This week John Borthwick put out a call for Tools for Thinking:
People want better tools for thinking — ones that take the mass of notes that you have and organize them, that help extend your second brain into a knowledge or interest graph and that enable open sharing and ownership of the “knowl...
I got stuck over the weekend, so I totally missed Kevin Marks’ memex demo at IndieWebCamp’s Create Day, but it is an interesting little UI experiment.
I’ll always maintain that Vannevar Bush really harmed the first few generations of web development by not mentioning the word commonplace book in his conceptualization. Marks heals some of this wound by explicitly tying the idea of memex to that of the zettelkasten however. John Borthwick even mentions the idea of “networked commonplace books”. [I suspect a little birdie may have nudged this perspective as catnip to grab my attention—a ruse which is highly effective.]
Some of Kevin’s conceptualization reminds me a bit of Jerry Michalski’s use of The Brain which provides a specific visual branching of ideas based on the links and their positions on the page: the main idea in the center, parent ideas above it, sibling ideas to the right/left and child ideas below it. I don’t think it’s got the idea of incoming or outgoing links, but having a visual location on the page for incoming links (my own site has incoming ones at the bottom as comments or responses) can be valuable.
MIT MediaLab’s Fold site (details) was also an interesting sort of UI experiment in this space.
It also seems a bit reminiscent of Kevin Mark’s experiments with hovercards in the past as well, which might be an interesting way to do the outgoing links part.
Next up, I’d love to see larger branching visualizations of these sorts of things across multiple sites… Who will show us those “associative trails”?
Another potential framing for what we’re all really doing is building digital versions of Indigenous Australian’s songlines across the web. Perhaps this may help realize Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly’s dream for a “third archive”?
A friend asked me recently what some of the core principles are in my note taking and review system. I get a whole lot of value out of my note system and I love talking to notes nerds. But not notes for notes’ sake! For making an impact on the world, for the better.
Marshall, in looking at your cards, I’m curious how easy/hard you feel it is to remember longer portions of full quotes like your H.L. Menken example using only spaced repetition? I usually find it far more taxing and not as long lasting as using other more classical mnemonic methods (method of loci/songlines).
Piotr Wozniak has some material on creating/designing more concrete cards for spaced repetition that I’ve found generally helpful. I know that Andy Matuschak and Soren Bjornstad have some ideas, experience, and research in the space but I’ve yet to see more deep research on the effectiveness of these more specific practices at scale or beyond the anecdotal.
A trained astrophysicist, Dr Duane Hamacher is a lecturer in the Nura Gili Indigenous Centre at the University of New South Wales. After studying planets orbiting other stars for two years, his interest in the crossroads of science and culture was too great and he decided to complete a PhD in Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University. He researches in how navigating the boundaries between Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science can show how these ways of understanding the natural world are beneficial to both.
The Folkton Drums. Three cylinders carved from chalk about 5,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period. Decorated with geometric designs and stylised faces. Discovered, along with a bone pin, in a child’s round barrow (burial) in Yorkshire in 1889. #FindsFriday#Archaeology https://t.co/6IyUTN9bCt
It is far from the only source to exhibit this “oddity”. Biblical references from the time of King David exist as well as in Neolithic archaeology.
I’m increasingly confident of a hidden meaning here of which Western culture is unaware (it having been long forgotten) and which is likely that Indigenous peoples may have forgotten (read: had ripped and stolen from their identities during colonialization).
References to this lost knowledge in oral and written sources still remain as evidence of my theory: “communication” or “conversations” with rocks was literally a “bedrock” cultural knowledge underpinning many human cultures and ways of life for millennia.
I’ll define this “communication” more fully shortly as I continue to collect examples in the literature as well as examples in archaeological contexts.
I’d welcome other references from others should they come across them in any contexts.
Over the years in academic settings I’ve picked up pieces of Spanish, French, Latin and a few odd and ends of other languages.
Six years ago we put our daughter into a dual immersion Japanese program (in the United States) and it has changed some of my view of how we teach and learn languages, a process which is also affected by my slowly picking up conversational Welsh using the method at https://www.saysomethingin.com/ over the past year and change, a hobby which I wish I had more targeted time for.
Children learn language through a process of contextual use and osmosis which is much more difficult for adults. I’ve found that the slowly guided method used by SSiW is fairly close to this method, but is much more targeted. They’ll say a few words in the target language and give their English equivalents, then they’ll provide phrases and eventually sentences in English and give you a few seconds to form them into the target language with the expectation that you try to say at least something, or pause the program to do your best. It’s okay if you mess up even repeatedly, they’ll say the correct phrase/sentence two times after which you’ll repeat it again thus giving you three tries at it. They’ll also repeat bits from one lesson to the next, so you’ll eventually get it, the key is not to worry too much about perfection.
Things slowly build using this method, but in even about 10 thirty minute lessons, you’ll have a pretty strong grasp of fluent conversational Welsh equivalent to a year or two of college level coursework. Your work on this is best supplemented with interacting with native speakers and/or watching television or reading in the target language as much as you’re able to.
The experience will give your brain a heavy work out and you’ll feel mentally tired after thirty minutes of work, but it does seem to be incredibly effective. A side benefit is that over time you’ll also build up a “gut feeling” about what to say and how without realizing it. This is something that’s incredibly hard to get in most university-based or book-based language courses.
This method will give you quicker grammar acquisition and you’ll speak more like a native, but your vocabulary acquisition will tend to be slower and you don’t get any writing or spelling practice. This can be offset with targeted memory techniques and spaced repetition/flashcards or apps like Duolingo that may help supplement one’s work.
I like some of the suggestions made in Lynne Kelly’s post about Chinese as I’ve been pecking away at bits of Japanese over time myself. There’s definitely an interesting structure to what’s going on, especially with respect to the kana and there are many similarities to what is happening in Japanese to the Chinese that she’s studying. I’m also approaching it from a more traditional university/book-based perspective, but if folks have seen or heard of a SSiW repetition method, I’d love to hear about it.
Japanese has two different, but related alphabets and using an app like Duolingo with regular practice over less than a week will give one enough experience that trying to use traditional memory techniques may end up wasting more time than saving, especially if one expects to be practicing regularly in both the near and the long term. If you’re learning without the expectation of actively speaking, writing, or practicing the language from time to time, then wholesale mnemotechniques may be the easier path, but who really wants to learn a language like this?
The tougher portion of Japanese may come in memorizing the thousands of kanji which can have subtly different meanings. It helps to know that there are a limited set of specific radicals with a reasonably delineable structure of increasing complexity of strokes and stroke order.
The best visualization I’ve found for this fact is the Complete Listing of the 214 Radicals and Major Variations from An Introduction to Japanese Kanji Calligraphy by Kunii Takezaki (Tuttle, 2005) which I copy below:
(Feel free to right click and view the image in another tab or download it and view it full size to see more detail.)
I’ve not seen such a chart in any of the dozens of other books I’ve come across. The numbered structure of increasing complexity of strokes here would certainly suggest an easier to build memory palace or songline.
I love this particular text as it provides an excellent overview of what is structurally happening in Japanese with lots of tidbits that are otherwise much harder won in reading other books.
There are many kanji books with various forms of what I would call very low level mnemonic aids. I’ve not found one written or structured by what I would consider a professional mnemonist. One of the best structured ones I’ve seen is A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters by Kenneth G. Henshall (Tuttle, 1988). It’s got some great introductory material and then a numbered list of kanji which would suggest the creation of a quite long memory palace/journey/songline.
Each numbered Kanji has most of the relevant data and readings, but provides some description about how the kanji relates or links to other words of similar shapes/meanings and provides a mnemonic hint to make placing it in one’s palace a bit easier. Below is an example of the sixth which will give an idea as to the overall structure.
I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I’d found an online app called WaniKani for Japanese that has some mnemonic suggestions and built-in spaced repetition that looks incredibly promising for taking small radicals and building them up into more easily remembered complex kanji.
I suspect that there are likely similar sources for these couple of books and apps for Chinese that may help provide a logical overall structuring which will make it easier to apply or adapt one’s favorite mnemotechniques to make the bulk vocabulary memorization easier.
The last thing I’ll mention I’ve found, that’s good for practicing writing by hand as well as spaced repetition is a Kanji notebook frequently used by native Japanese speaking children as they’re learning the levels of kanji in each grade. It’s non-obvious to the English speaker, and took me a bit to puzzle out and track down a commercially printed one, even with a child in a classroom that was using a handmade version. The notebook (left to right and top to bottom) has sections for writing a big example of the learned kanji; spaces for the “Kun” and “On” readings; spaces for the number of strokes and the radical pieces; a section for writing out the stroke order as it builds up gradually; practice boxes for repeated practice of writing the whole kanji; examples of how to use the kanji in context; and finally space for the student to compose their own practice sentences using the new kanji.
Regular use and practice with these can be quite helpful for moving toward mastery.
I also can’t emphasize enough that regularly and actively watching, listening, reading, and speaking in the target language with materials that one finds interesting is incredibly valuable. As an example, one of the first things I did for Welsh was to find a streaming television and radio that I want to to watch/listen to on a regular basis has been helpful. Regular motivation and encouragement is key.
