Priming our brains for 2017

I think I remember

February 6, 2017

Dr. Dennis W. Jirsch | Editor, Alberta Doctors' Digest

Contributed by Dennis W. Jirsch, MD, PhD | Editor

When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.

- Mark Twain (Autobiography)

Too often, I find myself in the basement of my house, looking for something I had in mind a moment ago. But I’ve forgotten what I’m looking for. It’s gone. One solution involves climbing the stairs again, returning to where I started and perhaps I’ll remember. This has been going on forever, I admit. I’m forgetful and make sure I have extras ¬ hats, gloves, car keys ¬ to handle my lapses and help me through the day.

It’s mere absent-mindedness, I tell myself, but my story has become less convincing. Too many colleagues and kith and kin, aging alongside me, have disappeared into clouded, anxious fuzziness. Truth is, I am worried. And so are my demographic cohorts: Alzheimer’s and other dementias have become grim prospects. In medical school, seemingly epochs ago, Alzheimer’s was an uncommon diagnosis; nowadays losing one’s marbles can seem almost inevitable.

The tragedy of losing personal memories has happened at the same time that technology has externalized our recall with all the electronic gadgets at our disposal.

It has perhaps encouraged students, trying to get at the marrow of things, to complain, “We don’t really have to know all this. Do we?”

I don’t know what to say to them, thinking that we still have to know something. Defining exactly what can be sourced and what must be known may be one of the most vexing issues in education today.

Years ago emphasis was more on rote learning, but even then some tricks could assist. Preparing for dreaded oral exams, I practiced classifying everything: eggs (small, medium, large), watches (battery driven, automatic, requiring winding, cheap versus expensive) and so on. This was all preparation so that if one were asked, say, the complications of appendicitis, one might recall that these could be discussed as early, middle, late; or local versus regional; or even surgery-related or anesthesia-related. A ready template on which to hang things could help show examiners a reasonable acquaintance with most subjects.

Looking farther back in history, memorization was crucial. Recall the early days of books, when they were bulky, expensive things, written in run-together scriptio continua, lacking punctuation, paragraph indents and indices. A robust tradition of oral recitation was one way to “own” the work. We doubtlessly read more widely now, with web resources available, but we read more superficially, as we hop from screen to screen.

Years ago, in The Mind of a Mnemonist,1 I read an account of a memory that was seemingly limitless. Soviet psychologist A.N. Luria, PhD, studied subject “S” for over 30 years and found his subject could memorize complex mathematical formulas, gibberish, huge matrices and even poems in foreign languages. Once memorized, S could regurgitate facts years later and he even had problems forgetting. Luria noted that S was not unusually intelligent but, attempting to explain his ability, was a synesthete, meaning that words and numbers readily evoked images, sounds, tastes and sensations.

More recently, I read Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.2 It’s an engaging text that reminds us that on average we all spend an extra 40 days each year catching up because we can’t remember. (Although just how that number was arrived at is not elucidated.) Foer became interested, and then enthused, with memory contests. He went on to study various mnemonic aids, and, denying any special abilities, went on to become a memory champion himself.

Did I say there were aids involved? Perhaps it’s best to call them tools. The oldest tool has been called the “memory palace” or “the method of loci.” It is attributed to the poet Simonides, who, standing in the rubble of a demolished temple in Thessaly, was able to recall the names of the persons involved from their locations prior to the destruction. Cicero expanded on the method of loci in his De Oratore. A subject recounts the layout of a building or a town with discrete loci or places, and moving mentally through these, commits an image to each site. Retrieval of associated memories occurs on mentally moving past or through the loci again.

Another tool is referred to as the “major system.” It is a device that helps with numbers. Each numeral from 0 to 9 is associated with one or more consonants. For example, 0 is s or z, 1 is t or d, 2 is n, 3 is hard k and so on). Vowels are undesignated so the number 302 becomes c, s, n and adding arbitrary vowels, could be remembered as cousin.

Many other, often hybrid, mnemonic devices can be used to convert bland consonants or numbers into images and have made fortunes for champion mnemonists. Early memory pioneer Tony Buzan, for example, has become famous (and rich) for well-marketed books and courses aimed at improving memory.

Let’s not underestimate the size of this accomplishment.3,4,5 How many random numbers can you recall? How many binary (0, 1) digits? How many decks of playing cards (shuffled, of course), can you recall? Here’s the field you’re playing in:

  • Akira Haraguchi has recounted pi to 111,700 digits.
  • Johannes Mallow memorized 4,356 binary digits in half an hour.
  • Medical student Alex Mullen was able to memorize a shuffled deck of cards in 19.41 seconds.

Most tasks in the World Memory Championships involve recall of written and spoken numbers, binary digits or shuffled decks of cards. One of the jobs, however, involves remembering poetry. Many find this toughest since this has to be remembered perfectly, including punctuation and abstract text can be uniquely difficult to compress into images.

As Joshua Foer did, I began my own memory practice using T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table/ Let us go, through certain half deserted streets/ the muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one night cheap hotels/ and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells …

The nouns (evening, patient, table, streets, nights, restaurants, oyster shells) are straightforward enough, but what about the idiosyncratic descriptions of the evening, the patient, the half deserted streets? Not so simple.

Though I am able now to use the memory palace to recall in order a dozen nouns or so, and though I can correctly regurgitate a 12 or 15-digit number, Eliot’s stuff was difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to turn into sustainable images (including punctuation) with any of my new but inchoate tools.

Back to brute strength again. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Repetition, repetition, repetition. With that old slam-bam method, I’m able to memorize a line or two a day, but perfectly and I am now about 40 lines into the poem. It’s been tougher than I expected, but also more pleasurable, getting to own a line of Prufrock.

I now remember pi to 20 digits, know a quarter of Prufrock. That’s gotta be called success. In sum, I’m modestly satisfied knowing that my cranium still has room for new memories, though I’m not so sure that these aren’t crowding old ones out.

Trouble is, I still don’t know where my car keys are. And by the way, have you seen my hat?

References available upon request.

The Alberta Medical Association stands as an advocate for its physician members, providing leadership & support for their role in the provision of quality health care.