head scratching

11 steps to a better brain – memory

See 11 steps to a better brain for the other 10 steps.

Mind like a sieve? Don’t worry. The difference between normal people and those with exeptional memory is more a matter of application and some tricks than mental capacity.

Lets imagine an auditorium that is filled with 1000 people. As they leave, they each tell you their name. An hour later, you have to recall them all. Could you do it?

I for one would balk at the idea and fail miserably, probably after the second one, though that may be primarily due to my lack of mental organisation. But in theory we are probably all up to doing stuff like this.

It just needs a little technique and dedication. Yeah right!

First, learn a trick from the ‘memonists’ who routinely memorise strings of thousands of digits, entire epic poems, or hundreds of unrelated words.

When Eleanor Maguire from University College London and her colleagues studied eight front runners in the annual World Memory Championships they didn’t find anything to show that these people had especially high IQs or unusually configured brains.

But, while they were memorising, these people did showed increased activity in three brain regions that become active during movement and navigation tasks but are not normally active during simple memory tests.

This may be connected to the fact that seven of them used a strategy in which they place items to be remembered along a visualised route.

These are able to harness more of their their brain for a simple function and so have more brain power on tap.

When I was at college I studied anatomy, and had to memorise the entire pathways of arteries, nerves and veins, and what muscle it slipped under or around, and what was the name of the mark on the bone it passed along. Get the picture? Complex. Impossible.

Using a story that had the first letter of every word indicating something in the path, myself and all the other students were able to memorise these seemingly impossible-to-remember chains of encounters.

To remember the sequence of an entire pack of playing cards for example, the champions assign each card an identity, perhaps an object or person, and as they flick through the cards they can make up a story based on a sequence of interactions between these characters and objects at sites along a well-trodden route.

Actors use a related technique: they attach some emotional meaning to learning lines. Everyone always remembers highly charged emotional moments more than less emotionally loaded ones.

Helga Noice, a psychologist, and Tony Noice, an actor, who together discovered this effect, found that non-thespians can benefit by adopting a similar technique.

Students who paired their words with previously learned actions could reproduce 38% of them after just 5 minutes, whereas rote learners only managed 14%.

I had a friend who knew ten languages and when I asked him how he did it, he said that he always learned words in pairs, like hot cold, wet dry, so his learning speed effectively doubled.

The Noices believe that having two mental representations gives you a better shot at remembering what you are supposed to say.

By Mark O’Brien 2015, taken from an article originally published in New Scientist Magazine, Issue 250

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