Posts Tagged ‘Wired’

Want a Super Memory? Keep a Journal and Refer to it Often.

March 24, 2009

The Super Memory Woman, Jill Price, Keeps a Detailed Daily Journal

The Super Memory Woman, Jill Price, Keeps a Detailed Daily Journal

When I was in college taking a class in ‘new journalism’ one assignment was to write about a personal experience.

What a softball, right?

I wrote about an occurrence my senior year in high school when my honors English teacher threw me out of the class and nearly scotched my high school graduation. [That’s a long story for another time].

To protect her anonymity, in my college writing assignment I changed my teacher’s name to ‘Mrs. Rodgers.’ Now, all these years later, I can’t remember her real name without referring to my high school yearbook.

What a muddle the human memory is. It depends so much on context. It’s easily swayed by suggestion. There are memory overlaps and sudden disappearances. Add to that the puzzle of the strangely precise re-memory that happens when people grow aged.

So imagine the astonishment when university researchers University of California-Irvine came across a woman they called JP who could remember with perfect clarity the exact date of Challenger Disaster. She could easily and accurately recall names and conversations from decades before. She knows when the ‘Who Shot JR?’ episode of Dallas aired and what the weather was like on the day of the finale of MASH aired.

In the journal Neurocase, the researchers described JP’s case and gave it a name; hyperthymestic syndrome, meaning exceptional memory.

The school’s PR office sniffed out a story and with JP’s permission they released her real name to the media… Jill Price. Ms. Price quickly became a cause celebre, making the rounds at Oprah, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.

There was even an awkward (but ultimately vindicating) moment on 20/20 in 2008 Diane Sawyer asked Ms. Price when Princess Grace died. Price replied, ‘Sept 14, 1982.’ Diane Sawyer said no, the date was Sept 10, 1982. But after 60 uncomfortable seconds, someone chimed in from off-camera that, in fact, Jill Price was correct.

How to explain the seemingly inexplicable disparity between the extraordinary quality of Ms. Price’s memory and my rather mediocre one (and, probably, yours, too)?

Into this conundrum comes Gary Marcus, PhD., a cognitive psychologist at New York University, who writes about his personal experience with Ms. Price in the April 2009 issue of Wired magazine.

For their meeting, Marcus brought with him a stack of questionnaires and very quickly discovered that Ms. Price’s memory is rather solipsistic. She remembers not so much things like how to calculate the volume of a cone or what day John Wilkes Booth was killed or even a great recipe for turtle brownies.

Instead, Ms. Price remembers things that happened to her and things she witnessed on television. He also found something that UC Irvine researchers knew about, but didn’t detail in their paper: Ms. Price keeps a meticulous journal of her life, one that she refers to frequently. That’s a sample page from Ms. Price’s journal above.

Marcus concludes with this:

But even if Price’s memory is just the byproduct of obsession, she’s still amazing. I’ve come to think of her as the Michael Jordan of autobiography. Jordan wasn’t born the greatest basketball player of all time; he became the greatest, combining considerable but not unique innate talent with an incredible amount of hard work shooting free throws and practicing jumpers long after most of his peers were out carousing. Whether intentionally or not, Price has shown the same sort of daily dedication to chronicling her own life.

Want a super memory? Do what what the ‘Michael Jordan’ of memory does. Keep a journal and refer to it often.


Games Learner’s Play

May 13, 2008

Brain Games and Brain Age Promise to Whip Your Brain Into ShapeAccording to a 2003 German time-use study, informal learners with the highest education levels learn because they love to learn. If you’re not quite there yet, or if informal learning seems like a sort of like a ‘eat your veggies’ exercise, then you might benefit from ‘Brain Age’ for the Nintendo DS player, or the handheld game called, ‘Brain Games’ from Mattel’s Radica division.


Both Brain Games and Brain Age occupy a ticklish position. Both purport to be based on honest-to-Pete science. Both suggest that a regular diet of the mental exercises included on them will help keep your brain strong and young. Brain Age goes so far as suggesting that regular use could help you lower your brain’s age. Get it? Both cost around $20 in electronics retailers and the mass merchandisers.


Nintendo’s Brain Age, by far has the better buzz. Radica makes handheld games like Solitaire, Suduko, a 20-questions game called Q, and the like, so this is a natural line extension. Nintendo looked at the numbers and bet that there was a market for adult learners. So far the bet’s paid off wildly. Brain Age was one of the top 10 video game sellers in 2007 and sold some 4 million units in 2006. 


Brain Age runs only on Nintendo’s handheld DS player, which starts around $130. Radica’s Brain Games is self-contained in the $20 unit.


The criticism of this approach to informal learning can be summarized in the American idiomatic expression ‘teaching to the test.’ It means learning not much more than you need to pass a test.


Or as writer Greta Lorge, put it in Wired:

“After diligent effort, players routinely see their ‘brain age’ plummet from, say, a sluggish 60 to a taut 30. But the improved performance may not be a sign of wit-sharpening. Many users start with little gaming experience, so it’s not surprising that their scores improve — a phenomenon known as the practice effect. Sadly, there’s no evidence that in-game gains translate to the real world.”  


I think there’s more to Brain Age and Brain Games than the practice effect. But to explain why please indulge a personal anecdote. When I went through Army basic training my drill sergeants explicitly ‘taught to the test” when it came to the 2-mile run, 1/3 of the Army’s fitness test.


We did very few long slow runs. There wasn’t time in the training schedule for that. Instead we did sprint work and more 2-mile runs on the track behind the barracks than I could possibly count, always timed by a stopwatch.


Surprise, surprise, my final 2-mile time was several minutes below my first time. Teaching to the test helped me do dramatically better on the test.


At the end of basic training I went directly to advanced training, which was less regimented. We seldom did physical training in groups, although all the fitness tests were conducted that way. So to stay in fighting trim I began to run around a course that had several possible mileages depending on the paths you took.


What I found was that the base of fitness I had acquired in basic training… while training to the test… enabled me to become a fair runner. During my 13 weeks in advanced training I got to the point where I could easily run 8-10 miles at a time, further if I choose. My 2-mile run time dropped even further.


When it comes to informal learning teaching to the test is problematic if that’s where you stop. But if you treat Brain Games, or Brain Age like an ingredient in the mole and not the whole enchilada, than either one could be a nice addition to your learner’s toolkit. 

Informal Learning and the Eternal Memory

May 6, 2008

How Quickly We Do ForgetWhat if you could remember everything you ever memorized with such precision that you could throw away all your books? What price would you pay? [And as we’ll see, the price I’m talking about is not money.]


That’s the question I asked of myself after reading Gary Wolf’s intriguing profile of Piotr Wozniak, the Polish inventor of the software program called SuperMemo that can help you recall things you’ve memorized at close to 90 percent. Forever!


The profile goes on for 6,000 words. And do read it. It’s a terrific piece of reporting on a man who has become prisoner to his nearly perfect memory. But I can spoil the how of it in just a couple of paragraphs.


For most of us short-term memory has a lifespan. That lifespan varies per individual, but memory’s fade is predictable. What Wozniak discovered… or really, rediscovered… is that the best way to keep a memory is to be reminded of it just as you’re about to forget it. Keep the reminders properly spaced and you can sell your library of books on eBay.


But here’s the kicker; memory fades in waves that are especially steeply-sloped early on. (See the diagram on the left). To keep memory sharp you have to be reminded at just the perfect crest of forgetfulness. With each properly-spaced reminder the wavelength of memory grows longer over time.


The phenomenon is well known and now called ‘the spacing effect.” That’s it diagrammed on the left. It was first identified in the 1880s by a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus memorized a series of nonsense syllables and rigorously measured how long it took to forget and then relearn them. His analysis led to the first description of the spacing effect.


But wait a minute you say, American educational theory scorns memorization as unhelpful and uncreative.


Or as Wolf puts it: 

“The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.”


“The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it’s false. “The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?” asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. “You can’t escape memorization,” he says. “There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That’s a stage we all go through. It’s all the more important to go through it rapidly.” The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.”


“Once we drop the excuse that memorization is pointless, we’re left with an interesting mystery. Much of the information does remain in our memory, though we cannot recall it. “To this day,” Bjork says, “most people think about forgetting as decay, that memories are like footprints in the sand that gradually fade away. But that has been disproved by a lot of research. The memory appears to be gone because you can’t recall it, but we can prove that it’s still there. For instance, you can still recognize a ‘forgotten’ item in a group. Yes, without continued use, things become inaccessible. But they are not gone.” 

Bjork for instance, has studied the oddity of the elderly who can often remember distant events with perfect clarity, but forget what they had for lunch. It’s small proof that it is recall that fades, not memory.


The key to putting the spacing effect to work in enhancing recall was clearly the computer. And as Wolf puts it, turning the spacing effect into software required someone who was not so much an academic, although Wozniak has a PhD, but a kind of intellectual ‘tinkerer’ with a gift for math and certain ‘literal temperament.’


The result was the effective if not always easy to use SuperMemo.


It’s Wozniak’s literalness that makes him a prisoner to his studies and something of an eccentric. For instance, scientists have long suspected that there’s a link between sleep and mental capacity. But there’s never been a good way to find the data. Since 1999 Wozniak has been keeping detailed logs of his sleep and tracking it against his “daily performances on study repetitions.”


You read that right, Wozniak has been loading data into his brain for decades and… using SuperMemo… has kept up the repetitions required to never forget it. He doesn’t foresee leaving Poland because the travel would disrupt his routines. He keeps himself in fighting trim in no small measure because his body houses his mind. For the same reason he avoids travel in Poland because the local motor vehicle accident rate is so high.


I’ll end where I started; as an informal learner what price are you willing to pay to never forget what you’ve learned?