This is an opinion editorial by Thorbjørn König, a principal product designer with a sole focus on creating great user experiences for bitcoin products and services.
One of the more curious features of bitcoin is that if you are able to memorize 12 or 24 words, known as a recovery phrase or seed phrase, you can essentially hold your bitcoin in your head.
The motivation behind creating a mnemonic phrase, complementing the existing and not so human-friendly, binary and hexadecimal representation of the seed, was to create a group of easy to remember words, which could easily be written on paper or spoken over the phone.
The introduction of the mnemonic phrase has given rise to a wealth of self-custody products and services — the reasoning being that you should never be relying on your memory alone to access your wealth.
These self-custody products and services come with a set of security and user experience challenges themselves.
We have been developing for a specific challenge — secure encoding, storing and retrieval of a string of words, providing solutions for people that are mostly logical-mathematical oriented.
People are different though, and for a subset of people it is easier to memorize musical tones, shapes, objects or motion, than it is to memorize words. For these people, new mnemonics, such as musical or spatial mnemonics — would present a more meaningful user experience.
New mnemonics would require novel self-custody solutions for secure encoding, storing and retrieval of information — presenting a new opportunity for software and hardware developers and designers.
Having an understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, preferences and aversions, can help us single out individual tools for learning and memorizing.
Our brain, consciousness and understanding of self, is one of the most contended spaces of contemporary science — and pop-culture alike.
Following this is some of the thinking behind personality types, learning and memory — which can assist us in building new mnemonics and the accompanying self-custody solutions.
Although not entirely conclusive or unanimously accepted by the scientific community, there is something here worth our attention.
Left-Brained Versus Right-Brained
Psychobiologist Roger Sperry discovered that our brain has specialized functions on both hemispheres, and that the two sides can operate practically independently — for example he discovered that language was controlled by the left-side of the brain. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his split-brain research.
Over the years this has been over-generalized by popular psychology, stating that people are either left-brained or right-brained.
More recent research suggests that while the brain’s hemispheres have distinct processing styles, mental processes are shared among both sides — they do not function exclusively, but complementarity.
For example, math abilities are strongest when both brain hemispheres work together.
Still, the left brain hemispheres tend to manage many aspects of language and logic, while the right brain hemispheres tend to manage spatial information and visual comprehension. And most people have, if not a dominant brain hemisphere, then at least a distinct individual preference for activities related to one of the two brain hemispheres.
Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner challenged the notion that there is a single type of intelligence with his theory of multiple intelligences.
He argued that we each have several types of intelligences, at varying levels of proficiency, such as; linguistic intelligence; logical-mathematical intelligence; spatial-visual intelligence; bodily-kinesthetic intelligence; and musical intelligence.
Note that the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences are the most valued in school and society.
Linguistic Intelligence: Is sensitive to the spoken and written language, easily learns languages and uses language to achieve goals.
Logical-mathematical: Analyzes problems logically, performs mathematical operations and investigate issues scientifically.
Spatial-visual intelligence: Recognizes and manipulates the patterns of wide space, as well as patterns of more confined areas.
Bodily-kinesthetic: Uses the whole body or parts of the body to solve problems.
Musical intelligence: Is skillful in the performance, composition and appreciation of musical patterns.
Now we can explore the alternative expressions of the classic mnemonic phrase — with the personality types and various intelligences mentioned above in mind.
The mnemonic we know and love — 12 or 24 words. Introduced with BIP39.
Often managed by the user alone, preferably secured on stainless steel, but in many ill-considered cases simply written down on paper.
Also, several self-custody services stand ready to assist you — should you find yourself losing sleep over being your own bank.
All the above with the add-on possibility of memorizing the string of words yourself.
An example of a mnemonic phrase, 12 words:
More inclusive bitcoin self-custody products and services are needed.
Braille is a tactile system of touch reading and writing for the visually impaired, in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet.
Braille is read by moving the hand or hands from left to right along each line.
Numbers are generated by placing the Braille number sign # before the Braille letters “A” (#A = 1) through “J” (#J = 0).
This mnemonic phrase:
alpha — day — december — valid — abstract — stone — panda — industry — robust — culture — kidney — youth
Would be this in Braille:
.. and so forth.
