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Finding the right strategy through perception and physical movement

I talk a lot about how working memory constrains what we can process and remember, but there’s another side to this — long-term memory acts on working memory. That is, indeed, the best way of ‘improving’ your working memory — by organizing and strengthening your long-term memory codes in such a way that large networks of relevant material are readily accessible.

Oddly enough, one of the best ways of watching the effect of long-term memory on working memory is through perception.

Perception is where cognition begins. It’s where memory begins. But here’s the thing: it is only in the very beginning, as a newborn baby, that this perception is pure, uncontaminated by experience.

‘Uncontaminated’ makes it sound bad, but of course the shaping of perception by experience is vital. Otherwise we’d all be looking around wide-eyed, wondering what was going on. So we need to shape our perception.

For example, if we’re searching for a particular object, we have a mental picture of what we’re looking for, and that helps us find it quicker. Such predictive templates have recently been shown to exist for smell as well.

‘Predictive templates’ are the perceptual version of cognitive schemas. I have mentioned schemas before, in the context of expertise and reading scientific text. But schemas aren’t restricted to such intellectual pursuits; we use schemas constantly, every day of our lives. Schemas, or mental models or scripts, are mental representations you’ve formed through your experiences, that tell you what to expect from a given situation. This means we don’t have to think too hard when we come up against a familiar situation; we know what to expect.

That also means that we often don’t notice things that don’t fit in with our expectations.

I could talk about that for some time, but what I want to emphasize today is this point that thought begins with perception — and perception begins with the body.

For example, it probably won’t surprise anyone that an educational program for young children, “Moved by Reading”, has been found to help young elementary school children understand texts and math word problems by getting them to manipulate images on a computer screen in accordance with the story. Such virtual ‘acting out’ helped the children understand what was going on in the story and, in the case of the math problems, significantly reduced their attention to irrelevant information in the text. (You can read the journal article (pdf) on this; those who are registered at Edweek can also read the article that brought this to my notice.)

More surprisingly, at the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire, they’ve apparently discovered that different sorts of dancing help people with different sorts of problem-solving. Improvised dance apparently helps with divergent thinking, where there are multiple answers to a problem. Very structured kinds of dance help with convergent thinking, where you’re looking for the single answer to a problem. The researchers also claim that improvised dance can help those with Parkinson's disease improve their divergent thinking skills. (I’m using the words ‘apparently’ and ‘claim’ because I haven’t seen any research papers on this — but I wanted to mention it because it’s a nice idea, and you can read an article about it and listen to the head of the Dance Lab talk about it in a 20-minute video).

We can readily see how acting out text can reveal details that in reading we might gloss over, and it’s only one step from this to accept that gesturing might help us solve problems and remember them (as I’ve reported repeatedly). But the idea that dancing in different ways might affect how we think? Not so easily believed. But in a recent news report, I talked about two experimental studies that demonstrated how moving your hands makes you less inclined to think of abstract solutions to problems (or, conversely, that moving your hands helps you solve problems physically), and holding your hands close to the object of your perception helps you see details, but hinders you from abstracting commonalities.

This idea that the way you hold or move your body can affect what we might term your level of perception — specific detail vs global — is perhaps echoed (am I drawing too long a bow here?) in a recent observation I made regarding face-blindness (prosopagnosia). That it may be, along with perfect pitch and eidetic memory, an example of what happens when your brain can’t abstract the core concept.

Our own personal experience, supported in a recent study of scene perception, indicates that we can’t do both. At any one time you must make the choice: to focus on details, or to focus on the big picture. So this is contextual, but it’s also individual — some people will be more inclined to a detail strategy, others to a global strategy. Interestingly, this may change with age. And also experience.

One aspect of cognitive flexibility is being able to control your use of detail and global perception. This applies across the board, in many different circumstances. You need to think about which type of perception is best in the context.

In the realm of notetaking, for example, (as I discuss in my book Effective notetaking), your goal makes a huge difference to the effectiveness of your notetaking. The more specific the goal, the fewer notes you need take, and the more targeted they are. Generally speaking, also, the more specific your goal, the faster you can read/select.

But of course there’s a downside to being fast and targeted (there’s always a downside to any strategy!) — you are likely to miss information that isn’t what you’re after, but is something you need to know in a different or wider context.

There’s something else interesting about speed of processing: we associate faster processing speeds with higher intelligence, and we associate concentration with faster processing speeds. That is, when we’re concentrating, we can read/work faster. Contrariwise, I believe (though I don’t think there’s any research on this — do tell me if you know of any), if we can force ourselves into a faster mode of operation, our concentration will be better.

So fast is good, but risks missing relevant information — implying that sometimes slow is better. Which leads me to a thought: is another way of looking at Csikszentmihalyi’s famous “flow” the idea that flow is achieved when you get the speed just right? And can you therefore help yourself achieve that flow state through physical means? (Inevitably leading me to think of t’ai ch’i.)

Some thoughts for the day!