Archive for March, 2011

How the Memory Champs Do It

March 30, 2011

In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1 Joshua Foer describes the memory techniques that memory champions use and that he emulated in his preparation for participation in the U.S. Memory Championships. A familiarity with mnemonic techniques or with the postings under the Healthymemory Blog category “Mnemonic Techniques” would be helpful in understanding these techniques.

To become a Grand Master of Memory, the following requirements must be met:

Memorize a list of 1,000 random digits in one hour.

Memorize the precise order of ten shuffled decks of cards in one hour.

Memorize the order of one shuffled deck in less than two minutes.

Memory competitions involve additional tasks such as remembering lists of words, the names of pictures of individuals, and poems.

I was surprised by the prominent role that the Method of Loci (see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Memory of Loci”, it was the first posting in this category so consequently it is at the bottom of the “Mnemonic Techniques” posts) played. They use the strategy of creating what they term “memory palaces.” A memory palace could be your home. You would place items you wanted to be remembered in different locations in your house and form a mental image of the object in specific locations. When it came time to recall, you would simply take a mental walk through your home and see the images of the different items as you examined the part of the house in which you had placed them. Obviously a memory palace need not be a palace or even indoors. You could take a mental walk in a familiar park forming mental images of the items you wanted to remember in different locations throughout the park. These memory experts use an extraordinary number of these memory palaces. I found it interesting that about a week before an important competition, they would mentally clean out these memory palaces from the items they had placed there so they would not be unwanted intrusions in the memory competitions. I did find this reliance on the method of loci surprising. I usually present this method as a matter of historical interest. For myself, I’ve found numeric pegwords more useful for remembering lists of items. This requires having a system for recoding numbers (see the blog posts “Remembering Numbers,” “More On Remembering Numbers,” “Three Digit Numbers,” and “Remembering Even Larger Numbers.” I’ve used numeric pegwords developed using these techniques in lieu of the loci provided by memory palaces. I’ve found this more convenient, and you can recall the precise numerical order of any item without having to take a mental walk through some memory palace. Regarding remembering numbers, Foer credits Johann Winkelmann for developing this technique known as the “Major System” around 1648. My references (see Blog Post “Remembering Numbers” credits Pierre Hergione (1540-1643) a French mathematician and astronomer with eventing the technique. It is possible that they developed their systems independently, but the systems appear to be identical, Perhaps Winkelmann plagiarized the system or was improperly credited with its development.

The Person Action Object (PAO), Einstein Walking on the Moon for example, is another technique, although the fundamental forming of mental images is central to all mnemonic techniques. These images need to be vivid. Bizarre and/or obscene images can be quite effective. I found it curious that the PAO system was used to remember numbers. For example, Frank Sinatra might be used for 34. The number 13 could be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. And 79 could be Superman. So 791334 could become an image of Superman kicking a soccer ball into Frank Sinatra. So unique arbitrary images are used for these number. A unique PAO image is developed for each number from 0 t0 99 is created. Advanced mnemonists might generate unique PAO images from 0 to 999. Why they do this rather than relying on the Perionne or “Major System” is beyond me. Perhaps they want an independent system to avoid confusion. I don’t know. But compared to these guys, I’m a village idiot.

What is interesting is the time needed to become proficient enough in these techniques to compete in a world championship and have any chance of winning. Foer practiced about four hours a day. He also used earplugs and goggles that restricted his field of view to focus his attention. He employed what is termed deliberate practice where the focus was on remediating errors and increasing speed and proficiency. So when a performance plateau is hit one needs to challenge oneself by practicing failing and putting onesself in the mind of someone more accomplished with the task. One needs to maintain some conscious control to improve and not remain on autopilot. Actually four hours a day is a reasonable amount of time to spend in an activity at which you hope to be expert. It is remarkable that Foer was able to achieve the proficiency that he did in what was a little less than a year.

