Tea, Zen, Creativity and Taking Mental Notes with the Method of Loci

Sexual selection is the professional, at sifting between genes.
Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind

Have you ever had this awkward experience at a conference cocktail party: a rosy new acquaintance asks you about the morning’s keynote, which you attended with no capture device but yourself? So you couldn’t recall anything about the lecture to convey to your interested, appealing conversant.

This post discusses the problem of taking mental notes. As more than an example, I will use a lecture on Zen and Creativity that my date and I recently attended on July 30. The lecture was part of a Tea Zen Exhibition at the Visual Space Gallery on the West Side of Vancouver. The event started with a viewing of Bryan Mulvihill’s “Calligraffiti”, Don Wong’s calligraphy, and Lam Wong’s Tea Zen art. This was followed by a tea ceremony. Eshin Godfrey, the guiding teacher and Osho of the Zen Centre of Vancouver, gave the lecture.

Most people would simply listen carefully to the speaker and not bother with durable “encoding”. After all, this was a Zen talk. One should “be here now”, right? But if the master had profound content from which I was to learn, which I was sure he would, I felt I should make a deliberate effort to remember it.

However, I had forgotten to bring a physical capture-device. Besides, I wouldn’t have wanted to disrupt the intimate, contemplative atmosphere. So, I used the age old method of loci to mentally encode the master’s key ideas,[1] while maintaining a “be here now” mindset. (Some would say that is impossible, but I think they underestimate the brain’s ability to engage in coarse-grained parallel processing. Contrast Pessoa’s The Cognitive-Emotional Brain.)

Why bother talking about Zen, creativity and annotation on the CogZest blog? Well, creativity is an important aspect of cognitive productivity. Mental note-taking is a component of “meta-effectiveness” (the ability to use knowledge to become more effective). And research suggests that people learn cognitive skills best by studying examples.

Some Zen Concepts Germane to Creativity

So, here is some of what the Zen teacher had to say (but see the caveats in the next section.)

  1. Every experience is uniquely different. Zen values the current experience. This object. This moment. (In the introduction, I alluded to this with respect to the “here and now” .) (Mnemonic 1)
  2. Self is a verb, a process. The mind objectifies reality and so it tries to objectify “the self”.[2] (Mnemonic 2)
  3. There are 6 sense organs. They include the mind as a “sense organ”.[3] (Mnemonic 3)
  4. Consider the distinction between the mind and its objects, such as fan noise (there was a fan running to cool us down). At first the sound seems separate from the mind, an external object. But gradually one comes to realize that there is a merger or at least an interplay between the mind and its object. Later (and I’m unsure Eshin Godfrey said this) one returns to the conclusion that the object exists in itself. [4] (Mnemonic 4)
  5. The mind in a calm state can better relate cognitively to the world. (Mnemonic 5)
  6. Creativity comes from nothing. He cited a one-page paper by Einstein on creativity.[5] (Mnemonic 6)
  7. Practice is required to train the mind.[6] (Mnemonic 7)

I won’t assess the validity of these ideas here.

An Aside on Assimilation vs. Accommodation (Pigeon holing vs. Knowledge-Building)

As I was listening to Eshin Godfrey, I was well aware that I was necessarily interpreting his talk in the light of my own previous knowledge of cognitive science and Zen (the latter being much more limited than the former). Deeply transformative learning involves knowledge building: that is, acquiring or creating new concepts and theories. So, I shouldn’t simply pigeon-hole what Godfrey was saying into the slots of my existing knowledge schemas (to speak metaphorically).

As I discussed in Cognitive Productivity, this relates to the distinction raised by Jean Piaget between assimilation and accommodation.

To avoid the assimilation/pigeon-holing pitfall trap, one needs to be sensitive to how new information doesn’t fit into our current understanding. To take an example from Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia’s Surpassing Ourselves, expert medical doctors constantly face a similar challenge. Most of their patients present with textbook symptoms. But patients sometimes present symptoms that indicate a condition whose processes or manifestation they don’t sufficiently understand. To increase their knowledge, doctors must detect this novelty (thinking to themselves, “oh, that is strange”) and devote attention to it. If months go by and they haven’t pursued such opportunities for new learning, they’ve gotten themselves into a rut.

Being sensitive to new concepts or other deep information isn’t enough. To learn from them, one needs to reflect on them later. And to do that one needs to remember. Hence the method of loci.

The Method of Loci for Zen and Creativity Ideas

As I mentioned above, while Eshin Godfrey was speaking, I took notes in my head by using the method of loci. This method involves abstraction, visualization, and serial organization. I mapped out a path in my home from the front door, up the stairs, through a guest room, and down the hall to my office. At multiple junctures in the the lecture, I developed a declarative representation of the current point, and generated a visual representation for it, which I then anchored to a particular location. Here it goes.

