Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Memory Athlete Gimmicks. Tip 1: Familiar Locations

In my last article, I promised to explain five gimmicks that memory athletes use. These can be accomplished even by memory wimps, though perhaps not at the competition level. Most people don't want to be memory athletes, but they would like to remember things more easily and reliably. These techniques can accomplish that. Besides, they are fun.

Several thousand years ago, ancient Greek orators were noted for their ability to give hours-long speeches from memory. How did they pull off such astonishing feats? They invented a visual imaging technique where thoughts were mentally captured as images in the mind’s eye and they would recall what was to be said by recalling the images. Images are much easier to remember than words.

One common imaging technique is known as a method of location (MoL). This technique is also called "Memory Palace." That is, mental images are attached to certain locations in the three-dimensional space imagined in the mind’s eye. The idea is to use objects in a familiar area as anchor points or pegs for hanging the mental images of what you are trying to remember. Surveys of competitive memory “athletes” reveal that 9 out of 10 use some kind of imagined location device.

Use a memory palace to improve memory capability
 Here is a simple example. Consider the living room of your apartment or house. You are very familiar with each object and its location in the room. You use these as mental pegs, which is easy to do, because you already know what they are. You just mentally walk about the room and mentally see each familiar object. In turn, one at a time, you attach a mental image of what you are trying to remember on the object peg in the room. For example, suppose you identify the front door as a starting point. The first object encountered might be a recliner chair, then a lamp, then a sofa, then a coffee table, then the TV set, and so on. Now suppose you want to remember a daily "to do" list. You might remember the trip to the post office by imagining the mailman at your door, the doctor's appointment by seeing a stethoscope lying in the recliner, the grocery store by seeing the lamp making a stalk of celery sprout, the bookstore trip by seeing books stacked on your sofa, the kids' soccer practice by seeing them kick the ball into the sofa, the evening PTA meeting by seeing a TV film crew filming you there, and so on.

You can use other locations, such as body parts, specific places in your car, or highly familiar routes in the yard or at work. To recall these stored items, simply retrace your steps. Like fishing lines, each memory is hooked to a location and you just reel them in.

These techniques work, even in older people with no formal memory training. A recent survey that tested the usefulness of image location in older people found that it was effective in improving their memory capability. A study of people with superior memory revealed that nine of 10 employed the method spontaneously.[1]

Although generally used to remember objects, numbers or names, the MoL has also been used in people with depression to successfully store bits and pieces of happy autobiographical memories that they can easily retrieve in times of stress.[2]

Modernizing the Mnemonic

In early 2012, a team of Canadian researchers gave the ancient MoL mnemonic a 21st century facelift. [3] The team constructed several detailed virtual reality environments to serve as loci, rather than letting MoL learners generate their own. Researchers allowed 142 undergraduate volunteers only five minutes to familiarize themselves with the virtual environment before giving two thirds of them instructions in using the MoL to memorize 110 unrelated words. Some were told to pick a familiar environment, while others were allowed to use the virtual environment they just navigated. The other third didn’t receive any specific instructions on memory techniques.

Both MoL groups outperformed the controls. They were 10 to 16 percent more accurate in their recall, and students who used the virtual environment performed just as well as those told to generate their own landmarks, even though in both groups the students admitted they weren't diligent in using MoL. It does take practice to be good at it.

In a recent TED talk, Kasper Bormans described using a virtual reality replica of their home to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease “store” the memory of their loved one’s faces using the MoL.[4]

The main point is that people can improve their memory ability by learning to use MoL. However, with age the brain gradually loses the flexibility to change in response to training. Nonetheless, many studies show that MoL successfully slows memory decline in the normal aging population, but why this happens is a complete mystery. That is, until recently.

Thickening of the Brain

Any time the brain learns something, physical and chemical changes occur in the brain, even in the elderly. Thus MoL should be able to change the brain for the better. In 2010 a Norwegian team set out to look for the most obvious signs of MoL-induced structural changes in the brain.

Expert instructors led 23 volunteers with an average age of 61 through an intensive eight-week long program. These volunteers managed to use MoL to remember three lists of 30 words in sequential order in no more than 10 minutes, a remarkable feat of memory! The control group – matched in age, sex and education- were instructed to “live as usual” for the eight weeks.