Although it takes an extraordinary amount of commitment to be able to compete on a national or world level, it does not take that much time to benefit from mnemonic techniques. Usually in a simple experiment where one group of people is given a memory technique and another group is not, the benefit of the memory technique is quite apparent. To achieve some immediate benefit should not take much effort. The greater the proficiency desired, the greater the effort that needs to be extended. The techniques presented in this Healthymemory Blog should be quite helpful. And since they require creativity, imagination, and recoding, and that they force you to attend and to used both hemispheres of your brain, they should provide helpful mental workouts.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Moonwalking with Einstein

March 27, 2011

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1 is one gem of a book. Its author, Joshua Foer, is one remarkable individual. This book was an exercise in participatory journalism. The memory of participatory journalism I have is George Plimpton‘s Paper Tiger. Back in the sixties George Plimpton convinced the Detroit Lions that they allow him to participate during the preseason. So he worked out as a quarterback and, if memory serves me correctly, took a couple of snaps during an exhibition game. He wrote a book about this time from which a motion picture was made. Although this was entertaining, it was a lark as Plimpton clearly participated in an activity to which he didn’t properly belong. Joshua Foer became intrigued about the competitive memory circuit after attending the World Memory Championships. After consulting with a variety of experts he decided to take it upon himself to train his memorization skills so that he would be able to participate in the U.S Memory Championship. This was a daunting undertaking. For example, the world memory champion, Ben Pridmore, is able to memorize the precise order of 1528 random digits in one hour. To become a Grand Master of Memory, of which there were 36 at the time the book was written, the following requirements must be met:

Memorize a list of 1,000 random digits in one hour.

Memorize the precise order of ten shuffled decks of cards in one hour.

Memorize the order of one shuffled deck in less than two minutes.

The memory championships involved a variety of tasks that are described in the book and each of them requires their own preparation. Joshua had what we would regard as a normal memory. He was willing to learn the mnemonic techniques that the experts employ and to bring them to the proficiency so that he would be a credible competitor at the U.S. Memory Championships.

Moonwalking with Einstein chronicles his journey from novice to participating in the championship in a most entertaining fashion. Along the way he addresses many interesting issues, issues that will be discussed in subsequent posts to the Healthymemory Blog. However, I would advise you against relying on this blog for learning the content of Moonwalking. I cannot do justice to the book. You would be missing a great read.

For the ancient Greeks mnemonic skills were an essential component of rhetorical skills. In pre-literate societies stories were memorized and historical records committed to memory by skilled memorizers. A skilled memory was essential to scholarship until the printed word became commonplace. Ever since then reliance has been increasingly placed on transactive memory, a term Foer does not use. Transactive memory refers to external storage media like paper, books, journals, storage media, the internet, and even fellow humans. Our brains remain biologically capable of doing what the ancient Greeks did. I should take pains to point out that although the title is Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, the book argues that remembering everything would be a mistake and might be a personal handicap. But it is also most likely a mistake to rely almost exclusively on transactive memory. The book states that on average, people squander forty days annually compensating for things that they have forgotten. Although the book is fairly well documented, I do have to regard this particular claim with skepticism. I would be willing to accept “ a lot” rather than the precise estimate. But there might be even more compelling reasons for making greater use of biological memory. The Healthymemory Blog argues that mnemonic techniques provide a good means of exercising our cognitive skills to include focusing attention, creativity, imagination, and recoding. They activate memory circuits and exercise both hemispheres of the brain.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Remembering Names of People

