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The ‘memory palace’

The article “For brain fitness, go to a brain gym” (Lifestyle, 6/10/14) struck a chord because it reminded me of a book, “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer, that I read a few months ago. Foer, a confessed “where-did-I-park-my-car?” guy, was a magazine writer who won the 2006 US Memory Championships after devoting 10 months to training his brain. The book made me more aware of more frequent “senior moments,” when I seem to waste more time looking for things that I had put away—like the time I bought some chocolates, stored them when I got home and, later, spent an hour in a vain effort to find them.

Like many others in their 70s, I, too, wonder whether I am fast sliding down the road to dementia or how long before it will threaten my ability to lead a normal life. Will I be like my mother who started showing the dreaded signs at about my age now?

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Luckily for seniors at this period in history, the US Congress proclaimed the 90s as the “Decade of the Brain” for the purpose of sharing with the public the cutting-edge research about the workings of the brain and exploring their implications. This proclamation led to the launch of several neurological research centers like the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, which was established in 2003 with funds from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) launched in 2013 by US President Barack Obama. Research in these centers accelerated unprecedented breakthroughs in neurology and the treatments possible, as for example using data about neurogenesis and neuroplasticity to help those who suffer from neurological disturbances like addiction and neurogenetic diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Up until about the 1980s, conventional wisdom held that humans were born with a finite number of brain cells (neurons, our grey matter) that deteriorated with age and died. However, experiments from the 1950s to the 1990s found that animal brain cells changed and adapted to new situations, inspiring later studies on human brains. Evidence finally established that the adult brain, unimpaired by age, remains plastic all lifelong and maintains the ability to spawn new brain cells that can adapt according to new sensory input.

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As mentioned in the article on brain gyms, a study by University College neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire in 2000 on London cabbies proved that given the proper stimulus, new neurons continue to be produced and make new connections. Maguire and her colleagues found that the right posterior hippocampus of the cabbies and World Memory champions had grown at the end of their observation. Neuropsychologist Charlotte Tomaino and neuroscientist David J. Linden have taken advantage of these breakthroughs. Tomaino helps heal brain-injured patients and Linden has devised methods to short-circuit addiction among his patients.

Foer’s example and data from neurogenesis and neuroplasticity heartened me. If I can produce new brain cells and train them to create new pathways, I would have a good chance of avoiding dementia, or at least delaying its onset.

Foer sought the expertise of the Human Performance Laboratory of Florida State University and the guidance of memory grandmaster Ed Cooke as his coach. He mastered the mnemonics known as PAO (for person-action-object) and another called the “memory palace.” PAO is a mnemonic which identifies a person doing something to an object to represent a number or a playing card (or whatever one wants to memorize). In an example he used in the book to memorize a set of playing cards, Foer assigned as the five of clubs the plump comic Dom De Luise spitting on Albert Einstein’s white thick head of hair (three of diamonds), and so on. Foer emphasizes the importance of saturating the images with as much sensory content as possible because the more sense-laden, vivid, crude, and bizarre the images are, the more effective they are as mnemonics. (This is one of the systems that members of the Philippine National Memory Team use to train themselves and that helped install them as the champion memory team of Asia).

The “memory palace,” allegedly invented 2,500 years ago by Simonides of Ceos in Thessaly, Greece, is also known as the “journey method” or the method of loci allegedly used by Cicero to memorize his speeches. In this system, you visualize a space you know well (like your body or ancestral home) and distribute the items you want to memorize throughout. For example, if you want to memorize your grocery list, imagine assigning each item in different parts of your house.

Mental athletes use many other mnemonic systems, depending on the type of memory contest they are competing in and what they are required to memorize such as names, dates, playing cards, numbers, or a poem. Chess players are known to use this strategy.

Foer suggests that in addition to assigning lurid and bizarre images onto the specific items you want to remember, you still need old-fashioned training and practice to be really good at it. He learned that with time, focus, motivation and deliberate mindfulness, the mind of even an ordinary person can be trained to perform extraordinary feats. He discovered that in the process of training his memory, he developed the habit of noticing and appreciating more the world around him. “Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.”

I do not intend to try my luck in any memory competitions. I just want to hone the ability to be mindful and to appreciate the world around me so I can keep producing new neurons and train them to lay out new pathways. That way, I will remember where I might hide chocolates in the future.

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Violy Peralta-Hughes, 75, is a balikbayan who retired from The Ohio State University and resides in San Pablo City.

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