Indexing memories with a context for better recall

How we remember, Why indexing is important; understanding how our brain indexes information so that we can retrieve information more easily
Ideas and frameworks, reasoning from first prinicples. Neil Keleher.


Indexing Memories with a Context for Easier Recall

How does our brain (or our consciousness) index memories? If we understand how it indexes memories, we might be able to make it easier for our brain to index our memories so that we can retrieve them with greater ease.

Indexing memories via clearly defined elements

A simple way that our brain indexes memories is by using clearly defined elements of the memories themselves.

As an example of this, in Andy Weirs latest novel, Project Hail Mary, the protagonist, who has just woken up with no memory of where he is or why, is thrown into a revery. The revery is triggered when he sees a line of blood on the floor.

The line is red and it occurred as a result of a hastily removed and still inflated catheter.

Triggered by the red line of blood, his brain takes him back to a conversation he had with a colleague.

A line of red light had been found extending from the sun to Venus. Scientists weren't sure what it was. But as well, it seemed to be draining the sun.

The protagonists brain has obviously filed this memory under the index of "line of red" and when he saw the streak of blood on the floor, his brain retrieved that memory.

I've noticed for myself the same thing occur. Not the quickly removed catheter and a streak of blood. But, clearly defined ideas triggering memories that somehow relate to that idea.

So for example, recently I was trying to do something with my phone, program in a phone number.

I was laughing to myself because for some reason I found dealing with this seemed ridiculously difficult and yet I know for a lot of people it is easy, particularly younger people. And so I found myself thinking of my dad, fairly frequently asking me for help with some computer related problems.

And so here, the idea of having difficulty with technology was one idea that my brain had indexed those particular memories of my dad.

And I triggered those memories when I myself had difficulty with technology.

Note it isn't so much the wording that I'm using here that my brain used as the index, rather it was the clearly definable and recognizable idea, of an older person having difficulty with technology where a younger person might not.

While it's very cool that our brain does this, it's not always helpful, simply because we don't always know or remember the indexes that memories are filed under.

Storing memories in contexts

I've had slightly opposite experiences where I see someone and know they look familiar but can't figure out why.

As an example while walking, I saw someone who looked familiar, but I couldn't think of why or from where I knew that person. I later realized it was maybe someone who worked at a coffeeshop or other store that I frequented.

On other occasions I've bumped into yoga students who have been in my classes. It takes me a while to recognize them in part because they are dressed a lot differently but also in part because they are outside the context of where I normally see them, i.e. inside the place where I teach them.

And so this brings up another idea of how our brain indexes things. It places them in contexts.

I'll easily remember students in the classroom because I'm used to seeing them there. Some students I'd recognize more easily outside of the classroom because I'll have more interaction with them inside the classroom.

I teach at a gym and so I tend to see a lot of different students across a variety of classes. And so it's the regulars and in particular the ones who are more memorable that I have less difficulty recognizing outside of the context of the classroom.

Deliberately picking contexts

This idea of context is particularly interesting because a lot of how memory athletes make things that they are memorizing indexable is by first creating or picking a context.

As an example, in her second book on memory, Memory Craft, the author Lynne Kelly talks about a visual alphabet. She associates each letter of the alphabet with a particular animal or creature or character.

She has memorized this "context" and can then use it for temporarily indexing things like "a shopping list to a speech".

Note the context is the alphabet with its characterized letters. The characters themselves, indexing a letter, can interact with groceries or parts of a speech, making them easy to index (and thus, easy to retrieve).

Using memory palaces as contexts for indexes

A more longer lasting context (one that tends to have greater capacity) that memory athletes use is the method of loci, also known as the memory palace method.

Here a physical location or physical thing acts as the context. From Lynne Kelly's book: "A memory palace is a visualization of a trail of pysical locations that are easy to remember in order."

What makesthe method of loci or memory palace method useful is that these physical locations are clearly recognizable or identifiable.

As an example, we can use homes, former and current as memory palaces. One technique is to use each room for four indexes. So looking into a room from the doorway, the opposite four corners, top left, top right, bottom right and bottom left can all be used as locations. Or things within the room, a couch, a tv, the fridge or stove can be used as locations. Or if there are windows, a uniquely styled light fixture, or even a light switch, all of these can be used as positions and thus as indexes for storing pieces of information.

The reason this method is called the method of loci is that the positioning of the indexes relevant to the context is what matters. We can walk through these locations whether in reality or in our imaginations and thus visit each location in turn.

I should emphasize here that being able to remember these locations in order is important. The ordering, and remembering it, matters.

An important aspect is not simply placing information in each location, but having the information interact in some way with the location.

Why go through all of this trouble? To make memories easier to index and retrieve.

One of the ways in which memory athletes do this is by picking a context, a house say. The other is by picking locations within the house and associating information in some memorable way with each location.

To get a better idea of how to use memory palaces and other tools, do get and read lynne Kelly's book. But a brief summary of points about memory palaces is as follows:

Locations should be in a clearly defined sequence.

Each fifth place should be marked in a special way. If walking, use street corners, or if using a building, use windows and doors.

