Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Thinking Silly

Something that few people know, and even fewer understand, is that memory is a creative act.

I will be creating two new games in the Training Regimen section of the blog specifically relating to mnemonics and how one can better practice this particular facet of Holmes' character, but for now, let's discuss what, for me, is the most fun facet of memory, and perhaps the Holmesian arts as a whole.

I find, as a general rule, that images and sensory experiences that induce noticeable physiological responses are the ones that your brain will most easily hold onto (increased heart rate, laughter, eyes tearing up). But why is that?

Your brain evolved over the course of human history to do one thing - keep you alive. In order to do that, it came up with some neat shortcuts. Your long term, association-based memory is one of those shortcuts. Your brain is the most powerful computer in the universe, but why should it have to recalculate the optimal decisions for every situation? Why not use some of that hardware for storing useful information for later?

Fine. But how does it know what to store? How does it know what's important?

Actually, the answer to that one is pretty easy - whatever keeps you alive - things that keep you safe, fed, and able to make lots of little versions of you in the future.

As such, your brain latches onto some very specific categories of things. You have a built-in GPS so that you can remember where your cave is, where you found those delicious berries yesterday, where you saw that bear so you can keep your distance. You have great face memory, an analog Friends List that helps you to know in a moment when you are in the presence of a threat or an ally. Things that are funny, sexy, and scary all stick in your brain amazingly well because they are all things that your brain already decided were important for one reason or another.

The most under-utilized of the above is humor. It's really easy to think of things that scare you, but it's usually quite difficult to take those things and remove them from the scary situation they belong in. It's a little easier for sexy images, but they tend to suffer a similar problem - they seem weird and out of place once you remove the context.

That's when we begin to notice the evolutionary hack that is humor. Things look silly when they are out of place, in locations and situations they weren't before. A duck isn't particularly funny until you give him a shirt and hat and call him Donald. Neither is a cat chasing a mouse... until the mouse hands the cat a stick of dynamite and flies off in a paper airplane he made himself. It's very easy to think up silly things - just think of a perfectly normal thing and change it until it doesn't quite fit anymore.

That, before anything else, is the most important trait you bring to the art of memory. Sure, you have the ability to recognize silliness. But even more importantly, you can make it. You can generate new silly things just by thinking about them and put them wherever you want in that built-in GPS of yours.

The best memory technique is one that comes naturally. If it still feels like a device, there's still room for improvement. It has to come organically and naturally, and the most organic way I've ever found is being silly.

Reader Challenge:

Next time you're out and about, meet some new people. Take their name and do something silly with it. Maybe smash that together with a silly thing you see in their face, or how they smell, or the shirt they are wearing, etc.

See how much better it sticks in your head when you're thinking silly.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Pegboards - How and When to Use Them

Most of the mnemonics-related information discussed so far is related to a particular technique known as a mind/memory palace, journey method, etc.

Essentially, it involves taking information, converting it into an image, and storing that image, usually in a linear manner, in a well-known place in your mind.

But what if you don't need a list? What if you need immediate access to information, but don't know exactly which piece?

Restated for you computer scientists out there - What if you don't want a linked list? What if you want an array? What you need is instant access to any one item, not the ability to iterate through many items.

Introducing... (funny trumpet noise) ...the Pegboard.

A pegboard is a method of linking pieces of information without the need to spacially locate images. The trade-off is that your images typically need to be WAY more ridiculous than they usually are, as the association is the only thing keeping it stuck in your brain.

Okay, but how does it work?

I'm glad you asked, well-timed bold font.

Let's say you want to be able to remember 3 things. We don't know what they are yet, we just know how many there will be. Let's start by creating some pegs.

Peg #1, where we will hang our first memory, will take the form of a GIANT foam finger, the kind you see at sporting events.

Peg #2 will be poop. That's right, poop. A deuce. Number two.

Peg #3 shall henceforth be a large tree. It can be any tree you want, so long as you can see it in your mind.

It's important to note here that there's no reason your pegs need to be these images. Anything that provides a reliable association with the numbers will work great.

Now that we have our pegs, let's try remembering some stuff. The first item we will attempt to memorize is a bright green plastic drinking-straw. In order to lock this into our pegboard, we simply combine it with the image for peg #1. For example, I imagined an angry fan getting his coffee spilled at a football game and, as revenge, stabbing the straw through the massive foam finger held by the man who bumped him. Now the straw is poking through the foam finger and maybe even whistling in the breeze a bit.

The next item we need to remember is a leather briefcase. The scene that pops into my head is one of a snobbish businessman brushing past me on the way to the elevator because he believes that his time is much more important. However, I have acted quickly and have switched his case for an identical one filled with excrement. Just as the elevator doors close, I see the case pop open. The contents spill out and the man is forced to ride up the elevator with a small crowd of people who believe he brings his poop to work.

I'll leave you to  come up with a funny story that explains how item #3, a grand piano, came to be involved with peg #3, a tree. I'm sure it will be wonderful.

Now, in order to recall the memorized items, we simply need to recall the peg they were stored on, and the ridiculous story we have created will shoot back into the forefront of our mind, filling in the missing information.


"Oh I sure do wish I could recall what item #2 was. I know that peg 2's image was poop, but past that, I'm not sure....

Oh! That's right! I put poop in the businessman's leather briefcase!"

(Giggling fit ensues)

This technique can be expanded almost infinitely, as it is limited only by the number of pegs you create for yourself. In addition, the pegs themselves do not need to be numbers. They could be letters of the alphabet, names of people on mail slots, evidence tags, etc. Any data that needs to be linked to other information you don't know yet can serve as a peg in a pegboard.

Here's a link to a Wikipedia page on pegboards for further reading.

They go through a slightly longer example, and touch on some of the ideas behind actually choosing peg images, like rhymes.

Happy memorizing!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Guess What?

We're back, guys.

Now that I'm finally graduating (B.S. in Computer Science), I'm finally free to devote a larger chunk of time to this blog. I intend to get into a good, fairly regular rhythm with the posts, as well as try a couple cool things I've been thinking about while I've been gone.


I was recently contacted by a person who works at a place that is responsible for placing people in front of other people to perform a skill for entertainment purposes (very vague, I know - I will explain more once I verify that I'm not in violation of any agreement to do otherwise).

Essentially, someone was perusing mnemonics-related websites looking for people for a project, and they found the link to my blog! So a huge thank you to everyone who has read the blog, or talked about it, or posted links to it, etc. I'm always surprised to hear when people get a kick out of this blog, as it was initially meant to be a personal experiment. Now that it's apparent that people actually read and enjoy this project, I have even more reason to get it back up and running smoothly.

Let's get to work!