably less time on a weekly basis doing those poses.

I’m hoping that doing things like learning some music theory, ear training and singing while tackling the piano will help keep me from even entering the okay plateau of music.   Now I need to decide if I’ve got enough breadth in some of my other endeavors.

I am also struggling with the relationship between these principles and the concept of flow, as I feel like there is a contradiction between these two ideas that I can’t quite reconcile.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about breadth first vs. depth first learning and skill acquisition.  The terms are from graph theory and are used with reference to tree traversal.  If they don’t immediately resonate with you, take a quick look at the graphs on the right hand side of the breadth-first and depth-first search Wikipedia pages – just walk through the nodes in the order of the numbers, that will give you a  good visualization of the conceptual difference between the two.  In any case, the idea that I’m trying to convey here is that I have been a radically depth first person in both work and life.  But now I’m reversing course and going pretty extremely breadth first and I have to admit that it’s freaking me out a bit.

My depth first work:

I got my first job at 13 as a sales and support person at an Apple computer store.  I was lucky enough to land a college work study job writing music theory software for the Macintosh.  I haven’t held a single job since that isn’t computer related.  And furthermore, of my twenty-odd year professional career a clear majority of that time has been spent developing a specific category of programs (debuggers, profilers, and other diagnostics tools).  I have occasionally toyed with trying some kind of service job just to round out my resume, but I don’t really think that will happen.

My depth first life:

When I started doing something other than work in my mid-twenties, I jumped straight into Ballroom dance.  I spent the better part of a decade dancing many hours a week and competed at several different amateur levels.  Ballroom is actually a fairly broad category.   My first year of trying to learn how to dance I took a conventional route of trying to learn a breadth of different dances (Foxtrot, Rhumba, Waltz, Swing, Cha-Cha).  That didn’t work at all for me.  It was only when my teacher convinced me to do an exhibition routine that was entirely swing that I clicked.  I eventually broadened out and learned more competitive and social dance styles, but it was definitely a key to start with one and learn it to a certain level before attempting a second one.

I then took up Kung Fu and spent 2+ hours 2 to 3 times a week in class, plus quite a few Friday evenings learning lion dance, plus time on my own, which was non-trivial although probably not nearly as much as I should have.  Again, I did this for the better part of a decade.  Then I took up yoga – again 2-3 times a week for about 5 years now.  For those of you that may know my age and are trying to do the math, there was some overlap on either end of Kung-Fu.  I’m not quite that old.

In any case,  I’ve generally only practiced one or two hobbies at a time and have practiced them intensely.  And I’ve gotten reasonably good at them.  I always take it as a compliment when other students mistake me for a teacher and a further compliment when another teacher makes that assumption, and that has happened in all three of my depth first hobbies on many occassions.

Switching to Breadth First:

Now of course, without a full time job, I could probably manage a few depth first activities at the level that I was previously maintaining one while working full time.  And at some level that’s what I thought I was going to do when I started this adventure.  But it really isn’t how things feel at this point.  Take, for instance, music.  I set out to learn to play the piano this year.  But when it came right down to it I wanted to take a broader look at music.  So I am playing the piano every day.  But I am also running through an ear training course.  And I just started a singing course as well.  My old self would have allocated more time to piano and not broadened into other music related things until I felt pretty comfortable with my basic keyboard skills.  But I think there is some real value in broadening out earlier.  So we’ll see how that goes.

Of course the music thing is a pretty limited example.  One could make the argument that what I’m really doing is some kind of depth first traversal of a redefined domain.

But then there  is the Spanish thing.  And the tap thing.  And I’ve started learning a different kind of yoga.  And re-learning programming.  And speed reading.  And writing – both this blog and taking a creative writing course.  And there are the dozen other things that I want to start doing this year but haven’t gotten traction on yet.  For instance, I’d like to play with memory techniques.  I would like to take a run at Toastmasters.  I would like to improve my typing speed (and/or learn Dvorak).  I would like to take a run at writing fiction.  And the list goes on.

I’m hoping at the least that trying a bit of breadth first will help with my primary goal of learning and acquiring skills faster, as measured by the net number of hours spent.  I’ll be sure to report back soon.