I won’t go into them in depth and will leave them to speak for themselves, but two of the more intriguing videos I’ve watched on language acquisition which resonate with some of my experiences are:
I was so pleased to receive this email from Sue Norman telling me how The Memory Code had been part of the ground work for this wonderful project on revitalising Aboriginal languages. The linked report is from the ABC. It is so rewarding to get endorsement from Aboriginal organisations.
Both Western culture and a tremendous number of indigenous cultures throughout history have used a variety of mnemonic techniques to teach students and help them remember a variety of knowledge. In her seminal work The Art of Memory (University of Chicago, 1966), Francis A. Yates indicates that this tradition in the West declined following the Puritan education reforms of the late 16th century led by Peter Ramus.
This decline is unfortunate as there is a lot of value and even entertainment in these methods. The difficulty of returning to some of these older forms of mnemonics or even revised and modernized methods is coming up with examples that a variety of teachers will quickly grasp and then be able to create lesson plans that will leverage the power of mnemonic techniques for their students.
The break in pedagogy is now so severe that most mentions of mnemonics I’ve seen in modern educational settings are viewed as one-off “tricks” rather than as a bedrock of teaching and learning techniques that they were in our recent past. (How our culture has managed to lose these traditions instead of the scala naturae is beyond me.)
In the Western tradition they were one of the major pillars of rhetoric. In many oral cultures they were integral to those peoples’ lifeways and means of survival to the point that colonizers over history have been known to specifically target, minimize, and even destroy the means for indigenous peoples to use them. My hope is that we might learn from our shared past and resurrect these methods.
This is where a very powerful example of mnemonics pedagogy from the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner Bros., 2004) may be a great illustration.
Before we start, I realize that the idea of mnemonics pedagogy is both a neologism and a new concept for almost everyone, so let’s take a moment to define it.
Mnemonics pedagogy is the design of lessons, hopefully in a seamless manner, that combines a lesson and attendant facts with the arts of memory (in the Western tradition) or songlines and various mnemonic devices (in the tradition of indigenous cultures). It could be considered a sub-area of instructional design. In it we might hope that the art of memory serves as the bedrock upon which the lesson is built in such a way that it becomes more natural that the students both understand the lesson, but also find it easy to store in their long term memories with minimal revision.
The design should be such that the art of memory is integral and demonstrated organically. The student or learner need not have a pre-existing idea of the arts of memory, but they naturally hear or see them occurring without the need to do the additional work of creating memory palaces, songlines, or doing numerical translations into words or images. At some point, after seeing many examples, the students will have all the attendant mnemotechniques and they’ll be able to more quickly and easily do the memory portion of the work for themselves either in real time, or after-the-fact when browsing their notes.
These techniques may already be practiced by those in curriculum and course design, particularly in digital spaces, though they may be using some “gut feeling” in their practice because they’re not explicitly aware of our shared memory traditions. Hopefully with a stronger knowledge of the space, the instructional design may be more intentional and thus more useful.
For those who are still lost on the art of memory portion, stick with me, and we’ll explore some by example. I’ll also provide some references at the end which will provide some additional description of other practices and methods which may help teachers educate themselves in these techniques and begin experimenting with them in their teaching philosophies.
There’s nothing difficult about any of these techniques; I find that they can be easily taught to even beginning elementary school students. In a moment or two, you’ll have your first one mastered.
Learning to ban boggarts
The scene in the third installment of the Harry Potter film series which we’ll focus on is that in which Professor Remus Lupin in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class teaches his students how to fend off the shape-shifting boggart. Boggarts take the form of what a person fears most. The charm for banishing them begins by creating a strong image in the student’s mind’s eye that takes the form of that feared thing in a silly or absurd context. This followed by the incantation “Riddikulus” (ri-di-KULL-lis) will cause the boggart to take the new shape and the laughter will take the boggart’s power away from it allowing it to be banished.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m including a clip from the scene in question as it provides some incredibly valuable context. Most of mnemonics occurs in the practioner’s mind, so in this scene consider the boggart and its various forms as something which is happening in the student’s mind, but through the magic of filmmaking, these images can be seen by everyone in the class as well as viewers of the film.
Those with a background in the art of memory may immediately see where I’m going with this. The remainder may be clueless—if this is you, worry not. A few small hints will speed us along and provide not only a beginning foundation on creating a broader practice of the art of memory, but the example will provide a memorable example of something that we can all see physically compared to the exercise which is usually only practiced in each practitioner’s “mind’s eye”.
