What Do We Use Our Memories For?

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Saturday, 8.34pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. – Elie Wiesel

In my last post I looked at the components of note taking and the importance of working memory, note production and comprehension. In this post we’ll look at memory and how our need for it has changed over time.

The model above from Cowan, 1998 is a simple theoretical model of the way memory works that’s useful when you think about what you ask your memory to do.

First, you’re taking in information that’s coming at you from all directions. You can’t pay attention to everything. For example if you’re in a lecture hall and there is music playing in the corridor and two students having a whispered conversation behind you – you can’t listen to the lecturer, the music and eavesdrop all at the same time. You’re going to have to focus, tune out the music and conversation and listen to what the teacher has to say. However, this focused attention is capacity limited – which means you can only take in so much that you can remember as you go along. Once the teacher makes more than a few points you’re going to start losing track of what’s being talked about unless you are already familiar with the material.

Next, you have material that you can keep in active memory, but that is lost over time. For example, someone might have explained a process to you that you are able to follow. Let’s say it’s accessing a computer database and using different types of commands to do specialist searches. At the time you pick up that using special characters helps you do do certain things and that stays in your memory. If you were to come back and do the same task after a few weeks or months where you hadn’t practiced the approach you might find that you can’t quite remember – that you need a refresher.

And then you have long-term memory, the stuff that you’ve learned and rehearsed until it’s stuck in your head – the names of your family and friends, the songs you know word for word and everything else that you can access without having to look it up.

Before the widespread availability of writing technology if you had to remember something – you really had to memorise it. Stories of your ancestors, the myths and legends that made up your culture, the knowledge that your people believed in – they were lost unless they were remembered. In India, for example, sacred verses were memorised and passed down through generations. Very little was written down and so memorisation was the key to preserving any form of history. This was the same around the world and you can see this importance of memorisation in the Western history of the commonplace notebook – a place to keep extracts that you considered important. These were less about reference and more about an aid to memorisation – you could read and recall the material that was too important to forget, selected and curated from the mass of material that it was impossible to remember.

Yeo (2014) describes how the commonplace book as a tool was replaced by early modern scientists as their interest shifted from memorisation to data collection and recording. Notebooks became a place to collect data and record observations. You had writing technology that, for the first time, allowed you to forget and, in doing that, gave you the mental space to think.

Thinking happens in those other spaces – an area of interest where you focus on certain things. In many day to day situations we need to make sense of what is going on, taking in information, analysing what we’re collected and making choices about what to do next based on what we think. Our ability to take notes either helps or hinders in this activity

In the next post let’s look at the research on the production of notes and see if that helps.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Cowan, N. 1998, “Visual and auditory working memory capacity”, Trends in cognitive sciences, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 77-77.

Richard Yeo, Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. xvii + 398. ISBN 978-0-226-10656-4.

What Do You Do When You Take Notes?

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Wednesday, 7.22pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Neither comprehension nor learning can take place in an atmosphere of anxiety. – Rose Kennedy

In my last post we looked at the how the task of taking notes is as hard as playing chess at an expert level – it’s a cognitively demanding task. But what do you actually do when you sit down to listen and take notes?

Imagine you’re just listening to a person talking, perhaps in a lecture. People speak around two to three words a second (Piolat et al, 2005). You’re not going to remember every word but the sentences and phrases they say will stick in your mind for a bit (Cowan, 1998). This is verbal working memory and it’s sometimes called short-term memory or immediate memory.

Now, think of what you do when you take notes. While spoken speech is around two to three words a second writing is closer to 0.2 to 0.3 words per second, which means we’re going to miss quite a lot of content. Our ability to produce notes depends on how fast we transcribe information. We can speed up how fast we transcribe by using contractions, abbreviations or even shorthand, although few people learn shorthand outside of professions like journalism. We can speed up transcription even more by typing notes and these days you have AI systems that will transcribe on the fly. We’re getting closer to the point where we can have a verbatim transcription of everything that is said.

Transcription speed comes, however, at the cost of comprehension. It appears that speeding up transcription by typing rather than writing, for example, results in a lower level of understanding (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2016). The words pass through your ears and out through your fingers but little remains in your brain. Slowing down, paradoxically, means you have to engage more with the content. Rather than just writing everything you hear down you have to listen, pick out and remember what is important and write it down before you forget, while still listening to new material that’s coming in.

These three elements: working memory; production; and comprehension, seem to have an important role in the act of note taking. The context in which you’re taking notes, however, also makes a difference. In an academic environment, for example, the reason you take notes is to support your learning which is measured by how well you do on tests. Transcription fluency – how well you take down what is said in the lectures – seems to matter more than working memory – how much you remember (Peverley et al, 2007). But in other situations such as a company meeting you may need to keep track of several streams of thought and results may be different. Taking notes from a book or paper you’re reading poses different challenges yet again.

In the next few posts I need to go into these three elements in more detail – looking at working memory, production and comprehension and how that might inform approaches to developing our personal approach to note taking.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Cowan, N. 1998, “Visual and auditory working memory capacity”, Trends in cognitive sciences, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 77-77.

Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. 2016, “Technology and note-taking in the classroom, boardroom, hospital room, and courtroom”, Trends in neuroscience and education, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 139-145.

Peverly, S.T., Ramaswamy, V., Brown, C., Sumowski, J., Alidoost, M. & Garner, J. 2007, “What Predicts Skill in Lecture Note Taking?”, Journal of educational psychology, vol. 99, no. 1, pp. 167-180.

Piolat, A., Olive, T. & Kellogg, R.T. 2005, “Cognitive effort during note taking”, Applied cognitive psychology, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 291-312.

How Hard Is It To Take Notes?

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Wednesday, 8.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare. – Baruch Spinoza

In my last post I looked at why we take notes and ended by asking how difficult it really is to take notes.

Difficulty in this context really refers to cognitive complexity – the challenge our brain faces when we need to carry out an activity like note taking. But how do we figure out whether something is cognitively complex or not?

One way to approach the question is by asking how much of our available conitive resource – brain function – is being dedicated to a particular activity. An elegant way of doing this is by designing a dual task experiment.

It works like this – imagine you’re watching television and your child shouts for you. How long does it take you to respond? Now, if you’re watching something like a TED talk and taking notes, and the same thing happens, how long does it take to respond this time?

A dual task experiment is based on this idea and sets up a situation where you work on a primary task and then have a secondary task that interrupts you at random intervals. For example, your primary task may be to listen to a lecture and take notes. The secondary task is that each time a speaker makes a sound you have to press a button. The idea is that the more engaged you are in the primary task the longer it will take you to react and complete the secondary task. The control in this situation is how fast you do the secondary task on its own – that is just wait for the speaker to sound and hit the button when you hear it.

Piolat, Oliver and Kellogg (2005) measured how long it took to react to an interruption when taking notes and compared the reaction time to other activities. They found that you would respond in around 150 milliseconds if you were reading a text but that rose to around 370-380 milliseconds when taking lecture notes. Activities like planning, revising, translating and composition were even more demanding, getting closer to 400 milliseconds. What interesting is that notetaking was even harder than playing chess at an expert level – even players who were engaged in a game that’s considered to be pretty difficult responded faster than people taking notes.

So it’s fair to say that taking notes is hard to do. It follows that getting better at it must be something worth doing. But how do you go about getting better at note taking – what are the activities that are involved and are they ones that can be practised and improved? Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Piolat, A., Olive, T. & Kellogg, R.T. 2005, “Cognitive effort during note taking “, Applied cognitive psychology, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 291-312.

What Is The Purpose Of Note Taking?

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Monday, 7.37pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life. – William Morris

I finished my last post by thinking about why we take notes.

Our first exposure to the practice of note taking is in the classroom, where it’s supposed to support learning. We’ll come back to that in a while but it makes sense to look at other places where note taking is used and why.

Mueller and Oppenheimer (2016) give us a window into these worlds as they look at whether technology helps or hinders note taking in different work environments. Two in particular, medicine and law, have specific reasons for the way in which notes are taken.

A doctor’s notes on a patient help in two ways. They are a record of observations, diagnoses and medications. And they protect the doctor and institution from claims of malpractice. As such they are institutional records and there are controls over how they are made and where they are kept. If you’ve been to a doctor’s surgery you’ll know they spend lots of time tapping away at their keyboards interacting with systems, rather than with their patients.

Legal notes, on the other hand, are a different kind of beast. The law exists in its own parallel world. Things that make sense to you behave very differently in the world of the law because they are defined and used in particular ways. This makes it a problem when juries, composed of “normal” people have to make decisions on cases. If they take notes they may focus on the wrong things. The right things to note are the points made by the experts and in some jurisdictions juries are not allowed to take their own notes or are given the key points and notes that they are meant to consider. A lawyer listening to you will take notes of what is important in the world of the law, rather than what is important to you personally.

As a related profession police work is also about note taking and procedure because notes form part of the evidence gathering process. Notes and reports support or weaken the case and the way they are written matters. This leads, not unexpectedly, to notes being written to make the point that’s needed rather than what might have really happened.

