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U.S. memory champion explains his techniques

14 Jul

In May, I had the opportunity to see U.S. memory champion, Nelson Dellis, perform at the Association for Psychological Science meeting. Here is a podcast where Dellis is interviewed by Jeff Rubin.

Rubin does a good job and Dellis gives a clear explanation of mnemonic techniques. These techniques are useful for a variety of real world memory tasks such as remembering numbers and passwords. But, it should be noted, there are other newer methods, such as the use of spaced repetition software, that are more flexible and can handle a greater range of material.



(Hat tip to The Gist for alerting me to Jeff Rubin’s podcasts)

Basil RathBone reads The Raven

31 May

I owned this record as a kid and was pleased to find it on Youtube. To me, it remains the definitive interpretation of Poe’s most famous work.



The mathematician Michael Keith wrote a version of The Raven that encodes 740 digits of pi and can be found here.

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Chinese techniques for cognitive enhancement

30 May

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at last weeks Associaiton for Psychological Science meeting was titled “Educational Neuroscience in China: Examination of Culture-Specific Learning Tools/Activities.” The session was chaired by  Yi Hu of the East China Normal University

Here is a brief description from the program:

“The symposium will focus on the neuroscience studies of long-history learning tools and activities specific to the Chinese culture (e.g., abacus, Go play, writing, and mnemonics). Our studies provide evidence for explaining the cognitive processing differences between Chinese and Western cultures in an educational context.”

Here is a more detailed description:

“In Chinese educational context, the long-history learning tools/activities (e.g., abacus, Go play, writing, mnemonic) are now learned and practiced by most children or students with the aim to improve their basic skills and therefore academic performance. There are four presentations in current symposium. The first is on the calculation with abacus and corresponding mental calculation. Before the advent of computer, the Chinese were accustomed to use the tool of abacus, especially in calculating the arithmetical operations in their daily life. The using of abacus and the related mental calculation are supposed to improve the memory abilities and academic mathematic performance. In the paradigms of expert-novice and expertise development, we explored the effects of the using of the tool on cognitive processing and neural activations through the classic experimental tasks (e.g., stroop task) and the brain image techniques (e.g., fMRI, ERP). The second presentation is on the game of Go. It plays by two opponents with the purpose of enclosure of larger space than the opposition. The game is supposed to improve the holistic cognitive processing that is typically associated with the Chinese. Several experiments were then manipulated to examine the holistic processing in playing Go. Furthermore, the hyperscanning technique of NIRS was used to explore two categories of playing activities in Go, namely making a move by oneself and waiting the move by the opponent. The technique allows us to reproduce the competition context capturing the dynamic cognitive processes per se in Go. The third presentation is on the writing system. Chinese and English represent very different writing systems that vary significantly in how graphemic symbols is mapped onto spoken language, yet both writing systems activate similar brain circuits with some variations. Chinese as a logographic writing system represents morphosyllabic information while English as an alphabetic one represents phonemic information. Our research aims to compare universal features in these writing systems and analyze how literacy education changes brain function and anatomy and its implications for reading instruction based on evidence–based strategies. The last presentation is on the mnemonics. Some memorists in China demonstrated the exceptional short-term memory (e.g., Feng Wang, the champion in World Memory Championship 2010 and 2011) or the largest long-term memory (e.g., Chao Lu, the holder of Guiness World Record for reciting 67,890 digits in pi). Although they have reported some mnemonics, the related neural mechanisms remained unknown. We tested their material-specific mnemonics (i.e., imagery, generate stories, method of loci) through the fMRI and ERP. Furthermore, we trained some developing children on the mnemonics and observed the intentionally targeted cognitive processing. In sum, the symposium will discuss the effect of the culture-specific learning tools/activities in China. The corresponding empirical studies provide evidences for explaining the cognitive processing differences between the Chinese and the Westerns in educational context.”

I was struck by the description of Chinese mnemonic systems for memorizing digits. In the two most widely used Western systems (the Major System and the Domonic System) numbers are converted into letters and then memorable words or names are constructed. Since Chinese is character based, strings of numbers are directly converted into words. It seemed to me that the Chinese system would be harder to learn, but, once learned would be faster and more efficient.

As the result of hearing these talks I intend to learn how to use an abacus and play Go.

Below is a promotional video I found for an Indian program that teaches abacus to children. Notice that some of the kids have internalized the abacus and make their calculations mentally.



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How to remember students’ names

28 Apr

My wife’s twin sister, Kathy, is a teacher and she sent me the following email:

“In your blog did you mention Ronnie White’s technique to remember names? or did I just stumble upon it when I was looking at the post about Dominic O’Brien. I can’t seem to find his name when I search your blog.