March 23, 2011

The basic problem for most people is that we do not pay attention to the name when the person is introduced.  Usually we are thinking of what we are going to say or some other aspect of the situation and we miss the name.  So the first rule to remember people’s names is to pay attention when we are introduced or first hear the name.  It is good to repeat the person’s name when you are introduced.  Most people will be flattered when you express interest in their name.  So if you ask a question about it, you will both flatter the person and strengthen your memory.  By now you know that to remember something you need to make it meaningful.  .  Some names are inherently meaningful, for example, Rose, Temple, Church, Carpenter.  Take advantage of this.  You also know that forming mental pictures or images enhance memorability.  So you could imagine the individual holding a rose, going into a temple, going into a church, or working as a carpenter.  Concentrate on the sound rather than the spelling of the name.  Consider the following names and how easy it is to form a mental image of them:  Taylor, Cook, Barber, Skinner, Glazer, Pacer, Blocker, Fisher, Shepherd,  Potter, Mayer, Forman, Judge, King, Noble, Winter, Sommer, Spring, Snow, Rains, Bagel, Crown, Bridges, Turner, Brown, Miller, Coyne, Glass, Bell, Tucker, Katz, Bolling, Frett, Powers, Freed, Hart, Stamp, Walker, Graves, Berry, Gill, Storm, Rich, Post, Marsh, Moore, Roper, Hyde, Prince, Park, Price, Holliday, Colt, Rodes, Fawcett, Holland, Bush, Bushman, Martini, Land, Baker, Brooks, Porter, Love, Mailer, Tanner, Baron, Ashe, Banks, Allwood, Tower, Crater, Fountain, Hedges, Bloom, Starr, Burr, Fairweather, Feather, Lemmon, Cobb, Roach, Cruz, Plummer, Trapper, Bateman, Gates, Bellow, Rivers, Keyes, Bishop, Goldwater, Ford,  Booth, Foote, Trout, Gallup, Carver, Potts, March, Bolt, Garland, Byer, Angel, Farmer, Brewer, Webb, Dancer, Flagg, Bowler, Spinner, Nichols, Bowes, Silver, Gold, Frank, Marshall, Lane, Boyle, Knot, Teller, Steel, Bacon, Klapper, Pullman, Archer, and Kane.  There are many more, these are just some examples.  Some other names can be made more memorable with a little elaboration.  Smith, a common name, is one that is especially embarrassing to forget.  Smith can easily be elaborated to blacksmith.  Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt are also hotel names so you can form a specific image for each hotel.  See if the sound of the name can be converted into an image that you can then combine with the image of the person or certain features on a person’s face.

            Another technique is to see if the name is shared by someone who is famous. 
For example, if the name was Hooper, you could think of the actor, Dennis Hooper.   Given all the famous and historical people there are, this provides a rich source of remember names.  Consider the following names:  Winfrey (Oprah), De Niro (Robert), Spears (Britney), Hughes (Howard),  Kidman (Nicole), Brokaw (Tom), Parton (Dolly), Picasso (Pablo), Armstrong (Louis), Beethoven (Ludwig Von), Mozart (Wolfgang), Warhol (Andy), Hoffman (Dustin), Bancroft (Ann), Brooks (Mel), Allen ( Woody), Gable (Clark), Cooper (Jackie), Marx (Groucho, or Chico, or Harpo), Streep (Meryl), Redford (Robert), Reiner (Carl or Rob), Seinfield (Jerry), Bonds (Barry), Castro (Fidel), Lee (Robert E), Aaron (Hank), Williams (Ted), Mantle (Mickey), Jeter (Derek), Rodriguez (Alex), Torre (Joe), and Sinatra (Frank).  Former Presidents can also be used, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt (Franklin or Teddy), Lincoln, Washington.  They key here is that you be able to form a clear image of the former President or any famous person you are using to help you remember the name.  You form an image of the person you are trying to remember with the famous person sharing the same name.  There is no need to match for sex or age, all you need to is to form an image so that when you see the person, it triggers the image and you are able to recall the name.  Do not overlook the obvious.  If the name is meaningful, associate the person with an image of the sound of the name.  If the person shares a famous name, form an image of the person interacting with the famous personage.

            Still, there will be many names that are new and strange and do not immediately suggest an image.  These names require a little work in recoding the sound of the name so that a meaningful image can be formed.  Consider the recodings for the following names:

Dembowski                 a donkey (Dem for Democrat) with a bow on a ski

Rudolph                      the red nosed reindeer

Wellington                  imagine beef Wellington if you can’t imagine the Duke

Gibbons                       imagine primates playing

Rossitter                      someone sitting on roses

Lewyckyj ( pronounced loo wit ski)   someone in the lou drinking whiskey wearing skis

Bordelais                     a lay of flowers placed on a border

Lembo                         someone dancing the limbo

Harrington                   someone issue a harangue from a ton of steel

Leifester                      someone lying faster and faster

Now try generating your own images based on the sounds of the following names:
















If you had problems with any of the above, here are some suggestions

Altman            an old man

Caldwell          a cold well

Eckstein          ink making a stain

Forbes             four bees

Hamilton         hammering a ton

Ingram             pouring ink on a ram

Lieberman       a man laboring, a labor man (union organizer?)

Nugent              a new gent (a new gentleman to whom you have been introduced)

Pomerantz       a palm tree surrounded by aunts

Zimmer            a pot simmering

Kim                 imagine your next of Kin with M&Ms

Ku                   image a coup

Yu                   imagine a large letter “U”

Rodriguez       picture a rod reeking of gas

Lopez              picture someone who lopes

However remembering names is only part of the problem. The name usually needs to be associated with a face. Linking the mnemonic to an image of the individual will work, if you can do it.  Another technique that was advocated by the famous mnemonist Harry Lorayne was to link the mnemonic to something conspicuous or salient in the person’s face. 

Suppose you meet a lady with a broad nose named Hamilton. You could form a mental picture of someone hammering a ton on her nose.

Suppose a Mr. Forbes has a distinctive hairline. You could imaging four bees coming out of his hairline.

You encounter a Mr. Zimmer whose most distinguishing feature is a deep indentation from the center of his nose to the center of his upper lip (this is called a philtrum). You could form a mental picture of a pot simmering in this indentation (philtrum).

Let’s consider a Mr. Ingram next.  Perhaps the most distinctive features on his face are his large, bushy eyebrows.  You can imagine a ram pouring ink on his eyebrows.

Now consider Ms. Lembo.  She has an upswept hairdo.  You could imagine someone doing the limbo on the top of her hairdo.

Next consider Ms. Coldwell.  She has a tunnel-like, or inverted V-shaped hairline.  You could form a picture of some drawing water from a cold well in this tunnel.

Now consider Mr Kim.  You can picture in his mouth his next of kin eating M&Ms.

Notice Ms. Ku’s hair.  You can imagine a coup taking place in her hair.

Here is Ms. Yu. You can imagine large letter “”U’s” placed around her hair.

This is Mr. Rodriguez.  You can imagine a rod reeking of gas coming out of his nose.

This is Ms. Lopes.  You can imagine someone loping across her eyes.

The more information you can associate with the person, the better the overall memory.  So what is important about the person?  Knowing the occupation or the position someone holds is important.  Recoding and forming images to remember are not always necessary.  Of course, you can form an image of this person performing her job it you find this helpful.  Knowing the person’s hobbies and interests is another plus.  Again, you can form images of the person with her hobbies and interests if you find this helpful.  Knowing if the person is married and how many children, and of what kind and ages these children are good things to know.  If you find images helpful here, fine.  But the very act of devoting the time and attention to remember this information will facilitate memory.  Not only will this facilitate memory, but it will also facilitate your relationships.   Being able to recall this information and to work it into the conversation demonstrates to the individual that you both know and care about them. 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Will Baby Boomers Be More Vulnerable to Scams?

March 20, 2011

I recently read an article1 stating that the elderly are more prone to scams. Three reasons were given: More Trusting, Loneliness, and Memory Loss.

This made me wonder whether baby boomers will be more trusting. We were supposed to be more skeptical to begin with. My personal experience has increased this skepticism several orders of magnitude. For years I had been promising myself that I would read the annual reports that were sent to me as a stockholder. I was just starting to do this when the Enron scandal broke. That taught me that reading these reports was futile.

We have bought several homes in our lifetime. Each experience was traumatic to me. I worried about the debt I was assuming. However, I reasoned to myself that these mortgage companies would not make foolish loans or they would lose money. But one of the primary reasons for our recent financial crisis was that the mortgage companies did not care because they sold the mortgages to conglomerates that either did not know or not care what risk they were assuming. During our most recent home purchase I was amazed at the amount of debt that they would let us assume. Now I understand. They did not care if we defaulted because by that time the default would be someone else’s problem.

