Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Getting it off the tip of your tongue

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memory training

The key to remembering stuff is to pay attention. As it happens, most of us find it really, really hard to pay attention very frequently, or for very long. Those who we say have "a good memory", actually have a better-than-ordinary ability to pay attention.

Paying attention is like exercise; it takes effort. We naturally prefer a life free of effort. I don't like to exercise, but I do so. When I was little, my mother used to drive my brothers and me to do some calisthenics, most days. We all got to busy by the time I was ten or so, and I didn't do much deliberate exercise until recently. One thing that helped was that I could get a little free "personal trainer" time from people at the YMCA, who showed me now to exercise more effectively, how to get the most benefit from my time there. I still don't like it much, but I sure like the results, so I keep it up.

Harry Lorayne is a personal trainer for our memory. He is also pretty good at self-promotion, as you can see at his web site. He's an olympic-level memory athlete, and he's a good enough explainer that thousands and thousands of folks can actually learn his techniques.

He has written several books, including The Memory Book, which was a best-seller for about a year. His latest is Ageless Memory: Simple Secrets for Keeping Your Brain Young. This appealed to me; I have memory concerns in three areas. Firstly, I am from a family prone to Alzheimer's Disease, yet I've read about the Nun study and other work that shows even severe Alzheimer's can be partly overcome in someone with a rich mental life. Secondly, I got big holes in my memory as a result of chemotherapy in 2001. It happens less now, but I still sometimes go completely blank about "where I was going" in the middle of a sentence. Thirdly, I am over sixty, and thoughts of the hereafter (like "what did I come in here after?") are growing.

I like Lorayne's writing style. He keeps it interesting, and the useful facts keep right on rolling along. His 29 chapters are based on three main ideas, developed to suit more than twenty kinds of things you might wish to remember.

Each chapter ends with a short "mind-power exercise". My favorite is (in my own words):
You have five bags of fifteen coins each. One bag contains counterfeit coins, the others are all genuine. A genuine coin weighs 30 grams, and a counterfeit coin is one gram lighter. Having an accurate digital scale, how would you make a SINGLE weighing to determine which bag has the counterfeit coins?
This was one I worked out myself, thus:
  • Mark each bag with a number, 1 through 5.
  • Take one coin from bag 1 and mark it with a 1 (use a wax pencil; it can be washed off).
  • Take two coins from bag 2, and mark them with a 2; do the same for all bags.
  • You'll wind up with fifteen marked coins. Weigh them all at once.
  • 15 x 30 = 450 grams (almost a pound). The actual weight will be between one and five grams less, depending on how many counterfeit coins are in the group being weighed. The number of grams deficit is the number of the bag of counterfeit coins. All done!
Now, the three ideas are simple to state, but you'll find that the author's explanations make it easier to apply them. Each is a method for paying attention of a particular kind.
  1. Linking Exaggerated Images. Turn each item you want to remember, into something you can visualize.
  2. Pegging. He has assembled 100 words to go with the numbers from 1 to 100, that each convey a visual thought. Link an image related to a memory, to a peg, to get a list you can recall in any order, just by first thinking of the number. This is great for meeting agendas.
  3. Digit and Letter Translation. The Digit part of this is particularly useful for remembering numbers by converting them phonetically to words. My work phone number translates into "must chop like Samuel", which is actually easier to remember, at first, until a few uses of the translated phrase move the number itself into long-term memory.
The ideas are powerful in combination: you meet me, notice I'm tall and bald, hear my name, and my phone number. Rather than write it down, you could conjure up a silly image to go with my appearance (I won't mind; this goes on inside your head, so what do I know?), another surprising word or two for my name, link them together, and attach them to the phrase for my phone number. This sounds like a lot, but the author states it can be done in less than a second, once one has had some practice.

I learned the first two techniques when I took the Dale Carnegie Course years ago. The first was called Stacking, but is the same in principle as Linking. Carnegie uses a different set of Pegging words, and only has 21 of them, but that has been enough for my uses. I seldom use more than five pegs.

A word to those who find the idea of mental exercise daunting: Even a little is better than none. We need to realize that Harry Lorayne is prone to this, so he has an intimidating amount of ability. I remember taking "Seven Habits" training from the Stephen Covey Institute (now Franklin Covey). I learned the habits, pretty well. In Dr. Covey's book about the seventh Habit, "Sharpen the Saw", he writes of taking a bike ride to a nice park, where he sat down with his planner to dig out an item or two of his own Habits that he could improve. I thought, "Good grief! He actually likes this stuff!!" It just didn't fit in with my idea of spending time in a park. I suspect Lorayne is similar. I don't expect to become like him, but it is good to learn a little from him. I've noted down the Digit Translations and intend to learn it. What more can he ask?

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