The Scientist, The Mnemonist and The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

This article was originally printed in Issue 413 (September/October 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Our relationship with memory is paradoxical. On the one hand, it is utterly familiar – indeed, we would be lost without it. On the other hand, many details of its function remain rather elusive. Truly understanding the nature of human memory requires a multidisciplinary approach. In my capacity as a memory athlete I’ve had a chance to meet memory experts from a range of different backgrounds. Here I interview Ed Cooke, an expert in the Art of Memory, Henry Roediger, a professor of psychology from Washington University and Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, whose remarkable story is recorded in her book “The Woman Who Changed Her brain”.

Ed Cooke is a Grand Master of Memory; he is capable of memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, more than a thousand random digits in an hour and at least ten decks of cards in an hour. Additionally, he is the founder of Memrise, a free online educational platform that uses memory techniques to optimise learning. Ed has also spent time in Australia studying the philosophy of cricket at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Henry L. Roediger, III is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Roediger’s research has centred on human learning and memory and he has published on many different topics within this area. He has published over 200 articles and chapters on various aspects of memory. He is also one of the world’s leading authorities on the scientific study of memory athletes and recently published a book called “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” which details practical applications of his research.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the founder of the Arrowsmith Program, an assessment process and a suite of cognitive exercises designed to strengthen weak areas of cognitive function that underlie a number of learning disabilities. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young’s work, has been recognized as one of the first examples of the practical application of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change and rewire itself over one’s lifetime. The genesis of the Arrowsmith Program of cognitive exercises lies in Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her own severe learning disabilities. This is documented in her internationally bestselling book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.

 

*          *          *

 

Kilov: How did you develop your interest in memory? Why is memory important?

Roediger: My interest in memory began early, when I was 5 years old. My mother died, which was devastating, but I discovered I could mentally keep our experiences of being together alive by thinking about them again and again. So over the years, I naturally wondered how memory worked. Somewhat later in life, as a student, I discovered that many psychologists study memory using objective techniques. Cognitive psychology — the study of how the mind works — eventually became my field of study.

Cooke: I’ve always been fascinated by the mind- I love experiencing thoughts and colours- but my practical interest in memory grew from a chance spell in hospital. I got ill and wound up by misfortune as an 18 yr old in a ward of wittering octogenarians for three months. I’d always been quite fascinated with psychology and philosophy, and really out of boredom and a desire to impress the nurses I decided to train my memory. So I got some books, and set about learning all about these ancient arts. It quickly became a favourite pasttime.

I’m not so sure what it means for memory to be important. Or rather- as a general phenomenon it’s obviously at the heart of all human mental life. I guess the reason why its worthwhile training memory is to become better aware of it, and because it leads to learning more and enjoying the mind better.

 

Arrowsmith-Young: For me my interest was very personal beginning at an early age.  Having severe learning problems growing up that did not allow me to understand concepts, I relied on my memory to compensate for my lack of comprehension. I believe I took what was already a strong memory capacity – both auditory and visual – and supercharged it through a series of practices I developed starting in grade 1 to work around my other learning challenges. I built myself a visual photographic memory for text and a verbatim auditory memory for what I heard which allowed me to get through school.

As an adult, I have devoted my life to working with individuals from age 5 to those in their 80’s to improve cognitive functioning – various aspects of memory being some of those functions.  I see how devastating memory problems can be in people’s lives – academically, vocationally and socially.

Two quotes come to mind that illustrate the importance of memory to our lives:

“Memory is intricately tied to identity; we are a product of our own experiences. What we perceive is shaped by what we have perceived before; what we learn is bootstrapped on past learning. Amnesia seems to many so horrifying because it robs us of our own autobiography, and thus, it seems, ourselves. If on no other ground, most Americans are joined in our shared desire to improve the curious, elusive faculty we call ‘memory’.”

— Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology, Barnard College,

in her review in The New York Times of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Dr. Eric Kandel, the author of In Search of Memory, underlines the critical role of remembering. “Memory,” he says “is the glue that binds our mental life together. It allows you to have continuity in your life.”

So I think memory is critical to our well-being.

 

Kilov: What do you consider to be the biggest myth or misconception about memory?

 

Roediger: One myth is that memory is passive: Experiences happen to us, they lay down memory traces, and then in remembering we just read off the contents of these traces in a more or less passive way. This view is not totally wrong — experiences do leave their mark in the brain/mind — but there is so much more to it than this simple account.