Then there is the financial crisis itself. It appears that deregulation and the scant enforcement of the regulations that existed were primary factors underlying the crisis. But the reforms that were passed were weak and in the view of most knowledgeable individuals, inadequate. Moreover, the recent elections indicate that it is even less likely that adequate protections will be provided.

Then there are the defaulted pensions. First were the companies that went into bankruptcy and defaulted on their pension obligations. I had thought that there were government agencies to assure that pension funds were adequately funded. Either there were not such agencies or these agencies were remiss in fulfilling their objectives. Now we have state and local governments revoking or modifying commitments that had been made to their employees.

So current events should have disabused baby boomers, at least, of being more trusting.

Peter A. Lichtenberg of Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology has said that his research indicated that loneliness or feeling undervalued that increases a senior’s risk. of falling for scams by 30 percent. Now Healthmemory Blog readers should realize that transactive memory involves the interaction with other humans. There are benefits here not only in the knowledge gained, but perhaps more importantly, in the interaction and building of relationships with fellow humans. The knowledge and confidence gained through interactions with both the technological and human aspects of transactive memory should also boost self esteem.

As for memory loss, the objective of the Healthymemory Blog is not only to forestall memory loss, but to promote cognitive growth. By continuing to learning about new topics and learning new skills memory health is promoted. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be aware of the benefits of nonconscious processing. Sleep on a decision before making it. Transactive memory involves interactions with both technology and fellow humans to build social relationships and to continue to grow cognitively. Mnemonic techniques are presented that not only provide a direct means of improving memory, but also provide a good means for cognitive exercise. Even if disease should strike, having a cognitive reserve should forestall the rate of progress of the pathology.

1Kirchheimer, S. (2011). Brain Games. March, 26. 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Google Art Project

March 16, 2011

I find searching for online art frustrating. Most of the websites are commercial, and that is not surprising. Should any readers know of sites that are good just for viewing art, please leave comments. For the future, however, the Google Art Project1 bodes well. Google is using its “street view” technology. Frankly, I was freaked when I first saw my neighbor’s house when I did directions on Google. I have tried a few “virtual galleries” in the past, but have been disappointed. Navigating them was difficult and the art seemed to loose quality.

Google promises to remedy these shortcomings. The “street view” technology allows the viewer to stroll through a gallery or museum and browse. But the viewer can choose to zoom in on pieces of interest. A gigapixel process is employed. On average, there are 7 billion pixels per image. This is a thousand times more than the average digital camera. In the digitized version of Whistler’s “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain” it is possible to see the faintest trace of white paint Whistler used to make his subject’s eyes glisten, as well as the nubby, gridlike texture of the canvas. Clearly, Google is offering a much more vivid rendering of online art than has been previously available.

Julian Raby, the Director of the Freer Gallery said that “the giga-pixel experience brings us very close to the essence of the artist that simply can’t be seen in the gallery.” Brian Kennedy, the Director of the Toledo Museum of Art, said that these giga-pixel images can bring out details that might not be visible to ordinary museum-goers in a gallery, but that scholars would still want a three-dimensional view of art.

Kennicott, the author of the Washington Post article, gave the technology a mixed review. During the walk-through images often appeared to be washed out and grainy. Navigation also presented some problems. I think that Google is working on these problems.

So far Google has teamed up with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Frick Gallery in New York, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art in DC, as well as museums in London, Madrid, Moscow, Amsterdam, Florence, Berlin, and St. Petersburg (Russia).

The Google Art Project is currently available, although it does require perseverance and the clicking on links on multiple menus. Go to Click the “more” link. Then click “even more”. Then click “labs”. Then you should find the Art Project Powered by Google. There is a video, click on learn more, explaining how to use the Google Art Project. You have the capability of saving paintings and building your own collection. We’re anxious to hear your comments and opinions.

