A Morning’s Mnemonic Exercise

September 21, 2018

For exercise, I often take walks of several miles in the early morning. The environment of the Sierra Nevada foothills or Northern California suits this activity well, with plenty of natural areas, enough hills to present a challenge, and points that offer a near 360-degree view of the surrounding areas. The rising sun often greets me to the East, where in the winter I can see snow in the higher elevations toward Donner Pass. To the West, where the first rays of sunrise touch slightly higher hills, I can also see the elevation gradually dropping toward the Central Valley.

These walks give me ample time to roll thoughts around in my mind, and often I have ideas and inspirations I want to write down when I get back home. However, because I don't like to burden myself with a notepad, voice recorder, or phone, I have to rely exclusively on my own memory lest I lost those inspirations.

It's both a challenge and an opportunity to exercise my brain along with my body, and I typically use mnemonic techniques to jog my memory [pun intended] when I get back home. A mnemonic, in case you haven't ever looked up the word, is "a short rhyme, phrase, or other mental technique for making information easier to memorize." Using mnemonics leverages the power of mental association; the mnemonic might bring to mind any number of images or other words, which then trigger the memory.

Sometimes at home when I have just a few thoughts and don't have to remember them for long, I just make a point to repeat a few key words in my mind until I can find some paper. For example, during the two minutes I was brushing my teeth the other day, I had three thoughts I wanted to scribble down. Because I didn't have to wait long for the opportunity to write them, I just mentally repeated specific words. Once I wrote down only those words about two minutes later, along with a few details, I could write out the fuller thoughts at my leisure.

My walks, however, can last up to an hour, during which time I typically have many more thoughts and the key words start to mount! It's then that I need another layer of mnemonics to remember the key words themselves, so that those words can then trigger the memory of the thoughts I wanted to keep. Sometimes I have just a few letters to keep in mind, in which case I just remember the letters. But when more thoughts pile up, it's necessary to make another word or two out of those single letters.

Thus I arrive back home with these one or two words sitting in the forefront of my mind, which then give me access to a string of key words, which then give me access to the complete thoughts that I wanted to remember.

Those one or two words, then, have many layers of meaning beyond their standard definition, which is the part I find fascinating. Indeed, the richness of those few words were one of the thoughts that I had during my walk this morning, so I thought it would be interesting to record the whole process by which I built them up.

#1. My first thought on my walk was about some writing work I'm hoping to do in the future that explores, through fiction, potential technologies that could help with problems like carbon pollution, energy, and firefighting, to name a few. A way I might approach such stories is to use imagination to mentally and emotionally project myself to a point in the future where a given technology has already been realized and become widespread beyond a research lab or wherever it was first discovered (the discovery would be part of the story, of course). From that perspective I could then work backwards through the development, impact, and implications, essentially telling a history.

The idea reflects an approach I've used in my day-to- day work for Microsoft (I work remotely). At the beginning of a day I typically look over my task list, then mentally and emotionally project myself to the end of the day when that day's work is complete. In doing so I attune myself to the point in time when the work is already complete, meaning that all I need to do in the present is hammer out the details. This is especially helpful when there's work I'm not particularly enthusiastic about doing; this projection into the future, to the feeling of completion when any tension around the work has been released, helps me overcome my resistance in the present. It's essentially an exercise in timelessness, and is again an interesting way to approach fictional work.

To remember this thought, I focused on the letter P for projection, which would be enough to remind myself of the details.

#2. At almost the same time, I reflected on how fiction can help manifest such technologies for real by inspiring individuals who are well suited to do the necessary research and engineering. (I am not one of them; though I've worked around engineering for much of my life, my role has primarily been one of writer and teacher.) In June 2018, I attended a donor reception at the University of Washington and met a rising-star professor in the Computer Science & Engineering department, Siddhartha "Sidd" Srinivasa, who is working on advanced robotics. In his short speech that evening, he described how he was inspired to take up his work by one of Ray Bradbury's science-fiction stories, a story that imagined a possibility that Professor Srinivasa is now making a reality. (Read more about Prof. Srinivasa in the UW CSE Department's Newsletter, Most Significant Bits, Summer 2018, page 18.)

Hearing him speak, I understood that fiction, of the sort I hope to write myself, can serve as an inspiration and as a source of creative ideas for those whose dharma is to do the detailed work.

At times I've fantasized about doing that detail work myself, but I now realized I didn't have to. The specific thought that occurred to me on my walk was this: within an expanded sense of self–that is, within the sense of spiritual kinship with all life that I seek in my own spiritual practices–those other scientists and engineers are a part of me, a part of my expanded Self, and that this particular combination of body, mind, and soul, may have a role as storytelling in that expanded Self to provide the causal impetus for others in that expanded Self to do the long tail of research, investigation, and engineering. I as this little self, don't need to feel compelled to try to do it all myself, for it can happen within my expanded Self.

