lifehacks mental exercises

Harnessing Wayward Ideas: Setup for MPH #13

My experiences putting Mind Performance Hack #1 into action await a later post, as I am planning to work with each hack for a suitable period of time before drawing conclusions as to its effectiveness or utility. Incidentally, I received a very nice note from Ron Hale-Evans, the primary author of Mind Performance Hacks. Hi, Ron! I hope that this series does not disappoint.

Hack #13, “Catch Your Ideas“, is the first hack of the Information Processing section of the book. Like a fair number of the hacks, it is by an author other than Ron Hale-Evans, in this case, Lion Kimbro. Lion is the author of a curious screed entitled How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, a text that does a rather good job delivering what it promises. I scanned through it a few years back and found some definitely interesting bits, but Kimbro says it best himself:

If you do the things described in this book, you will be IMMOBILIZED for the duration of your commitment.The immobilization will come on gradually, but steadily. In the end, you will be incapable of going somewhere without your cache of notes, and will always want a pen and paper w/ you . . . You will not only be immobilized in the arena of action, but you will also be immobilized in the arena of thought. This appears to be contradictory, but it’s not really. When you are writing down your thoughts, you are making them clear to yourself, but when you revise your thoughts, it requires a lot of work- you have to update old ideas to point to new ideas. This discourages a lot of new thinking. There is also a “structural integrity” to your old thoughts that will resist change. You may actively not-think certain things, because it would demand a lot of note keeping work.

Kimbro also describes the positive aspects of his method, but I am far too familiar with (and prone to) system paralysis, the syndrome where some system one is using begins to eat up ever-larger portions of one’s time and life. When I first started keeping journals I was laboriously detailed, attempting to capture every minutia of thought and memory. Such compulsive devotion is only sustainable for limited periods of time.

Hack #13 could be considered HtMaCMoETYT-light, and as such is much more practical than the full system as part of a balanced, mentally healthy lifestyle. It proposes a “catch”, a system to capture and store all those cool ideas that flit through one’s head while one is engaged in hum-drum quotidiana.

It suggests using loose-leaf, ruled 8.5″ x 11″ paper divided into three columns, specifying a broad subject, a “hint” or keyphrase, and the idea itself. One is to always carry such a sheet around and, right after having an interesting thought, one is to capture it in just enough detail so that one can recall it later. These capture sheets are processed regularly, and the ideas copied onto other sheets of paper for each subject and filed. A system for numbering and referencing the ideas is mentioned as well; this seems to be part of Kimbro’s larger system, but its utility as part of this catch system is not immediately apparent to me.

My current system is somewhat related, if not quite as formal. My note-taking apparatus consists of a carefully organized and binder-clipped pack of index cards (a.k.a. a Hipster PDA) and an unruled Moleskine notebook. If I am engaged in an activity where I don’t want anything bulky in my pockets (like taking a lunchtime walk), I’ll stick one or two folded index cards in my pocket and scribble down any ideas that I don’t want to lose.

My Current Catch Idea-Flow

In theory, the scribbles are transferred either to the Hipster (if they are practical actions or goals) or to the Moleskine (if they are interesting ideas that I want to preserve for future contemplation). In practice, though, the scribble-cards often don’t get transcribed in a timely fashion and begin to clutter up my binder clip. The notes in the Moleskine are not organized beyond their chronological capture-dates. Reviewing them can be very interesting, but it’s difficult to assess them in any coherent fashion.

I’ll be modifying this hack as I put it into practice. For the first week I’ll continue to use my current system for capture. Rather than the Moleskine, though, I’ll transfer the notes to larger sheets of paper for each subject (unruled, as I have a prejudice against sloppily-printed blue lines cramping my style).

For the second week, I’ll shift to carrying full sheets of paper around with me (I might even suppress my aesthetics and use ruled, if I have some in the closet) instead of index cards, and compare the experience. For both weeks, I’ll be focusing on paying attention to my ideas as they occur and making notes about them as close to occurrence as possible. I’ve noticed that ideas come in clusters: once I’ve written down one, several more are likely to occur to me in fairly short order.