MRI brain maps identified a surprisingly large morphological change in the cerebral cortex of the MoL-trained volunteers.[5] The amount of improvement in memory performance correlated with the amount of increased cortical thickening. Similarly, a later study by this group showed that learning MoL increased the integrity of elderly participant’s white matter compared to controls.

Rewiring the Brain

Two groups of researchers decided to determine whether learning MoL alters brain activity patterns. Scientists in Sweden recruited young volunteers in their twenties and elderly participants in their sixties and used PET scans to follow changes in their brain activity as they adopted MoL to remember a list of random words. All of the younger volunteers – but only half of the elderly – remembered roughly four more words than they had in their initial test.[6]

What about the half of elderly participants who didn't improve? One important clue was their complete lack of activation of MoL-associated brain regions during testing, prompting researchers to wonder whether these volunteer actually used the MoL.  A subsequent informal chat revealed that many older participants found it difficult to associate the loci with the words under the experiment’s tight time constraints, felt frustrated and gave up.

So although a promising technique for many, MoL training is difficult, particularly for the elderly who are less able to generate and rely on a mental map of distinctive landmarks. But I know from experience that practicing MoL improves one's imagination, and that in turn, improves the ability to get more benefit from MoL. Besides, this is a more fun way to memorize.

[1] Maguire E. A., et al. (2003).  Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory. Nature  Neurosci. 6(1):90-5.
[2] Dalgleish, Tim, et al. (2014). Method-of-Loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate access to self-affirming personal memories for Individuals with depression. Clinical Psychological Science, 1 (2): 156-162

[3] Legge E. L. et al. (2012) Building a memory palace in minutes: equivalent memory performance using virtual versus conventional environments with the Method of Loci .Acta Psychol (Amst). 141(3):380-90
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMcduh1HEHA&noredirect=1

[5] Engvig A et al. (2010) Effects of memory training on cortical thickness in the elderly. NeuroImage. 52: 1667–1676.

[6] Nyberg L et al. (2003).Neural correlates of training-related memory improvement in adulthood and aging. PNAS 100 (23), 13728-33 PMID: 14597711

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What Does Memorization Say about Free Will?

Scientific and philosophical fashion these days is to claim that humans have no free will. That is, we are basically biological robots, driven to our thoughts, beliefs, and actions by unconscious forces in our brain. Our genes and our experiential programming control everything we do. Free will is an illusion.

So goes the assertions of a clutch of activist scientists, such as Richard, Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Wegner, who have probably gotten rich off their best-seller books arguing the case against free will.

Religion is also nailed to the cross, so to speak. Ideas of moral responsibility originate in views of right and wrong, and every religion expects that followers have the capacity to make the correct choices. Their free-will capacity makes them morally responsible. I think it is no accident that most of the illusory free-will activists I have read are also activists for atheism. Otherwise, their position would be cognitively dissonant.

Legal issues arise, as stated by the legal analyst Jeffrey Rosen, who wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “Since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behavior could potentially be excused? … The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility.”

There are serious social consequences attached to accepting the premise of illusory free will. One is the obvious conclusion one should draw that consciously willed effort to improve oneself or lot in life is futile.

Another consequence of such thinking is the need to proclaim, as many scientists now do, that consciousness cannot do anything. Freely chosen actions would have to come from a conscious brain. Therefore, the conscious brain must not be the source of actions that occur during consciousness. Consciousness is thus seen as audience watching a movie of what is happening.

Of course, the futility argument is not evidence for free will. It is however, a practical reason to believe in it, for otherwise people would not make much effort to change and improve themselves. They would otherwise become intellectually and emotionally paralyzed by such nihilism.

This is not the place to elaborate the research that neuroscientists claim provides the basis for asserting illusory free will. I do that in my just-released book, Mental Biology: The New Science of How Brain and Mind Relate. I point out the uncontrolled variables in the experiments conducted in the 1980s that purported to show there is no free will. Subsequent reports that confirmed those findings had the same poorly controlled variables. Moreover, there are some new studies using better designs that show that the original findings do not withstand scrutiny.

So, is there a reasoned counter-argument? Eddy Nahmias points out that "the sciences of the mind do give us good reasons to think that our minds are made of matter. But to conclude that consciousness or free will is thereby an illusion is too quick. It is like inferring from discoveries in organic chemistry that life is an illusion just because living organisms are made up of non-living stuff."