To remember this thought, I focused on the letters EP for expanded personality, making my total mnemonic PEP. This mnemonic is something I can remember easily because it's related to work I do at Microsoft with the Python programming language (PEP is an acronym for Python Enhancement Protocol).

A short time later I was thinking about my routine of taking morning walks, which is a necessity in the summer months when daytime temperatures around my home often reach triple digits. Now that fall has arrived, and the days are cooling off, I could alter my schedule to walk at different times. As I'm contemplating my next career in creative writing and other forms of art (such as music and visual arts), I'd like to give some of my best working hours, typically in the morning, to those concerns, rather than always giving them to my Microsoft work. Because I'm already part-time (80% or 32 hours/week), I should be able to devote some portion in this way. I might rise early and focus on writing or art rather than walking, and then taking a walk later in the afternoon when I need a break from technical work anyway.

To remember to think this through this idea of structuring my days, I added S for schedule to my mnemonic. But PEPS or SPEP didn't work as a letter combination, so I changed EP to IE for identity expansion to turn the mnemonic work into PIES, as in chocolate pie (something I should eat less of!).

#3. Next, I thought about my upcoming seclusion. Every year I like to take 5-7 days to stay at the Ananda Meditation Retreat and be completely disconnected from my normal routine, disconnected from communications, and otherwise free to just be in myself. I typically meditate longer hours, get more exercise, eat simply, and practice deeper awareness of God's presence during the day. I look forward to this time every year because it is very effective at getting me out of any physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual ruts that might have developed (and the habits that go with them). Because I usually take seclusion in early October, I could feel myself getting more attuned to that state of being here in the third week of September. This year, however, my seclusion is happening about a month later, in early November, so I have to wait a bit. But I thought, perhaps I can start getting myself into that flow now, ahead of time, or at least make the effort. That, too, is work thinking about and focusing some energy on.

Thus I added another S, for seclusion, to my things to remember. PIES because SPIES, another familiar with now rich with meaning.

#4. A big part of my seclusion "reset" is spending more time in meditation because I don't have to accommodate intersecting schedules with other family members. Still, I know that a stronger meditation practice is what helps break those mental ruts and helps me gain control over habits. I thought, there isn't any reason I can't invest a few days in meditating longer than I am now. Indeed, what typically happens between seclusions is that my meditation practice gets shorter and shallower, as other concerns barge their way in for attention. That's a gentle way of putting it. Fact of the matter is that I allow other activities to become a higher priority for me, which altogether misses the point because a consistent meditation practice is what gives clarity and focus, and thereby effectiveness, to those other activities. (My seclusion helps me back into that flow. Ideally, I'd take a week every six months!) So I thought, why can't I just sacrifice a few evenings of those activities, for a few days, to regain some of that meditative energy before my seclusion? It just takes a little conscious focus, which I think I can do.

Meditation, M, another detail to remember. I couldn't think of a way to combine M with SPIES, so I just made my mnemonic M SPIES, like a special class of spies, perhaps British ones from the MI6. Again, easy enough to remember.

#5. I was now a good mile and a half into my 3.5 mile walk, and my brain switched gears entirely. After a few random thoughts that weren't worth pondering more deeply, I reflected on our representative government in the United States, recalling a thought I've had a number of times in the past. Ostensibly, the House of Representatives is what gives the greatest voice to people. However, as our population has grown, we still have the same number of representatives in the House, which means that each representative has to serve orders of magnitude more people than when our country was founded. I wondered if anyone has ever done an analysis of how the House representation has changed over the years. Surely, when states were being added to the Union, the House was changing year by year, with more seats added for the new states. However, it's been rather static for some time now–my whole life, I think–and although we shift seats around every 10 years with census results, each individual citizen's share of their representative is getting smaller and smaller. Is it any wonder, then, that people feel less engaged in their government? A possible solution would be to dramatically increase the size of the House, thereby increasing a citizen's voice and influence in national politics. Whether such a thing could work out, I don't know, but exploring the history of the House seems interesting first step, possibly resulting in an infographic of some kind to highlight this gradually diminishing, or shall I say, deteriorating, representation. I might want to check that out someday, so it's an idea worth remembering.

Add an H now to my mnemonic, for house. How about H M SPIES, then, as in Her Majesty's SPIES or Her Majesty's Ship PIES. That works enough to remember the details.