1Kennicott, J.P. National Treasures: Google Art Project Unlocks Riches of World’s Galleries. February 2 Style Section, C1. also 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Flash Seminars: A Good Idea

March 13, 2011

Laura Nelson is a senior at the University of Virginia. She has won a Rhodes Scholarship. She was disappointed in the paltry number of students who were interested in learning outside the classroom. It seems that the general attitude regarding higher education is its utilitarian value. You go to college to get a good job so you can earn more money so you can buy more expensive things. Articles are written analyzing whether the cost of a college education warrants its benefits. So education seems to be regarded purely in materialistic terms. When I taught college classes and asked students why they were taking the class, the typical answer was to get a job. Few students seemed to be interested in the actual topic of the class. But there is substantive value in a college education in terms of intellectual growth. This can lead to better jobs, but, more importantly, it can provide the basis for personal growth and for being a better citizen.

To redress this shortcoming, Laura and her colleagues came up with the idea of “flash seminars.”1 They would invite a favorite professor to present a seminar on a topic of interest. She would publicize the seminar via e-mail and students would come. And they did come, which belies the notion that all students are attending college solely for its utilitarian value.

It occurs to me that this activity can be extended beyond university campuses. It could be conducted in meeting halls, libraries, or even individual homes. A knowledgeable speaker or moderator could be invited and an announcement could be sent to potential participants. Of course, the topic would be included in the announcement with perhaps some relevant references and websites. Then attendees could do some advance research. There are so many benefits here from the perspective of intellectual growth and building a healthy memory. Both technical and human transactive memory are involved. The benefits are both intellectual and social.

The topics need not be esoteric. They can involve sports, the theater, movies, even social topics if you are willing to risk addressing contentious issues.

1Some of this blog post is based on the following article in the Washington Post. By Daniel De Vise. A U-VA student’s bright idea. B1 February 21, 2011 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


More on the Dangers of Information Overload

March 9, 2011

I recently read another article on the dangers of information overload. In my view there cannot be too many articles on information overload as this is a serious problem. This Newsweek article1 is quite good. It reported the reseach of the Director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, Angelika Dimoka, who employed brain imaging (fMRI) techniques to examine how the brain respond people are trying to make decisions when they are severely overtaxed. She found that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and the control of emotions, suddenly fell off when the information load increased. It was similar to a circuit breaker popping. Now activity in the parts of the brain registering emotional activity, the parts of the brain normally kept in check by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, ran wild. So the research participants made stupid decisions and their anxiety levels soared.

The article also points out that this concern with information overload is not new. Leibniz bemoaned the “horrible mass of books which keeps on growing,” in the 17th Century. In 1729 Alexander Pope warned of “a deluge of authors covering the land.” But the problem today is many, many orders of magnitude larger, both respect to the amount of information and the rapidity with which it arrives.

The article notes that one reason for this limitation is the limited capacity of short-term memory. One way of looking at short-term memory is the number of items that we can attend to at one time. Here is where the Magic Number 7 Plus or Minus Two, created comes in. Actually subsequent research has indicated that the true magic number might be 5 or even lower. An important factor is the nature of the items to be remembered. It is prudent that you do not consider more options at a time than is warranted by your magic number. So if more items need to be evaluated, it is good to evaluate them in groups, with run-offs, if necessary.

Another ramification of this limitation in short-term memory is that recency trumps quality. So there is the risk of a poorer choice being made simply due to the order in which the options were considered. So in addition to considering options in groups, also consider the order in which the option was considered.

When the number of options is large, it is good to resort to transactive memory. That is, write things down, use a spreadsheet, whatever. Try to develop a systematic scoring system to evaluate options.

The Newsweek also mentions the neglected unconscious. Provide sufficient time to allow your unconscious mind to work for you. The article presents evidence supporting the benefits of unconscious processing. Also remember that making the optimal decision is often not realistic. Be satisfied with satisficing, the process identified by the Nobel Lauerate Herbert Simon. Be satasified with considering enough information to assure yourself that the decision is satisfactory and should not lead to disappointment.

1Begley, S. (2011). I Can’t Think. Newsweek, March 7, 28-33.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Pseudo-Limitations of Mnemonics

March 6, 2011

I’ve recently reread an article by Higbee, “Some Pseudo-limitations of Mnemonics.1” This article reminded me of the resistance that has, and presumably continues, regarding the use of mnemonic techniques. So I am using Higbee’s article to refute this limitations.