  1. The first idea reminded me of Heraclitus’ claim that “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. So I pictured a river running in the vestibule, and myself stepping twice in it.
  2. Then, for “self is a verb”, I pictured a v by the stairs. This is short for “verb”. This later proved to be a tough mnemonic to decode. When I tried to remember it, I kept thinking that of v for velocity. This was due the cue overload (or fan effect) of memory (discussed in Cognitive Productivity.) I tend to use v as a symbol for velocity. I use v., that is v followed by a period, as an abbreviation for verb. But when I encoded the v, I forgot to punctuate it! Also, the method of loci calls for images; but we don’t tend to think of letters graphically. So when decoding what was supposed to be an image, I also tried to think of what it might stand for visually (a wedge?). But this turned out to be good fun because, my date, a speech and language therapist, helped me decode it. (“Speechies” excel at decoding language!!) This positive emotion, in turn, contributed to the durability of the memory—emotion being a great potentiator of recall.
  3. Then I pictured an organ (musical instrument) in the middle of the stairs. This was to remind me of “There are 6 sense organs”.
  4. On the penultimate step of the stairs, I imagined a fly flying into my eye. This stood for the blending of perception and the perceptual object. This device has the mnemonic virtue of being violent—violence being another great potentiator of recall. (Sex is also mnemonically potent —but watch out for cue overload 🙂 .)
  5. A the landing, I imagined a calm lake. (I often use this image to signify calm. One develops a visual dictionary over the years.)
  6. Then, in the upstairs guest room, I pictured Einstein with a cartoon animation of a big bang exploding in a thought bubble over his head. (“Creativity comes from nothing.”) This idea is easy for me to remember only because I disagree with it so much, as alluded to below —I’d like to hear more from Eshin Godfrey about this.
  7. Finally, in my upstairs office I pictured someone practicing the piano.

I had one or two other visuals, which I can’t remember. And that’s OK.

At recall time, I simply needed to walk through my home. The path would trigger the visuals. For example, the vestibule reminded me of a stream. In effect, that visual became a cue for the stream, the stream being a target. If you’ve read Cognitive Productivity, you will remember the reconstructible discriminative cue mnemonic system I developed based on Norman & Bobrow’s (1979) paper “Descriptions: An intermediate stage in memory retrieval”. (The “RD cue” system.) Norman & Bobrow pointed out that in order to be helpful, a cue must be reconstructible and discriminative. Reconstructibility means that the cue must have semantic properties that are inherent in and available at recall time. (As they note, this involves content addressable memory.) The creation of such cues is a form of meaningful encoding.[8] For example, the image of stepping in a river illustrates (and is not merely arbitrarily associated with) the Heraclitus quote. But the “river” is not just a target, it is a cue for the “No man ever steps in the same river twice” phrase, which itself is a meaningful cue for the idea it represents.

Notice that this is an example of assimilation, which is also known as the “best fit” approach. I have matched the Zen idea to Heraclitis. If there is a difference, I’ve lost it. (I invite Zen readers to comment about differences between the two.)[7]

The method of loci is demanding. Some of the cognitive demand interferes with dynamic comprehension, i.e., the second-by-second comprehension of a verbal stream. But some of it promotes comprehension, because it forces you abstractly to represent the streaming content. You might lose a bit, but that might be better than losing it all.

On Gist vs. Analytical Processing: And Being Here Now

An expert information processing principle, of course, is to seek the gist of what is being expounded.[9] Therefore, one needs to be careful while applying the method of loci not to lose the gist of a presentation.

The “here and now” is one such “gist” idea. It is key to mindfulness. I was quite aware of the superficial irony, that I alluded to above, of elaborately encoding Zen material. So I mentioned it wryly in the question period following Godfrey’s talk. Someone said in jest that I needed to be slapped on the side of the head to return to the present moment, evoking an earlier (apocryphal?) story of a Zen monk smacking his student who should have been in the moment. However, I maintain that when one is dealing with a lecture, rather than, experiencing, say, sex or a beautiful image, the moment primarily calls for connection with knowledge, and only instrumentally with perception or imagery.

Having said that, the normal adult mind is capable of a certain amount of parallel processing. One can take in timeless Zen concepts while thoroughly enjoying the ephemeral context in which they are being presented. At this particular event, I thoroughly enjoyed my company, Zen ambiance and all. I can recall them quite vividly. But I won’t bore you with a description of the details. Instead, I will attach photos to this post.

Further Processing of the Information: Inline Review, Question Period, Nachos and Beer

The method of loci, like all mnemonics, is utterly useless unless one practices recalling and decoding the images.

