Night Science: Musings about books

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << Despair and quit first)

Desk, book, candle, clock, table, study

Indulging in night science: How to remember it all?
(“by Unsplash” / CC0 1.0)

During this time without writing, my night science joyrides introduced me to cognitive science. Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary science of mind, intimately related to psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, linguistics and artificial intelligence. It is an intricate intersection of all these disciplines, focused on the view of mind as an information processor. As such, mind must represent information somehow and store it in a way it can be processed. The problem of “remembering it all” can then be formulated as a knowledge representation one: how should one represent knowledge as to better remember it?

First, I must decide what kind of knowledge to remember. Phone numbers? To-do lists? Seriously, now. I had always thought I would have to devise a huge Porphyrian tree to represent everything that exists in the universe as a huge hierarchical categorisation and use it to store all knowledge somehow. But the sole effort of trying to figure out where in the tree any given newly acquired concept might be located has always pushed me towards finding other solutions. Then, one day while driving to Disney World and letting my mind drift away from the excruciating noise produced by the nine ladies inside the car, I had an epiphany. I should strive to memorise books — and that’s it. When I said elsewhere that I wanted to memorise the Great Books of the Western Word, I didn’t really mean the books themselves, but the knowledge within. Now, I mean it. In the most part of our Common Era, knowledge has been transmitted through either oral teachings in the form of stories or books. A book is, in essence, also a story, even when consisting of an expository work. It has been argued that stories “are the fundamental constituents of human memory, knowledge, and social communication”. Formulating stories is also one of the most well-known (and useful) current mnemonic devices for better remembering. Converting books into shorter mnemonic stories doesn’t sound like the worst of ideas. Moreover, we live an accelerating transition to a digital culture where reading books is on the verge of being replaced by other (poorer)  types of communication. The idea of praising the role of books in our lives by remembering them really appeals to me.

But how to extract the signal from the noise in books, so as to make them more conducive to efficient memorisation? In other words, how to summarise books into their essential gist? One must first know how to “read well” in all the conceptual meaning of the expression. I also envisage that books should be faced as social science projects of the type tackled by Qualitative Data Analysis techniques. By coding books based on e.g., Rhetorical Structure Theory, Speech Act Theory and one’s subjective aims towards the book, further analyses may be able to summarise the book and present it in a structure not only more adequate for memorisation, but also tailored to one’s personal idiosyncrasies. A suite of state-of-the-art algorithms from Natural Language Processing and Computational Linguistics packaged into an user-friendly tool could provide the quantitative side of the equation and crunch the text in search of patterns; identifying, simplifying and retrieving the gist of user-selected passages. This new transformed text, stripped down to its essence, could then be parsed, reorganised and reshaped into a new representational structure that favours remembering.

What exactly this structure should be might in turn be answered by the field of artificial intelligence. Propositional logic, semantic networks, conceptual graphs, are all representational schemes successfully used in many A.I. applications. But such structure will also have to take into consideration current neuroscientific studies of the mind, which shed light to how memories are actually stored in the brain. It makes no sense to represent knowledge in a way opposed to the natural abilities of our brains, at least not for my purpose, which, by the way, is not to control robots. The idea wouldn’t be to rote-memorise such structure, but to use it (though in innovative ways) as the ancient memory palaces described in the Art of Memory. Therefore, understanding exactly how the brain uses spatial memory in mnemonic memorisation is of utmost importance. Concepts such as brain neuroplasticity and place cells will have to be considered, even if in a high level of abstraction.

But how would this essential knowledge be represented in such structures? No doubt they will have to be converted into images, although the exact method is a huge unknown. The ancient Art of Memory has a lot to teach us and also do current international competitors in memory championships, but they all lack enough systematisation — they lack a grammar to be used to compose and arrange images. An interesting new field of inquiry, the visual language of comics, might have insights to collaborate to a solution for this problem. Moreover, how language is understood by our minds, the way we are able to make sense of symbols and instantly extract meaning from them must also be studied. After all, both words and pictures are symbols, as are the gestures of the sign languages of indians and deaf communities. Linguistics and semiotics therefore, will have to provide a sort of a “language of thought”, one that is able to represent concepts independently of a people’s mother language. We can use our mother language to communicate what we remember, but the representation of knowledge as mnemonic images for remembering should be as universal as possible. This need for an “universal language of thought”, as romantic as it might seem, has historical roots way back in the time when Leibniz dreamed about an universal character that could form “a genuinely philosophical language”, as did his contemporaries George Dalgarno and John Wilkins. I can’t say I dislike the concept, even if I don’t fully understand it. In fact, I guess one can see it is exactly that type of megalomaniac project that moves me.

Yes, I know all of the above is just pure night science. I must do much better than that if I want to get anywhere. However, I don’t have a glass of wine in my hands right now and it is not even night time.

Instead, it is a cold grey morning and, at least, I am writing.

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