This hack is strictly paper-oriented: the issues around using computers for idea capture and storage will have to be left as fodder for a later post.

lifehacks mental exercises zenoli

Don't Forget Your Lunch: Setup for MPH #1

Chapter 1 of Mind Performance Hacks is devoted to techniques for improving your memory, a topic that has fascinated me since I first discovered Yates’s The Art of Memory. It combines a simple, traditional memory system (rhyming pegwords) with an application (remembering a list of things that you take with you when you leave the house on your daily perambulations).

This may seem a bit silly, but I’m occasionally absent-minded enough to pack my lunch and leave it on the counter or forget to grab my work ID badge on the way out the door.

I used to have several pairs of excellent cargo pants that served as a sort of combination reminder system and carry-all (wallet in the left-front zippered hip pocket, badge in the right leg pocket, and so on). Despite functioning most satisfactorily as a handless (if geekish) murse, sadly, this system didn’t help with my lunch as it wouldn’t fit in a pocket.

Over time, I’ve tried to engineer things to minimize the chances of something important being left behind: a box near the door holds my keys, wallet, and such, and M—— recently constructed a recharging station where our cell phones and my GPS live. Even so, something occasionally does get left behind.

MPH #1 suggests the use of a simple memory system, one that is often mentioned in books on improving one’s memory. This is a good choice on Ron’s part, as it is an easily accessible introduction to the principles of practical mnemotechnics. The system associates a rhyming word (the ‘peg’, upon which memory images can be hung) with each number from one to ten: one is ‘gun’, two is ‘shoe’, and so on. The list in MPH differs slightly from the list that I learned, but the specific words are unimportant, as long as they’re consistent.

When I first learned the system, back in college, I tried using the pegwords as a short-term ‘scratchpad’—a way to remember a grocery list, for example. After some initial enthusiasm, I fell away from using the system. One of the goals of MPH is to build the hacks into your life and brain, much as a useful utility like Quicksilver can permanently transform the way you interact with your computer. The only way to achieve this is through repetiton and continuous use.

Here’s my initial list of things that I need to bring with me every morning and their pegged associations (numbers 8 and 9 not pictured):

Quotidian Paraphernalia

  • One is ‘gun’: keys. I picture myself firing a gun that shoots keys. The keys bury themselves in the wood of the back door of my house.
  • Two is ‘shoe’: wallet. I imagine myself holding one of my shoes. Instead of a tongue, it has plastic sleeves holding the cards from my wallet. I pass the shoe over the proximity reader at the university library, and it beeps.
  • Three is ‘tree’: cell phone. I picture one of those ludicrous cell phone towers half-heartedly disguised with short, pine-like branches and not looking at all like a real tree. My cell phone dangles from one of the branches as if it has been lynched, strung up by its headset. This image reminds me that I need to bring both my cell phone and the headset.
  • Four is ‘door’: work ID. I picture the screen door of my house as a giant ID badge, swinging slightly in the breeze and banging againts the door frame.
  • Five is ‘hive’: GPS. This image is of a traditional beehive, with hundreds of bees buzzing around it. Each bee carries a tiny Garmin GPS and flies around in looping patterns to communicate her path to her hive-mates.
  • Six is ‘sticks’: Note-taking apparatus, which is currently a Moleskine notebook and Hipster PDA. I picture a cone of sticks, laid for a fire. The Moleskine lies in the middle and index cards are woven into the sticks.
  • Seven is ‘heaven’: sunglasses. A simple, cartoonish image of St. Peter at the gates of heaven wearing a cool set of shades.
  • Eight is ‘gate’: my bag. I have a rolly bag with a telescoping handle to transport my laptop and books about with minimal stress on my back. I imagine the handle as a wrought-iron gate. It rises up from the bag, clicks into place, and swings open.
  • Nine is ‘wine’: lunch. I picture Stephen Fry as Jeeves handing me a packed picnic hamper and a bottle of wine. He frowns disapprovingly at the thermos mug that I am holding, and I have to set it down to take the hamper.

