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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Memory Peg Systems

Memory peg systems provide a systematic way to use visual image "pegs" with material you are trying to remember. Peg systems are used by all memory wizards who put on shows exhibiting their extraordinary memory ability. They are also used by Las Vegas "card counters."

The basic idea in these systems, typically called “peg” systems, is to have a set of pre-memorized mental image “pegs” on which you hang images of items that you need to remember. A popular version of this is a room system. The process begins with picturing in your mind a room where certain conspicuous objects are unchanging, both in type and location. Then you use images of these objects as pegs for making associations. Suppose, for example, you want to memorize a to-do list and the sequence in which things have to be done: send e-mail to boss, call your dentist office for an emergency appointment, have lunch with a client, send a check to the water company, and a host of other things that I won’t list to keep this from being tedious. You might then use your bedroom pegs this way: you enter the door, which has an image of your e-mail system, Then your turn left to see your dresser, which has dentures sitting conspicuously on the top. Then you see the lamp on the dresser, which was turned off but now switches on to reveal a lunch plate. Next you see your bookcase with your checkbook falling off the shelf into a bucket of water. You continue this peg-linking process as you mentally move around the room from object to object and the mental images you need to associate with them.

You can use any room in your house, as long as the anchor pegs don’t change (such as furniture that you move periodically). You can also use other familiar rooms (garage, office, church, restaurant. I describe this and other peg systems, including a system for remembering numbers, in my book.

I recently came across a peg system by Dean Vaughn that I like. His system uses an imaginary numbered room system. This relies on an image of a cube, representing an empty room. Locations in the room are identified by number, beginning at one corner and moving around the room (wall to corner to next wall, etc.). Including the top and bottom of the cube, this gives peg anchor locations for 10 items. And if you need more than 10 items, you can create other rooms for 11-19, 20-21, etc.

You can start numbering at any point as long as you are consistent. I like to start with the wall facing me as point #1, because this is the center of the overall image. Here is an example of how I used this system this week to memorize a speech about writing as a career: to an English club at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. After creating my mental images, I had them all memorized after about two to three rehearsals, and gave a 45 minute talk without notes and without even my hard copy of the numbered cube--not bad for somebody my age.

Here is how I did it: I made a numbered-cube template and saved it to use any time I want to develop a talk. Then for a given talk, I load the template in PowerPoint and read in appropriate icons to act as pegs. For example, my writing talk was on the subject “The Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How of Writing.” Icons are picked on the basis of what comes to my mind when I think of the word. For example, “who” makes me think of a hoot owl; “how” makes me think of an Indian. Many of the icons are sound-a-likes, or “audionyms.” For example, for “what,” I picked “hat,” for “where” I picked “hair,” for “when,” I picked hen.

For each topic icon, I write beside or underneath it in pencil a few key words and create mental images to represent the ideas associated with those key words. When I rehearse, if I can't recall all the images for a given peg, I look at the key words and reinforce the image or make one that will work better for me.

As the talk's preface, I decided to talk about my writing life, which I represented with the icon of a person (me) typing. Then I attached associated mental images (not real ones put on the template) to that icon (my high school, my college newspaper, a sample of my research papers, and a sample of my books). Next in the talk, I wanted to cover the topic of who do you write for. First, I discuss that a true writer writes because he must, that is he writes for himself. So I picture the owl looking at me. Then, I cover the theme that writers should know their audience and market, so I imagined the owl rotating its head as owls do to look away from me to look at a crowd of people. Well, I could go on with elaborations to the point of tedium. I assume you get the drift. The basic idea is to use images that make sense to you and associate them with your pegs.

Source: Vaughn, D. 2007. How to Remember Anything. St. Martin’s Griffin, New York.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Multi-tasking May Damage the Brain

We older adults tend to be awed at how young people today can multi-task. They seem to text message on cells phones, watch TV, listen to music, play a video or computer game, carrying on a conversation, and maybe even study their school lessons all simultaneously with apparent ease. Many adults, and even teachers, encourage multi-tasking because they think it is good stimulus for the brain and that learning how to multi-task is a useful skill. But I have already identified many research reports that show multi-tasking to impair formation of memory. Multi-tasking prevents the focused attention and reduction of distractions that are necessary for good memory.

Now there is a research report suggesting that the brain itself may be damaged by multi-tasking. Investigators at Stanford University gave questionnaires to their subjects to identify how much multi-tasking each person did. Nineteen subjects were "heavy multi-taskers" and 22 were "light multi-taskers." Comparison of how these two groups in thinking control tasks revealed that heavy media multi-taskers were more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.In other words, they were more distractible. Then researchers tested the subjects for ability to filter relevant information from the environment and from their memories and to switch thinking tasks. A typical filtering test, for example, required subjects to detect changes in red triangles on a screen while ignoring blue triangles in the same pictures.

The heavy multi-taskers performed worse, even though their experience and presumed skill at multi-tasking should have made them more effective at these tasks. The heavy multi-taskers believed that they were good at multi-tasking, when in fact they were bad at every task that required multi-tasking.

It is not clear how much physical deterioration has occurred in brain from chronic multi-tasking. But at a minimum, multi-tasking is likely to reduce the brain's ability to develop concentration and thinking skills. Why do I suggest diminished thinking skills? Thinking is done with an orderly progression of items in working memory. Multi-tasking bombards working memory with scrambled and unfocused information and probably keeps the brain from learning how to optimize focus and orderly sequencing of thoughts through what I call the brain's "thought engine."

Source: Ophir, E., Nass, C. and Wagner, A. D. 2009. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Procedings of the National Academy of Science. Aug. 24. doi: 10.1073/pnas0903620106

Monday, October 12, 2009

Stress and Competence

When challenge exceeds competence we get stressed. As stress increases, our ability to overcome challenges decreases--creating a vicious cycle. How can we deal with this reality? Two approaches are obvious: we can either reduce the challenge or increase our competence.

The college students I deal with confront this dilemma regularly. Their response follows predictable patterns. They can lessen the challenge in several ways: reduce the demands on their time from social activities or other commitments. They can plan better what courses to take, when to take them, and how many credit hours they take in any one semester. They often fail to account, however, for the reality that many employers and graduate/professional school admission decision makers put major emphasis on a student's ability to handle large course loads of difficult courses.

So, it would seem prudent to emphasize development of competence. Students, for example, should study harder and study smarter. They should aim to remember important ideas and skills long after the test, so they can grow their competence base for use in later courses and in a career. Stress will then go down and success will go up. Now the cycle changes from vicious to positive.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Making Mistakes Over and Over

I was always told to learn from my mistakes. Actually, I found it was more efficient (and less painful) to learn from the mistakes of others.

Anyway, learning from mistakes, your own or those of others, is called "adaptive learning" in which decisions are made in anticipation of expected consequences. Habitual responses don't satisfy this definition because they occur indepently of the consequences. In fact, repeating bad choices and behaviors is a common personal and social problem. Why do we do that?

A new research report shows that stress may be the culprit by causing a bias in decision-making strategies. Chronically stressed rats diminished their ability to make decisions based on expected consequences. After a standardized chronic stress procedure, rats were tested to see if there was any change in their ability to perform actions based on consequences of their behavior. In one experiment, control, non-stressed rats trained to press a lever for a particular reward drastically reduced their lever pressing when the basis for rewards was changed to eliminate a clear relation of lever pressing to delivery of reward. When the same contingency changes were made with the stressed group, the rats resorted to a habitual response pattern. A second test was given to a second group of rats in which one action (pressing the left lever) would yield a reward (food pellet) and another action (pressing the right lever) would lead to a different kind of reward (sucrose solution). Responses in both normal and stressed rats showed progressive learning gains with repeated training. Then on the last day of training one of the lever press action conditions was changed so that the lever did not have to be pressed to get a reward. Rats in control group quickly reduced their press rate on the lever that did not have to be pressed to get reward. But stressed rats pressed both levers the same, showing they were making choices out of habit rather adapting to the changed situation.

Stressed rats showed structural changes in the cerebral cortex, which would predict that dysfunctional decision capability may be impaired for a long time.

Thus, it appears that chronic stress created dysfunctional decision making in rats. Is chronic stress the reason that some people continue to make one bad choice after another? If so, their bad choices often have their own bad consequences that add to the stress. It sounds like a vicious circle to me. Maybe there is also a role for stress in "learned helplessness," which I have written about in my book. That is, when you fail at something, the failure itself is stressful. Too frequent failure leads to chronic stress, which in turn impairs your ability to learn from your mistakes and continue to make bad choices.

Source: Dias-Ferreira, E. et al. 2009. Chronic stress cause frontostriatal reorganiztion and affects decision-making. Science 325: 621-625.