Mind Hacks

Is Your World Small and Nasty, Stupid?

Ron and Marty Hale-Evans have a new book out called Mindhacker. As much use as I got out of their previous book Mind Performance Hacks, the decision to get this one wasn't too difficult. It just came in the mail, so I haven't read it all yet, but the first hack I stopped to read as I was flipping through it, from the back, is so important I can't wait to share.

The hack is called "Take the One-Question IQ Test," and I'll get to the question after some preliminaries. For one thing, conventional wisdom must be dispensed with regarding a couple of matters. The first is that IQ is a fixed feature. In fact, there's pretty solid evidence that people's IQ's can change. It can even change depending on such daily factors as how much sleep you've had. The second common misconception is that the more intelligent you are the more likely you are to be the brooding and moody type.

The authors cite a study called "Is Ignorance Bliss? A Reconsideration of the Folk Wisdom," by Lee Sigelman. The main finding is that high intelligence tends to coincide with low anomia, which in Mindhackers is defined as "a feeling that life sucks and other people are to blame for it, so you're better off without them" (333). And other research has shown the ability to appreciate humor tends to be correlated with several important elements of intelligence.

Now the question, which the authors found in Robert Anton Wilson's essay "Stupidynamics":

Does the world seem to be getting bigger and funnier all the time? If it does, then you're intelligence is steadily increasing.

Or

Does the world seem to be getting smaller and nastier all the time? If so, your stupidity is steadily increasing.

The hack is to use this question (questions) as a "mental thermometer" to guide what you're doing. If you're busy doing something and your answer to the question is smaller and nastier, then you need to do something else--change your behavior. They give lots of advice on what else to do, referring to other hacks. They're fans, for instance, of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But the test alone speaks volumes to me--maybe because I so often laugh at something only to have other people look at me like I'm crazy.

What Use is a Memory These Days?

             I like to tell people I continue to work as a waiter because I want to keep one foot in the real world. As stressful and jarring as it is to be thrown into a crowded restaurant on a bustling Saturday night after doing academic stuff all week, I realize at the end of each of those harrowing shifts there’s nothing that quite matches their demand for fluid intelligence. And I like to add yet another demand. At my first restaurant job, a fellow server named Becky explained to me once that she never really decided not to write down orders; she just realized at some point she wasn’t even referring to what she’d written when she typed the orders into the computer. Since I was still learning the menu at the time I suspected Becky might be a genius. But it wasn’t long before I was memorizing my orders too.

            I was still at that first restaurant when I read Mind Performance Hacks and learned about mnemonics like memory palaces and number-rhyme pegs (one-gun, two-shoe…), but I decided against trying to use them at work. Munchies (which later became Luckies) was my brain gym; the idea was to be challenged, not to use shortcuts. Still, I was uncomfortable every time I approached a table with ten or more people, knowing I was good for at best eleven orders. Maybe I could push that number higher, but it would mean getting big tables more often than I could count on. So in the back of my mind I toyed with the possibility of sitting down some day and mastering the memory techniques.

            The day I first attended a class to prepare me for teaching Intro to Rhetoric and Composition courses the professor challenged us to remember the names of all our classmates. Sitting in a circle, we each in turn introduced ourselves and commented on our favorite item of clothing in our wardrobes. I treated it as an order. But I had an extra few seconds for each name, so I went back and reviewed as many prior names as I could before the next person said his or her name. A classmate named Shannon and I were the only two to remember all twenty-two names. (I have no idea how she did it.) Pleased with myself, I figured I’d have no difficulty remembering the names of my students in the future. And I didn’t—until my third semester teaching. That’s when names and faces started to blur and I began to find myself staring at some poor student as I was taking attendance, silently cursing him for being such an undifferentiated mass of human goo.

            For this semester, it was back to Mind Performance Hacks. After learning the twenty-two names on my class roster in about five minutes using a memory palace and celebrities with the same names—without a single rehearsal—I decided I might want to look into these mnemonics after all. First, I memorized a Phillip Larkin poem (a day and a half), then fifteen of Arthur Aaron’s questions (five minutes), then the geological time scale as it’s printed in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (forty-five minutes). I’ve had mixed success (mixed failure) using memory palaces at work. I beat my record of eleven by correctly encoding thirteen orders and matching them to the proper positions at the table. But I’ve also botched a couple six and eight-tops. Apparently, the new technique is interfering with old ones I didn’t even know I was using.