What this series of posts is concerned with, however, is note taking in a business context. Note taking in business isn’t about learning, although it can be, and it isn’t about legal or professional responsibility, although it can be. It’s really about understanding a situation and taking action. The world of business is uniquely action oriented, a machine to direct resources to carry out activity. That activity may be efficient or inefficient, and how good or bad it is will depend on how well people understand and agree on what needs to be done. Not everyone in business takes notes, although arguably they should, and those that do use them to keep a record of what they’ve talked about and agreed. Hopefully it’s been a good discussion.

In all these cases it’s important to take notes – but is that easy or hard to do? Note taking is clearly quite a complex activity but just how difficult is it?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. 2016, “Technology and note-taking in the classroom, boardroom, hospital room, and courtroom”, Trends in neuroscience and education, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 139-145.

Increasing Memory By Increasing Dimensions

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Tuesday, 7.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s always interesting exploring something that has dimensions and layers to it. – Tahir Raj Bhasin

In my last post I looked at Miller’s 1956 paper that suggested the limit to how much we can remember is around seven plus or minus two items. But clearly we remember more things, more faces, more words, more situations so what exactly is he referring to when he talks about limits to our memories?

Miller was talking specifically about one-dimensional data, and you can think of this as data distributed across a continuum where only one thing changes. Take a set of numbers, for example. The numbers 1, 6 and 17 are of a single dimension. If you look away and try to remember these numbers you’ll probably have no trouble at all. What about 4, 7, 12, 15 and 19. A little harder? How about 3, 6, 4, 12, 33, 20, 14, and 19? How many did you get this time?

We seem to be unable to remember more than a certain number of things that only vary in a single dimension. We experience the same issue with lists of words, tones or lengths of a line. So how do we remember things like entire languages? The answer may have to do with the concept of multiple dimensions. Language studies show that phonemes, the sounds that make up language vary in around eight to ten dimensions which is why we’re able to remember the sounds that make up words.

This leads to the idea that adding dimensions helps improve recall. We’re less interested in memory skills in this context than the ability to take useful notes but the concept of dimensions can help us look at the practice of note taking and consider how we can do it better. Many of the ways in which we increase the number of dimensions are obvious when you look at your own practice. Using different colours for different types of information, one colour for notes another for actions is one method. Splitting content up into headings, subheadings and content is another. Spreading content across a page using diagrammatic approaches rather than linear text marching across and down a page. Grouping, clustering and connecting ideas. All these are approaches that add dimension to your work and make it easier to recall and retrieve information from your mass of material. It’s much easier to look back through your notes and search for labels circled in red than it is to read through closely written unchanging text looking for that note you made weeks ago.

A big part of this set of posts is going to look at the ways in which we add dimensions to our note taking practice in order to help us take better notes. But we need to ask ourselves why we take notes in the first place – what’s the purpose of note taking? In that situations and contexts do we use it and why should we try and get better at doing it?

Let’s step back and look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Miller, G.A. 1956, “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information”, Psychological review, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 81-97.

How Much Can You Remember?

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Monday, 7.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. – Elie Wiesel

It’s easy to sit staring at a blank screen waiting for the perfect line with which to start your piece. Experienced writers will tell you that you just need to start writing, put anything down because the first thing you need to do is get your mind moving.

John McPhee in his book Draft No. 4 and the essay of the same name writes about a hypothetical writer struggling with the start, blocked from beginning. He suggests starting the piece with “Dear Mother” and then writing about how frustrated you are, whinge all you like, and once you’ve done a bit of that you start writing about your topic and some of the words are relevant. And then later you go through your work and cut out everything that is irrelevant or whinging and keep what’s important.

I think that’s good advice but really you don’t have to just complain. On any large project there’s lots of ancillary material, the stuff that sits around the edges of the actual product of your creative work. That “stuff” is important – no one creates something perfect the first time. It’s the accumulation of all that stuff that eventually helps you create something useful. We don’t often get to see that part of a writer’s process because a finished, printed, perfect book hides all of that.

I was wondering about this as I went about researching my latest project. A single idea might require you to read five or six papers before you start to get a feel for the shape and size of the idea and what it’s trying to get across. Some days you have something to say. Other days you’re just reading and figuring things out. So should you just wait until you have something to write or should you just get on and do something – have that daily practice and eventually, from the mass of what you do, extract the bits that might make sense in a packaged form?

I think that’s a sensible approach and lines up with “literate” methods of creation which I’ve described previously. So I’m going to keep doing that – mixing thinking about the topic and the state of my studies with content that might make its way into a package and hope that works.

Now, back to the actual focus of this post, which is one of memory. What is memory anyway?

