Learning to understand complex systems in terms of ideas, relationships and change

Plus side trips down memory lane and how the method of loci relates to understanding
by: Neil Keleher
Published: 2020 09 19
Categories/Tags:
basic principles

In an earlier post, I talked about ideas as being potential units or elements of change. By themselves, without a connection to anything external to themselves, ideas are just that, ideas, the potential to change and nothing else. However, if you connect an idea to another idea, then you have a relationship. And that's when the potential to change becomes realized.

The idea of "an idea"

To get to the idea of an "idea", I talked about defining a system by drawing a boundary around it. The system is what is inside the boundary. Its environment is what is outside of it. An idea is then simply a system reduced to a single element.

Removed from its environment, an idea (whether a simple element or a system) is just the potential to create change.

Plugged back into its environment or an environment, the idea (or system) becomes part of a relationship.

A relationship in terms of the ideas it connects

A relationship is formed when two or more ideas are connected. Note that the simple joining of two ideas creates a change in and of itself. Likewise, decoupling two ideas can be thought of as creating a change.

Going back to the idea of a battery, you can insert it into a device, and that in itself is a change, but is the batteries potential being used? Not if the switch isn't turned to the on position it isn't. Only when the device is turned on and electricity flow is driven by the voltage of the battery does the battery realize its potential to create change. Now the change is actual change. Electricity is flowing and the device, whatever it is, is creating the change that it has been designed for.

Say the device is a torch or flashlight. By itself, the torch won't work. Neither will the battery. However, put the two together, create a relationship, and now you have the power to shine a light in the darkness, to see what was, until the torch lit up, unseeable.

Where ideas are the potential for change, relationships are where that change can actually happen.

A relationship is simplest type of system possible

So what is a relationship? It is where two or more ideas are connected. Note that with more and more connected ideas, what you end up with is a system. And so you could say that a relationship made up of two "connected" ideas is the most basic type of system possible.

The difference between complex systems and simple systems

As a matter of interest, the other day I used the term "complex system" in an article. What is a complex system? It's a system that you can't understand at a glance. It appears chaotic. There is too much information to take in about that system at a glance. That is until you start zeroing in on the details, the smaller relationships (and ideas) that make that system up.

When does a system change from being complex to simple? Well, when you understand it. Or when the system is simple enough to be taken in at a glance, say when it is made up of only two or three connected ideas.

Note that the reason a complex system that you don't understand is difficult to understand at a glance is because of the limits of our short term memory. To get to grips with the system we have to be able to hold it in our short memory. A big system has too many working parts.

As an example, while working with longs strings of if/else statements while programming or using excel, it becomes very difficult to understand what each part does because the statement is too long and has too many parts, unless you are writing it as you go along.

Looking back at previously written statements, unless you've written it in a way that the structure is easy to see, it can be very difficult to know what's going on, particularly when you want to make changes, because the statement, the "system" is too big, and we don't understand it.

When we "understand" a complex system, that understanding is made up of all ideas that make up the complex system. It is also made up of all the relationships between those ideas. We learn to understand a complex system by learning the ideas and relationships that make it up. This is what makes complex systems understandable.

In this case, the complex system, made up of the some of its parts, is stored in long term memory.

What understanding is made up of

So what has this all to do with relationships?

Along with ideas, relationships are a necessary part of understanding.

The simplest relationship is made up of two connected ideas. And the way to learning a system is to look at the ideas that make it up and then to look at how those ideas relate to each other one relationship at a time.

Putting understanding in terms of the method of loci

A good metaphor for understanding, and perhaps also the basis for understanding how our brains "hold" understanding, is the method of loci that is well explained in Lynne Kelly's two books on memory techniques, Memory Code and Memory Craft.

The method of loci is where pieces of data are placed at specifically defined locations along a path in some clearly defined physical space.

The physical space can be an actual physical space, usually referred to as a memory palace. And actually the reason d'aitre for sites like Stone henge. Or it can be a small hand held device with distinct features. It can be a made up place, so long as it is clearly defined, and not forgotten.

The path provides a framework for storing the pieces of data and for retrieving them. The path "relates" all the pieces of data.

The important thing about the path, the memory palace, is that each location within it, particularly the locations that are used to hold indexes to data, is clearly defined. Each point is clearly differentiable from other locations within the palace. To this end, each point is in a different location from any other point along the path.

Taking the dog for a walk through history

Having used these methods extensively herself, Lynne talks about one such path or palace which is made up of the various residences around her neighborhood along the route where she takes her dog for a walk.

Along one particular route she has mentally inscribed the various historical eras. So as she walks the path, not only is she walking through physical space, she's also walking through the history of the earth, in her mind.

Note that in some cases she used decks of cards for holding information. In this case, it is the order of the cards, both the numbers and the ordering of the suits, that provides the pathway. But in all cases, there is some sort of path, or sequence, that holds indexes and so points to pieces of data or information.

Now if you divide the path into segments, with any segment joining two memory locations or indexes, what you have is a connected series of relationships.

A system is made up of relationships, which in turn are made up of ideas

A system in this case is the whole path, whether it is a complete deck of cards, or a particular walk through the neighborhood. A system can also be any portion of the path. A system is a set of relationships which in turn each connect two ideas.

The point is, a system is made up of relationships and a relationship is two connected points, each of which are ideas and each of which, for the method of loci is a position that acts as an index to a specific piece of information or "idea".

This bears mentioning, an idea can be a system. Or it can be a single element of potential change.

An important point here, and Lynne elucidates on this in her books, most noticeably in Memory Code, is that once the path and the ideas indexed by it have both been sufficiently learned, or understood, the actual physical path is no longer needed. This is especially notable with small hand held memory devices which have often been found, cast away in ancient sites.

Initial suggestions often put these as burial items, and in a way you could look at the as burial items. However, they weren't buried with someone, they were buried themselves, or discarded because they were no longer needed. They weren't needed because while initially they were used to help remember pieces of information, in the process of learning the information, the memory device itself had also been memorized. It and the data it holds are now modeled in our brain, or if you like, our consciousness.

The pieces of information had been learned as had been the relationships between each piece of information.

What are basic principles for?

So lets take a step back now.

What are basic principles for?

One of my main reasons for developing (or trying to understand) basic principles was to make it easier to get on with doing things. In terms of the body, I thought, if you learn to feel your body, and control it, then you eliminate a major hurdle in learning anything new that uses the body.

Now, with body awareness and body control, you aren't learning how to control your body plus whatever it is that you are learning, whether dance, tai ji, yoga, a martial art, whatever, you are learning the new skill only. Learning time and effort is reduced both for teacher and student because instead of learning basic things like how to feel a particular part of the body, that is already present. Now it's learning to use that particular part of the body in the ways required by the art that is being learned.

Put in other terms, I recently built an app for the apple store. It's a dictionary for making Chinese character lookup easy. I designed the app and build it using apples Swift language. Myself and lots of other people have done the same thing, built apps. We can all build lots of different apps because swift is easy to learn. You learn it once and you can get on with using it. Plus the devices that use it, smart phones and tablets, are smart. At the user end they are a sensor, which is an input device, that is actually also the output device. With this simple device, it's easy for lots of different people to design lots of different aps.

Note how these devices are called "smart devices". They are smart because they can recognize inputs and give outputs accordingly. They are smart because the same element that takes inputs also gives outputs. And you could say that because they are smart, and we use them all of the time, we have less reason to be smart or to develop our own inbuilt "smarts".

Teaching people how to feel and control their body, so that they can use it in anything that they do, and to make learning new things easier, the things I teach them to feel and control are their muscles. Why? Because muscles are both input and output devices. They allow us to move our body, the output. But they are also the key ingredient that allows us to feel or sense how the parts of our body relate to each other and to anything else they are in contact with, mainly the earth, but anything else they are in contact with whether another human, animal, plant, or something mechanical like a car or motorcycle or even something man made that doesn't need control inputs from us.

But even before I began teaching people how to use their bodies, my idea with basic principles was to make it easier to get things done without the headaches, to remove the drudgery, the frustration, or at least make it more manageable.

