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Memory and imagination

28 Jun

We often see memory and imagination as if they were in a zero sum relationship; more emphasis on learning facts and information is thought to come at the expense of imagination and creativity.

But this completely wrong, memory is, in fact, a prerequisite for creativity. Research shows that people who are creative experts  have large amounts of information stored in their memories. For example, here is a paper titled Practicing Perfection: Piano Performance as Expert Memory (pdf).

A recent issue of Harvard Magazine describes the work of Daniel Schacter, author of Searching For Memory Schacter suggests that imagination and memory rely on the same neural substrates:

“In fact, Schacter continues, memory and imagination involve virtually identical mental processes; both rely on a specific system known as the “default network,” previously thought to be activated only when recalling the past. This discovery led to a rich vein of research, he reports. For instance, the link between memory and imagination could explain why those with memory problems, such as amnesiacs or the elderly, often struggle to envision the future.”

(Thanks to Kathy for the link to Harvard Magazine)

Memory myths #2: Ginkgo biloba?

24 Jun

Can we improve memory by just taking a pill?

Claims for supplements like ginkgo often follow a predictable story arc: initial claims are made based on small poorly controlled studies or population correlations. Supplement companies heavily promote these products, but when rigorous experimental trials are finally conducted no evidence of effectiveness is found. One should always keep an open mind and I have tried my share of these supplements. Unfortunately, our best evidence, suggests that Ginkgo biloba does not enhance memory and I no longer take it. In fact, there is some evidence that Ginkgo may be toxic.

This does not prelude the possibility that supplements or dietary manipulation might improve memory, but we should pay more attention to rigorous scientific research than advertising hype.

One piece of scientifically sound dietary advice: a balanced plant based diet will reduce your risk of dementia.

Memory Myth #1: “I have a terrible memory.”

19 Jun

You probably don’t. Unless you suffer from some memory disorder, such as amnesia, you most likely have an ordinary memory that can be used more effectively.

We usually have a very positive view of ourselves. When asked to compare themselves with others on such desirable traits as intelligence, generosity, or leadership skills, most people rate themselves as above average; a mathematical impossibility. There is even a name for this very human trait. It is called flawed self-assessment.

Athletic performance and memory are the exceptions. Most of us know we are not star athletes and most of us believe that we have poor memories. Perhaps this anomaly is caused by the nature of the feedback the world provides. Our friends loathe to set us straight about our generosity. They may feel it impolite to relate their true feelings about our intelligence. Athletic and memory feedback, however, come to us more directly. If we start the race thinking we can finish first, our expectation will soon be confirmed or disproved. Similarly, a memory failure can be direct, immediate, often visible to all, and, sometimes, deeply embarrassing . More over, as we get older, memory failure stirs up deep fears of mental frailty and impending senility.

I have good news. it is unlikely that you have a poor memory, rather you have a memory that can be improved. As you read through the better books on memory improvement, the authors will often tell you that they have quite ordinary powers of recall. Here is Dominic O’Brien making speaking about his memory:

I do not believe that this false modesty. Most of us can improve our memories with the application of well validated techniques. These techniques include mnemonic strategies, improved attention, and spaced repetition learning.

Stay tuned to this blog: all these techniques will be discussed in detail.

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