            But according to Mind Hacks there’s yet another level beyond memory palaces. Before committing to the Dominic System or the Major System, though, I was anxious to read something I’d come across while browsing Amazon. In one of those bizarre coincidences Jungians and New Agers read signs into, tech writer Joshua Foer was publishing a book just as I was deciding to do further research. In a blurb on the back cover of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, science writer Jonah Lehrer claims Foer’s book “invents a new genre of nonfiction.” Foer himself calls it “participatory journalism.” But the book uncannily resembles Neil Strauss’s foray into the world of pick up artists and the resultant Horatio Alger story in The Game. In place of PUA’s, Foer encounters and gets taken under the wings of MA’s—Mental Athletes. And he undergoes a transformation from well educated, above average geeky guy to U.S. Memory Champion over the course of a year. Even though the best in this country are usually not very competitive on the world stage, Foer’s accomplishment is still absurdly impressive. Like Strauss, though, he insists at every step of the way that getting good, achieving excellence, is only a matter of training and determination. (Largely owing to his picture on the jacket, I kept thinking of Foer as Harry Potter writing about his first year at Hogwarts.)

            Strauss enjoyed the luxury of his topic’s intrinsic fascination, and to a slightly lesser extent this is true for Foer too. I have to say, though, as much as I enjoyed The Game, Moonwalking with Einstein is a much better book. Foer brings a refreshing skepticism to his analysis that’s disturbingly lacking in Strauss’s writing. (Neuro-Linguistic Programming is total bullshit.) Tony Buzan, the leader of the memory renaissance, who put on the first World Championships and is still lobbying to have his methods—most of which are not really his—implemented as part of regular class curricula, jumps from the pages of Foer’s book like a character from a Saul Bellow novel, a complete shyster who after spouting off a bunch of nonsense manages to say things that are shockingly profound and, you sense, completely true. We discover too that the mnemonists’ world has an analog to the magic world’s Uri Geller, a guy who uses the standard repertoire of tricks but claims he’s using nothing but his natural gifts. If you’ve seen the documentary Brainman, you know who he’s talking about.

            Foer is better too at fleshing out some of the underlying philosophical issues. While it’s true The Game explores the theme of questioning the ultimate worth of mastery by describing how it turns a lot of guys into unsavory characters, Strauss’s self-promotion drowns out any meaningful examination of the issue. How could a guy’s life be derailed by his efforts to master the skills involved in seducing a woman? (Sounds like a great idea for a novel—stay tuned.) Foer does better at making the question explicit and trying to work out some answers. Will enhanced memory mean greater wisdom? Does “elaborative encoding” detract from the meaning of what’s being memorized? What does it mean that so many of these mnemonic enthusiasts are, as Foer describes, people who are “indistinguishable from those” you’d find at a “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (five of spades) concert”? (189). And what role should memory palaces play in education?

            I’m glad I read the book before committing to my Dominic System because it turns out it’s been tweaked. The idea is to come up with a person performing some action for every two-digit combination. Ozzy Osborne is my 00, and he’s biting the head off a bat. But now competitive mnemonists are using the PAO system, which means person action object. My 00 still works but several others I’d come up with don’t. With three bits of information for every two-digit number, you can memorize one image for every six digits. MA’s memorize multiple decks of cards by putting these images in memory palaces. Anyway, now I can get back to creating my personal image inventory, which incidentally is really hard. Try coming up with a hundred distinct and easily recognizable actions even without attaching them to people. And what will I do with it when I’m done? Well, there are a lot of things I want to memorize as scaffolds for future learning: the periodic table, a more detailed and up-to-date geological timescale, maybe some U.S. history, etc. But I have to keep in mind Foer’s book is great because throughout the process of writing it he continued to be a science writer and never fully identified himself as a mnemonist. I too am a writer first. Memorizing is a great first step to learning, but it’s not the ultimate one.