One of the keys to this, I eventually realized, was making it easier to learn new things. But another key was in developing understanding.

Understanding gives us the ability to act intelligently without thinking or without having to take recourse to something external to ourselves.

Understanding is based on memory, but more than just memory it is stored information that is related. It is based on systems of stored information.

And systems are made up of ideas and relationships.

Relationships are where change happens

So what is another way to define a relationship?

Where ideas are the potential for change, relationships are vehicles for actual change.

They make potential real, or realizable.

As an example, put a charged battery in a flashlight, and now you have the option of using the flashlight to light your way. You can turn it on and it lights up, and you can turn it off again at will. Without the battery you have neither option.

The relationship realizes the potential of both the battery and the torch.

By themselves these ideas are potential and that is it.

Relationships connect ideas. They allow the passage or transmission of change.

Another way to think about relationship is that the actual process of creating and breaking relationships is a change also.

Making relationships a useful part of learning to understand

So how do we make the concept of relationships useful when trying to understand something?

A first step towards understanding is to divide a complex system into smaller parts. You can do this by looking for natural dividing lines. This is something that artists are taught to do.

As an example of how to do this with the body, when I was in Hong Kong, I was invited by a tai chi teacher I'd met previously to teach half of his students part of a sword form that I only partially remembered. I'd learned the form a long time ago but luckily I only had to teach a small portion.

To make it easier to define the individual steps, I taught then first how to feel weight shifts via their feet. I then associated each move (or small set of movements) with a particular but noticeable weight shift.

The weight shifts, noticeable as changes in pressure were easy to notice, particularly when shifting weight entirely to one foot or the other.

As a result, they not only learned the movements, and in a relatively short time, they also learned to feel their body while doing their movements.

With Chinese calligraphy, there is a style of cursive calligraphy called grass style. It looks like a bunch of squiggly lines.

Now while with regular script it is easy to break down a character into sets of brush strokes that can be learned in small groups at a time, with grass script this is harder to do because the brush strokes aren't so obvious. I learned to simply recognize when a line changed direction. Those where the changes that made it easier for me to learn to paint characters using this style of calligraphy.

Creating an easy to use index for Chinese characters, I did more or less the techniques but applied slightly differently. Instead of looking for differences, I was looking for similiarities so that I could group characters that begin with the same shape together. Later I applied the same idea to grouping characters that had the same second element and then also to characters that had the same final element.

What I was looking for, in a nutshell, was relationships, or ideas, or changes.

So how do you learn to understand a system?

A simple starting point for learning to understand a system is first to break it down into component ideas.

From there, learn the relationships between each pair of ideas.

Rinse and repeat.

Depending on the type of system you are working with you may have the option to break it down into ideas in different ways. Make a decision. Stick with it. And if the decision turns out to be less than ideal, then change it.

Note that when you do have multiple options for breaking a system down, once you have learned one option, you then have the chance, or opportunity to try the other options.

This actually ties in quite well with one of the suggestions for using memory aids. Decide what it is that you are trying to store or memorize. These are the component parts. Then choose the device. This is the thing that relates all of those component parts.

As a note on this, say you wanted to memorize the countries of the world. You could do this alphabetically. You could do this based on population size. You could do this based on actual land area. Another option is to learn to draw the countries of the world in relationship to each other. In this case the world itself becomes the thing that relates all of the component parts. The idea here is, if what you are trying to memorize is already part of a system, then use it. If it isn't then create the path for holding the various parts together.

A physical practice with clearly defined ideas and relationships

For an actual physical practice that clearly encapsulates the concepts of ideas and relationships, and can improve upper body strength, flexibility and balance at the same time, check out The Dance of Shiva. Each arm has 8 clearly defined positions, the ideas. The idea of the practice is to learn to connect or related each of the positions to each other using movements.

The practice becomes a little bit more interesting when you use both arms together.

Note that it also encompasses the ideas of the relationship and component views as applied to ourselves. We can study the movements before hand or afterwards. We can also experience the movements directly, while actually doing them.

If you enjoyed this article, or found it helpful, please share it!
Thanks, I really appreciate it!

Neil

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