Memory

The art and science of memory: a journey towards remembering everything

Memory is everything we have. We are our memory and humans have been constantly searching for ways to improve memory. Mnemonics, a technique that boosts memory, has been around for centuries. Sherlock’s mind palace is but one example. It is more professionally known as “the method of loci”. The method of loci was extensively used by the ancient Greek and Roman orators. Together, with “the major system”, these two techniques perhaps are the most popular mnemonics.

About four years ago, I tried them and managed to remember pi to 1,100 digits within a week, by practicing some 30-60 minutes a day. Joshua Foer, another guy, also tried these techniques. He managed to train himself to be a professional mental athlete and won the United States Memory Championship. You can find his personal experience in his book Moonwalking with Einstein: the art and science of remembering everything.

Mnemonics is not just an art, but also a sound science. Earlier this year, Martin Dresler at Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany published a study on mnemonic training in the journal Neuron. Using fMRI, he showed that a six-week mnemonic training changed subjects’ brain networks and made their brains activities more like those of the world’s top 50 memory athletes. The training consisted of daily 30 minutes of a web-based program using the method of loci. Dresler found that the training dramatically improved the subjects’ memory performance, so that they could remember over three times more words than control subjects who did not attend the training. Meanwhile, after training, the subjects exhibited brain patterns more like those of the world’s most successful memory athletes. This study suggests that mnemonic training can change the brain to support superior memory.

The idea that our experience changes our brain is not unfamiliar to us. British scientist Eleanor A. Maguire’s pioneering research of London taxi drivers has been a milestone in this field. Eleanor found that London taxi drivers, who navigated in the city on a regular basis, had larger posterior hippocampus than control subjects who did not drive taxis. These taxi drivers also had larger posterior hippocampus than driving experience matched bus drivers who followed a set of predetermined routes during driving.

These studies encourage us to set out on a new journey towards better memory, and a more fulfilled life. Stay tuned, we will introduce more on this topic.

Marriage

Married people have lower levels of stress hormone than single people do

Recently Brian Chin at Carnegie Mellon University published an interesting paper on Psychoneuroendocrinology. Chin showed that compared to single people, married people have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. The level of salivary cortisol resembles that in the blood. Notably, in this study, the salivary cortisol was measured during waking hours on three separate days. This suggests that the level of cortisol here reflects the basal or chronic level of stress response in the body.

Stressed people, shift-time workers, sleep deprived individuals, patients receiving hormone therapies, depressed people (melancholic), and overweight people often exhibit high levels of cortisol. Chin’s study suggests that single people are more stressed than married people and that marriage buffers chronic stress.

This finding reminds me of several insightful studies published years ago. When threatened by electric shock in the laboratory, compared to women holding a male stranger’s hand or no hand at all, married women holding their husband’s hand exhibited attenuated brain activation in areas representation threat responses such as the anterior insula. This threat buffering effect varied with marital quality, so women with higher marital quality show much less activation in the threat-related brain areas.

High-quality partner support is the magic here. I will treat this topic thoroughly in my forthcoming book Psychology for Pregnancy (tentative title). Again I’ll keep you updated.

Exercise

Plato’s Insight released

“With education and exercise, man can attain perfection.”

Copy of Copy of PLATO'S INSIGHT (1)

The words of Plato are still as pertinent today as they were when he was alive, almost 2500 years ago, and as we enter an era where we are less physically active than ever before, it’s time to look again at his insightful thoughts on the matter.

In this new book, Plato’s Insight: How Physical Exercise Boosts Mental Excellence, you will discover the links between IQ and physical fitness, and why:

  • Physically active students perform better at school
  • People who regularly exercise have better memories
  • Those who are physically active endure less stress
  • Exercise boosts self-discipline
  • Exercising as a family provides the most benefits
  • And much more…

With a slant towards children and academic achievement, Plato’s Insight is actually a book which has benefits right across the age spectrum of society.

Presenting ground-breaking findings about the links between exercise and how it impacts on our brains, Plato’s Insight shows how physical fitness is a powerful strategy for protecting you and reducing cognitive deficits we can all suffer from.

Read Plato’s Insight today. It will reveal more than you ever expected.

Exercise

Playing Tennis Enhances Cognitive Ability

Congratulations to Dr. Ishihara and Professor Mizuno for the acceptance of their new paper: “Relationship of tennis play to executive function in children and adolescents”.

Executive function is a core set of cognitive abilities. Executive function determines our fluid intelligence, that is our reasoning and problem-solving abilities. An example of executive function is working memory or the capacity to hold multiple bits of information. For instance, try to do this mental arithmetic within 5 seconds:

67 x 78.

Challenging? Sure, because our working memory is limited. It is difficult to hold five or six pieces of information in the mind while doing the calculation. Yet, there does exist individual differences so that some people have higher working memory. They are better at reasoning and processing information.

In this study, Dr. Ishihara and Professor Mizuno reported that in 6-15-year-old students, older students had executive function higher than younger students. That is, as a young child grows older, he/she will have greater executive function. This reflects the development maturity of cognitive ability. Meanwhile, students with higher BMIs tended to show executive function lower than those with lower BMIs. This is consistent with the detrimental influence of abdominal fat and obesity on the brain.

More importantly, playing tennis also boosted executive function. Students who played tennis more frequently and for more years showed higher executive function. Say, a student who plays tennis three times per week will have executive function way higher than another student who plays merely once a week. Nevertheless, even among those who play merely once a week, the more total years of tennis experience, the higher the executive function.

Tennis, just like soccer and basketball, is a cognitively stimulating sport. The more you play it, the more enhanced brain capacity you get. I will treat this topic, the benefit of sports and exercise on our brain and mind, in two of my forthcoming books. Both books are written for regular people or dummies. Will keep you guys posted on my progress.