Some Braille Resources:
- The Bitcoin white paper, transcribed in Braille, including tactile diagrams.
For years, the South Korean company Dot Inc. has been innovating with tactile communication — a few real world examples:
Dot Cell/An Electromagnetic Tactile Actuator — the world’s smallest and most cost-efficient Braille cell. Due to its compact and modular nature, the use cases for the Dot Cell are endless.
Dot Watch/6x Braille Cell — The Dot Watch lets you experience time in a completely new way: without sound, just by yourself. Truly, a new sense of time.
Dot Pad/300x Braille Cell — Access visual content from any source. For the first time, you can feel your handwriting, sketches and signature.
Dot Pad Developer Center/SDK Guide/Sample Code/Dev Tools — Develop a whole new category of accessible applications for the first real-time tactile graphics display.
Mnemonic Phrase/ELIA Frames™
Of the 8.4 million people who have a visual impairment in the US — only about 60,000 of them can read braille. Meaning, 99.1% of people who have a visual impairment can’t read Braille, the reason mainly being that they lost their vision as adults. For many, the learning curve is too steep.
ELIA Frames™ is a new tactile reading system — an intuitive and easy to learn alternative to braille — particularly for people who learned how to read regular text before losing their vision.
Hello World — set in ELIA Frames™:
Easy to read, also for people with 20/20 vision. Albeit a bit harder to write.
Here’s a mnemonic phrase:
alpha — day — december — valid — abstract — stone — panda — industry — robust — culture — kidney — youth
Now set in ELIA Frames™:
.. and so forth.
When director Denis Villeneuve began working on the science fiction movie Arrival, he and his team turned to real-life computer scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram to assist with authentic science.
Christopher specifically was tasked with analyzing and writing code for a fictional nonlinear visual language.
Early on, the Wolframs cut the logograms into sections of — 12.
Wolfram’s software can identify and track complex shapes, creating a bank of known words or thoughts.
Only a handful of the logograms have translations, but it would be possible to build out a larger vocabulary. The designs and tools are in place. All that’s missing is the will — and a lot of patience.
As grammar is a rule-based system for phrases and sentences — shape grammars are rule-based systems for describing and generating designs.
Shape grammars generate designs by computing directly with shapes in two or three dimensions, rather than with symbols, words, numbers or other abstract structures that represent visual shapes indirectly.
Shape grammar development begins with a vocabulary of shapes — and the definition of spatial relations between these shapes, constraining the ways that vocabulary elements may be combined with one another.
Origami (折り紙) is the art of paper folding, which is often associated with Japanese culture.
Origami is interesting in that it encompasses both the visual and the tactile, often accompanied with an emotional facet — strong features when it comes to memorization.
Also — it holds endless combinations of shapes, easily 2048.
Paul Jackson has written over 40 books on paper arts and crafts. He has taught the techniques of folding on more than 150 university-level design courses in the U.K., Germany, Belgium, the U.S., Canada and Israel.
He has also been a “folding consultant” for companies such as Nike and Siemens. He is the founder and director of the Israeli Origami Center.
Origami holds great object characteristics and could potentially be captured, identified and managed by an object capture API — of sorts.
LEGO is an abbreviation of the two Danish words “Leg godt,” meaning “Play well.”
Playing with LEGO is a spatial, problem-solving and joyful experience.
Walking barefoot on a LEGO brick is also an experience, and strangely enough also one we are looking for — more about adrenaline spikes and long-term memory in the section on neurochemicals.
There are 46 possible combinations with two two-by-four LEGO bricks — of which two are unique. All the other combinations have doubles, which can be achieved by rotating the lower brick 180 degrees, so the number of different combinations is 2+(46–2)/2=24.
We need a lot more than 46 combinations, and adding just one extra two-by-four brick (462) will get us there. 2,116 in total — above 2,048 — given we do not rotate them — which will give us 1024-bit encryption.
Reducing the number of bricks from 24 to 12 with no rotation also gives us 1024-bit encryption.
Mnemonic designs add, through their tactility, an additional (albeit wafer-thin) encryption layer. You need the physicality of the objects present — in this case three two-by-four LEGO bricks.
Oh — and braille bricks.
There are more than 3,000 Pantone® colors that cover the full spectrum — with each swatch assigned a unique number and name.
So, if you struggle with the color itself, you might remember its number or name — Ashes of Roses, Desert Flower, Mother of Pearl ..
An option could also be to simply add a Pantone® color and name to the existing BIP39 word list — to assist your memory.
Director and performance artist Ryan Heffington’s ability to create a connectedness between viewer and performer earned Sia over 2 billion views for Chandelier — making it one of the most watched music videos in history.
Heffington’s choreography was embodied by the then 11-year-old dancer, Maddie Ziegler.
Heffington created a bitesize monologue which break down the routine in words and choreographic phrases:
Morse code, morse code
You’re getting higher
Eyes with mouths
Wounded dog in one of those wheelchairs
A familiar tear, a repetitive tear
Don’t attempt this at home
Gluttonous and lonely
Wax on, wax off
Fork, fork, stab it in the wall, throw it out
Come to look
Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin
Cockroach up the wall
Clear your mustache
And you have eaten too much again
Somebody put baby in the mother fucking corner
Sip you up
Loose your breath
Same problem, different angle
The veil is lifted
We’re letting you in on our joke
“My favorite phrase of his is — A wounded dog in one of those wheelchairs — at that moment I realized how visceral and specific those moves are and why audiences respond so strongly to his choreography. It’s absurd, but it’s real life.” — Andrea Sisson, director
Ryan Heffington also choreographed the dance movements in the deeply strange Netflix series The OA — here the movements functioned as a phrase to open a portal to another dimension.
This is done by capturing the movements of a person in real time with a mobile device, potentially identifying and managing these movements and poses as input to an object capture API of sorts.
Sound is defined as a vibration which propagates as an acoustic wave, through a transmission medium like a gas, liquid or solid.
There are five basic characteristics of sound waves: wavelength, amplitude, frequency, duration and velocity.
Note and tone are two terms which are related to the frequency of sound waves. The note is the absolute pitch of a sound, and corresponds to a particular frequency. The tone is defined as the sound that is recognized by its regularity of vibrations.
A major or a minor scale, derived from universal acoustic principles, has seven notes, accompanied with seven basic syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti.
In “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind,” Composer John Williams wanted to use seven notes, but Spielberg considered it to be too long for a simple greeting, so it became five tones instead; re, mi, do, do, so — the second “do” is an octave below the first.
The musical phrase transforms over the conversation, going through a number of variations, such as changing the register, octave and tone color — exploring a basic tonal vocabulary.
The five tones were chosen by Williams after trying a few hundred of over 100,000 possible five-note combinations available in the 12-tone chromatic scale.
Rarely all 12 tones are used, most music uses the 7-tone or diatonic scale to divide octaves, and much of folk music uses five tones.
A mnemonic composition consisting of 24 variations, with five tones each, would give us well above 2,048. 1024-bit encryption also works.
“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” — Nikola Tesla
Hertz (Hz) is the unit of frequency and is defined as one cycle per second. Humans normally hear sound frequencies between ~20 Hz and ~20,000 Hz. Low bass to high treble.
The 12-tone chromatic scale contains frequencies from around 16.35 Hz to 31,608 Hz, although frequencies above 8,000 Hz are not considered fundamental frequencies.
Cymatics is the study of visualizing audio frequencies — by vibrating the surface of a plate, diaphragm or membrane, holding a thin coating of particles, paste or liquid, different patterns emerge on the medium, depending on the applied frequency. The higher the frequency, the more intricate the pattern. It’s an interesting mix of sound and form.
When an audio signal is fed directly into the oscilloscope, vector graphics are drawn with sound.
It is an exact representation of the same waves that reach your ear as sound waves — the closest possible correlation between sound and image.
Hansi Raber has developed a software program called OsciStudio, which converts 3D objects from blender (open source 3D software) into sound to display them again on an oscilloscope. The software can be played easily as a MIDI instrument and runs on Windows or Mac.