 

Remembering is an active process — we selectively encode some information (and not other information) from rich experiences. After encoding, our memories can be changed by later information that can serve to distort (or to affirm) our memories. The act of retrieval is also an active, constructive process. We usually remember events more or less like they happened — we could not exist if we did not usually get things right — but memories are malleable, too, and we can be highly confident in a memory only to have it turn out to be false. That is one of the topics I study, illusions of memory.

 

Cooke: Besides the existence of photographic memory, I think the most damaging misconception about memory is that it is inert, like a store-house. To state the same idea positively, the most interestingly fruitful way for most people to reconceive of their memory is as a power of action. Memory doesn’t just sit waiting to be accessed by some other part of the brain. It’s present in perception, in language and in thought. Memories change the shape of your experience from the inside.

 

To ask why memory is important to the mind is like asking why walls are important to a house, or streets important to a city- it’s basically their shape.

 

Arrowsmith-Young: As I wrote in my book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, “There is no one type of memory. There is a memory for faces, one for objects, one for written motor plans, one for steps in a process, one for phonemic pronunciation, one for spatial maps and patterns, one for body movements, and there is semantic memory for concepts, to name a few. Each type depends on the functioning of different cortical areas within its neural networks.  Anthony J. Greene, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he operates a learning and memory lab, contributed to a special report on memory in the July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Memory is dispersed,” he wrote, “forming in the regions of the brain responsible for language, vision, hearing, emotion and other functions.” “

 

 

Kilov: What advice would you offer to those interested in memory improvement?

 

Roediger: Many techniques exist for memory improvement. Some are formal mnemonic techniques that have been known since the time of the ancient Greeks. Others have been uncovered in more recent research. For example, one great strategy to learn a set of material (say from chapters in a textbook) is to test oneself on the material, to show that it can be actively brought to mind when needed. This is called retrieval practice, and a person should also provide feedback when he or she fails to retrieve correctly. Self-testing via retrieval practice is a much more effective study technique than repeatedly reading text material (e.g., highlighting and rereading), which is what students generally do.

I recently published a book with Peter Brown and Mark McDaniel called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning that discusses many methods for improving learning and memory. We wrote it not just for educators, but for people in many walks of life — trainers in industry and sports, those in the military and in for others in many occupations. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to improve their learning no matter what their age. Teachers have found it especially rewarding, because some of the advice from the research literature is counterintuitive to the way people usually think about learning.

Cooke: Most of memory skill is learning to perceive and trust and exploit the peculiarities of your mind. A lot of the time, we sort of deny the associations we make, aim to bring them under control and normalise them. But really getting the most from your memory means learning to trust and delight in the random associations and meanderings of your attention. If you’re mental pathways are senseless or appalling from an outside perspective then that has no bearing on their utility internally. Great memory is always a very intimate and open internal dialogue, so to speak. One where you’re not just unembarrassed by the peculiarities of your mind, but you’ve no interest whatsoever in what it seems like from the outside.

Arrowsmith-Young: I would encourage people to work on improving memory through practice – it is possible – and current research is pointing to the importance of keeping our brains stimulated and active over our lifespan in order to reduce that cognitive decline that impacts memory as we age. We do not have to associate getting older with a poor memory. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as a result of cognitive stimulation occurs across our lifespan – so memory exercises can keep our brain healthy.

 

Kilov: Is there anything else people really ought to know about memory?

Roediger: Yes! The topic is huge and fascinating. Consider topics like: Flashbulb memories — memories that are often emotional and seem (but are not) permanently etched into memory; or deja vu — when we seem to be re-experiencing or reliving a prior event, but we know we are not; or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when we can almost (but not quite) retrieve a bit of information from memory. Why? What stops us? Relatedly, there is a phenomenon called the feeling-of-knowing experience. You are asked a question (What is the capital of Croatia?). If you fail to answer it, I ask you to give a rating on a scale about the likelihood that you would get the answer right on a multiple choice test. People are generally quite good at doing this, at predicting how well they can answer the question. So even though they do not know the answer, their feeling-of-knowing judgments are generally highly correlated with their performance on the later multiple choice test. The puzzle is: How does one not know an answer, but then can still show how much he/she knows about the topic and be accurate?

 

Psychologists study these phenomena above and many more. You could read books (or at least chapters and papers) on all these topics. The field is rich and fascinating.

 

Cooke: Well, regarding memory training, people should know that here’s no magic bullet that will suddenly change your mind, but rather that there is a collection of reliable ways of attuning and focusing your attention and guiding your mind that together can make learning things robustly achievable – and pretty fun. ■

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