Simple cues in complex schemes
Cognitive strategies for information management
Mnemonic uses of information. In this article, I consider the concept of memory simply as a set of information that must be managed for a determined and/or indeterminate period of time. The memory must not be overly complex, but should be integrated with other memories that are to it ‘contiguous’ by likeness, or by meaning, or by accident. It is the overall pattern of all these details that then, to the recovery of any of them, will pull back the full picture. What follows should be regarded also in relation to the rote repetition, as a list of accounts useful to turn a monotonous repetition of notions gradually into an active process of comprehension.
Association, abstraction and logical-analogical plans
Studying – as well as in many other “mental activities” – we bind images to abstract concepts. The association of an image (which often assumes the function of a symbol) to a concept is not a simple issue. Usually we remember with less difficulty the images linked to other images or images that have a natural link (that is based in turn on the sensitivity and imagination) with the symbols that they must represent. The mind makes an effort (unless the convention is ordered and controlled by a few, repeated composition rules) where (and when) there is an image with an arbitrary, conventional and abstract bond with the meaning that this image denotes. Even more: the effort is accomplished when, in the activity of remembering and thinking, you must constantly change your logical and analogical plan of reflection. The continuous variation from the abstract logical thinking to the analogical and imaginative one, forces our mind to a surplus of work and a continuous 'stop-start' that proceeds jerkily. Therein lies for many people the difficulty of learning those subjects that require a particular effort of abstraction.
The voluntary use of information
When we are introduced to a person named Jane often we simply say: «Hi. Pleased to meet you» or other similar phrases, but then we begin a conversation without ratifying the acquired knowledge (the name of the interlocutor). In this way we will hardly remember in the future that person is called Jane. Not even mentally repeating the name several times «Jane, Jane, Jane ...» may be enough. If we reply to the first greeting with «Hi Jane. Pleased to meet you» or – during the conversation – «Jane, what do you think about this thing?», the chances of remembering the name of that person in the future considerably increase. The second example of a situation involves a conscious use of information: the name Jane has not been communicated to us passively, but is actively used by us, and most of the required task is performed just by imagination.
Inner use of information
It is not necessary to act in the “outside world” for setting the information in our memories, just think of doing it. Therefore, you don’t need to repeat aloud the name of a person just met to memorize it, simply think of doing it. In other words: I should not think «This girl is very pretty» but «Jane is very pretty» and so on. If we have to memorize the Italian phrase «Per quanto tempo stai qui? / How long are you here for?», the fact of being in Italy and really asking it to a person is certainly helpful, but for our purposes, imagining that we are in Italy and asking this question to a specific person (e.g. a famous actor or, better, someone who we know personally) has the same effect.
Voluntary, inner and reiterated use of information
Let’s pretend that we are in Italy, in a particular city, in a certain place and at a very specific time, but in a completely different situation from the previous one in which we asked the question «Per quanto tempo stai (resti) qui? / How long are you here for?». Now we could imagine putting the same question to another particular person, for example, a girl named Carla from Florence that we met last summer. In this case, we maintain the phrase, but we change the situation, we adapt the same sentence to more and different situations. Changing the context of the same sentence we strengthen the syntactic structure within our cognitive system in a very natural way.
Voluntary, inner, reiterated and congruent use of information
Let's pretend that we are policemen on patrol duty in the city center of Florence and having to make tourist checks. We imagine we are asking Prince Charles for his documents and asking him how long he will stay («Per quanto tempo stai qui? / How long are you here for?»). Imagine doing the same thing with Jane and finally with other people again. Mentally we repeat the document check and the conversation with the Prince Charles in Piazza della Signoria, with Jane in Via Calzaiuoli and with a third person (though we always think about a specific real person) in Piazza del Duomo. These three situations reflect the meaning of the question («Per quanto tempo stai qui? / How long are you here for?»), they are in a certain way congruent, appropriate to it. This is true also from the topographic point of view, being the three places in a spatial succession among them. All of this increases the memorization of the sentences. This approach is very similar to what happens in learning a foreign language in the country where it is spoken. Even more, it is a rationalized version of the natural language learning.
The coherent diversity
The information that has to be memorized is then inserted within a diversified context, this latter should not be seen sub specie aeternitatis, but always in relation to other elements that make up the frame. The images with the concept (or the number, or the phrase or anything else) that have to be memorized must be different from time to time while allowing a certain congruence between them, namely a congruence able to recall the information that must be memorized. By referring to the previous example, in which we pretended to be policemen who checked the tourists’ documents, we can notice a semantic consistency with the question «Per quanto tempo stai qui? / How long are you here for?». Imagining different scenes with different characters (different people) and varying locations allows you to highlight what remains the same (that is the sentences that have to be memorized).
Another way to use the above principles is to do exactly the opposite: change the questions, but always maintain the same situation. The aim of these kinds of exercise is not to improve a rote kind of learning, but strengthen the semantic structures and cognitive schemes that are the basis of every articulated form of thinking and memory (but especially to the foundations of many subjects that have a conventional tie between sign and meaning like all natural languages, mathematics, etc.). Proceeding in this way also involves perfecting some very important skills (like selection) for proper learning.
Selection and redundancy
In the previous examples I have made a premeditated and pondered use of redundancy with the goal of varying and enriching a method of study otherwise mechanical and monotonous. I say redundancy and not simply “rote repetition” because it’s about reciting repeatedly the same sentence or formula in different contexts (or different sentences in the same context); so there are some precise and deliberate variations that make a real difference. Understanding the redundancy in the sea of information that we have to manage is fundamental for a good memorization since it’s impossible to remember everything. Voluntarily inserting redundancy in the mnemonic exercises is also a way of recognizing the redundant information in the vast amount of things that we have to learn. Identifying redundancy is the best way to select and discard the information: omnis determinatio est negatio.
Eliminating redundancy is the only method of simplification that does not involve a loss of meaning. Selecting involves a judgment about the information to which we pay attention. This is very useful to define precisely what we must remember. Selection, exclusion, definition: these are the basis not only for correct judging, but also for effective remembering. In addition to the training of coherent and voluntary use of redundancy, there are some other ways of improving our capacity to select information without a loss of meaning. You only have to think of every careful reading (that is a good tool to implement exercises and sharpen the faculty of judgment) or of the 5W rule that I exposed in a previous article.
The redundant memorization means storing the same data in different places of our target semantic system (be it a subject, a subject of study, a speech to be done in public, etc.), it indicates that we haven’t related the data directly to what it is directly associated. So redundancy is a good indicator of poor mental organization and a weak skill of selection. Rote repetition also has other psychological motivations: a student can repeat mechanically his/her homework to appease the anxiety of being questioned. It is also an ancient tool to improve concentration. Finally, and much more frequently, it is a means to avoid reflecting in the vain hope of being able equally to understand.