Muses, Memory, and Expedient Comprehension October 17, 2017 by Riston 1 Comment Practical advice for students and others seeking to increase their ability to master new subjects. Introduction This post is part multi-book review, part inspired speculation, and part technique. At the end of the post I also include an application of the suggested technique, and illustrate some of the insights gained while developing this technique. To provide the reader with a short background of the author of this post, my early years at college were spent studying music and psychology, and I have held a long interest in mythology and “esoteric” techniques, such as visualization and meditation, which are useful in improving quality of life. Music is a discipline requiring the intensive use of the mental faculty of memorization, and psychology has been invaluable to providing functional, working models of cognition and learning. After having to drop my college career for an extended period of time due to personal circumstances, I continued to write and study music, and a couple of years ago began to teach myself basic computer programming. I had initially been inspired to learn how to program while studying audio engineering at UNC Asheville; however, whether through lack of focus or self discipline, I did not actually initiate the endeavor for quite a few years after I had left. Not having performed much in the way of serious academic or intellectual pursuit for several years, outside of writing music and lighter reading, the autodidactic approach to learning computer science was a little daunting at first. Fortunately, during that initial period, I had other goals and responsibilities that were my top priority, so I did not feel bad about my haphazard motivation. Eventually, the fundamentals of programming began to click in for me, and I decided that I wanted to finish out my bachelors degree in that field. My resolve to return to school was set, and since I had already established a lot of completed coursework I enrolled at the junior level. The first two semesters were extremely trying, and while I did well, I constantly found myself riding right on the deadline. Constantly struggling with the deadline is a terrible and stressful way to operate at any task in life, and while procrastination defined much of my attitude in earlier years, I have in recent years sought to eliminate it entirely from my life. One factors holding me back from getting ahead in classwork has been a slightly less than average reading speed. I read a great deal, and I enjoy reading, but a discipline such as computer science requires a lot of reading through technical documentation, and in an academic atmosphere you have even more reading to do on top of that! I also, during the previous summer, initiated some intense long-term programming projects making use of multiple languages (as most programs do), and realized that I also needed to revamp my memorization techniques, in order to avoid having to rely on Google and Github to remember less than pervasive standard methods and their syntax. Towards the close of the summer break, I decided that I wanted to do something to enhance my learning, so I ended up getting two rather inexpensive kindle books in an effort to augment my learning abilities: Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley and Speed Reading with the Right Brain by David Butler. While I cannot say that I am, after two months, a master of memory or have improved my reading speed by a incredulous 300%, I have used the methods in these two books to synthesize an expedient approach to breaking down and assimilating information from texts, and from the application of these methods have gained a great deal of insight. The funny thing is that subconsciously many of these insights and methods have made minor intrusions into my consciousness over the years in various forms through various sources, it just was not until reading these books that everything kind of snapped together, quite like a hundred piece jigsaw puzzle suddenly snapping together with practically no effort. While the end suggested technique is not entirely new or original, I had in fact developed it through my own inference, and hopefully will present it in an enlightening and intuitive manner. Memorization Techniques Unlimited Memory is a fairly concise and easy to read book written by a grandmaster of memory technique by the name of Kevin Horsley. According to the author, he was plagued throughout his childhood by dyslexia and had little hope of ever being able to perform well in an intellectual capacity. He had at some point began reading books by Tony Buzan, who is credited with inventing the mnemonic technique of mind mapping, and was set on the path to becoming world-renowned for his ability to memorize information. While I have not personally read any of Tony Buzans work, the basic technique is presented in Horsley’s book. Horsley’s book covers two basic and very old memory techniques, the method of loci and the “peg” method, which in turn underpin the fundamental basis of Burzan’s mind-mapping technique. The Method of Loci, more commonly known as making use of “memory palaces”, exploits spatial memory which is a mental capacity commonly found in more highly developed members of the animal kingdom. Spatial memory forms the basis of cognitive mapping, a concept that has been experimentally verified through psychological research