Meditation for the Non-Religious

My first encounter with meditation was uninspiring. As a fifteen-year-old, I was enjoined to sit Indian-style on a cold, mercilessly hard floor with unyielding carpet roughly the texture of sandpaper and redolent of post-workday feet, close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing. These sessions lasted anywhere from five to twenty minutes, and I went through the same motions at the beginning of every martial arts class I attended, two or three times a week for four years. I won’t say I got nothing out of it. Just knowing how important concentrating on your breath is can get you through some otherwise panic-inducing positions in submission wrestling. And knowing not to hold your breath while throwing or absorbing punches can keep you from getting winded or having the wind knocked out of you. But my martial arts teachers never taught me to go beyond the first level of meditation.

My dad had a heart attack near the end of May in 2006. Even though my lifestyle choices have always tended to be quite a bit healthier than my dad’s, I was moved, partly because I thought I might discover simple hints to pass along to him, to read up on stress. As a science-minded graduate of Anthropology and Psychology programs, I naturally gravitated toward primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s work on the topic Why Zebras don’t Get Ulcers. I’d read articles in science magazines about how Buddhists monks in fMRI machines had demonstrated meditation was a mental state clearly distinguishable from mere resting and relaxing (which was surprising to me given my experiences), and now I was reading about evidence that meditation has clear health benefits. But, though I remember a few attempts at establishing a routine back then, it took me until recently to really get into experimenting with it.

Having been shocked at the beginning of this semester at how well my memory palace worked to help me encode and store the names of my students, I started poking into Mind Performance Hacks, the book that introduced me to the method. (I also have a friend who’s been telling me about his experimentation with it of late.) I’d actually read the hack on meditation (and I use the four-fold breath when I can’t sleep) a couple times before, but what stood out this time was the idea of walking meditation. I ended up doing a breathing and visualization exercise while I was on the elliptical and watching the NewsHour. Next thing I knew, I was looking down at the display and it was several minutes later. I’d missed most of the news. Being so out of it while exercising has obvious benefits.

Many of the explanations and suggested techniques for meditation are marred by purposely elliptical philosophizing and mumbo jumbo about universal consciousness. The best account I’ve come across of what it entails is in Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. And the easiest technique to start with is in Mind Performance Hacks. But I’ll attempt an easy and direct explanation and set of directions here, all of which can be personalized as you practice and figure out what works best for you. Keep in mind, though you’ll know it when you’re in the state of meditation—or more likely when you’re coming out of the state—the initial experience of a beginner is only a taste of how it feels as you log more and more time in developing the skill.

The process I use consist of four, usually sequential, levels:


Level one is concentrating on your breathing. You don’t have to sit in the lotus or anything like that, but you want to be comfortable enough to relax yet not so comfortable that you’ll fall asleep. Try Indian-style or half-lotus, or lying with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. It’s important to take each breath into your belly first and then gradually let it into your chest; this will increase your capacity for air intake. To help you concentrate on breathing, actually say to yourself silently in your mind, “Breathing in, I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out.”

Level two is body and sensory noting. Once your breathing rhythm is established, do an inventory of each part of your body beginning with your toes and moving all the way up to the top of your head. It may help you relax if you tense and then deliberately relax each part as you note it. So pay attention to how your toes feel as you wiggle and tense them before letting them relax as you move on to tense and release the muscles in your feet, and then your calves—and so on all through your body. Noting your body will already move you in the direction of noting what’s going on with your senses. Consider all the things you feel and hear and smell and taste. I like to imagine my surroundings visually (remember your eyes are closed) and feel myself blend in with the environment. As your body relaxes like this, you’ll find your imagination is really freed up.

Level three is mind noting. This is where Hofstadter’s idea of jootsing comes in. Joots stands for jumping outside of the system. Imagine you’re driving and someone cuts you off. You start to get pissed off, your blood pressure rises, and you start to think all kinds of nasty things about your fellow driver. The system you’re concentrating on here is the offense this other person caused you. Jump outside of it. It’s hard to do in the moment of course but in a state of relaxation it’s much easier. Consider yourself. Is it really such a big deal that you got cut off? Were you in any real danger? Are you going to arrive at your destination significantly later? Has the condition of your life been in any way diminished? Now, consider the other driver—he’s probably stressed out and in a hurry just like you. He didn’t mean to cut you off. It wasn’t personal.

