On explanation and memory

5 Jul 2012

I take pride in explaining things: I’m pretty sure it says that on this website somewhere…

I’m a relative n00bie when it comes to this blogging business, and one observation that I have already is that the occasions when I’m motivated to write something “ranty” are far more frequent than those when I feel inclined to praise something. I suppose I have to be careful - but this post falls gently within the former category.

I’ve been thinking about memory recently, trying to improve my own and working on learning, verbatim, a reading that I’m giving soon. So it was with interest that I read an article on Lifehacker (a regular in my online reading) on that exact subject.

It linked to an article about how to memorize verbatim text.

I’ve got more to post on memory, and, I’m sceptical about the technique the article outlines. Learn a passage of text by memorising the first letter of each word instead of the whole words? I don’t see how it’s going to help - why not reduce it further to a series of 1’s and 0’s, or apply a compression algorithm to reduce the number of letters still further? My brain doesn’t feel as if it works that way. That said, in the spirit of experimentation, I’ll give it a go.

What really got me was the linked article’s “explanation”. It seems obligatory to have some sort of scientific explanation for things, especially on this kind of blog post. That’s great, of course. Here’s a quote:

For example, consider remembering your home telephone number. Since this is a number you use on a regular basis it probably comes very easily to mind. When you try to recall the number some neurons fire of (sic) a signal down some synapses that carry a very strong signal to other neurons which do the same thing. The number comes with very little effort.

We go on to read that when attempting to recall less familiar pieces of information, it causes neurons to fire down “very weak synapses”. Is there a word for this type of explanation, I wonder? For me, at least, it doesn’t work at all. There’s a muddling together of anatomical terms, circular logic and what I loosely term “appeal to analogy” that leaves me cold. I find myself doing it sometimes, and have to stop myself (usually, I turn it into a joke). It’s easy to fall into; you start by explaining something by referring to something that’s easy to understand, and then posit properties of the system that follow from the properties of your analogy, and end up with an explanation that, on the face of it, seems reasonable - it fits with common sense.

You could replace the word neuron with the word leprechaun and the word synapse with “string of spaghetti” and the explanation would be essentially unchanged from my point of view. In order to shed light on the situation, we need to know the cause of the weakness, or the real meaning of weakness, or why the weakness is associated with difficulty in remembering.

Tags: explanation, memory