In my new book, I have a large section defending the position that consciousness IS able to do things, among them exerting at least a significant modicum of freely chosen thoughts and actions. One line of argument, which is in line with the learning and memory theme of this blog site, is memorization. It is true that the brain is forming memories of a day's events while you sleep and obviously unconscious. But the initial encoding and working memory are performed while you are conscious. Moreover, conscious use of mnemonic devices profoundly enhances the formation of memory, as I will demonstrate in future posts about how "memory athletes" do such astonishing working-memory feats as learning the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards in a minute and a half or memorizing 80-digit number strings. Conscious use of mnemonics is required. Using these mnemonics is challenging, requiring intense selective attention and strongly will executive functions. You obviously cannot do such things when you are unconscious.

Skeptics will say that such feats are all driven and performed by the unconscious mind and that consciousness is just around to realize it has happened. But consciousness is also around to recite what was memorized. Try that in your sleep.


Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology. The New Science of How Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.

Nahmias, Eddy (2011). Is neuroscience the death of free will? New York Times. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/is-neuroscience-the-death-of-free-will/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Eight Core Principles of Effective Memory

1. When information is first acquired, it is tagged for its potential importance or value.
2. Such tagging is influenced by multiple factors such as attention, old memories, emotion, repetition, and purpose.
3. Images are easier to remember than words. The most powerful mnemonic systems are based on representing ideas and facts as images.
4. Memories with impact get preferentially rehearsed, either through conscious will or by covert (implicit) brain processes.
5. Rehearsal should occur with true self-testing, repeated often, and spaced over time.
6. The recall during self-testing launches a new round of consolidation that can strengthen the original learning. Each re-consolidation episode builds on prior ones and strengthens the neural circuits that store the memory.
7. Sleep promotes consolidation of recent learning.
8. Effectiveness of recall during rehearsal is promoted by use of relevant cues, especially information that was associated with the original learning material.

Applying these principles is the theme of my book, Memory Power 101.

Friday, February 21, 2014

How Advertisers Get You to Remember Ads

In the last couple of columns I have been explaining how stereotyping affects performance. For example if seniors buy into the stereotype that they are supposed to have failing memories they are more likely to have failing memories. How you identify yourself (young, old, male, female, and so on) is a key factor in how you will respond to advertising. Indeed, self-identity creates all kinds of bias, from the sports team you root for to the candidate you want to become President.

Marketing research has established that most consumer decisions are memory based. You buy something because you remember a persuasive ad for it. Thus, advertisers seek to find ways to get consumers to remember their products and services. One obvious way is to repeat the ad over and over. But that costs a lot of money.

One advertising strategy is to target consumers with promotions that capitalize on social identity. The idea is that you will prefer a product that is pitched to your identity. No doubt you have seen the TV ads on reverse mortgages, where a clearly older celebrity makes the pitch. You are supposed to be persuaded by the ad because you can identify with such a person. He’s a senior, you’re a senior. He’s a star, and you can imagine how great it might feel if you were one. In other words, your personal identity is wrapped up in how responsive you are to a given ad. This same principle is at work in ads that use beautiful models to sell clothes and star athletes to sell athletic gear.

Social identity can be threatened when the ad presents events, information, or choices in a way that is inconsistent or negative. A senior, for example, would not be persuaded to consider reverse mortgages if the salesman was a young and gorgeous female model. Recent studies show that these kinds of cognitive disconnect interfere with how consumers encode and remember advertising messages. Advertisers certainly don’t want to create identity-threat ads because consumers will be automatically motivated to forget the ads.

The process of motivated forgetting is being explored by Hong Kong University marketing professor, Amy Dalton and her colleague, Li Huang. When people see or hear an ad that presents identity threat, they are automatically motivated to forget it. It’s a defense mechanism. Naturally, the effect is greatest in people who have the strongest in-group identities. That’s why advertisers have to be really careful in ads that involve such emotionally charges matters as gender, race, religion, or political belief.

In their studies, they use identity linked promotions, such as “Ladies get one drink free,” or “10% discount for Seniors,” and the like. To enhance attention and encoding, they prime the experimental audience ahead of time to reinforce the intended identity. In one experiment, they primed a social identity, produced identity-linked promotions, introduced social identity-threat, and then tested for memory of the promotions.

