May 11, 2006

Miraculous memory for mere mortals

If you're looking to significantly augment your memory skills, but don't have the patience to wait for a cybernetic memory implant, mnemonic techniques may be the answer.

By using special memorization techniques, perfect memory (also known as photographic or eidetic memory) is not required to recall amazingly long strings of information -- which at any rate is a freakishly rare (and from an evolutionary standpoint, possibly maladaptive) cognitive condition. Moreover, memorization grandmasters themselves admit that powerful mnemonics are the keys to their success.

And we're not just talking about using Roy G. Biv to memorize the colour spectrum. With the right techniques, combined with some time and practice, the human brain au natural is capable of some astounding feats of memory.

S. V. Shereshevski, for example -- a guy who claims to have no special cognitive abilities -- is able to memorize the first 31,811 digits of the mathematical constant pi using mnemonics. Others claim that regular schmucks like you and me can -- with about 250 hours of practice -- use mnemonics to go from memorizing 7 digits to more than 80.

How is this possible?

Memory is a funky thing. Aside from thinking awfully hard and closing our eyes real tight, what are we really doing when we try to pull a piece of data out from our memory banks? Much of our capacity for memory is latent; it's a fairly subconscious and passive activity.

Part of it is in accessing virtual lists that we've created in our minds. Data is loosely categorized and stored in "chunks" for somewhat on-demand, but often imperfect, retrieval. Over time trivial information tends to lose its linkage to the conscious realm. It's still there in our brains, we've just forgotten that those memories are there and we don't make attempts to recall them. By contrast, more vivid and important memories are rarely forgotten. There's probably a very good evolutionary reason for this.

Another aspect to memory is how the visual cortex is involved. Memories have increased durability and are more readily fixed in one's mind when they are given a visual association. Consequently, memory techniques are often designed to take advantage of the interplay between the visual cortex and memory retrieval. For example, you will have a better chance at remembering a long number if you associate a picture with that number than if you simply try to remember the numerical string on its own.

In conjunction with this, teachers and memory experts suggest using what is called active recall. This is the learning practice in which memories are stimulated during the learning process itself. Using this technique, students are encouraged to overtly express the information learned (e.g. answering a question) rather than just passively absorbing the information (e.g. reading).

For more intense memorization tasks -- like the ones confronting the competitors at the World Memory Championships -- mnemonic peg systems are utilized. A peg list is a list of words that are pre-memorized and are easily associated with a number or object. To rapidly memorize a list of arbitrary objects, each object is associated with the appropriate peg. The neat thing about this system is that a peg list only has to be memorized once and can be re-used any time a list of items need to be memorized.

Here's a rhyming example of a peg list (from Wikipedia):

* 1-gun ----->Visualize the first item being fired from a gun
* 2-shoe----->Visualize an association between the second thing and shoes
* 3-tree----->Visualize the third item growing from a tree
* 4-door----->Visualize the 4th item associated with a door
* 5-hive----->Visualize the fifth item associated with a hive or with bees
* 6-bricks--->Visualize the sixth item associated with bricks
* 7-heaven--->Visualize the seventh item associated with heaven
* 8-plate---->Visualize the 8th item on a plate as if it is food
* 9-line----->Visualize yourself fishing with the 9th item on your line
* 10-hen----->Visualize the 10th item associated with a chicken.

Once you've memorized each object with its associated number, you can use it to remember the following grocery list of 10 items:

* milk-->Picture a stream of milk being fired from a gun
* eggs-->Picture an egg wearing shoes
* butter-> Picture sticks of butter growing from a tree
* bread--> Picture a door made from bread
* Catsup-> Picture bees flying from a catsup bottle
* Beer---> Picture a brick house with beer cans where the bricks should be
* Toilet paper--> Imagine A roll of TP with angel wings and a halo
* Soap----->Picture a bar of soap on a plate- yum
* Razor Blades-->Picture yourself reeling in a razor blade as if it's a fish
* Batteries--->Picture a mechanical hen that runs on batteries

The memory grandmasters take peg lists like these to the next level, pre-memorizing custom peg lists that contain hundreds and even thousands of associations. It enables better visual associations and even allows for cognitive data compression techniques (it's like Winzip for the brain). Using these techniques, a shuffled deck of 52 cards can be memorized by experts in just under a minute. Other tasks at memory competitions include memorizing poems, names and faces, binary digits, dates, random words, and so on.

As remarkable as these techniques are, however, the simple truth of the matter is that human memory on its own is rather unremarkable without these specialized mnemonics. It takes considerable dedication and patience to attain the level of skill used by these competitors.

And while today we use a number of external prosthetic memory devices to help us, like palm pilots and computers, they are clunky, tedious and time consuming. Cybernetic prosthetic devices, on the other hand, will be a welcome and elegant advance to human cognition. Unlike the psychological condition of eidetic memory – an ability that can't be turned off and subsequently causes great torment for persons who have it – a cybernetic device could be activated only when the memory needs to be recalled.

It's hard to predict how memory implants will change human thinking and even consciousness itself, but it's fair to say that it likely won't be subtle.

For more mnemonic techniques, go here.

Tags: , , , , , , .

No comments: