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July 3, 2012 / A

How rules are stored in my brain

Given a rule x, how much do you need to know to produce the next rule y?

That’s a rather sterile way of formulating something curious I stumbled across this morning. Given that I’ve been spending so much time with the Ashtadhyayi, occasionally I’ll unconsciously go over a few rules in my head. I usually start with the same few rules, usually because they’re phonetically fun. But after repeating the next one or two rules, my mind goes blank.

How could this be? I’m still not sure. But I think I have a working hypothesis.

For illustration’s sake, try reciting the alphabet. Now try to say it in reverse order, from Z to A.

Which is harder? Probably going in reverse. Our mind orders these tokens in a certain way, from earlier to later and first to last. Loosely, this corresponds to what computer science calls a linked list:

In the example above, 12 flows into 99 flows into 37. If we’re at 12, we know that the next element is 99. Or if we’re at “P” in the alphabet, we know that “Q” is coming up next. But going from “Q” to “P” is a little trickier. If you’re like me, you have to restart near “A”, go through the entire list again, and keep track of when you’re about to hit “Q”.

But with a bit of effort, we can change this default data structure and make it easier to move between pieces of information. Those who practice Vedic recitation are known for reciting texts forwards and backwards, so from any point in a text they can move one step back or one step forward:

And we can do the same thing by practicing with a backward alphabet.

As for why my memory tends to fizzle out after a few rules: I think my data structure is a little different. Since I’ve decided to memorize lines in groups of 10, I’m not just relying on the previous rule; I’m relying on the position within the block of 10, and occasionally I need to know the book and chapter as well.

To some extent, all people who memorize the text must rely on some information outside the basic linked list; otherwise, it would be impossible to keep rules like अकर्मकाच्च and बहुलं छन्दसि distinct. But given my approach, this information is especially important somehow.

What this means in practice is that if you tell me a rule, I can only get so far — that is, unless I know where in the block of 10 it is. So before I can start rattling off rules, I need to situate the rule in its proper position. And to do that I usually need to backtrack to the start of the block, just as with the alphabet example.

But curiously, I don’t always have to practice to be able to go backward. It wasn’t difficult to recite 1.1 and 1.2 in “real time” backwards, despite using these blocks of 10 so often.


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