So, a couple of times during the lecture, I rehearsed my construction. I didn’t do this often or well enough to remember everything I wanted to. But I retained much more than I would have otherwise. I had several questions for Eshin Godfrey. I used imagery for two or three of them that I asked. This afforded more elaboration and rehearsal.

Later that evening, while my date and I were enjoying nachos and beer, we talked about the lecture. To nourish the conversation, I imagined myself walking through our Zen-adorned home. We had quite a lot of fun discussing the ideas, all the way home.


philosophy’s dreadful murderer, Buddha
Jack Kerouac

Zen and the Cognitive Productivity converge also on point 7, above. They both value practice and being. You practice offline to be better online. Acting with knowledge is a blend of practice and action. Zen is quite explicit about not getting lost in ideas. The point of knowledge is application. And that is the gist of Cognitive Productivity. To become effective at using objective knowledge (Popper’s World 3), it must become subjective knowledge (World 2′). We must become the knowledge. In other words, we must develop subjective mindware (virtual machinery) for it: monitors, cognitive reflexes, motive generators, motivators, management procedures, etc.

I don’t know enough about Zen to take these comparisons too far. The frameworks are not the same. Cognitive Productivity uses cognitive science, in particular AI. And it leverages several different concepts of practice (particularly in Chapter 7).

One of my background knowledge building projects is to develop AI concepts of mindfulness. I am using AI not in its narrow technological sense, but in the sense of the exploration of the space of possible minds, including human minds.

Cognitive Science

So how do the Zen nuggets relate to the cognitive science of creativity?

Well, cognitive science takes manifold approaches to creativity. Research having shown that people are fairly inaccurate at reporting their mental processes, empirical psychologists do not assign a lot of weight to self-reports. Popular thinking strategy instruction, in contrast, tends to rely on such reports, which is why it is often out of kilter with psychological reality; i.e., such instruction unfortunately tends to minimize the role of factual knowledge, experience, impressionistic knowledge, progressive problem solving (vs. reductive problem solving), and practice.

Cognitive scientists counter these weaknesses in many ways, including the use of “think-aloud” protocols. They also study historical records of the products of creativity in great detail.[10] They often rely on computer simulations to test their understanding. More generally, when cognitive scientists consider creativity, they do so in relation to a body of empirical and theoretical literature on other aspects of mind, in isolation from which creativity cannot be understood.

Certainly, a fair amount of calm, as emphasized by Eshin Godfrey, is required to process and create new knowledge. But so is an enormous amount of ground-work. Clearly, historical creativity [11] in knowledge work normally requires enormous motivation, years of hard work including careful study of the work of others, and above average intelligence. Communication, collaboration and often competition with other experts is often essential.

As Margaret Boden put it:

Creativity does not come cheap. Sometimes, it comes at a very high cost indeed. […] This commitment involves not only passionate interest, but self-confidence too. A person needs a healthy self-respect to pursue novel ideas, and to make mistakes, despite criticism from others. Self-doubt there may be, but he cannot always win the day. Breaking generally accepted rules, or even stretching them, takes confidence. Continuing to do so, in the face of skepticism and scorn, takes even more.

There’s no simple recipe for creativity. But there are concepts to understand it. Progressive problem solving and knowledge building are two of the key ones.

Photo by Lam Wong


Photo by Lam Wong


0. Admittedly, this opening quotation is rather oblique unless you’re familiar with Miller’s book, so I’ll note that it pertains to the chat scenarios with which I chose to illustrate the two themes of this post. Before the end of September, I’ll write about Miller’s The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature in relation to Robin Hanson’s “signalling hypothesis”, Helen Fisher’s Why we Love and my romantic love/grief research projects. Teaser: there’s something to their theories; but they’ve missed important concepts like effectance, which Cognitive Productivity explains in terms of architecture-based motivation.

1. Some would argue that taking mental notes is incompatible with a “be here now mindset”. But this depends on one’s mental capacity and notions of “here” and “now”. It’s not altogether true that one can live in the present. Mental state is all more or less remote memory. (Compare the notions of sensory memory, short-term working memory, long-term working memory, the multiple drafts view of consciousness, etc.) Although Zen folk emphasize the present, I assume they are aware of this. (I brought the issue up at the talk.) After years of processing information in a meta-cognitively sensitive fashion one can become adept at holding multiple streams of information in mind. Besides, some of one’s mental processing is part of one’s “experience”. In fact, that’s all one has access to: the products of one’s mind.

2 I agree that the idea of “self” is quite problematic. It shows up in philosophy, folk psychology and even scientific psychology. The Zen view seems similar to the idea that the self is a process. Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind and The Emotion Machine demonstrate that there is no single self. Self isn’t a single process either. Mind (self?) is a society of interacting mechanisms. Aaron Sloman has argued that “the self” is a bogus concept. I tend to agree with him, and rarely use the expression “the self” myself.