Any discussion of memory will probably start with George Miller’s famous 1956 paper “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information” one of the most cited papers in cognitive and psychological science. Miller described a set of experiments that seemed to show there are limits to how much we can remember, and suggested that the upper limit was around seven.

That clearly doesn’t mean that we can only hold seven things in memory. You hold many faces, many names, many types of data and information in your memory. You probably know thousands of words in your preferred language. You’ve learned that over time, however, and repeated and rehearsed that information in such a way that it’s in long-term memory and you can access it at will. Miller talks specifically about one-dimensional data and the capacity of the brain to process that kind of information.

For example, if you listen to a number of tones and are asked to then remember them and label them you’ll do fine if you hear three tones, ok if it’s four, but once you get to five to seven different tones it’s much more likely that you’ll get confused. Performance drops off rapidly if you’re asked to remember more than seven.

Miller wrote at a time when communications systems were being developed and so the nascent theories of communications technology played a part in the research. You might think that tone identification is a rather pointless exercise, but it becomes less so when you think about morse code. That’s a tonal system with two tones – a long and short one. You might be able to reduce the length of messages by using three tones but at the cost of increasing confusion and the changes of losing the message because you can’t transcribe it correctly.

One way to think about the issue is shown in the diagram. You have an input signal and an output signal. In the middle you have the potential for variation in the input and variation in the output. You could make mistakes in sending the message as when you press the wrong tone for your morse code character or you could make a mistake in taking it down. The extent to which the input variance and the output variance are correlated is determined by the overlap. If you have a poor sender and a poor listener their overlap will be low, with errors in sending and receiving. Conversely, with two expert operators you have a high chance of getting the message across. I remember speaking once to an amateur radio enthusiast who talked proudly about how a listener from across the world had commented on “how sweet his morse code was.”

Miller’s paper is over half a century old and later work has not really done much to build on those insights. It’s likely that seven is an optimistic number and the actual number of things we can hold is closer to three or four (Cowan, 1998), when you remove the ability to rehearse (repeat to remember) or to carry out long-term memorisation.

What we’re not interested in, however, is how much you can remember mentally but how to use note taking to help you remember more and that requires understanding the concept of dimensions a little more clearly. Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Cowan, N. 1998, “Visual and auditory working memory capacity”, Trends in cognitive sciences, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 77-77.

Miller, G.A. 1956, “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information”, Psychological review, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 81-97.

New Year, New Book Project – Take Note

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Saturday, 8.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered. – Edgar Allan Poe

I have a list of book projects somewhere as the purpose of this blog is to develop my ability to write book-length non-fiction pieces that are worth reading. I’ve decided that the next project is going to be on the art of note-taking, with the working title “Take Note”.

This sounds like a prosaic, pedestrian, perhaps boring topic. Is there material out there to fill a book on note taking? Will people even read it?

I suppose if I were looking at this from a real product and business point of view I would ask questions like “Who is this product for?” and “Will it sell?” But I’m not doing that because a good enough reason for writing any book is to “scratch your own itch”, because you’re interested in the subject and want to find out more about it. This is the material that I wished I had known when I was first starting out studying for exams at school, and later in the workplace.

The bigger answer to the question is that note taking is really about the art of paying attention. There is too much in our lives to remember and manage and the volume and velocity of material increases all the time. Being able to take good notes is only possible if you can allocate your attention effectively.

It’s possible that one’s ability to take good notes is correlated with later success, especially in knowledge work fields. It helps you learn better, pass exams more easily, understand what is needed from you in the workplace and help you be more creative, focused and innovative. Most of us aren’t in a position where we can delegate the job of note taking, but if you’re the one person in the room that can take good notes, remember what’s been talked about, what needs to get done and what’s the best course of action you’re in a good position to get ahead.

I’m hoping that my approach to the topic will be unique for a number of reasons. First, I can draw on research on how the brain works and copes with information to inform the ways in which we can design note taking methods. Second, the practice of note taking is something I have done for two decades and is effectively a form of action research. Rather than being a collection of stories I can draw on practical experience from a career of learning, working and now doing research. And finally I can draw on systems thinking and model-based approaches to make sense of the key points and arguments that relate to the field.

What this means for blog posts is that the next 80 or so posts will be the first draft of the book. The blog itself is a form of action research and an experiment in literate content creation – a set time each day for practice and reflection on the process of practice – and I will use the posts to talk about the process of designing and thinking about the book in addition to working on the content.

The one problem this approach creates for readers is that each post is related to the ones that come before and after rather than being self-contained pieces. Also it’s a long set of posts on a specific subject. Apologies in advance.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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