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.
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.