Learning by repetition and memorization

A friend’s 7-year-old son recently challenged me to a game of chess. I’ve never played chess seriously, and had not played a single game since before he was born. I quickly found myself in a struggle – I made a mistake early and he took my queen. I eventually fought back to a mostly equal position, and we agreed on a draw as we had to leave for the wedding we were both attending. It sounds embarrassing to feel lucky to pull out a draw with a 7-year-old, but I later found out that this son of two MIT graduates with PhDs had been studying chess for a year with his school teacher. Okay, it’s still embarrassing.

Chess is hard because of the combinatorial explosion of possibilities – each move creates new possibilities and analyzing them all consciously takes more brainpower than anybody except Deep Blue has. So how do chess experts play the game successfully? Another friend at the wedding had been a chess master when he was a teenager, and I asked him about his strategies. He claimed that when he was playing, he had memorized all possible openings through fifteen moves, so while the other player was expending conscious effort to analyze the opening series of moves, he was playing without thinking because he already knew the best move in each position. That left his conscious brain available to analyze the deeper strategy in the game and plan for the midgame, giving him a competitive advantage.

The key word in the previous paragraph is “conscious” – our conscious brain has very limited computing power. To be successful at any task, we have to offload as much processing as possible to our unconscious brains. We have to build cognitive subroutines and embed the pattern recognition into our brains so that the conscious brain doesn’t need to think – we just recognize the input pattern and make the appropriate response. This is what made my friend successful as a chess player – his unconscious brain was just using pattern recognition to decide on the next move, saving his conscious brain CPU cycles for strategic analysis.

This sort of unconscious pattern recognition is present in all games. Whenever we first play a game, we’re trying to remember the rules, and struggle just to make legal moves. As we learn more about the game, we take advantage of our brain’s continuous projections described in On Intelligence – we compare the projected results of our moves with what actually happened, and store the results. Now the legal moves are automatic and require no thought, and we’re thinking tactically about sequences of moves. We can now embed that sort of tactical thinking into another layer of patterns on top of the “legal moves” neuron layer, e.g. learning to automatically set up the sequence of card play necessary for an endgame squeeze in bridge.

For an expert, these layers can go many levels deep. I’m reading The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy who was made famous by the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. He describes the several levels of chess knowledge that he grew through as a child, from understanding how the pieces moved, to practicing end games with his teacher to understand the area controlled by each piece, to understanding the interactions between pieces in the midgame, etc. He explains how he couldn’t even think about the higher levels of chess until the lower levels were automated to the point of unconsciousness, and describes how the same process applied in his learning of tai chi.

One interesting result of this theory of learning is that it’s impossible to become an expert without having practiced the basics so much that they are unconscious. Because the conscious mind has such a limited capacity, we have to know one level so well that it has been relegated to the pattern-matching unconscious before learning the next level. Joel Spolsky has a great anecdote in his article on interviewing describing how his calculus professor gave an algebra problem to students on the first day of class. The people who were able to answer it without thinking were the ones who got A’s in the calculus class – they had embedded algebra into their unconscious so they were able to focus their conscious brains on calculus, giving them a huge advantage of their classmates. Joel applies this theory to interviewing by giving straightforward programming problems to his interviewees and keeping the ones that blaze through the problems as fast as they can talk.

I had another interesting conversation last week about an article called “In Defense of Memorization”, which laments the demise of memorization of poetry as an educational technique. The article observes that “memorizing poetry turns on kids’ language capability. It not only teaches them to articulate English words; it heightens their feel for the intricacies and complexities of the English language—an indispensable attainment if they are to go on to speak, write, and read English with ease”. By memorizing and reciting poetry, they are building the neural pathways that recognize how good literature fits together, and are more likely to be able to use those patterns in their own writing.

That may sound like a stretch, but it has been shown to work in the area of music with the Suzuki method. The Suzuki method taught music as if it were teaching a language. It starts at young ages, when children’s brains are most plastic and able to accept input (I started violin lesosns at age 3), and depends as much on listening to music as practicing it, because we learn languages by listening first and talking second. A heavy emphasis is also placed on memorization, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, but I think has to do with building in these unconscious patterns. It’s about practicing and repetition until the act of playing becomes totally unconscious, leaving the conscious brain able to think about the music rather than the mechanics of making the sounds.

Because of the Suzuki method, I have an intuitive understanding of classical music that dwarfs my analytical understanding. I’ve taken only one music theory class in basic harmony and counterpoint, and remember none of it. But I recognize what music “should” do in ways that I can’t even explain.

  • One time in the Stanford chorus, my fellow bass was struggling to find the note on a certain entrance, and asked me how I knew which note to sing. And it was embarrassing to realize that I didn’t have an answer other than “it’s the right note” – my unconscious brain recognized the patterns in the piece and knew what note was needed to fill in the chord.
  • Another example from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was when we would be working on a twentieth century piece that didn’t make sense to me initially. The patterns in the piece didn’t match what I had learned and I had to work much harder to learn that music than more traditional classical music. I had to attend every rehearsal where we ran the piece over and over and over again until the new patterns had been embedded in my unconscious so that I could be ready to think about the music rather than just trying to get the notes.
  • When I’m looking at music that I once performed, I often can’t remember exactly how it goes until I’m actually listening to the music again. Then it all just flows out in response to the musical cues I’m getting, because my brain had been trained to recognize those patterns subconsciously.

This post is a reminder to myself that becoming good at something requires putting in the time to learn the basics to the point of unconsciousness. It requires time and effort and work and pushing myself past the point where it’s fun – there was always a point when rehearsing a piece with the chorus where I was so tired of rehearsing the same piece repeatedly, but being in a group helped me to push through that dip to the next level of musical understanding. It’s also a reminder that if I’m struggling with something, I should step back and rehearse the basics again until they are unconscious. Speaking of which, I should go break out the Radio Shack chess computer I have and play a few games to start learning those patterns.

6 thoughts on “Learning by repetition and memorization

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *