Pre-Information: The Essential Step to Rapid Learning

(Spoiler alerts for The Karate Kid (1984) but if you’ve had over thirty years to watch it so I don’t know what else to tell you.) 

“Hey Sensei, is there any way in particular you want me to wash these windows?”

“No, I don’t give a fuck.” shouts Sensei Johnny Lawrence from the Cobra Kai Dojo in the final seconds of the trailer for Cobra Kai, the Netflix series (2018-present) and the 30+ year-in-the-making sequel to The Karate Kid (1984).  

The avid fan of The Karate Kid will immediately recognize what this means. It marks the symbolic moment in the trailer that reveals what themes the show will explore. To the unfamiliar viewers, watching the show for the first time, the reference to the initial film will fly right over their heads, lost. And with it, a subtle metaphor for one of the show’s most important themes. 

The 1984 film, The Karate Kid, is the story of a boy from Newark named Daniel LaRusso who moves to California with his mom. At his new school, he gets beat up by the star karate student from the Cobra Kai Dojo, Johnny Lawrence. This propels him to learn karate himself under a mysterious man named Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi trains LaRusso for the All Valley Karate Championships, where he will have the chance to defeat Lawrence and the rest of the Cobra Kai, thus gaining him respect at his new school. 

At the start of their training, rather than learning punches or techniques, Mr. Miyagi asks LaRusso to wash windows, paint fences, and shine cars, but with a particular technique. Daniel, frustrated that he is not explicitly being taught karate, begins to walk away in frustration, when Miyagi asks him “show me wax on.” Daniel does the motion of waxing the car, and as he performs the motion, Mr. Miyagi throws a surprise punch. Daniel’s “wax on” motion throws Miyagi’s fist to the side.

Daniel has learned karate by waxing cars. With these good habits and basics his karate foundation, he (SPOILER ALERT) defeats Lawrence in the finals of the All Valley Karate Championships.

Over thirty years later, Lawrence is now the sensei of Cobra Kai, and, when given the opportunity to teach his students like Miyagi did, he clearly scorns that teaching style to the side to opt for a different approach.

And, that becomes the philosophical difference in the teaching styles between Mr. Miyagi (and later Daniel LaRusso, who takes over “Miyagi-Do Karate”) and Johnny Lawrence and the Cobra Kai Dojo.

(I’ve written about, because of these philosophical differences, how I would train young karate students.)

That moment is a symbolic manifestation of how the two senseis teach their students. And, their teaching styles signify a huge portion of the broader moral and social implications for the main characters. But if you weren’t familiar with the original film, you would’ve missed this subtle reference, and therefore, the message.

Beyond just the grand meaning of the show, Cobra Kai scatters throughout the show many other moments that mirror the initial film. In the opening episode, Johnny Lawrence saves his future student Miguel from four bullies, just as Mr. Miyagi did for Daniel. At the school halloween party, the whole scene mimics the initial show, from the costumes to the sequence of events. The true Karate Kid fan will be pointing at the screen at each parallel moment, relishing the possible nostalgia or just enjoying making the connections.

Without The Karate Kid, the Cobra Kai viewer lacks what George Steiner is his work After Babel calls “pre-information.” Steiner describes pre-information as “dealing with the problem of necessary and sufficient context, with the amount of prior material required to understand a given message-unit” (Steiner, 11). That’s a wordy way of saying, what you need to know beforehand to fully appreciate and understand a piece of content (whether a film, a text, a joke, et cetera). 

In the case of the Cobra Kai series, the experience and understanding hit their full effect if you are familiar with the 1984 film. By having the requisite pre-information, you’re pointing at the movie screen every five minutes because of the callbacks to the initial film. 

Steiner discusses pre-information in the context of interpreting texts, because often as readers, we are living in a different time and culture than where the text came from, hindering our understanding of it. For example, Steiner points out examples of “false etymologies,” words with different meanings and connotations now. We as modern-day readers likely lack the context to fully understand the texts. Perhaps my lack of pre-information is why I just can’t get into Shakespeare at times, an example Steiner uses with the play Cymbeline. But a Shakespeare scholar reads his plays with the same, or more, context that I have when I watch Cobra Kai. Somewhere in those Shakespeare plays, I’m missing the brilliance of its “wax on” moments.

In 2019, I was in Barcelona for the spring visiting friends and family. One Saturday afternoon as my best friend and I strolled through the streets, we saw signs for “free museum day.” Instead of spending our afternoon at the beach or a bar (or a bar at the beach) we decided to wander into the city’s museums. After walking around staring at some paintings, we exited a museum and I said, “Man, I just don’t get museums.” When I stared at a painting, all I saw was a goddam painting. I didn’t know what it meant, or the context, or half the words in Catalan in the description of it. “That’s cool” I would think as I stared, nodding my head to look like I knew what was going on before moving on to the next one. That sums up how I felt about paintings my whole life. I just didn’t get it. And that remained true when I stared at Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs.

Pieter Bruegal Netherlandish Proverbs

There’s a lot going on in this painting. And clearly I understand none of it. Is that woman in the left hand corner strangling a devil? Who the hell knows. I quit. I still don’t get art.

But then I read a bit about the piece. The painting is named as such because it contains dozens and dozens of proverbs played out in a literal form. Once I had a guide to read all the proverbs and could zoom in on each of them, I found myself laughing my ass off. I actually found an old painting funny. That’s right, funny. And it’s all because of pre-information. I now had the context and background to understand this. 

I mean, c’mon, look at some of these:

They both crap through the same hole

“They both crap through the same hole.”

For some reason I’m just imagining Bruegel in a cool hat or something giggling as he painted two people literally crapping from the same hole, and he’s the bastard who gets to paint it and call it important art. The bloody genius. The proverb, I learned, means they are inseparable friends.

sitting on hot coals

“Sitting on hot coals” 

(Also, a disproportionate number of these have to do with the human behind, I don’t know what’s up with that. )

This painting even contained a layer of pre-information beneath the pre-information. The first layer was the list of proverbs that accompanied the painting, easily found with a Google search. But some of the proverbs have snuck their way from the Dutch lexicon of centuries ago into our culture’s tongue. I recognized and enjoyed seeing the depictions of the ones I personally use and hear.

Pieter Bruegel spilt porridge

This guy spilled porridge, but we still say, don’t cry over spilt milk. Don’t cry over spilt porridge either.

Bruegel has taken some of the most popular proverbs in history and condensed them all into one hectic painting. For your enjoyment, you can see the full meaning of the proverbs in this video. Without the pre-information, I had no clue what I was looking at and was confused why two people had their butts hanging out of the side of the house.

Pre-information affects the way we perceive everything in our life. Film, paintings, and books make up the obvious examples, but we relate to any incoming input through our pre-information. In copywriting, the art of selling through words, the goal of the copywriter is to write about a product or service in a way that will persuade the target audience to invest in the product. The good copywriter builds on sound writing while using a repertoire of strategies taken from fields of study from psychology to sales. Examples of copywriting strategies range from scarcity, to urgency, to one powerful technique that relies completely on pre-information: anchoring.

Anchoring is a fundamental part of the sales and copywriting process because without anchoring, the potential customer has nothing to draw to. Even the word, “ anchoring,” is a visual way to compare the product to something similar, to remind the reader of something they know to help them better understand the product or service.

The book The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss is a book on accelerated learning taught through the lens of cooking. Tim decided in the marketing and sales copy for the book to anchor it by comparing it to two other books. The promotional copy reads that The 4-Hour Chef  is like Eat, Pray, Love meets Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, is an exploration of food through a nonfiction/memoir lens, and Zen is also a book about the learning process, but through motorcycles. People familiar with both of those books will already have a good idea of what they’re getting into: It’s not a typical cookbook, it’s about exploring the learning process through cooking. If that appeals to you, you may not need to hear anything else. Tim also used anchoring in one of the book blurbs featured on the back cover: “If you crossed Jason Bourne with Julia Child, you’d end up with Tim Ferriss.” In other words, a cooking and teaching expert meets a thrilling action guy. Just with those two anchors, you know a lot about The 4-Hour Chef. In copywriting, the anchors are chosen based on who we want to understand it. Self-help junkies, one of the target audiences of The 4-Hour Chef, will also likely know those two books, making it most powerful for who the target audience is.

Anchoring is also used in copywriting for a strategy called “price anchoring.” Numbers can be abstract, and the human mind struggles grasp the significance of numbers as they get larger. With COVID-19, we see that. 250,000 deaths may sound a lot less staggering then, “we’re averaging a 9/11 every three days.” In copy, we do that with price, by comparing the product to something the customer likely frequently spends money on. I run a fitness company that sells ebook fitness programs, which sell for around $30. To a fitness audience that eats Chipotle three days a week, I anchor it as the cost of just three burrito bowls (less than three if you add guac). I also know our audience always adds guac. Their pre-information on the cost of the ebook tells them that $30 really isn’t a big deal because they have no problem tossing out that money for burritos. Hopefully, this makes them think about whether it would be a better investment to get a program with weeks of workouts or get three burritos. In split-tested sales pages, the ones with price anchors consistently outperform sales pages that don’t.

Copywriting, though, or more broadly sales, is just an example of how our psychology functions through anchors and pre-information. In psychology, there’s a phenomenon known as distributed representation or distributed processing, which explains that no meaning can be captured by a single unit in our brains (McClelland et al). Rather, our brains light up in all kinds of areas which add up to be an unmistakable object. For example, how do we recognize that a taxi is a taxi? We see four wheels which light up one part of our brain, the yellow another, the advertisement on the top another, and the big “T” on the side door. By consolidating each part of the taxi, we recognize without any thought that it is indeed a taxi. With a normal car, our brain will light up many overlapping areas, but maybe we’ll see a black finish and determine that it’s a car. Their distributed representations have a lot of overlap, but enough difference that we can easily distinguish them. By recognizing parts we do know, our pre-information, we combine them as a unit and put a label on it. But what happens if we see something new that we don’t have a word for? What’s an Uber? It’s like a taxi but you call it on your phone. That’s an anchor based on our pre-information.

Pre-information is inextricably a part of our lives because that’s how our brains work. It functions in distributed representations, recognizing familiar things in the world and trying to make sense of unknown quantities or concepts by comparing it to something we do recognize. Through distributed representations, everything we observe in the world goes to our brain and overlaps with whatever it can cling on to as familiar.

Because pre-information spawns new connections, more broadly it spawns all new learning. When a master chess player is at their craft, they can often play blindfolded. To a non-chess player, that is simply dumbfounding, in some ways, mythical. It is too far out of a novice chess player’s conceptual scheme to even find a way to relate to it, at least in chess terms. There’s no previous knowledge they can layer on top of a distributed representation in order to make sense of it. But to an advanced player, they might be able to connect that to their experience even if they haven’t reached that level. They can visualize a position by saying, “Oh, this is Sicilian Najdorf variation where black attacks by pushing the a and b pawns.” Even if it’s a bit outside their conceptual scheme still, they have enough overlap in the distributed representation to begin to make sense of it. Over time and with practice, those connections help bridge new learning, and eventually blindfolded chess. The beginner chess player, in order to learn, will have to draw on something they do have pre-information to, which will be much less advanced than playing chess blindfolded. What if the learning process could be accelerated by deliberately trying to connect new information with pre-information?

Research on note-taking has shown that processes which require you to reach into your bank of previous knowledge leads to better recall, memory, and application of the new information (Luo et al). For example, hand note-taking has been shown to be more effective than taking notes on a computer. Why? One possible reason, suggests learning expert Jim Kwik, is it forces you to shy away from writing verbatim, and instead sum up concepts in your own terms (Kwik). These terms you come up with, inevitably, will be more grounded in your past experiences. Your own words act like your anchors for the new information.

Kwik goes on to suggest that the most successful note-taking involves much more than writing down the notes from the class, but also contains a deliberate section dedicated to connecting the information to what you previously know. He calls this note-taking method “capture and create” (Kwik). He suggests dividing your notes into two sections, the verbatim notes, and your thoughts on it including anything it reminds you of. By anchoring the new knowledge to something that’s already a part of your conceptual scheme, you can always go back to your pre-information to remember and understand it, like the chess player who can see complex chess positions in their mind because they’ve played similar positions hundreds of times before. “Create” notes include your personal thoughts. Phrases like “This reminds me of…” and “That’s like…” serve as jumping off points to add your connections. Not only can pre-information make us enjoy art more, as we ground the information and make connections, but they also help us learn more. By connecting what we know, we create fewer steps for our brains to understand new concepts. 

Perhaps we need to make connections to learn at all. As in the chess example, blindfolded simultaneous exhibitions by master players are well outside the average person’s pre-informational scheme. There’s nothing to latch on to in order to understand it, so it seems mythic. Nothing makes sense, then, unless we can somehow relate to it. Actually writing out the connections stirs the secret sauce in note-taking, sure, but in the second to second interplay of thoughts connections are always forming. 

One day I stood on a New York City subway and heard a foreign language swirling around me. It wasn’t a romance language, because I have enough pre-information to recognize those. It was some language completely outside my scheme of understanding. I had nothing to grasp whatsoever. It reminded me of opening a textbook in a language with a different script. The learning and understanding stops there until I can get more information on the meaning of the symbols and find a way to relate it to what I know.

In that way, our language is the most important pre-information we have at our disposal. New York runs on a common pre-information of the English language. That’s how I know which subway goes where and in which direction, and how I interact with most of the city’s people. We operate with a common set of pre-information. If you take that common background away, the learning process slows down in that moment. In Barcelona, where the subway signs are in Catalan, I have to take a second to confirm the messaging before I hop on the train.

As I sit here and rewatch Cobra Kai, relishing in the details I missed the first time around, I think about how it all connects to more of the world around me. Books, film, paintings, and more all build up our understanding of the world, give us the foundation and the tools to then make connections across art and disciplines.

It has become some virtue-signaling point of pride for some people to say they don’t watch TV. But, television and cinema form some of the strongest touchpoints for making connections. And, these have the extra advantage in that, they’re not only personal touchstones, but cultural touchstones. Just like a common English language, there’s a common understanding of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and other immensely popular films in the American culture today. Without that common touchstone, we lose out on the opportunity to learn from those around us, as they relate to the world through those same cultural touchstones. By ignoring them, we may lose out on the chance to connect with others, to understand how they relate to the world, and thus, an opportunity for us to relate to them. 

There’s a maxim that now borders cliché, that I’ve read in the preface of about a hundred self help books, “Standing on the shoulders of giants.” Nearly every author discusses the influences that made their work a reality. Inevitably, of course, the book wouldn’t exist without the help of the people who “paved the way” for them. But, it goes deeper than that. We’re on the shoulders of every tree in the wind we’ve watched, every stroke of the brush of the paintings we’ve observed, every little inside joke in Cobra Kai. We’re on the shoulders of all of it. And without the information that has comes before us, that has allowed to move through life collecting knowledge, consolidating it, connecting ideas and information together like the way the subway lines connect at Times Square, we would be lost like a beginner chess player learning how the pieces move, while we get crushed by a blindfolded Grandmaster. 

References

Kwik, Jim “How to Take Notes For Rapid Recall” Kwik Brain Podcast, 1 May 2017, https://jimkwik.com/kwik-brain-013/

Hurwitz, Jon. “Cobra Kai.” Trailer 1, 2018. 

The Karate Kid. Directed by John G. Avildsen, performances by Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, William Zabka, Columbia Pictures, 1984

Luo, Linlin & Kiewra, Kenneth & Flanigan, Abraham & Peteranetz, Markeya. (2018). Laptop versus longhand note taking: effects on lecture notes and achievement. Instructional Science. 46. 10.1007/s11251-018-9458-0. 

McClelland, J. L., & Rumelhart, D. E. (1985). Distributed memory and the representation of general and specific information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 114(2), 159–188. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.114.2.159

Rissman, Jesse, and Anthony D Wagner. “Distributed Representations in Memory.” Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 63, 2012, pp. 101–128. 

Steiner, George. After Babel. Oxford University Press, 1975. 

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