For example, experimental subjects were students. Students were primed about their student identity by telling them that the experiment was being performed also with students at other universities. Students then watched 20 print ads for three seconds each and told they would be quizzed on how much they remember of the ads. Identity-linked promotions were created for eight of the ads by stating that “Additional 10% discount for Hong Kong University students.” Then students read news reports about their university, either neutral reports or negative ones (in the identity-threat group).

 What they found was that identity strength enhanced memory for identity-linked promotions if the identity had been primed. When the primed identity was threatened, ad memory was impaired, reflecting the motivated forgetting effect.

A related experiment tested the role of the news source for neutral and negative-identity conditions. Identity strength increased the resistance to read news from a source that presented an identity threat but not in control conditions. This may explain why some people steadfastly get their news from a single distinct identity source, such as NBC (more liberal viewers) or Fox News (more conservative viewers). Such loyalties minimize identity threat and make the news and opinion better remembered. Obviously, such loyalties contribute to political polarization. In U.S. politics, voters are not identified as people. They are identified as voting blocs (Blacks, Hispanics, seniors, females, millennials, poor, rich, and so on). Often these groups are pitted against each other (as in “the rich exploit the poor, blacks are victims of white racism,” and so on). What politicians exploit is social identity.

While identity politics is old hat, consumer identity research is in early stages. But you can bet there will be more such research, as advertisers have their own motivations: spend less money through fewer ads, make their ads more memorable, and get you to spend more money.


Dalton, Amy N., and Li Huang. 2013. Motivated forgetting in response to social identity threat. J. Consumer Research. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/674198

Monday, February 03, 2014

Knowing What You Know. How It Matters

Whoever said "what you don't know can't hurt you" needs to rethink the position. Knowing what you don't know keeps you from learning what you need to know or would benefit from if you did know it. Likewise, there is the foolish notion, "Ignorance is bliss." We teach these mindless ideas to our children and then wonder why so many don't like school.

Anyway, what I really want to explore here is the notion of thinking about thinking. Scholars call this metacognition. But, it really is a simple idea that we all experience every day to various degrees. Suppose you look up a phone number in the phone book. You have to quiz yourself to see if you remember it well enough to dial it. That is, you have to think about what you know and if you know enough to complete the task.

These things are often done consciously, and your conscious mind has to allocate enough effort and thinking resources to perform the task. In this particular case, we are talking about working memory. You test yourself to see if you still hold all the phone number digits in working memory long enough to dial them without error.

The principle applies more generally to other and more complex tasks. Basically, humans use memory awareness to determine if they have enough relevant knowledge before they act. Obviously, such awareness improves the appropriateness and quality of the act. This reminds me to tell you about my new book coming out on April 8, Mental Biology,[1] in which I explore how the brain creates awareness and what consciousness is and what it does. In my view, consciousness does many things, but this ability to realize what you know and don't know provides the enormous advantage of helping you know if you know enough and decide what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Notably, there are many scientists now arguing that consciousness does not do anything. Everything we do, they claim, is driven by genes and unconscious programming. To them, consciousness is just the brain's TV screen to show you some of what it is doing. These people will hate my book.

Metacognition even occurs in some higher animals, and there are some interesting animal experiments on metacognition. For example, one study[2] showed that monkeys can track what they are holding in working memory. In the test, food was hidden in one of four opaque tubes. On half the trials monkeys watched the experimenter bait the tube, so that they had to know if they remembered which tube had the food. On the other half of trials, monkeys did not get to see where food was placed. After a short delay, the monkeys were given a chance to pick a tube to get a food reward, and on uninformed trials the monkeys peeked into the end of each tube to see which one had the food. That is, they knew they didn't know which tube was baited, so instead of guessing they looked into each tube before acting. When monkeys saw the baiting, they immediately went to the right tube without peeking. That is they knew where the food was and they knew that they knew.

The food was a reward, and as we all know positive reinforcement typically motivates us and drives behavior. We do things if there is some benefit to doing it. This leads me to consider another study[3] that explored the role of human consciousness in evaluating rewards and their degree of attainability. It is no surprise that high value rewards improve mental performance, and this works whether you assess the value consciously or unconsciously (as in conditioned reflexes, for example). How motivating high rewards are depends on what we know about their attainability. If we know we don't know enough to earn the reward, we may not make the effort needed. If we think the reward is unattainable, we won't even try.