Hopefully the additional creative visual scaffolding that the movie example provides will give us enough support to more easily imagine what is going in the thought process we hope to create in our students’ minds. When we remove that scaffolding both teachers and students will be able to expand their learning and study practices. Sometimes it’s having the ability to imagine what is going on in the art of memory that is the most difficult part of beginning to use it.
Lupin makes a suggestion to the first student and tells him that if he “sees it, we’ll see it.” The example is solid enough for other students to easily follow its creativity. Again, the wizarding magic in combination with movie magic allows the viewer to see physically what would otherwise be happening in each mnemonic user’s mind.
The example Lupin provides is incredibly similar to what Rhetorica ad Herennium would suggest. The Rhetorica ad Herennium (translation: Rhetoric for Herennius), formerly attributed to Cicero, but in fact of unknown authorship, is the oldest surviving Latin book on rhetoric, dating from the late 80s BC. It tells us in 3.22 (English translation by Harry Caplan (Loeb Classical Library 403, Harvard University Press,1954)):
Now nature herself teaches us what we should do. When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonourable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember a long time. Accordingly, things immediate to our eye or ear we commonly forget; incidents of our childhood we often remember best. Nor could this be so for any other reason than that ordinary things easily slip from the memory while the striking and novel stay longer in mind. A sunrise, the sun’s course, a sunset, are marvelous to no one because they occur daily. But solar eclipses are a source of wonder because they occur seldom, and indeed are more marvelous than lunar eclipses, because these are more frequent. Thus nature shows that she is not aroused by the common, ordinary event, but is moved by a new or striking occurrence. Let art, then, imitate nature, find what she desires, and follow as she directs. For in invention nature is never last, education never first; rather the beginnings of things arise from natural talent, and the ends are reached by discipline.
We ought, then, to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory. And we shall do so if we establish likenesses as striking as possible; if we set up images that are not many or vague, but doing something; if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we dress some of them with crowns or purple cloaks, for example, so that the likeness may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking, or by assigning certain comic effects to our images, for that, too, will ensure our remembering them more readily. The things we easily remember when they are real we likewise remember without difficulty when they are figments, if they have been carefully delineated. But this will be essential — again and again to run over rapidly in the mind all the original backgrounds in order to refresh the images.
Lupin cements the lesson to his students by having each come up with their own unique image which they associate with their fear. Having students come up with their own images will almost always be more interesting and more memorable in the long term than them using images that the teacher devises. While using teacher supplied images to start may be helpful from a demonstration perspective, the mnemonic associations will be more relevant, useful and long lasting if the student provides them.
The incantation in the lesson is a logical one as riddikulus is cognate with ridiculous, but has a quirky sounding pronunciation. This funny pronunciation will help the student to more easily remember it. I can also imagine students getting some of the sound of the word “kill” in the middle of riddikulus, and by association they may intend to “kill” the boggart with its use.
Few who have seen the film are likely to forget the worst fears of Neville Longbottom, Ron Weasley, Parvati Patil, Harry Potter, or Remus Lupin. (Go ahead and try it. Can you remember them all? I’ll bet you can.) They will remember them because the images which each conjures to banish their boggart are so well exaggerated, strong, creepy, and funny. Who could forget Professor Snape in a tatty old woman’s dress, hunched over clutching a purse, and wearing a vulture hat? I can almost smell what I’m sure are his elderberry wine-breath, patchouli oil perfume, and his musty stockings. I still chuckle at the concept of a monster sized spider attempting to remain standing while wearing roller skates. For the benefit of coulrophobiacs I’ll stand on apophasis.
While not as strong an association in the exercise, many viewers may be able to remember the order of the participants based on the transformations that occur to the boggart as each takes their turn. Perhaps a stronger grounding in a technique like a the songline or memory palace could have improved our example for this sort of retention.
These undeniably memorable images we see on screen are just the same sorts of images most good treatises of memory have suggested we try imagining in our minds’ eyes to improve our memories for millennia. These include the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Giordano Bruno among others. I’m sure I could also cite a ceaseless variety of elders, but the vicissitudes of orality versus literacy and the brutalities of erasure and colonialism prevent providing proper credit.
These writings and teachings admonish us to take objects associated with the thing we want to remember and exaggerate them, make them bigger or smaller, give them a smell, texture, sound, movement. Make them stand out. Make them funny. Make them absurd. These things make the ideas incredibly sticky. They make them hard to forget. They make them dead simple to remember.
As students in the exercise, the creative and absurd images are difficult to forget, so they’re more likely to remember the boggart-banishing spell. As viewers of the movie, the lesson works on a similar level as it makes it easy for us to associate each individual character’s fears with them.
From a pedagogical perspective, the boggart lesson is incredibly well designed because it builds the mnemonic structure directly into the exercise. The students are forced to use their creative imaginations to come up with memorable mental images. For the novice, there would appear to be only one lesson here: the charm. But the clever instructional designer using mnemonic pedagogy will also see a subtle parallel lesson in mnemotechy.
This sort of lesson should be much more prevalent at the lower grades from kindergarten through fourth or fifth grade. They should also be used in upper levels for those just acquainting themselves with these sorts of techniques. Later on in fourth to seventh grades a variety of specific techniques could be taught in turns over a month or so to help students learn the broader variety of thirty or so techniques they might employ over the remainder of their academic careers or even their lives. Some of these techniques might include creating memory palaces, songlines and related journey methods, the phonetic major system, peg systems, and mnemonic devices like lukasa and neolithic stone balls among many others. We might also incorporate into these uses art, music, and dance as well. One would hope that crafty students may learn to use the Guidonian hand and find that it’s easier and more effective than cheating by writing the answers on their hand because it’s less work and the answers are etched more indelibly in their minds.
For those new to the incredibly rich history of the art of memory, keep in mind that this example is very simple and concrete. It only scratches the surface of available techniques. I would hope that folks take some time to delve into the broader practice of mnemonic techniques and experiment with ways of embedding them into their teaching.
Having read a vast swath of books, treatises, and pamphlets on these techniques written over the past two thousand years, one of the best resources I would recommend for teachers is Lynne Kelly’s Memory Craft: Improve Your Memory with the Most Powerful Methods in History (Allen & Unwin, 2019). She outlines one of the largest collections of mnemotechniques in print along with examples of how they might be best used and in which settings. She’s experimented with a wide variety of these techniques and outlines how many of them might be used in practice including the idea of creating what she calls rapscallions to memorize things like multiplication tables or points of grammar in foreign languages.
Some of these techniques are also becoming the focus of some specific research as can be seen in an article earlier this year in PLoS ONE:
Reser D, Simmons M, Johns E, Ghaly A, Quayle M, Dordevic AL, et al. (2021) Australian Aboriginal techniques for memorization: Translation into a medical and allied health education setting. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0251710. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251710
I’m curious to hear from teachers and researchers who are familiar with these techniques. I’d love to hear examples of how you’ve used or embedded them into your lessons. How effective do you feel they were? Did you use them with spaced repetition techniques as well?
It would be great to create a resource book of examples for others to use in their teaching for lessons at all age levels and abilities.
I’m eager to chat about this topic with others curious about its use and potentially help design lessons that integrate them. I encourage you to reach out.
I’m also happy to provide more focused reading lists and suggestions to those who want to delve deeper.
If you’re curious to delve into the specifics of mnemotechy more seriously, I’m planning on leading another cohort of my course The Art of Memory soon. Feel free to sign up to get notifications.
A lot of this metaverse business sounds like what Ramon Llull was creating in the 13th century with his art of memory and combinatoric wheels. Admittedly, it was a single user space, but he was creating images in his mind and then combinatorically combining them with each other to create new external/imagined ideas, thoughts, and experiences.
It gets (a lot) complicated to see this without significant background reading and experience of what he was doing. (I think even Frances Yates misunderstood some of his intention in her magisterial tome.)
IndieWeb is doing some of what he imagined, but rather than doing it in our physical brains (memory), we’re doing together from website to website in a similar communal manner.
Emotionally expressive music and dance occur together across the world. This may be because features shared across the senses are represented the same way even in different sensory brain areas, putting music and movement in directly comparable terms. These shared representations may arise from a general need to identify environmentally relevant combinations of sensory features, particularly those that communicate emotion. To test the hypothesis that visual and auditory brain areas share a representational structure, we created music and animation stimuli with crossmodally matched features expressing a range of emotions. Participants confirmed that each emotion corresponded to a set of features shared across music and movement. A subset of participants viewed both music and animation during brain scanning, revealing that representations in auditory and visual brain areas were similar to one another. This shared representation captured not only simple stimulus features but also combinations of features associated with emotion judgments. The posterior superior temporal cortex represented both music and movement using this same structure, suggesting supramodal abstraction of sensory content. Further exploratory analysis revealed that early visual cortex used this shared representational structure even when stimuli were presented auditorily. We propose that crossmodally shared representations support mutually reinforcing dynamics across auditory and visual brain areas, facilitating crossmodal comparison. These shared representations may help explain why emotions are so readily perceived and why some dynamic emotional expressions can generalize across cultural contexts.
This portends some interesting results with relation to mnemonics and particularly songlines and indigenous peoples’ practices which integrate song, movement, and emotion.