Output is in 2D on the oscilloscope but could potentially be displayed or printed in 3D as well. Again, it is an interesting mix of sound and form.
Of the mnemonic compositions, the cymatics and the oscilloscope are probably the most challenging, in respect to developing a working self-custody product — nonetheless, they’re interesting building blocks.
Chunking allows people to take smaller bits of information and combine them into something more meaningful and memorable — in a sense hacking the limits of their working memory. Like, a phone number sequence of 4–1–5–5–4–3–8–9–7–7 chunked into 415–543–8977.
Chunks are often highly subjective, since they are based on individual perceptions of, and experiences with, the set of information. Chunks generally range from 2–6 items.
People typically struggle with holding more than 5–9 items in their short-term memory, let alone long-term memory.
Memorizing 24 words, shapes or musical tone variations is close to impossible for most people — memorizing half of that is possible but still a serious challenge.
Can we use chunking to make them easier to remember?
Say we have a 1:1 connection between two different kinds of mnemonics, for example a mnemonic design and a mnemonic phrase, so the first LEGO brick combination is equal to the word “alpha,” the second LEGO brick combination equal to the word “day,” and so forth.
And then mix them:
So that the above are experienced as the below — 6x LEGO with names:
In the order:
design — word — design — word — design — word — design — word — design — word — design — word.
Select a mix that reflect your personal learning preferences:
word — tones — word — tones — word — tones — word — tones — word — tones — word — tones.
Mix it up even further, with an additional mnemonic:
design — word — tones — design — word — tones — design — word — tones — design — word — tones.
Resulting in 4 objects, each holding a name and a set of tones.
As humans we have the ability to store and retrieve information we have learned or experienced — we refer to this as our memory.
Our memory can broadly be divided into three different types of memory — short-term memory, medium-term memory and long-term memory.
If we want to be able to retrieve our private keys from our memory, potentially over a timespan of years, we need to investigate how we can improve our long-term memory.
This video includes some interesting points from Dr. Andrew D. Huberman, an American neuroscientist and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Repeat And Review
One of the best ways to learn something is to simply repeat it over and over — this goes for everything from the physical exercise of juggling a soccer ball to the mental exercise of remembering a string of words.
This is also where the concept of the learning curve comes from, learning something often starts out being slow and seemingly impossible, then over time accelerates and turns into something that you master with relative ease. Practice makes perfect.
When learning something new, you need to continuously review what you learned to strengthen the encoding, or you will struggle with memory retention. The gaps between your reviews can be longer as time goes on. Some refer to this as the forgetting curve.
Emotional resonance enhances memory — both positive or negative emotions such as love, fear, joy or pain. Anything that gives your body and mind a boost of adrenaline, reduces the need for extensive repetition.
Exercise is great for both your body and your mental health, but it can also help your memorization. Up your pulse with a hard run.
This is the same reason that any kind of deliberate cold exposure, like a cold shower or an ice bath, will strengthen your memorization.
Caffeine intake falls into this category as well, giving a measurable spike in adrenaline.
Emotion should be connected to the learning experience itself, adding focus and intensity. Exercise, cold exposure and caffeine should be applied a short while after the learning experience for optimal effect. Preferably 10–15 min. later.
Note that it would be counter productive to add a boost both before and after the learning experience — it is not the amount of adrenaline in the body over time that speeds the learning process up, but the difference in adrenaline, before and after the learning experience.
Everything from taking a short 20 min. nap, up to 2–4 hours after a learning experience, to a more focused meditation or non-sleep deep rest (NSDR), can enhance learning.
Where a quick nap is something most people can see themselves doing, the high-focus state of meditation and the low-focus state of NSDR takes a bit more, well, learning. Also, expect that it can take up to 8 weeks before the effects of steady practice of meditation and NSDR manifest.
Anyone who designs for humans should consider all aspects of this — from the limitations of short-term memory to the interactions between humans, technology and the surrounding society.
Our brains differ when it comes to memorization and preferences for how we interact with technology. And, as builders of self-custody products, we should embrace this aspect of reality, so that we can give every one of our users a both joyful and meaningful experience.
Design for all humans, with all our individual differences in mind.
This is a guest post by Thorbjørn König. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.