Mind noting doesn’t have to focus on anger or frustration, but these are the things that usually make it hard to relax so you’ll end up beginning the process with them most of the time. The idea is to focus on yourself experiencing the emotion instead of on what triggered the emotion. You may even want to say, “I am feeling frustrated about how that guy cut me off earlier,” or “I’m feeling angry that my boss doesn’t appreciate me,” etc. Doing so means you’re jumping out of the first system, up one level. And you can keep jumping to higher levels. You’re pretty much just putting things in perspective, taking the long view, and saying to yourself that in the scheme of things these stressors are insignificant. You can keep jumping levels until you’re at the level of the entire cosmos, in which neither you or your family or friends—or anything you know about and spend time thinking about has much significance. Thinking at this level makes it really hard to be reactionary. (But there is a danger: if you stay at this level, you may get past your stressors only to get depressed that everyone and everything you love or care about will end.)

Level four becomes possible when you’ve thoroughly relaxed your body and cleared the clutter form your mind. (Sometimes, if nothing's preoccupying me, I skip level three.) Now you can chose what you want to focus on. This is the level at which many monks will recite mantras. Ohm, for instance, when pronounced properly, begins at the back of the throat and moves forward to the lips, making every vowel sound possible and thus symbolizing the totality of existence. Against this backdrop, their individual sense of themselves, their egos, diminishes drastically and they come ever closer to enlightenment. But, as a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu, I concentrate on moods or states of mind I want to spend more time in. You can personalize this level any way you want. What I do is concentrate on colors I associate with moods, and scenes or images or plots I associate with broader states of mind. For instance, there’s a state of mind I associate with reading Walter de la Mare’s ghost stories or watching certain schlock horror movies that I must enjoy because it represents moments of excitement and happiness in my childhood. So I focus first on a certain shade of blue and gradually resolve the image into a view of the moon through silhouetted tree branches. You can choose anything you like to concentrate on. The important thing is that you devote all of your attention to it, with no part of your consciousness occupied with anything else.

I’ve been trying to do this at least twenty minutes a day, five days a week. I also have quite a bit of success doing it while on the elliptical, perhaps because the rhythmic pedaling helps to synchronize my breathing and get me into a near-trance state. Anyway, just keep in mind it takes practice. I have a feeling what I’ve experienced with it to date is only the tip of the iceberg.

My Memory Palace

            I'm in the process of memorizing Phillip Larkin's poem "Aubade." It's fifty lines, and I'll never forget the shock I got when I first read it. I frequently wake in the middle of the night and find myself worrying about how quickly life slips by. That's what the poem is about. I decided to memorize it because at the beginning of this semester I used a trick I learned in "Mind Performance Hacks" to remember my students' names. The memory palace was first developed in classical Greece by orators who needed to remember their speeches. What I did was review a large house I have countless intimate memories of and place a celebrity with the name I wanted to remember each to a room. Thinking I'd have to rehearse the list a couple times, I was amazed to find myself writing down all twenty-two names on the first try. Check it out on wikihow.

            I've been searching for other things to memorize since then. What is worth having in mind at all times? One of the things I put in my palace was fifteen questions from "The Sharing Game" developed by relationship researcher Arthur Aaron. That could come in handy the next time I find myself in a superficial conversation. But fifteen questions only took a little while to remember with the help of the memory palace. I've tried to use it at the restaurant where I work, but so far I found that it interferes with other mnemonics I wasn't even aware of using. (Eleven people at a table--no problem. In fact, that was last week, and I think I can still recall what everyone had for dinner.)

            A poem is more difficult because you have to remember the exact sequence of words. It's not just fifty lines (two to a room and out the front door), it's a few hundred words--though of course they're not random. One of the unforeseen consequences is that I'm finding each room resonates with emotions from the various experiences I had in it. This actually helps the process because it makes abstract ideas emotionally salient. But the more time I spend in my memory palace the more acquainted I am with the long period of time I lived in that house--from age 16 to 27, with a few hiatuses. So if you're going to use a memory palace, choose it wisely; it's not just a tie to new memories but also to old ones.
(Also check out my review of Joshua Foer's book on mnemonics, Moonwalking with Einstein.)
Here goes:

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking a four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
--The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off used--nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear--no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And the realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape.
Yet can't accept. One side will have go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

--Damn, don't quite have it yet (it's only been a few hours since I started). But I cleaned up all my mistakes.