About a year ago I created the DKART system, a universal criteria for describing the various types of skills that are stressed from any activity. Each letter stands for a specific facet of skill; Dexterity, Knowledge, Adaptation, Reflex, and Timing.
When I first wrote about knowledge skills, I presented a somewhat loosely defined set of sub-facets. Shortly after the series was done, I refined the list of knowledge sub-facets to STM (short term memory), LTM (long term memory), MM (muscle memory), Channels, Analyze, and Code/Decode. Most of these sub-facets require little explanation. But perhaps the most mysterious and most glossed over term is "channels."
As I originally described, channels are the ability to take in and process independent data streams without becoming overwhelmed or crossing up the data. We do this naturally moment to moment. I think the best way to explain how our minds work is to use a computer metaphor. Put simply, a computer has a processor that can handle everything from sound, to graphics, to background calculations. When all of this various data goes to the same place to be processed the system as a whole can get easily bogged down when there's even the slightest problem in any one area. Just like biological organisms, computers work better with specialized hardware. Instead of sending all of the computing request to the same place, we use sound and graphic cards to handle part of the workload. Because a sound card is specifically designed to process sound, it can be designed to do a better job than even a much more powerful general processing unit could. To bring the metaphor back to human minds, our brains have specific centers and locations that processes specific stimuli data like light, sound, taste, touch, etc.
Understanding channels, the sub-facet of knowledge skills, requires understanding how these specialized systems can be used to support a single task. As I explained briefly in my article The Function of Memory, memory masters throughout history have used a technique called loci. In a nutshell, this technique allows people to memorize, organize, and sort through lots of data very quickly and efficiently. It's not that they're using their brain in a new way. Rather, they're focusing on using their brains in the same way that everyone does when we remember things most easily. It turns out that we remember things better when the information engages and impacts us more. This means the better we can see a concept, taste it, hear it, smell it, and the more emotions it conjures, the more connections our brains make to the data. The more connections, the better we'll be able to retrieve the information.
Put another way, the more we employ these specialized parts and functions of our brain by engaging our minds the more cognitive power we wield. This idea is simple, yes. You may have intuitively reached the same conclusion. But just like with suckcess and other common phenomena, few actually use our understanding of these phenomena to restructure and redesign everything we do.
This brings us to yet another radiolab podcast title 4 Track Mind. At this point in this article series I must say that if you're not finding the time to listen to these radiolab podcasts, then you must! Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Bob Milne, the man in the podcast, has the amazing ability to listen to and keep track of 4 symphonies in his mind simultaneously! Talk about channels! Milne presents a clear case of having 4 channels in his mind that he can comprehend fully and independently. The best part is that he explains how he does it. Lo and behold, because he engages so deeply and fully and emotionally with music he's able to expand his STM capacity. But that's not all. His mind also uses 3D mental space (loci) to keep all the information straight. Again, focus and emotion are important components of memory.
Under mental channels in this article I describe 3 tests that you can do yourself to gauge your channel bandwidth, so to speak. I came up with these tests based on experiences from my life. Apparently, I have a competent multi-channeled mind. This ability was something that I thought everyone had, but now I'm starting to realize how useful and uncommon this ability is. Like Milne, when I play music the language centers in my mind are free. I can think, read literary stories, comb through my memories, design video games, and even work out math problems in my head while playing very technically difficult music. In fact, I often seek the piano to bring clarity to my mind that would otherwise be focused on multiple things at once. If you're having trouble flexing your multi-channel mind muscles, there's still hope. There are other techniques you should try.
As I explained previously, our minds can easily become overloaded depending on the stimuli in the environment and the task at hand. To test this fact, try playing this free flash game on Kongregate called Flash Memory or play the skill measuring game my brother and I created called Reflex. In either game there is a mode where you must quickly see a string of numbers that flash on the screen and be able to repeat back the sequence. With smaller digits this task is easy. But the larger the number gets the more you have to shift your focus and remember. Even when given seconds to look things over, when the number exceeds about 7+2 digits our STM can fill up. So, how can you improve at this game? Well, the answer isn't just to expand your STM because that's impossible and therefore the wrong way to think about how memory works. Instead, you must focus on compressing numerical information (code/decode) or you can use the channels you already have.
Here's the technique I use for Flash Memory. I knew that just looking at the numbers only engaged the vision centers in my mind. And I knew that reading the words aloud engaged the auditory centers. But when I tried to use a combination of the two, things didn't work out as well as I had hoped. The problem was, when I looked at the numbers I would read them in my head voice, which engaged the same audio centers of my brain used when reading the digits aloud. To use both these channels effectively, I forced myself to only look at the first 4 digits or so and never again. Then for the rest of the time I would repeat the remaining digits aloud. When it came time to submit my answer, I could look inside my head to see the screen and pull up the numbers out of my visual memory. And for the rest I just recalled the spoken digits with my inner ear. Success! This technique not only worked, but I could get higher scores and be more relaxed at the same time. And when visual and auditory channels weren't enough, I added a tactile sense to the technique. Using the numpad, I could run through the motion of typing a few digits. Because each of these efforts (visual, auditory, tactile) efforts engaged a different part of my mind, the data never crisscrossed.
In part 5 we're looking at extended minds and how this part philosophical concept can shed light on how we play and design video games.