This is sufficient for my initial list I think, and I’ll use this as a mental checklist as I leave the house each morning over the next week or two. I’ll post my experiences and conclusions about this hack at that time.

books mental exercises zenoli

Mind Performance Hacks: Review and Manifesto

Mind Performance Hacks CoverMy copy of Mind Performance Hacks has been sitting by my chair in the living room for some months, waiting for me to spend some serious time digging into its contents. I picked it up again this past weekend, and was once again impressed with the density of surpassingly cool information packed therein.

The book is perfect for those with omnivorous interests who enjoy pushing the limits of their minds, but I’d venture to suggest that anyone with a modicum of curiosity will find a quite a number of things to pique their enthusiasm.  The book’s 75 short articles (called “hacks”, implying an attractive blend of usefulness, cleverness, and efficacity) are grouped into eight chapters: Memory, Information Processing, Creativity, Math, Decision Making, Communication, Clarity, and Mental Fitness.

Even though I’ve encountered many of the specific topics previously, I found plenty of material that was either new to me or contained interesting perspectives. For example, even though I’ve investigated shorthand systems I’d never paid much attention to Dutton Speedwords. I’ve played around with mental arithmetic, but I’d never encountered the divisibility tests for seven, eleven, and thirteen.

Simply placing all this material into close proximity invites experimentation. While I’ve read much about mnemotechnics, for example, I’ve only put some of the most basic techniques into practice, and never in any sort of systematic fashion. The book starts with a relatively simple pegwords example, then moves into more advanced material, including a system that purports to allow you to remember a list of 10,000 items.

Rather than write a single in-depth review of this book, over the next few months I plan to use the hacks in MPH as jumping-off points for posts, recording my experiences putting them into action. I’ll be ranging through the book freely rather than taking the entries in order.

computer science mathematics mental exercises

Quickly Convert Binary to Decimal in Your Head

[Update, April 13, 2007: Thanks to Herr Ziffer for catching a confusing typographical error.]

I can’t believe I’d never seen (or figured out) this quick method for converting a binary number to a decimal number in your head. All you need to be able to do is double numbers and occasionally add one.

  1. Start at the first ‘1’ on the left, and start with the mental number one
  2. Move one digit right. If that digit is a zero, multiply your mental number by two. If it is a one, multiply your mental number by two and add one.
  3. Repeat step 2 for every digit of the binary number

Here’s an example. We’ll use the binary number 1101010 1011010:

  • 1011010 – We start at the first one. Our mental total: 1
  • 1011010 – Next digit is a zero; we double our mental number: 1 x 2 = 2.
  • 1011010 – Next digit is a one; we double our mental number and add one: 2 x 2 + 1 = 5
  • 1011010 – Another one; double and add one: 5 x 2 + 1 = 11
  • 1011010 – Zero; double: 11 x 2 = 22
  • 1011010 – One; double and add one: 22 x 2 + 1 = 45
  • 1011010 – And finally a zero; double: 45 x 2 = 90

The rest of this post is a little more technical, so if you glazed over when reading the above, it now may be time to soothe your tired mind.

Discrete finitite automaton to identify binary numbers divisible by threeI happened across this trick while contemplating a three-state discrete finite automaton that identifies binary numbers divisible by three. The automaton starts in state 0, and like the above procedure starts at the left side of the number. The number of the state can be thought of as the remainder of the number as read so far, mod 3. Every time a zero or a one is read, the automaton follows the arrow with that label from its current state. If it ends in state 0, the number is evenly divisible by three. Once I understood why the DFA actually works, the mental calculation became glaringly obvious.

For even more fun, the regular expression (0*(1(01*0)*1)*)* will also match binary numbers divisible by three.