3. The concept of “sense” is a traditional concept. It is also used in some scientific contexts. However, there is a broader notion of sensory modality, of which there are more than six. Consider, for example, interoception (perception of bodily states and events), nociception (pain) and equilibrioception (balance). There is an even broader notion of “monitoring“. The mind has innumerable monitors. For instance, for each sense there are multiple monitors. Some monitors integrate information from multiple modalities. Some monitors are organized heterarchically (across hierarchies). Learning often leads to the generation of new monitors. The concepts of monitors is presented in The Computer Revolution in Philosophy and taken up in Cognitive Productivity.

4. Zen is an extremely realist conceptual system. Zen folk speak of direct perception which, I pointed out at the meeting, is an incoherent notion. We only perceive in levels of indirection. Neither evolution nor people nor other machines can create machines that directly perceive. But Zen is not the only one to fall into this trap. The eminent perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson did too. The direct perception fallacy is soundly refuted in Lamontagne’s Ph.D. thesis if I correctly recall (I have lost my copy).

Lamontagne, C. (1976). Steps towards a computational theory of visual motion detection: Designing a working system. School of Artificial Intelligence, University of Edinburgh.

But the point of this essay is not to take a stance. I’d need to better understand Zen. Moreover, as much as Zen emphasizes “one”, there are as many flavours of Zen as there are of tea.

5. I am unable to find that paper.

6. Deliberate practice is certainly a hallmark of expertise. However it is far more common in public performance disciplines (e.g., chess and music) than knowledge work. In chapter 7 of Cognitive Productivity I discussed deliberate practice with respect to knowledge work. In chapters 13 and 14 I developed the concept of productive practice.

7. Most comprehension is necessarily heavily biased by prior knowledge —more a matter of remembering what one previously knew than developing a new understanding. Frederic Bartlett’s (1938) Remembering is a seminal book on these properties of human information processing.

8. Several of the papers by K. Anders Ericsson that are cited in Cognitive Productivity deal with meaningful encoding.

Pressley & Afflerbach (1995) contains a large compendium of facts about expert reading, including experts’ tendency to seek the gist of a document. Those principles apply to processing verbal information as well. Cognitive Productivity summarizes and extends their compendium, while dealing with learning from electronic and other sources.

10. Thagard (1992) in Thagard (2012).

11. Personal creativity is creating knowledge or other artefacts that are new to oneself, but not necessarily to humanity. Historical creativity involves personally and historically new creations.

Related posts


Apologies. I don’t have time to flesh the bibliography out completely.

Beaudoin, L. P. (2015), Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. BC: CogZest.

Boden, M. A. (2004). The creative mind: Myths and mechanisms (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Fisher, H. (2005). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. (iBooks version). Available from https://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/why-we-love/id569886738

Kerouac, J. Dharma Bums.

Lamontagne, C. (1976). Steps towards a computational theory of visual motion detection: Designing a working system. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK.

Miller, G. (2000). The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Anchor.

Norman, D. A, & Bobrow, D. G. (1979). Descriptions: An intermediate stage in memory retrieval. Cognitive Psychology, 11(1), 107–123. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(79)90006-9

Minsky, M. L. (1986). The society of mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Minsky, M. L. (2006). The emotion machine: Commonsense thinking, artificial intelligence, and the future of the human mind. Hew York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Pessoa, L. (2013). The cognitive-emotional brain. MIT Press.

Popper, K. R. (1979). Objective knowledge. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Pressley, M., & Afflerbach, P. (1995). Verbal protocols of reading. London, UK: Routledge.

Sloman, A. (1993a). Prospects for AI as the general science of intelligence. In A. Sloman, D. Hogg, G. Humphreys, D. Partridge, & A. Ramsay (Eds.). Prospects for Artificial Intelligence, (pp. 1–10). Amsterdam, Netherlands: IOS Press.

Thagard, P. (1992). Conceptual revolutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thagard, P. (2012). The cognitive science of science: Explanation, discovery, and conceptual change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

2 thoughts on “Tea, Zen, Creativity and Taking Mental Notes with the Method of Loci”

  1. I received an email from Lam Wong saying:

    > There were few more points that came up I remember from the talk that are missing from your notes…
    > ‘Heart/Mind’ – the importance of feeling of Openness, and mind being beyond concepts and intellect.
    > “Wu Wei” – non-attachment. or non fixating or holding to any ideas/judgements.. (the reason I remember is I pointed at the Calligraphy scroll behind Eshin during the talk).

    It is easy to see how one could create method of loci images for them…

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