Theory on Effective Kanji Study – Basics of Memory (Part 1)

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(I get how this completely contradicts the message that I have as my slogan for the blog. Nothing easy about this.)

Recently I have been thinking about how to study kanji more effectively and retain it in memory. I have been reading a book on how the brain functions, particularly the neocortex which we know as the two pinkish greyish hemispheres. It is a seriously technical and boring read, but that is why I bring the main points into this first post on explaining how our memory works.  This is the first of three parts that will deal in how to theoretically study kanji in a way that will give you best retention. Latter two parts deal with Kanji specifically.

How Human Memory Works

Sequential Patterns

Our memory works sequentially and in a hierarchy. We remember sequential patterns. For example, the alphabet. We can recite the alphabet from A to Z with very little effort. We remembered the sequence from the beginning to the end. But what if you were asked to recite the alphabet from Z to A? Computers have no problem doing this. They can process the alphabet backwards in a thousandth of a second.  But we would struggle, sequentially. First, we would start to recite the alphabet until we get to, say, last two or three letters, X Y Z. We would then be able to recite those backwards. Then we start from the beginning again and get to the next two or three in the list, U V W, then recite those backwards. Each time we are going through the sequential pattern.

(Connection! If you learned how to draw kanji with the proper stroke order, could you write them at the same speed with the opposite stroke order? Or would you have to sequentially imagine the first strokes until you get the the last ones?)

Pattern Hierarchy

As for the hierarchical nature of memory, there are lower level patterns and higher level patterns which our neurons process instantaneously, without us even noticing. One powerful memory technique that derived from this concept is called chunking, and should be implemented in everyone’s kanji study. We will discuss this more in part 2.

Take a sentence. At the very high end of the pattern hierarchy you will be able to judge whether the writer intended to put sarcasm, a comical remark, whether the statement is rhetorical. You go down the ladder and you see grammatical patterns. You understand the colloquial nature of the text. One more level down and your neocortex is able to guess what word you are reading without even finishing reading it completely. You just glance over the text and recognize the patterns of the letters, making you able to guess what the word is. Your brain also looks for contextual patterns in the text itself. Way at the bottom of the hierarchy is recognizing the letters themselves. If your pass through a letter that has two slants like / and \, /\, your brain will almost instantly recognize it as the letter A, since there are no other candidates and enough of a pattern is present for the brain to guess.

The same way, when you see someone writing like a douche, using $ for “S” and ! for “I”, like $H!T!, we can immediately see that the person intended to use “SHIT!”. This is called autoassociation, the ability to associate a pattern with a part of itself. We can recognize a pattern even if the entire patern is not present.

Hierarchical Patterns = Recursion & Iteration (Where are the programmer geeks?)

In a 2002 paper that Noam Chomsky coauthored, he cites the attribute of “recursion” as accounting for the unique language faculty of the human species. Recursion, according to Chomsky, is the ability to put together small parts into a larger chunk, and then use that chunk as a part in yet another structure, and to continue this process iteratively. In this way we able the build the elaborate structures of sentences and paragraphs from a limited set of words. He describes exactly what the neocortex does.

Marc D. Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch, “The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?” Science 298 (November 2002): 1569-79, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/298/5598/1569.short

HUMANS DO NOT HAVE PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY. DIGITAL CAMERAS DO. SO IF YOU ARE HOPING TO BE ABLE TO RECALL HOW TO WRITE A KANJI JUST THROUGH FLIPPING FLASH CARDS, CHANCES ARE THAT YOU WON’T SEE MUCH SUCCESS. The closest that only some rare humans get to is what is called eidetic imagery.

Last Point I Swear! Redundancy

Redundancy is the key to enforcing our pattern building and recognition, as well as recall. Let me also point out that humans have five senses and that we gather “data” from all five of them that allow our neocortex to build numerous patterns that point to the same reference. Take for example french fries. Your brain gathers data from the visual aspect, the crunching, the texture from the touch, the  smell and the amazing taste. The experience itself also enforces your pattern building to keep the fries in your memory.

Kanji works the same way. We rely on visual data and mechanical movement to reinforce our kanji memorization, including any association with already existing patterns. Take for example the kanji for “two”, 二 (に). With this kanji, we can rely on the visual data, noticing that this kanji has TWO strokes. If we try to write it, it will require TWO hand strokes. And lastly, being redundant, when we see two of any object, more than likely there are just TWO of those. This is being redundant. This is not as easy to do with more complex kanji, but those will be covered in later parts.

Continue to Part 2 – Memory and Kanji