One pseudo-limitations is that mnemonics are not practical. There is much information to the contrary. Mnemonic techniques provide a good means of dealing with absent-mindedness, remembering people’s names, remembering numbers and dates, in learning foreign vocabulary, as well as in other educational applications.

Another criticism is that mnemonics do not aid understanding. Although it could be argued that mnemonics can aid understanding, it should be conceded that in learning a new subject there often is a problem of learning new vocabulary and terms that appear to be meaningless. Mnemonics provide a means of rendering the meaningless meaningful. So mnemonics can be quite helpful in the early stages of learning. As the student progress and as what was once meaningless becomes meaningful, the need for using mnemonics diminishes. No one advocates using mnemonics all the time. But for certain tasks and for certain stages of learning they can be quite helpful.

A third criticism is that mnemonics are a crutch. But so is writing something down, what the Healthymemory Blog terms using transactive memory. Yes, they are a crutch, but technology is also a crutch. There is a very interesting educational problem here. One might argue that with the proliferation of handheld computers, one need never remember anything provided they new how to look it up. That is a rather extreme position. There is likely an epistemological need to maintain some information and knowledge, other than knowing how to look things up, in one’s personal memory.

A fourth criticism is that mnemonics are a trick similar to the tricks done by magicians. Although both mnemonics and magic are a part of show business, that provides no reason for discounting either of them. Cognitive psychologists have started studying magic tricks to learn about human information processing. Mnemonics are used in show business, but they were essential to knowledge and oratory in the time of the ancient Greeks. They remained a central part of education until the ramifications of the development of the printing press and the availability manifested themselves. What happened was that technological “crutches” replace mnemonic “crutches.” There remains the question of how extensively these technological “crutches” should be used.

The Healthymemory Blog, being about healthy memory advocates the use of mnemonic techniqus as a mental exercise. Mnemonics involve creativity, recoding, visualization, and employ both hemispheres of the brain.

Please peruse the offerings under the “Mnemonic Techniques” Category. The blog post, “A Memory Course” provides a suggested order in which to read the Mnemonic Techniques postings.

1Higbee, K. L. (1978). Some Pseudo-limitations of Mnemonics. In Gruneberg, M.M., Morris, P.E., & Sykes, R.N. (Eds.) Practical Aspects of Memory. New York: Academic Press.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

To Remember It, Sleep on It

March 2, 2011

A recent article1 reports an interesting experiment2 illustrating the role of sleep in memory. They had 191 adults perform different memory tasks, for example, learning word-pairs. Approximately half of the adults were told to expect a memory retest 9 hours later. The remainder were misled and told that they would be performing a different kind of task. Both groups were re-tested and those who expected the retest recalled 12 percent more word pairs than those who slept with no expectation of a test. Their brain waves were monitored during their sleep and those who were anticipating a test exhibited more slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep is known to be linked to memory consolidation.

Sleep alone did not significantly improve memory. Those participants who were not expecting a retest performed just as badly regardless as to whether or not they had slept before the exam.

The principal author of the report, Jan Born of the University of Tubingen, noted that “There is an active memory process during sleep that selects certain memories and puts them in long-term storage.” Another memory researcher, Penny Lewis of the Univerity of Manchester who also studies sleep said that the study is “very convincing.” She also noted, “It looks like if you tell someone something is important, it gets enhanced more.”

Historically, sleep has presented a mystery. We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping and the question has been why. Sleep is both necessary and beneficial. It has been theorized that memory consolidation is one of the benefits of sleep. This study indicates that an intention to learn improves memory consolidation during sleep.

I have read that Leonardo da Vinci would go over his notes before going to sleep. Apparently, he had some insight that doing so would cause his mind to keep working on this information during sleep. This would appear to be a good general process.

Students should realize that one of the worst ways to prepare for a test is to pull an all-nighter. Sleep is critical to test performance. So get the studying out of the way before going to sleep and let the enhanced memory consolidation proceed.

1(2011). Sleep Sorts the Memory Wheat from the Chaff, New Scientist, 5 February, 8.

2Born, J. (2011). The Journal of Neuroscience, DOI:10.1523/jneurosci.3575-10.2011. 

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