I wanted to make a comment on your blog at how effective this is for classroom management for a substitute. I try to use his technique when I sub in the classroom. I am not quite perfect at it but it helps so much for a substitute to know the students’ names. I usually only have a very short time to do this but it is worth the 5 minutes at the beginning of the day. First graders LOVES it! If I can go around and call them by name they just think that is great. I reinforce their name in my memory by calling them by name everytime I hand something to a student or ask a student to do something. Before this I was just stumbling around with hey you.

I don’t have this luxury with highschool or junior high because those students won’t give me the 5 minutes I need and the classes are constantly changing, but if I am going to be with a class an entire day it really makes a difference.”


I would also reccomend Harry Lorayne’s Remembering people: The key to success available on Amazon for only one cent!

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Dominic O’Brien explains his memory techniques

23 Feb

There are many good popular books on mnemonic techniques, of these, I think Dominic O’Brien’s are the best. Here is a talk where he explains some of these methods.



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Anatomical mnemonics

7 Jan

Would you really want a physician who had to look up the name of every anatomical structure? Learning anatomy requires a great deal of memorization and, over the years, students have developed an impressive array of memory tricks to learn the body’s structures. I particularity like The Made Ridiculously Simple series.

Here are some videos to held you learn the names of the carpal bones:

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Ed Cooke on memrise

10 Dec

Here is a Guardian video interview with  memory grand master and Mermise founder Ed Cooke:

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Nelson Dellis demonstrates the link method of list learning

4 Nov

In this video, memory athlete Nelson Dellis demonstrates the link method of list learning. The method depends upon making bizarre mental images and linking the items on the list together in a sequential story.

The link technique is a staple of most memory improvement books and a nice clear example can be found in Harry Lorayne’s How to Develop a Super Power Memory.

Evidence for multisensory learning

20 Oct

The idea of multisensory learning has a strong intuitive appeal. Multisensory learning is the proposition that we learn better if we acquire information through more than one sense. In the last few years, evidence has emerged that seems to support our intuition.

For example, a paper recently published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences  reports:

“This study aimed at evaluating the effect on letter knowledge and writing of a multisensory exploration of letters as a function of the child’s skill level (low vs high-skilled). Five-year-old children were tested on letter–sound knowledge and on letter writing before and after training. Four matched groups were formed: A Control group (C, no contact with letters), a Visual group (V, the child watched the letter), a Visuo-Haptic group (VH, the child touched the letter with the forefinger) and a Visuo-Graphomotor group (VG, highlighting). Results indicated a significant gain percentage in trained letter sounds in the V, VH and VG groups compared to the C group. With regard to letter writing, the pattern of results suggests that highlighting the letter shape could constitute a good classroom teaching method, particularly in the case of low-skilled children. These results are discussed in the light of the different modes of letter exploration.”

A 2008 paper by Shams and Seitz (pdf) reviewed the evidence that multisensory learning improves memory:

“Memory research shows that multisensory exposure can result in superior recognition of objects compared to unisensory exposure.”

This multisensory memory advantage may explain the effectiveness of mnemonic techniques that use vivid visual images to remember non-visual information. It may, also, explain why people with synesthesia often have superior memory.

I hope to write more about multisensory learning in the coming months.



Memory improvement is possible

11 Oct


Memory does become more difficulty with age. Memory decline is real and part of our lives. But we need not be complacent or defeatist.

We would not expect our older bodies to have the same athletic prowess as in our twenties. Yet despite our physical decline we still see the value in exercise. Exercise slows the pace of aging and is protective against many of the forces of mortality. Exercise will not give us unending youth, but it will improve the quality of our lives. The message of this blog is that the use of memory strategies and memory training can produce real benefits.

We can continue to learn and even improve our memories into old age, we can stave off or, at least moderate, many of the cognitive effects of the aging process. Just like physical exercise it will take a commitment to regular daily work, but the pay offs are high and it is worth the effort.

Lest you think this claim is hyperbole. Let me give you the example of Akira Haraguchi who at age 61 set the world record for memorizing digits of pi; he successfully recited 100,000 digits in 16.5 hours. The digit sequence of pi is random with no order or known pattern.  Haraguchi says of himself: “I’m certainly no genius, I’m just an ordinary old guy.” In addition, Haraguchi believes that memory can actually improve with age:

“When you are young, you look at the sky and think it’s a nice day. Then you might think, “I might as well go driving.” When you grow older, however, you start observing the sunlight and its reflection on leaves. You develop the ability to imagine more, which helps you associate things . . . A whole new different way of memorizing things becomes available when you get older.”

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