The study asked the question of whether this principle applies to unconscious processing. In other words, can unconscious mind integrate reward contingencies with attainability estimates? In the experiment, each trial included showing volunteers a picture of either a penny or a 50 cent coin which would serve as a reward if they performed a subsequent working memory task correctly. But sometimes subjects were informed before a trial that the reward would not be obtainable on that trial, even if they performed the memory recall correctly. In each trial the coin was shown either for 17 msecs, in which case its value could not be perceived consciously, or for 300 msecs, which was long enough to register consciously. So, across trials, the subjects had to integrate reward value with attainability and do so either under conscious or unconscious conditions.

Results showed that efficient memory recall resulted when the trial showed the reward long enough for conscious registration and when the high reward was attainable. And of course, performance was better for the 50 cent piece. Amazingly, even in the unconscious condition, high rewards improved performance even when they were designated in advance as unattainable. In other words, unconscious mind could not integrate reward value and attainability. Thus, it seems that consciousness uniquely controls the allocation of neural resources needed to integrate these two kinds of information. Oh, and by the way, don't experiments like this establish that consciousness really does something, that it is more than the mind's TV screen?

A third line of research has to do with psychotherapy. Here, the whole idea is to think about what you are thinking and feeling and substituting that with more mentally healthy thought. Being aware of memories is crucial to this process. Recalling bad memories causes a disturbing experience to fester, but also makes them accessible to revision. I have discussed in earlier columns some new approaches to treatment of PTSD based on the reconsolidation of memories that occurs when you recall a memory. The whole business about consolidation is explained in my recent book, Memory Power 101[4].

Here, I want to explore the value of being aware of the associations that are helpful and those that are not in terms of dealing such things as addictions, phobias, and even PTSD. For example, anybody in the throes of withdrawal from cigarette smoking knows how disturbing it can be to see or think about ashtrays or other reminders. A typical response is to try and inhibit the reminders of the former pleasure. But avoiding such reminders is often impractical.

In my book, Blame Game, I explore the importance of being more aware of what you are thinking and doing so that when change is needed you can reprogram your brain effectively. It is difficult to change bad habits or behavior because they derive from well-entrenched memory. The remedy is to replace this memory with a better new habit or behavior. And the way to do that is to make the substitute memory much stronger than one you want to replace. You can make such new memories stronger, the way you would any memory.[5] This is basically the idea of substituting a bad memory with a good one, wherein the good one has been made especially robust. My memory book shows multiple ways to strengthen any memory, and this approach can be especially helpful to make a good substitute memory that will substitute and displace a bad memory. In general, the approach is to:

1. Think often about the substitute memory and use traditional memory enhancement techniques to strengthen it.

2. Rehearse the substitute memory in different situations and places.

3. Space rehearsal of the substitute memory out over time, both within a therapy session or new learning situation and self-test for recall of the substitute memory several separated times.

So, hopefully the general point is made. Knowing what you know and don't know is really important. Such self-knowledge is necessary to make you more competent–even to make yourself a better person. And remember, self-knowledge resides in memory. As with all memory, it can be strong or weak, true or false, recalled or forgotten, useful or harmful. You decide.

[1] Klemm, W. R. 2014. Mental biology. The new science of how brain and mind relate. Prometheus. In press.
[2]Hampton, R. R. et al. 2004. Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) discriminate between knowing and not knowing and collect information as needed before acting. Animal Cognition. Doi: 10.1007/s10071-004-0215-1
[3] Zedelisu, C. M. et al. 2012. When unconscious rewards boost cognitive task performance inefficiently: the role of consciousness in integrating value and attainability information. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00219
[4] Klemm, W. R. 2012. Memory Power 101. Skyhorse Publishing.
[5] Klemm, W. R. 2008. Blame Game. How To Win It. Benecton Press.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Age Stereotypes and Memory

Remember when you were a child and adults seemed to always be saying, "You are too young. Wait till you get older." Or, they said, "You will understand this better when you grow up." Now that you are older, especially if you are my age, people seem to be saying in the politest way they can, "When are you planning to retire?" "We have to make room for younger workers."

Oh, and if you are in the job market, a young person is often told "I'm afraid you don't have enough experience yet." But if you are over 50 or so, they will say "You are over-qualified for this position."

These inevitable put-downs are bad enough. But what you may not realize is that when you accept such judgments of others, you may well impair your performance capability and development. Here, I report research showing that this effect applies particularly to seniors, and that the effect can be counteracted by the right kind of intervention.

