Structure of Thought: Part 2

This is part of my Structure of Thought series. See also Part 1.

Skillbuilding as Vocabulary Development

Since human intelligence is not strong in computational power, we must rely on our ability to quickly compare current experience with past memories. Thus a large part of skillbuilding is therefore the development of a mental “vocabulary” which can be applied to the subject in question.

When a current situation is observed, it needs to be run through the mind and compared with previously seen situations. Most likely it will not perfectly match something that happened before, but it is likely that various elements of what is currently happening have appeared previously. These elements are part of the mental vocabulary that a skilled person develops in their field.

Skills chess players are known to be able to memorize board positions with incredible speed and accuracy. This seems natural. What is curious is that when shown a board with pieces positioned randomly, novice players and champions score about the same in their memorization ability. With positions from an actual game, however, the masters totally outstrip the novices and show almost total positional recall ability.

It appears that chess master can only memorize boards better than a normal person when the positions of the pieces on the board make sense in the context of an actual chess game. So what does this mean?

The masters already have a chess vocabulary of positions and situations in their heads. Instead of memorizing individual piece locations, they memorize which elements of which previously seen situations are present. By memorizing element-by-element instead of piece-by-piece, they use less conscious brain power.

Consider text. Memorizing a text in your native language allows you to memorize it word by word, which is easier than memorizing a foreign text or a string of random letters. You already have the words in your head, you just need to memorize which word it is, not each letter.

Now consider if you had to memorize a text in a language with a different character set. You would not only not be able to work word by word, but you would not even be able to parse it into letters. You would need to memorize the material by its visual shapes alone.

Consider a visual artist. Sketch artists have a massive visual vocabulary in their heads. They create new visual ideas by remixing elements of other images which they have seen or drawn before. Chess masters have a bank of chess board positions and sequences which they can meld together in their mind. Socialites have seen many different social situations and have an arsenal of responses which can be used to move an interaction in any direction. Musicians have chords, riffs, scales and other patterns which they can recall and mix together to create a new composition.

What a “skill vocabulary” does is allow the conscious mind to work on bigger “chunks” of the problem.

The human conscious mind is known to be able to hold between 5 and 9 items in short-term memory. What is interesting is that these items can be different sizes. One could hold a 10-digit number in their head by breaking it up into pairs of digits. This gives five pairs of digits, thus five objects. Mental vocabularies allow us to work with much larger chunks and thus hold more actual information in our mind. Instead of memorizing letter, we memorize words. Instead of drawing a picture by assembling lines, we draw a picture by assembling architectural elements.

It is also important to note that in most cases, the “vocabulary” learned in any particular field can never be broken into specific elements, each cleanly separated and defined. Instead, it is a shifting mixture of all sorts of different elements, some being variations on others, with different relationships between them.

This makes skill vocabularies difficult to express and teach explicitly, so instead, they are learned obliquely, by each individual, so no artist or musician ever has exactly the same skill vocabulary. This explains why different artists will be known to have different styles. Their vocabularies are different.

This is part of my Structure of Thought series. See also Part 1.