and is the cornerstone of cognitive psychology. The utilization of “memory palaces” has been in use for millennia, which was an invaluable technique for learning, digesting, and being able to recall information before Gutenberg formalized the printing press in the 16th century. The “peg” method of memorization was developed much more recently, but has also provided successful results. One of the basic principles of the peg method is build up a set of correspondences with each number, either through words that rhyme with the number (i.e. “one” with “bun”), or through equivocating shapes between numbers and letters and objects. The basic idea is that the practitioner turns numbers into associative pegs that can then be used to memorized lists in order. Horsley essentially expounds on varieties of these techniques throughout the book, and frames the information in a practical context by providing adequate examples. He also emphasizes proper mindset to approaching learning, such as cultivating interest in the material being learned. While performing these techniques will not make you into a master memorizer overnight, they will help you to perform feats of memorization quite quickly, and with diligence you are limited only by your own imagination. Reading Comprehension Another book which proved to be quite helpful was Speed Reading with the Right Brain by David Butler. I had never been very impressed with the notion behind “speed reading” gimmicks such as making use of rapid eye movements or skimming through words hoping for comprehension of the material to magically manifest from my subconscious, so Butler’s approach to increasing reading speed was for me an appealing concept. The emphasis of “reading with the right brain” is based, as one might expect, on the imaginative faculties of the mind. The primary focus of this work is on making use of the techniques of visualization and conceptualization to increase reading speed through increased comprehension. Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious, but reading and comprehension are only superficially different, they are in essence the same thing, or, at the very least, without comprehension reading is a fairly useless activity. The fundamental method that Butler uses in this book involves reading phrases instead of words. While some “speed reading” gimmicks advocate scanning line by line, which makes little rational sense, reading units of ideas instead of words or arbitrary lines of text is an highly effective technique. Like most techniques, this takes some practice, and every chapter of Butler’s book is punctuated with reading exercises. While learning to read ideas and phrases through conceptualization and visualization may at first slow down reading speed, the payoff is experienced immediately by almost automatically eliminating poor reading habits. Using the “right brained” approach to reading aids substantively to the art of comprehension, and by proxy enhances retention and digestion of the material read. The Muses and Imagination So, the reader is probably curious about the inclusion of the Muses in the title of this posting? Given the insights and techniques of both the aforementioned books, I have gained some insight into why the Muses, specifically the mother of the Muses Mnemosyne, held the level of veneration afforded to them by classical cultures. Mnemosyne, from whom the word memory is derived, was in classical literature the goddess of memory and imagination. She was considered to be the daughter of Uranus and Gaia, and from these two deities did she receive her attributes. Through her relations with Zeus (Jupiter, god of Prosperity and Philosophy) were born the nine Muses. Attributed to the Muses is the development of all the higher aspects of human culture, such as art, music, history, and science, though in modern common association they are generally related to poetry. Poetry was and has been somewhat of a universal constant for the transmission of all of the important kernels of individual cultures, including their collective wisdom, traditions, and mythical aesthetics. In antiquity, the substantive portion of a culture’s knowledge was transmitted orally, from parent to child, or teacher to student. This, in turn, required the ability for the individuals responsible for this transmission to be able to memorize vast sums of information as accurately as possible, and the techniques of verse and rhyme afforded a effective and entertaining means of doing so. As modern cognitive psychology has confirmed, learning is predominantly an associative activity, and in turn the art association is a creative act involving the imagination. We can, therefore, infer a great deal of insight from noting that the mother of higher culture is also the goddess of memory and imagination. Both of the books reviewed above affirm that the key to intellectual pursuits lie in the fertile grounds of imagination and creative association. Many people today view intellectual and technical subjects as “dry”, and this erroneous convention without doubt holds them firmly placed in relative mediocrity. Overall, thousands of years of encoded human experience has subverts the false dichotomy of “left-brained” and “right-brained” activities and people, and I posit the notion that the art of learning is necessarily both of these things. These misconceptions regarding learning are like cultural viruses that have been passed on for generations. A Suggested Technique While this technique is, in and of itself, not entirely new or unique, I did in many ways devise the method through inspiration after not-quite completing the two books reviewed, and therefore hope that perhaps I can offer a slightly different perspective on them. This technique is based around the notion of breaking down a text for relative memorization and mastery of the subject matter contained therein. My approach to this technique is based on the notion that memorizing the table of contents is quite like generating associative “pegs” for the information they contain. This notion can be further broken down by memorizing the subheadings of each section of the chapter, but this level of memorization is determined solely by the level of acuity according to which you may wish to memorize the information. This technique can quite literally be classified as a “Tree of Knowledge”, a cornerstone concept that pervades the worlds cultural mythologies in some respect or another. The book is the tree where the chapters and subheadings are its branches, and the leaves and fruiting bodies are the information contained within its pages. Memorizing the titles creates associative pegs where, using the visualization techniques involved in “reading with the right brain”, the ideas are able to bloom within a structural matrix of context and meaning. This also gives one the perceptual advantage of reading from the top of the tree, where one can maintain a complete, birds-eye view of the information being presented, and automatically every idea one reads remains in its proper place in relationship to the other material presented. One can also view the technique as creating a skeleton, where the body is allowed to flesh out from the bones, creating a complete, complex, and lifelike being. First Experiments For many years, a series of books had sat upon my shelf waiting to be read, a two-volume series titled Musimathics, written by Gareth Loy. I had wanted to read the two books since getting them, but had been waiting for the “right time” to endeavor them. While I will not get into the subject matter in detail here, suffice it to say that these two volumes are a very thorough treatment of the relationship between music and mathematics, an area that underpins much of my life’s work. The work is a multidisciplinary study, coalescing music theory, tuning systems, physics, acoustics, psychoacoustics, and digital signal processing into a veritable course of study. This work apparently took the author nearly a decade to complete, and during this period of time he developed a C++ style programming language for composing music named Musimat. With about six weeks left before the start of a new semester, I decided that it was finally time to crack into the rather dense two volumes. With the first volume, I memorized the table of contents just using the basic peg technique. I experimented with the other techniques I picked up in Horsley’s book, throughout this book, and found that I was quite successful in retaining the rather detailed information in the various chapters. Before I finished this book, which took me about three weeks to get through, I had decided to use the “memory palace” technique on the second volume, as I believe that the peg method is a little more efficient at memorizing singular concepts, rather than as a directory for more voluminous expanses of information. The second volume of the Musimathic series is exponentially more dense in mathematical concepts, although it does gently guide the mathematically less experienced reader through a detailed, explanatory introduction to complex numbers and the equations generally used to model sinusoidal motion, such as Euler’s identity. Over five hundred pages of mathematically dense reading material was a formidable test for my development of learning technique, especially for just starting with it. A good bit of the information in the first book I had encountered previously, although in that text much more detailed. The second volume contains a lot of material that previously I had only been superficially introduced to, although as a synth player I have frequently encountered and used techniques like granular, subtractive, and additive synthesis. There are some sections that I will probably reference in the future, but overall I think that before improving my approach to learning I would have floundered greatly in reading through these two volumes, and my retention of the material more haphazard than would be practically useful. Conclusion For anyone who has a wide variety of interests, improving their ability to metabolize volumes of information quickly and efficiently is of paramount importance. Being able to do digest texts quickly helps in maintaining the larger picture of the subject being explored, and reading too slowly and without certain memorized “staves” of information around which concepts can easily associate can adversely the individual’s ability to grasp the subject of the book. It is important to note as well that this approach to learning has been around as long as human civilization, and that the ancient Greeks codified the innate human abilities to do so in their myths of the Mnemosyne and the Muses. I believe that there are many parallel applications of this technique and the insights gained therefrom, and that and that an endless variety of methods can be derived from experimentation.