#6. As I continued my walk, up the steepest part of the path, I recalled a conversation my wife and I had last night about the potential richness of ancient pictorial languages like hieroglyphics, and how our present use of emoticons reflcets that kind of communication. Emoticons are effective not only because of their immediate symbolism, but because of their potentially broad cultural associations. An emoticon that shows someone like Harry Potter, for example, brings in association if all the books, movies, theme parks, merchandise, one's own imagination of being in the wizarding world, and probably a whole lot more. That single image has a huge amount of shared cultural context. I find that thought very interesting because research in artificial intelligence and machine learning has, in the last two years or so, reached the point of being able to translate human languages in real time just about as accurately as people do. We’re approaching a time of the "universal translator" of Star Trek, a time when languages are no longer barriers to global interactions. Perhaps we're coming back to the mythic state of a more unified world at the time of the Tower of Babel.

Still, for as much as AI might be able to translate literal written and spoken languages in words, such technology is a long, long ways from applying the broader cultural context that would be necessary to understand and interpret symbolic language like emoticons. And perhaps that's where humanity is headed: learning to communicate more richly with symbols and images rather than just phonetic words. If that's the case, I wondered whether such a trend would eventually put us more in attunement with the ways of thinking and communicating that ancient peoples had when they used more symbolic languages like hieroglyphics and other as-yet undecipherable scripts. Perhaps as we practice symbolic communication ourselves, we'll learned to see more and more layers of meanings in ancient symbolic languages, perhaps finding new layers of meanings in hieroglyphics and such. If so, many new discoveries await us! (There's another idea to explore in fiction!)

To remember this thought, I added another b to my mnemonic for hieroglyphs, but H H M SPIES is a little cumbersome. Well, I thought, perhaps I can make it more like chemistry, H2M SPIES, to remind myself that there are two H's. My brains is familiar enough with chemical notation that it could readily accept that form.

#7, #8. Two more thoughts came close on the heels of this one about hieroglyphs. With my wanting to pursue artistic directions, there are specific areas of research and study that I need to spend time on, which means activities like reading must be more focused to those ends. I reflected on how much of my leisure reading has been in subjects of history, and in fact I'd looked at a couple of history books on my shelf the day before and decided that I could let them go because they weren't particularly relevant to my intended direction.

I wanted to remember this thought about being more particular about history, so I added another H to the mnemonic, which itself triggered the interesting thought about how I was, in this very moment, using a mnemonic device to exercise my memory without depending on written or otherwise externally recorded notes. I then started thinking about this experience of exactly how I was forming a very short mnemonic in my mind that was yet very full of meaning. Perhaps this was a common experience in oral cultures that lacked had to remember things in non-written forms. In oral cultures, perhaps it would have been very common for people to develop short words or phrases to remind themselves of a collection of ideas and concepts, or even their to-do lists, just as I was doing here on my walk. With enough people engaged in such a practice, I could see how different sounds, along with symbols that relate to elements of the natural world, would form a language of its own wherein the meanings of the sounds and symbols didn't have any immediate relation to the sounds and symbols themselves, but served as mnemonic reminders to the first layer of memory. You'd have to dig below that layer to get to the details, meaning that the sounds and symbols were encodings of meaning, not direct expressions of meaning themselves. Recalling John Knight Lundwall's work in Mythos and Cosmos, the sounds of the world and the images of the world–like those used in hieroglyphs–are essentially indexes into a database of shared understanding. Because it's all around us, the natural world itself serves as a database, and again, perhaps it's something we'll learn how to read someday in the ancient texts, Exercising mnemonic memory devices is a step in that direction.

So now I added M for mnemonic to my mnemonic itself, making H3M2 SPIES, a great chemistry formula that I could still remember clearly.

By this time I'd reached the high point of my walk, where I turn around and jog part of the way back (doing so gets my heart rate up a little higher than walking downhill). Somewhere I had another thought about something with an E, perhaps Eating or Energy, but I couldn't quite remember. I stopped jogging and walked a little to try to remember, but that particular thought eluded me. Not to worry. I trust that if it's an important thought, it will occur to me again, either in the same or another form. I had plenty enough to work with from my walk already!

Indeed, on my jog home I was mostly thinking about writing this very article about using mnemonic techniques to remember what was clearly a productive mornings' thinking. When I arrived home, I quickly wrote out the mnemonic and spent about two minutes recording a few details. Then I could relax in knowing that nothing would be lost, and that I could make space for new thoughts to arise. It was only later in the evening, in fact, that I had a chance to sit down and write out all the details as I've done here, and it's fascinating to see that I could clearly remember not only the specific ideas I wanted to remember from 11 or 12 hours ago, but also the thinking process that went on in my mind in the morning.

I wonder if so-called artificial intelligence will reach the point of being able to do something similar, but that's another thought altogether!