Information Representation, Understanding, Mnemonics, Information Compression

My brother got me these little notebooks – FIELD NOTES (website). Inside the package with the notebooks came a tiny promotional/marketing slip. It says something that resounds with me – “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” I kept the tiny promotional slip due to that quote, because it seems to follow a central theme in the way human brains work and a big part of the reason I have a blog: you remember things better when you write (or draw) them down.

Here are some thoughts on the subject.

What writing is:

  • Internal representation: If you can encode your thoughts into either words or drawings, you know your thoughts better than if you can’t
  • An encoding of your understanding/beliefs/knowledge at a given moment. It’s an encoding because it depends on your knowledge – someone who can’t read the language you’re writing in can’t understand it, and you may be writing things that even people who can read the language you write can’t read. If you get amnesia, you might not even be able to understand your own notes.

Representations and other ideas:

  • Graphs: your brain can attach related ideas like in graphs (graphs as in nodes and edges, not as in graph paper), even in simple graphs like trees or DAGs. The more you already know about a topic, the easier it is to learn something new about it, because it fits as a new node on the graph, connected to one or more other nodes – it might be the case that the more nodes that new node can connect to, the easier it will be to remember it. For example, it’s easier to remember that Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Google than it is to remember the name of a CEO you’ve never heard of belonging to a company you’ve never heard of.
  • Compression: the Aliens movie was pitched as “Jaws in space” – it shares a common structure with something that many people are already familiar with. The person who pitched the movie didn’t have to go into a long explanation about the movie. They got the whole idea across in 3 words by using previous knowledge.
  • Mnemonics: it’s easy to remember a simple sentence like “every good boy does fine” to remember that the musical staff goes “EGBDF”. The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas is designed to help you mnemonic-ize every bit of information by exploiting structure in information or converting it into a form that allows you to relate it to something you already know. Here is an example from their book, outlining the method of remembering names and faces:
    • “Most of us recognize faces (did you ever hear anyone say, ‘Oh, I know your name, but I don’t recognize your face’?). It’s the names we have trouble with. Since we do usually recognize faces, the thing to do is apply a system wherein the face tells us the name. That is basically what our system accomplishes, if it is applied correctly.”
    • The method first converts the name into something memorable. “…many names that already have meaning…immediately create pictures in your mind.” (And there is a method of converting unmemorable names into memorable phrases)
    • Then find something memorable about their face
    • Then attach the two together, using methods first introduced earlier in the book.
  • Structure
    • We have schedule books so we can see how pieces of information relate to each other in time
      • In police television shows when they construct a timeline, they’re taking information from different formats (e.g. free-form text) and re-organizing those pieces of information as they relate to each other through time. If the information were in a SQL database, then it would be as simple as “…WHERE date IS NOT NULL … ORDER BY date”
    • When we first meet someone and add them to our address book (or digital equivalent), we parse out their information into first name, last name, phone, email, etc. Our contact lists aren’t typically filled with unstructured text biographies with phone numbers and email addresses scattered around. Having the structure allows us to quickly look up specific pieces of information later – when you’re providing someone’s phone number to someone else, you don’t scan through an entire biography to find their phone number: it’s right there in the “phone number” field.
    • When pieces of related information are introduced by ignoring the common structure of those pieces and instead diving directly into the first one, it’s more difficult to assimilate that knowledge than if the “meta” information was introduced first and the different pieces were compared/contrasted so that the information could be compressed and remembered more easily. An example was when I was taking statistics – we learned about the Bernoulli Distribution before really learning what a probability distribution was. I had difficulty remembering specific details about the distributions, like their formulas and applications, until I created a tabulation of the distributions and saw their applications and formulas side-by-side and saw how they were similar and different.
  • Even as I write this, I’m structuring the information as a tree – each main bullet point splits into bullet points that are related to their parent bullet, and the bullet points on the same level are related to each other in some way.

An interesting result: I can read articles about topics I’m familiar with more quickly than I can read articles about topics I’m not familiar with. For the former, I can often skim through as background knowledge I already know is repeated, but for the latter, I have to look things up as I reach things I’m not aware of.

Things I haven’t figured out how to keep track of in an efficient format yet:

  • The things that are going on in the lives of people I care about. People usually have multiple threads going on in their lives, e.g. their relationships and their health. If I just write down some notes after speaking with someone and record a timestamp, then each of the person’s life threads will be jumbled together with the other information in those notes. Without modifying the notes, to go back and read to understand an individual thread, it will be necessary to read unrelated notes about other threads. If the information were broken out into tabular form, then each note could be broken out into sub-notes that would each contain a field that indicates the relevant life thread; However, maybe there’s a better way to structure that information.

What I like about computer programs compared to human language text:

  • A computer program or computer software is a computer-program-encoded set of instructions of steps to follow. Programmers have encoded their thoughts of how to convert inputs to outputs, into a format that a computer can read and execute.
  • If the output isn’t as you expect, then you know you didn’t encode your thoughts properly into that programming language. You can provide an input, run the program, and review the output to see if it’s what you expected. If it’s not what you expected, then you can review the steps of the program to find what went wrong. That’s the purpose of unit testing – create a well-defined set of inputs and outputs and make sure that the program matches your expectation.
  • Reading free-form human-produced text takes more effort, because you have to have an understanding of the world and the state of that world before the text occurred, and then mentally execute the text-based “program” and mentally modify your internal representation of the state, or produce new states (e.g. when first being introduced to a branch of mathematics you’ve never been exposed to before), as the text progresses. Sentences that contain too much information are difficult to process because we may need to read the sentence multiple times or stop in the middle of a sentence in order to mentally break it down into units of understanding. Programs define the variables at the beginning, whereas human-written text doesn’t usually introduce the world before it walks through the steps. If you write for people like you write for computers, then it may be easier for humans to follow your writing. (Although I recognize this blog post isn’t exceptionally well-organized – I just had a bunch of ideas and wanted to get them out before I forgot.)

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