This is to ensure no information is inadvertently skipped and thus lost.

One other note is that while a specific sequence of locations should be used, once a palace has been learned, you can start anywhere within it. In addition, you can move through it forwards or backwards.

The Marilyn method

A really good example of this sort of contextualization and indexing is the so-called Marilyn method for helping to remember the pronunciation and tone of Chinese characters.

In this method, the idea is to associate the four tones used in Mandarin with different locations within each memory palace. So for example, first tone is associated with the front of the house. Second tone is associated with the kitchen or living room. Third tone is associated with the bathroom or bedroom. Fourth tone is associated with the roof or backyard.

Now it's called the Marilyn method because the idea is to associate movie stars with the final sound of each pronunciation. Male are associated with one group of sounds, female actors with another. Thus the sex of the character helps to determine the group, and the character themselves the actual final sound. (There are other groupings also.)

Different memory palaces (different homes) are associated with the first element of the sound. The idea then is to associate a character and a location within a particular palace to encode and thus index all of the necessary phonetic information.

So the actual memory palace gives the first phonetic element. The character gives the second phonetic element. The position of the character within the house gives the final phonetic element, the tone.

Mandarin Blueprint, building on the Marilyn Method

Phil and Luke of the mandarin blueprint method build up on the Marilyn method by turning Chinese characters, and elements of the Chinese characters into different movie props. The idea then is for the character in the location of a palace to interact with the prop in different ways, generally giving the meaning of the character as well as its pronunciation.

In their system, people represent the initial element of a sound. Different groups of people are associated with different types of sounds. Males represent one group, females another. Fictional characters represent another group while gods and leaders represent the final group.

Homes or other familiar houses represent the second element. The person's position within a home determines the tone.

Having struggled with tones in particular when learning Chinese, I was pleasantly surprised at how the Blueprint method was.

Stories and story highlights

Note that on one hand in all of these methods we have a device for contextualizing memories. The context is the memory palace, a place that we can move through from place to place.

Another aspect is the indexing, whether using characters or props. These interact with the memory palace or at a specific location within the memory palace to help actually index a piece (or pieces) of information.

With the "characters" interacting with props, and in the case of the visual alphabet, with characters interacting with various items on a grocery list or parts of a speech, another contextualizing and indexing device is stories.

Stories can be short or long but stories can also be a way of making pieces of information (or things to do) easier to index and remember.

A story is a description of events that leads to some sort of change. Generally they involve struggle and the resolution of that struggle.

One of the important points about stories is that we don't have to see the whole story form beginning to end, particularly when using memory methods. What we can remember or use to remember is a significant or outstanding part of the story. Such as a thin streak of red whether from a hastily withdrawn catheter or one that sucks the light from the sun as it extends from the sun to Venus.

Putting indexing contexts into context.

Note that in terms of indexing in general, the idea of context can make sense if you think in terms of various books. Each book will have an index for its own, and only its own content.

Each book is its own context, and its index is relevant to the stuff it contains.

Thus it can make sense for our brain to store indexes for information relative to a particular context.

Giving items their own context

Note that for myself, dealing with particular students more regularly, those students become their own context.

And that can be true of anything (or anyone) that we spend enough time with. They become their own context.

What does this context store? Stuff relevant to that person or thing.

Alternatives to memory devices

One of the points of this article is to say that we don't necessarily need to resort to memory devices for contextualizing and indexing information and things. There are other options.

As an example of this, when I was in the army I learned how various small arms worked so that I could fix them. I was an armourer.

Generally, for any weapon, the first thing we learned was how to pull it completely apart and put it back together again. Note that this was a physical thing and so each part had a specific location relative to every other part. And so what I learned, and my fellow student armorers learned was a sort of memory palace. This memory palace had as different locations the different parts of the weapon.

Having disassembled and re-assembled each weapon a sufficient number of times, we could tour each weapon within the confines of our own mind.

Later on, having learned the particular pieces of a particular weapon, we then learned what occurred within that weapon in different stages of operation. What we learned was roughly the equivalent of the mandarin blueprint method where an actor interacted with a prop at a particular location. However, instead of having to make up stories, we learned the sequence of events that occurred at each location within a particular weapon.

Note that we couldn't actually see these things happen. Instead, an instructor would talk us through what happened. We thus indexed this information within the context of the particular weapon.

A similar experience occured in one of my first jobs after graduating from Systems Design engineering. Working with a telehealth system, I learned all the major parts of the computer and how they interacted by first learning the parts of they system. From there I learned how those parts interacted while the system was actually working.

As a result of this, when I was on the customer service line, I could talk clients through fault finding procedures without requiring a manual.

In either case, learning a weapon or a computer system, creating a context and indexing system for each actual system, I could work with each system and fix it when required.

In terms of context and indexing, basically the system itself provided both the context for all of its parts and the index for the things that occurred within the system while it was actually working.

And so why bring this up?

It suggests an alternative to memory palaces.

But in addition, it also, based on my own experiences learning these systems, suggests a possible methodology for learning things.

And that's what I'll talk about in part three of this series.

Published: 2021 11 21

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