A study by Becca Levy (1) showed that seniors can generate a positive self-stereotype that improves memory performance. Moreover, the effect is more readily established if positive priming is done implicitly, that is without conscious realization. In this study they flashed positive-stereotype words on a screen at a rate fast enough to be registered by the brain but below the level of consciousness. Prior studies had shown that it is rather difficult to improve memory performance with explicit priming, perhaps because such priming is superficial relative to what might occur with implicit conditioning. This point is relevant here because much of our age-stereotype processing, both in youth and older age, is subliminal. While consciously we reject the age-related limitations that others imposed on us, repeatedly experiencing the put-downs grinds away at our resistance by unconscious, implicit means.

Here, a computer subliminally presented 90 seniors with words related either to an old-age image of senility or wisdom. Because all people vary a little in their speed threshold for conscious perception of words on a screen (it takes about 125-250 msecs), the view time was adjusted to be just below threshold for each subject. Before and after the priming intervention, three kinds of memory tests were given: 1) working memory immediately after a test, 2) recall immediately after repeat testing confirmed learning, and 3) recall after a delay in which other tasks were performed.

The group that received subliminal stimulation of positive stereotype words had better memory test scores, a higher estimate of their memory capability, and a more positive outlook on tests that measured attitude about aging. Declines were observed in the group that received negative-stereotype word stimulation.

A second study tested young people in the same way, and no such benefit of positive-stereotype conditioning was evident. This may indicate that a person’s pre-existing self-image governs how one responds to priming. Young people have not been pre-conditioned to think their memory is weak because of age.

A related study showed that a person’s explicit belief in their self-efficacy affects their memory performance (2). Typically, as a person ages, the confidence in memory ability declines. But this study aimed to raise confidence in memory ability in 84 people over 50 by a memory training program that integrated a memory skills training class for six weeks, three hours per week, with elements designed to change beliefs about memory competence. The study showed that by emphasizing mastery, verbal encouragement, reduced anxiety, and modeling skills throughout training, subjects became more convinced that they should believe in themselves and their ability to learn how to be more effective learners. And the memory tests bore out that prediction.
Recent studies by my fellow faculty member at Texas A&M, Lisa Geraci and her collaborator, showed that memory confidence can be easily bolstered in seniors and that, once more confident, they perform better (3). Their review of older literature established that negative stereotype priming can make seniors underperform. In their study, young college students and older adults (70 years average) were divided into equal groups that took a mental task that could be readily completed, or was impossible to complete, or given no task. The task items were clusters of five scrambled words that were to be re-arranged into a comprehensible sentence. Neutral words were used that had no priming relevance to age stereotyping. All subjects then took a free recall of a word list they were allowed to study for two minutes. OIder subjects in the task-success group recalled more words and reported less test-anxiety than those in the task-failure group or in the no-task group. No such task effects were seen in the young adults.

So, how can we apply these findings to everyday life outside the laboratory? Obviously, we have to contrive other ways to provide implicit positive priming. Maybe this could come from making more of an effort to improve memory, as my book Memory Power 101 aims to do. When your memory ability improves from using some established learning principles and techniques, you implicitly know it and that would reinforce positive feelings about memory capability. Indeed, this is what "memory athletes" experience. As they practice memorizing, they get better at it, of course, and this must surely have a subliminal effect on their sense of innate capability which in turn helps them reach memory championship-level performance.

Each of these studies makes the point that if you believe you can remember better, maybe you really can, and that in turn promotes positive feelings about the ability to remember. This becomes a self-perpetuating positive feedback loop for success.  Learning capability improves, in large part because of "learning-set" principles, which is a topic for another day. But as these studies I just summarized show, there is a beneficial component from a change in attitude about one's stereotype. So, for both reasons, I emphasize with my students,

The more you know, the more you can know.


1. Levy, Becca. (1996). Improving memory in old age through implicit self-stereotyping. J. Personality and Social Psychology. 71 (6), 1092-1107).

