The Psychology of Communication


11.4 Manual For First Generation

We don't need to understand the internal combustion engine to drive a car. Most of us learn to drive by driving. We are rarely concerned, except when something goes wrong, with what's happening under the hood. However, knowing what's happening can be helpful. When learning to drive a standard-shift car, I often stalled by letting the clutch out too quickly - this can be a problem since I was learning in San Francisco. A friend explained how releasing the clutch put a moving plate and a stationary plate in contact, so that the moving plate started the stationary plate in motion. If they are brought together too suddenly, the stationary plate stopped the moving plate. With this image in mind, I never stalled again.

Now that we've started looking under the hood of the brain, we can perhaps learn how to improve our memory and speech. There have always been manuals to help us improve memory and speech based on experience. Rita Carter followed a brilliant scholarly book - Mapping the Mind - summarizing research on the brain [CARTER 1998] with another book - Mapping the Memory - suggesting how, as the subtitle indicates, understanding your brain can improve your memory [CARTER 2006]. Here is a manual for the first generation of media, based on such research.

  • Repeat anything you want to remember.
  • We are introduced to a number of people at a cocktail party and later bump into one of those people to whom we were introduced. "Sorry, I don't remember your name". You don't remember it because you never "membered" it in the first place. You haven't forgotten it - you never learned it. To learn it, you have to focus attention on it and repeat it to help your hippocampus shift it from short-term to long-term memory.

  • Use action to recall arbitrary information.
  • Remembering an arbitrary code can be enhanced by associating it with some action. This remembering the code for your bicycle lock becomes more like riding your bicycle. I once panicked when I imagined that I had forgotten my code for the ATM. When I got to the ATM, I found that I had punched in the code without thinking about it. My fingers remembered it.

  • Use stories to remember semantic information.
  • Semantic information emerges out of episodic memory as the context in which you learned it fades away. This makes it vulnerable since the hooks have gone. You can reverse this process by creating a story around the semantic information. Mnemonics like "Thirty days has September --" are familiar short stories. Longer stories were recommended by early memory experts who suggested that you take a virtual stroll through a familiar setting and place the things you want to remember along the way.

  • Focus on the hierarchy underlying the sequence in remembering a speech.
  • A student once asked me how I could deliver a three-hour lecture without looking at notes. I pointed out that it only seemed impressive when the focus is on the sequence of thousands of words in the lecture. However, when you look at the hierarchy of thought underlying the sequence of language, you realize that I am remembering only a few distinctions. For example, in the lecture corresponding to this chapter, I am starting with a few words about levels of analysis, looking at the biology of memory, then biology of speech, and finally providing a manual for the first generation of media. In the second section, I am looking in turn at various dichotomies in memory - short-term and long term, procedural and semantic, episodic and semantic, and then pointing out that the old brain is involved in all those types of memory.

  • Subcontract out many memory tasks to the second, third, and fourth generations of media.
  • If I can't remember a few dichotomies in giving a lecture, as described above, I throw up an outline from a PowerPoint presentation on a screen, ostensibly to remind the audience where they are at, where they have been, and where they are going, but actually to remind myself. PowerPoint slides can be used as electronic cue cards. My partner, Siliclone at, contains my various publications so that Scot need not store the clutter of content. Lists of books I have read and videos I have seen are in a FileMaker database on my computer, so that I can stay listless. Searching that database rather than my mind yields many more hits - much more can be recognized than recalled. If you were asked to recall other members of your Grade 1 class, you may come up with only a few names. However, if you were shown a group photograph of your Grade 1 class, you would recognize many more.

    I started writing an operating manual for species homo sapiens in the 1960s. Much of it was about reducing the noise from the central nervous system through meditation and increasing the signal from the autonomic nervous system through biofeedback, in order to listen to the very local news from your body. After 20 years in media studies, most of my operating manual is about acquiring the skills of the four generations of media. However, it is biased towards the second, third, and fourth generations. Since the first generation is the conception-day gift, we assume that we know how to use it naturally. However, we still need help unwrapping the gift.