Following popular demand. I added 3 new sections to the memory course. The new sections deal with markers, big history, and chunking. I am planning to add more sections to the course in the future. You are welcome to send me a request for new content.
Why is memory training so confusing?
Since we start our courses from memory training, our students often find it the most challenging part. In a way they are right. I will try to explain why.
Memory is the most basic, most fundamental skill in our pyramid of knowledge. Everything else is built on memory.
At the same time, memory is also the most versatile skill we can have. There are many kinds of memory:
- working memory, short-term memory, long-term memory
- procedural vs declarative memory
- visual, audio, sensory etc memories
- autobiographic, creative, and logical memory
- specific memory for language, sciences, protocols, fact…
And this is just the beginning. Each memory is different. The training is different, the goals of the training are different. And all kinds of memory are extremely useful!
Memory vs mnemonic devices
Memory masters often teach and train various mnemonic devices: mental palaces, mindmaps, PAO with various hybrid approaches… While these devices are extremely helpful and we definitely teach them, they are NOT the memory itself. As an analogy, Google allows us to access a lot of the internet, but it is not the internet. The dark web is x10 larger than the web we can access through the search engines.
Psychologists focus not on mnemonic devices, but on memory processes. What simplifies encoding and recall? And these aspects are better addressed in the new sections. Further subjects, like memory formation and memetics, will be discussed in the future.
History is beyond facts
History is great for training memory. You can and should use various mnemonic devices to memorize dates, names, and events. I argue this will take you away from the true beauty of history.
The true beauty of history is in its complexity. We can address and cross-reference historical information in a myriad of ways. States want us to become loyal citizens, but what is the fun in that?
When I was a child in Russia I learned history based on the Marxist approach. Anything that was not a part of class wars was not a part of school history. I think that more than a third of our history studies dealt with revolutions, and more than another third dealt with patriotic wars.
Then in Israel, we studied Jewish history in ancient times and in Europe, during and between the world wars, and in the state of Israel.
Neither Russian nor Israeli history discussed in detail the American war against Japan, or the American presidents and their role. But once I started to watch the history channel on TV, I learned almost exclusively the American side of history.
Big History as the perfect memory subject
We can cross-reference history in any way we want. Any time we address and reference the history in a different way, we discover layers upon layers of meaning. However, without additional tools, we do not even know what questions to ask. Schools do not provide these tools.
Our children learn simplified doctrines and facts supporting those doctrines. Some other children in some other country learn a different set of doctrines. This approach is boring…
How else can we approach history?
- We can try to think about which events happened during approximately the same period.
- If something strange happened in history, perhaps we simply do not understand the relevant technology.
- Each time we travel to a different country and visit museums, we get a very different perspective on history. What perspective is the just one?
- History often deals with long fights for limited resources. Which resources deserve fighting for?
- We are given multiple role models, leaders acting at their best or worst in complex situations. What about other leaders and other situations? Why do people act this way?
There are myriads of possible perspectives we can choose, and all the facts we know suddenly get colored differently.
How do we recall the facts that we learn? Usually, we start with something very colorful and important, like a quiz question. What are the reasons for WWI? Nobody really knows, but every good student has a mindmap of around seven reasons they were taught at school. The keywords “reasons WWI” access the mindmap. And often the visual marker for that is the assassination of the Austrian prince.
What if I asked you to list wars that started from the doctrine of guaranteed mutual destruction? Would that remind you of the cold war and nuclear standoff? The WWI? Maybe Jules Verne in his novel Paris in the Twentieth Century? The total war of the ancient Chinese warring states? Maybe even the ancient battle of Kadesh and the first recorded peace treaty?
This is obviously a different sort of memory markers. They can be visual or keyword-based, logical or creative, using any mnemonic device. They simply deal with a different attribute of the historical event.
The curse of dimensionality
Suppose we wanted to remember all historical facts we learn in a way that allows to address them by each attribute. For example: the time, the technology, the main events, the key people, the resources of interest, the key solution… Very soon we will get a very large number of details and markers to remember. That would not be practical.
So we start chunking. By chunking, I mean grouping together similar markers. Then we access the chunk by a marker, and specific events from the chunk. For example, what is the least of the most deadly pandemics?
Wait, the list of pandemics? This is not what we learn in any school. This requires learning a new way to address history. Suddenly we start attributing our hygiene to the cholera epidemics, the decline of the Roman empire to the Antonine plague… What do we learn if we search for the deadliest famine? Check out and be surprised.
Chunking as combinatorics
Usually, a list contains too many items, so it is hard to remember all of them. So we generate some hierarchy to facilitate memorization. We create groups and subgroups of 3 or 5 items. This is a very technical step, optimize for the mnemonic device we use.
Learning to chunk and create arbitrary taxonomies is easy and very effective. After all, we do it every time we visit a grocery store. But with history, we can apply this method to the entire human experience.
Once we generate hierarchical structures of the knowledge we have, we start cross-referencing the subjects. We can, for example, select some star events with links to and from them. Only these star events are not necessarily the events we learn at school.
During WWII the initiative changed several times. Two of such events were the battles of Midway and Stalingrad. Only if we think of Stalingrad, we do not get to very meaningful chunks of information. At least I do not do that. I kind of get epic duels of snipers, scorched earth policy, and leader vs leader comparison like Zhukov vs Paulus. With some effort, I recall the first massive use of Russian rocket artillery.
The battle of Midway, on the other hand, is more informative for me personally. I recall the changing roles of the airforce and code breakers, the masterfully built traps multiplied by luck, the change of the mentality of all participants…
However, for me, the more informative battles of WWII are the battle for Moscow and submarine warfare in the Atlantics. Not THAT generates a whole range of hyperlinks in my head. Much more information (too much for one article). Why? Because I learned this way. For somebody else, the situation may be different.
Creative vs logical markers
We can generate creative markers for historical events, but we usually do not have to. Imagining the event itself is sufficiently colorful. However, if we want to remember the reasons for the event, outcomes of an event, and similar information we can reuse logical symbols like some arrows for causation and different arrows for analogies.
The logical symbols are very simple, not very memorable, yet in conjunction with the main marker, they are sufficiently memorable for a lifetime.
Only when we do not learn something in school we need to build the logic ourselves. What were the results of Columbus discovering America? From my head I can think of:
- European transoceanic companies and empires were born
- Eventual subjugation of far east empires by European powers
- Slavery trade with Africa as a very painful memory
- The death of the native American population, mainly due to disease
- The world became bigger and eventually, the USA grew to a superpower state
- New food sources
- To facilitate navigation better astronomy and time measurement devices developed
What star event and its result can you think of?
Memory as a starting point
Memory is THE FUNDAMENTAL mental skill. We start from it, but very soon we continue with other important skills. Be it analysis, creativity, reading, writing, emotional anchoring, and diffusion, or other skills.
History is a very comfortable field for testing your skills. You can always use it for speedreading or for analysis. However, very similar skills apply to everything else that we do.