2. West, R. L. et al. (2008). Self-efficacy and memory aging: the impact of a memory intervention based on self-efficacy. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. Doi: 10.1080/13825580701440510.
3. Geraci, L., and Miller, T. M. (2013) Improving older adults’ memory performance using prior task success. Psychology and Aging. 28 (2), 340-345.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Memory Aggravates Relational Pain. There Is a Treatment

It’s that time of year for making New Year’s resolutions, and I am inspired to write this on January 1 because good resolutions can result. I never thought about the pain of broken relationships much in the context of learning experience and memory until I ran across a LinkedIn post from writer and speaker Carl Prude Jr. Here is what he posted:

“Resentment and unforgiveness are two of the wardens of relational pain. Whenever we employ them they only make sure that we are constantly reminded of the hurt and smallness we felt from hearing someone's negative remarks. They also make sure that we never see the incident in a forward-moving context - instead, keeping us chained to a low moment in our past. I try to look beyond the circumstances of their comment and evaluate the comment independently - to see if it has any constructive merit. If it was mean-spirited or intentional, I immediately dismiss it and forgive the person who said it.”

Usually when we think about memory we focus on how to strengthen it. But there are times when it is best to forget – as in the case of hurtful things we have endured from other people. Here is a case where nursing the hurt leads it to fester, not heal.

So, how do you teach yourself to forget things you should? This maybe especially hard if your focus has always been to enhance memory.

I have discussed some related ideas for erasing memories in earlier posts on new treatments for post-traumatic stress syndrome. In the next post, I will discuss some recent research on advertising where marketers work hard to erase the memories of counter-productive ads.

But here, I want to focus on erasing memories involving relational pain, like the kind you find among spouses in unhappy marriages, siblings clinging to memories of childhood conflicts, employees who are underappreciated or employers who resent lack of support and loyalty. Of course there are many kinds of broken relationships, but all have one thing in common:

The slights and insults are remembered
and etched in a heart of stone from frequent recall.

The pain will never go away as long as the memory is strengthened by recalling it. Typically, one has to learn to forget the pain, not necessarily what caused it. But how does one learn to forget pain?

In many cases, it is a matter of breaking the bad habit of rehearsing the memory and thus strengthening it. Humans react the same way as Pavlov’s dogs, in that repeating a stimulus, in this case the relational affront, conditions memory of it. Like Pavlov’s dogs, if you could repeat the stimulus without the associated pain, the affront would lose its association with the painful memory. Though our natural instinct is to disengage with people who have hurt us, the cure may require us to find ways to continue engagement under non-threatening circumstances. This is equivalent to repeating the conditioning harmful stimulus without the associated punishment – thus extinguishing memory of the original bad learning experience. This is not easy to do, and is sometimes unwise to attempt.

Nonetheless, the principle is sound. People can use the extra brain power that dogs do not have to review the memory more dispassionately. This demands a more objective analysis of the original painful events. It should begin by examining your own contribution to the event, as I explain in my book, “Blame Game, How To Win It.” People don’t usually say and do hurtful things without some kind of provocation, and it may have come from you. More objective analysis also usually reveals that the affront is not nearly as important as you have made it in order to nurture memory of the affront. Humans have a perverse need to remember and magnify affronts, for it validates their vanity. Saying to oneself, “I did not deserve this affront, my hands are clean” is salve to a wounded psyche. We feel better about ourselves, and superior to the perpetrator. Thus, we make sure we remember the events that bolster our vanity.

Also basic to rational analysis is the recognition that all people make mistakes. We have to put ourselves in this category too, but focusing on the misdeeds of others reduces the perceived need to admit our own flaws. Learning to accept and live with human nature is a hallmark of maturity, and it is no wonder that many of our remembered grievances occurred in childhood when we had not yet learned to understand and accept the weaknesses of others.

Nursing grudges creates the habit of nursing grudges. The cure is to have more self-discipline in breaking of bad habits. I explore this in the above-referenced book. But one example comes from a racial bias experiment I described in which racially biased people were trained to be more accepting by having more emotionally neutral social interactions with members of the opposite race. Humans are hard-wired to be more comfortable in a like social group. That’s why tribalism persists even in most cultures even today.

How does one acquire more self-discipline, which of course is needed to break habits? Well, we could join the military and go to boot camp.  In boot camp, you learn to do things you don’t really want to do. In everyday life, forcing yourself to do what is needed and though not appealing, creates character and self-control. Self-induced practice can include making yourself do such things as:

·         Self-train in small steps. “Life by the inch is a cinch. Life by the yard is hard.”
·         Act as if you already are as you wish to be.
·         Get your act together (pay attention, get off your butt, organize your life, dress and groom well).
·         Always be on time.
·         Do things you know you should, even though you don’t want to.
·         Do the hard things first.
·         Increase, rather than decrease, dealing with people you don’t like.

