Friday, July 6, 2012

Making Historical Figures (And Others By Extension) More Exciting

I enjoy learning about history, but often I have a problem with keeping different historical figures separate in my mind. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates are three different philosophers, but for each of them I imagine a guy with a beard reading a book. Once you learn more about their contributions to history, you can help make them a bit more distinct. For example, instead of Plato being a bearded guy, you can say "Plato is the bearded guy that helped establish the teaching of the trinity among those professing Christianity." While this can be "linked" to Plato, it still doesn't give Plato any visual distinction over the other two philosophers, you only get a bit more information about him.

To fix this, you could go to Google Image search and find various paintings, statues and other depictions of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, but you are likely to find pictures of old guys with beards with only a mild amount of variation. While this might do the trick, my goal is to keep them visually separate in my mind. If you wish to remember how Plato, Aristotle and Socrates were depicted, you could create flashcards saying "Who is this piece of art depicting? [...] Socrates." But if the goal is to keep them separate in your mind, there is something (I have found to be) even more effective to do:

About 5 weeks ago, I found a web site called As the name suggests, it is a web site where talented people post concept art to be used in various movies, animated shorts, games, etc. While some of the concept art is used for an actual product, much of the art never goes beyond the conceptual period. Maybe the game or movie never gets enough momentum to see the light of day, or maybe the concept art is just a creative exercise. Regardless, the web site is a treasure trove of memorable looking characters, robots, landscapes, etc. Recently I have been going through their forums and saving pictures of anything remotely interesting I've found. I'm trying to organize them into different folders such as "male characters," "female characters," "robots," "villains," etc. As I encounter a historical figure that I don't know very well or cannot visualize easily, I go into one of those folders and find a piece of cool concept art and use it to represent that historical figure.

While it is certainly unrealistic to think of Plato as a cyberpunk samurai or video game protagonist, the purpose is to make him distinct in your mind. Associating some (even bizarre) sort of picture with someone will keep him/her distinct from other similar people. Also, if you prefer your mental image of someone to be more realistic, Flickr is a very good resource for simple pictures of people. Just search for "male" or "female" and organize them by date posted (You are more likely to get candid and "unremarkable" shots of people). Find a picture that you like and create a topic in Supermemo saying "Who is this guy? Plato." and look at it every day until you are sure you have established a solid enough mental "link" with the two. For me, it has taken anywhere from 3 to 7 days for any given picture-person image to successfully "link."

Some might raise to the objection "Shouldn't you imagine your own image of a person? Why do you have to be unoriginal and use someone else's work?" While creating your own image of someone is a possibility, I have recently begun viewing artwork, music, movies, etc. as potential mental "shortcuts" that I can remix as I see fit in my memory. Someone else has already captured a really neat idea (Picture, music, etc.) through many hours of effort and revision. When you're trying to use established concepts as mental anchors, however, the priority shifts; no longer is originality the most important thing. Instead one's focus becomes the efficient remixing of established concepts in the mind; the "cognitive extension" of the "remix culture" we find ourselves in.

Your past experiences and memories are an essential part (Some would argue the most essential) part of who you are. If you're going to efficiently keep information that makes you a better person (Whatever one considers "culture"), you might as well have fun while acquiring and storing that information by using other people's work.

In conclusion: That guy in red? That is my mental image for Plato. Why? Because it's useful and makes thinking more fun.


  1. Whoa, that really is a fabulous website for SM artwork...I'm getting so many ideas! Thanks! :D

  2. Sorry to skip past your suggestion, but in the case of Aristotle and Plato its enough for me to imagine that painting. Plato is older, indicating he is the teacher. Aristotle is younger, being Plato's foremost student. Plato is pointing to the heavens, the main dividing line between his epistemology from Aristotle. Plato argues that we have recollections of ideal forms of knowledge that we arrive at from turning away from sensory evidence and engaging in pure contemplation. Aristotle is pointing at the earth, as if to say "knowledge can be arrived at through the senses and empirical evidence." Their views on epistemology are evident through their entire philosophies. For example, Aristotle studies ethics by examining examples of men in reality who he believes are eudaimonic. Plato believes that the perfect and good do not exist on this earth itself, but that we only approach them. Plato's politics consist of a philosopher-king who has closer touch with "the real reality" than the people who merely rely on their senses which are ephemeral (kind of like a Pope). Aristotle's approach to politics is a bit more Hayekian.

    1. Yes, considering how familiar you are with the philosophers in question, you don't have to put forth much effort to keep them separate in your mind. For someone like me (Who does not have as deep a knowledge of the philosophers aside from their contributions in a few fields), it is an easier mental shortcut to assign characters to each one. Regardless of how much time passes by, as long as I encode knowledge using those pictures I should never confuse their identities.

    2. This reminds me of a passage in Moonwalking with Einstein. A teacher explains Stalin and Lenin in terms of a scene in a bathroom. The author questions whether the kids can learn anything from such an image, and the teacher responds you have to start somewhere. Once you have images to 'peg' information on, learning can accelerate, even without the images having any useful information themselves.

  3. I had a question about your method for learning Japanese and Korean. I think you mentioned you used Remember the Kanji and Hanzi. Did you have the front of your flashcard have the keyword, or the keyword + story? I am finding the keyword alone is prone to interference (e.g. create vs build), but the keyword + the story feels like I'm cheating. I am starting to use a 'hint', which helps remind me what the story was about without being as straightforward as using the story in its entirety. I really respect your opinion on SRS so I was hoping you could advise.

    1. I've been using just
      Q: Keyword
      A: Character + Story

      I have been using the site "Reviewing the Kanji" for better mnemonic stories, at least better than the ones I came up with. If I find one that I am having trouble with, I make a topic that I review every day and paste the story and character into that topic and review it for three or four days. By that time I can usually easily tell the difference between the two characters (For example, the cow "creates" the road by eating the grass in front of it, and "build" is what an architect does by stretching out the blue-print painted by a brush). If I have a problem with characters usually it is solved by passively reviewing topics. If that doesn't work, I improve the mnemonic by using someone else's (And it's usually better than my own).

    2. Thank you! Koohii is very helpful. I've already seen a few of your stories on the hanzi :). I had just been rushing the process, and relying too much on short term memory rather than letting the images have the time to really root themselves. Passive review does the trick.

  4. Hi!Thank you for sharing your knowledge ,but i got a question,maybe of cause you have answered the same or similar question,but i wasnt be able to find it anywhere...I was wondering what would you do if you need to remember lecture 4 A4 pages long in the language you are learning?2)25 short texts on different topics?I have tried to put information(sentences from Texts ) in Anki,but the sentences are present bits of information which are isolated from each other and lost links ...any suggestion? kind regards,Andrey

    1. Hmmm, could you provide a small sample of what you are trying to remember? Maybe a paragraph of the information you are trying to remember, and I can make a few sample flashcards. :)

  5. I am trying to pass IELTS(English exam),and I have 2 months to prepare ,so I choose 1)BBC radio4 one from these lectures it is called the Reith Lectures: wanted to remember topics (25)short ,like this:
    ...1)in order to speak in academic way...2)to be familiar with different aspects of English life.Thank you for replying.your advice so important,no really.

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