Exciting! Now you have something to talk about the next time you go to a cocktail party.

input devices mental exercises reflections

This Is Your Brain on Dvorak

Kinesis Contoured KeyboardSince reorganizing my office, I’ve started using my Kinesis keyboard again. Despite its somewhat peculiar appearance, it’s an extremely well-crafted device. It has a satisfying tactile response approaching the classic IBM keyboard (though without the clickity-clickity), and the concavity gives each key a different shape and feel. It also puts six keys (including Control, Alt, Backspace and Delete) under each thumb, a digit typically consigned to whapping the space bar. Its only significant fault is the lousy, chiclet-style function keys.

The last time I used the Kinesis heavily was when I was learning the Dvorak keyboard layout. I’ve made several runs at it, and the last time I pushed through to start achieving some reasonable (though hardly fast) speed. Dvorak is not without its controversies, but even without the grandiose claims it’s been a very interesting mental exercise. The Kinesis is switchable between QWERTY and Dvorak layouts by hitting a combination of keys. I’d left the keyboard set to QWERTY, and hadn’t thought much more about it for six months.

When I started writing an email, I noticed that I was stumbling, hitting lots of wrong keys. Much to my surprise, my motor memory was trying to type Dvorak. When I switched the keyboard over, I found that I could hit a steady (if somewhat slow) pace.

Switching back and forth between the two layouts is a curious mental exercise . . . when I type a sentence, I typically don’t think at all about the individual letters, or even the mechanics of typing; the words just seem to appear on the screen. Immediately after switching modes, there’s an internal tension, with two competing pathways trying to activate. It’s an almost disconnected, ghostly experience to feel and watch my hands flicking over the keys without conscious intervention.

Despite my increased fluency with Dvorak, I’m still painfully slow compared to my normal speeds. This makes it very hard to persevere for long periods of time . . . it prevents achieving a state of flow, of union with what is happening on the screen of the computer. Even so, it is fascinating to watch the process of the brain rewiring itself under the pressure of new demands.

mathematics mental exercises

Mental Exercises: Multitasking with Numbers

The following exercises build on those described in the post on mental exercises with number sequences.

  • Visualize a number sequence: select any of the sequences from the previous post, but rather than simply “counting” or saying the number aloud, form an image of each element on the sequence in your mind.
  • Count one series aloud or silently while visualizing a different sequence.
  • Count one series aloud or silently while writing a different sequence.  (Any or all of these can be single or multiple sequences.)
  • Recite a series as in the previous exercises, but in a different base: count by 5’s in octal, by 3’s in base 11, by 7’s in hexadecimal.
  • Visualize a scene from your life (such as a walking downstairs or through your neighborhood, or going to a restaurant, etc.) while reciting a number sequence.

This is the majority of the useful exercises from the relevant section of the Wujec book.  Once my copy of Orage arrives, I will be quite interested to see how the 200 exercises contained therein are presented.

mental exercises sleep

Go to Sleep Instantly – Week 1 Update

When I described the black circle technique to my wife, she became curious and decided to give it a try herself. For the last week we have both been experimenting with this visualization as we went to sleep.

Has it been effective? The evidence so far is fairly neutral. I haven’t been lying awake, but I’ve also been staying up too late, so I’m pretty tired when I actually get into bed for the night. My wife has been sick, and she had one bad bout of insomnia that the exercise did nothing to alleviate.

I plan to continue the visualizations for at least a month. The fact that I have been so tired while going to sleep is, I think, a net positive: I hope that my brain has been associating black circles with falling asleep.

mental exercises zenoli

On Mentats

Okay, we probably shouldn’t bad-mouth mentats. If pressed, we would admit that we actually think mentats are pretty cool.

The Mentat Wiki adopts the mentat as an ideal towards which to strive; it is a catalog of many different approaches to mental self-improvement, and deserves lengthy and repeated delving. The site is maintained by Ron Hale-Evans, author of the superb Mind Performance Hacks.

Mind Performance Hacks (published by O’Reilly) deserves special mention. Dollar for dollar and ounce for ounce this was one of my best book purchases of last year. While I was certainly familiar with a large number of the topics covered, the presentation is excellent and there is quite a lot of value in having such a high-density collection of intelligent and useful ideas in easily portable form. There’s something of interest on nearly every page. It’s a great book, and I plan to give a more detailed review in a future post.

mental exercises

Mental Exercises: Working with Number Sequences

While thinking about material for this site, I recalled a system of mental training from Pumping Ions by Tom Wujec that seemed worth digging up. I’ve been accumulating books on mind and intelligence for quite a few years now, and many of them simply rehash the same patterns. Pumping Ions suffers a bit from a slightly precious “mental gymnasium” metaphor, but there’s a lot of good material. I hadn’t looked at the book for a number of years, but I did finally manage to dredge it out of my library.

Most unusual are a set of exercises that mix visualization, multitasking, and mental endurance. Wujec attributes them to A. R. Orage’s Mental Exercises and Essays. (Some research reveals that this is probably the wrong title; then again, it appears that the book was published under at least four separate titles: The Active Mind: Adventures in Awareness; Psychological Exercises; Psychological Exercises and Essays; and The Active Mind: Psychological Exercises and Essays. Perhaps there are more editions.)

Orage became a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff in the 1920s, and by 1930 (when Exercises was published), was well within his ambit. I’ve not read the original book, but I’ll be ordering a copy soon, and will certainly relate my impressions in this forum.

The first set of exercises, which will be presented today, deals with sequences of numbers. The individual manipulations are quite simple, but by layering several operations together you can build your powers of mental concentration. Start with the simple exercises, and over time, build to the more complex patterns.

The Exercises

  • Either out loud or silently, count by 1’s:
    • From 0 up to 100
    • From 100 down to 0
  • Count by intervals:
    • From 0 up to 100 by 2’s, by 3’s, by 4’s,…, by 9’s
    • From 100 down to 0 by 2’s, by 3’s, by 4’s,…, by 9’s
  • Count up or down by two sequences simultaneously, for example:
    • Up by 2’s and 3’s: 2, 3; 4, 6; 6, 9; … ; 66, 99
    • Down by 3’s and 2’s: 99, 66; 96, 63; … ; 3, 2
    • Up by 7’s and 4’s: 7,4; 14, 8; … ; 98, 56
  • Count two sequences, one up and one down, for example:
    • Up by 3, down by 4: 3, 100; 6, 96; … ; 75, 4
    • Up by 9, down by 3: 9, 99; 18, 96; … ; 99, 66
  • Name all numbers from 1 to 100 with a particular property:
    • All numbers containing a particular digit; e.g., 2: 2, 12, 20, 22, 23, … ,92
    • All numbers containing either of two digits
    • All numbers the sum of whose digits total a particular number
    • All numbers whose digits are divisible by a particular number
  • Count three sequences together, either all up, all down, or a mix, for example:
    • Up by 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s: 2, 3, 4; 4, 6, 8; … ; 48, 72, 96
    • Down by 8’s, 7’s and 3’s: 96, 84, 36; 88, 77, 33; … ; 8, 7, 3
    • Up by 2’s, down by 2’s, and up by 3’s: 2, 66, 3; 4, 64, 6; … ; 66, 2, 99
  • Count four sequences together, either all up, all down, or mix, for example:
    • Down by 7’s, down by 9’s, up by 2’s, up by 5’s: 77, 99, 2, 5; 70, 90, 4, 10; … ; 7, 9, 44, 55

The above constitute a basic set of exercises. While straightforward, they require careful attention to avoid losing one’s place. There are obvious ways to keep changing things around: for example, don’t always start from 0, or don’t limit the count to 100. In future posts, we will look at elaborations beyond simple counting.