Finally, it is essential to be more introspective about one’s self-esteem. As I explain in the book, self-esteem has two components, self-confidence and self-worth. The fully actualized person has both. Neither component alone is sufficient to neutralize the false gratification we feel from perverse remembering and magnification of affronts. Generating self-confidence is relatively easy, because it can be earned. So get out and earn it, emphasizing things that seem to work for you and learn what you have to do to build small successes into big ones.

Sense of self-worth is harder to have. At one time or another, all of us have endured neglect, slights, and insults. We may have been used, perhaps even abused. How does one cure a broken spirit? First, I recommended believing in a God who created you, loves you, and values you. Accept that love, pray intently with thanks for it, and ask that it give you strength to be a better person. Second, be more socially active and engage with more different kinds of people one on one. Seek friendship, remembering the axiom that to have a friend one needs to be a friend.

Actualization begins with realizing the importance of caring for yourself. The commandment, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” needs to be thought of more in terms of the italicized words. Ability to love others or forgive affronts depends on one’s self-esteem. Each of us should examine our every thought and action with the question, “Is this really helping me, or is it good for me?”

As I said at the outset, nursing the hurt makes it fester, not heal.

Blame Game, How To Win It is endorsed by media celebrities Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Reverend Robert Schuller. The book is available through Amazon.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Memory and Location, Location, Location

When you remember first meeting the love of your life, do you also have a strong memory of where you both were and also where you were in relation to objects in the scene? When I first met my wife, Doris, it was at a party and she was at a piano surround by “bird dog” males, who I saw from an adjacent room. In my mind’s eye, I still see both rooms and where everybody was.

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? I was in the waiting room of a hospital, looking over a series of lounge chairs at a large-screen TV program that was reporting the news.

It seems that many people remember not only events but where they were at the time of the event. But how does this happen? We do know that a new experience may be “consolidated” into a lasting memory, especially if it stirs emotion and you replay it in your mind. That is certainly the case when you meet the love of your life or see a terrible event.

If you were there, you would surely remember what you were doing.

Back in the 1970s I was studying the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, and it was known at the time that this structure is crucial for consolidating memories. I and others were focused on an EEG rhythm (theta rhythm of 4-7 waves per second) that was especially prominent when an animal moves around in an enclosure EEG signals are summed over dozens of neurons, and therefore to get more precise data some investigators put microelectrodes into the hippocampus so they could monitor the nerve impulse activity of single neurons as the animal moved around.

It was quickly discovered that some hippocampal neurons fired impulses selectively when an animal was in a special location within the enclosure. Collectively, these “place” neurons were actually mapping the enclosure space and tracking the animal’s position as it moved around in this space.

New insight on an additional role for place neurons has come from a new research report on human epileptics with electrodes implanted in their hippocampus to locate the diseased tissue. These patients played a virtual-reality game in which their avatar drove through a virtual town and delivered items to stores. Their task was to memorize the layout and what was delivered at each store. Meanwhile, place cells in the hippocampus were monitored and their place coding was noted. Then when participants were asked to recall the memory of what went where, the place-responsive activity was reinstated even though the subjects were not actually playing the game but recalling it from memory. And the activity of place cells was similar to that during the learning stage.

In other words, neural representations of the content of the experience had become linked with the spatial and temporal context. Such evidence provides strong evidence for the theory that memory formation and recall involve association of event with context, especially spatial and temporal context. This linkage creates a mutually reinforcing interaction of event and location. We tend to remember both or neither.

Can we apply these findings to improving everyday learning and memory situations? Of course, we can. The key elements for making it easier to learn something new are to:

1.  Identify a context that stirs emotions, preferably positive emotions like meeting someone you are attracted to.

2.  Be especially aware of where you are at the time and where you are in relation to the location of various objects.

The hippocampus uses these emotional and spatial cues to facilitate the consolidation of memory. We know that memory is promoted by making associations. Emotions and spatial cues are probably the most effective kinds of cues.

Sources: Miller, J. F. et al. (2013) Neural activity in human hippocampal formation reveals the spatial context of retrieved memories. Science. 342, 1111-1114

END NOTE: If you find these posts helpful, you are not alone. I am gratified to have so many readers. My reader views here and at a cross-posting site now total over 800,000. Thank you so much for wanting to read what I write. You might also want to read some of my books: see http://thankyoubrain.com