mind performance hacks

Trying out MPH #12: Overcome the Tip-of-the-Tongue Effect

Now that Zenoli is getting spun back up, it’s time to reopen the project of trying out all the hacks in Mind Performance Hacks.  I have a number of experiences to report with these, so let’s pick up with another memory technique:

Hack #12: Overcome the Tip-of-the-Tongue Effect

Unlike the mnemonic methods discussed earlier in the book, this hack suggests some techniques for shaking something loose from your memory, something that you can almost remember, but can quite get to float to the surface of your brain.

The technique suggested is “priming”; that is, you try to think of as many things as possible that are (however tangentially) related to the thing that you are attempting to recall.  Think of, for example, the context in which you were when you originally experienced whatever is that you are trying to remember, words that mean similar things (or even just sound similar), concepts that are similar, and so on.

One technique along these lines that often works for me as a starting point is to go through the letters of the alphabet, starting to say the sounds aloud, but the above method is broader: you’re attempt to activate as many concepts as possible that are, in some sense, “near” the memory that you’re trying to recall.

Unfortunately, I have a failure to report with this hack.  While I’ve had some successes, an examination of limitations can also be instructive.

Memory is curious.  When I gave my first organ recital in college (playing a toccata by Marius Monnikendam) I sat at the keyboard and began to play, just as I had practiced.  As the music swept along, though, my mind went blank.  I could not recall the score, could not picture what came next…but my hands kept on playing.  I hoped, in desperate terror, that they would continue to do so, as I didn’t have any helpful suggestions for them.  Fortunately, I made it to the end without choking, but I was left strongly impressed with the power of motor memory.

Why this anecdote?  On a two-week trip to Michigan last year, I found that I was completely unable to remember the password to get into my email account.  I tried dozens of possibilities.  I ran through every phrase and combination that I thought I could have used.  I tried to recall details where I had been, what I had been feeling when I set up the password, or any of the times that I typed in.

And that, it seemed, was the problem: for the most part, it seems as if when I typed the password it was with a part of my brain that was isolated from other thought processes that might have been going on.  The password was living in my motor memory, and had retreated from everywhere else.  I was completely stumped.

Finally, two days before the end of vacation, I sat down at the keyboard and just typed it.  There was no conscious recall, my fingers just went through the action.  Extremely worried that I might lose it, I typed it into an editor window to find out what it was.  I could remember the password, then, but it was a dry sort of memory, without much mental affect.

I now try to put a bit of emotion into my passwords, to make them, at some level meaningful (however much they may be obfuscated, the obfuscation is usually using some one-off algorithm that can itself be remembered).

The lesson?  Put some work in on the front end for things that you think you might need to remember.  By all means, try out the priming techniques…I’ve had good results with them.  Sometimes, though?  You’re just stuck.  Enjoy your practice of the ars oblivionalis.

The MentatWiki provides a link to the full text of this Hack.

books mind performance hacks

Foul news: Ron Hale-Evans's upcoming book cancelled

Ron Hale-Evans just twittered that Mind Agility Hacks, his in-progress (and rapidly nearing completion) sequel to Mind Performance Hacks, has been cancelled.

A boo and a hiss to those at O’Reilly Media whose short-sightedness has deprived us of what promised to be another intelligently orchestrated assemblage of tools for exploring and tuning the functioning of the tool that matters most: our grey matter.

I heartily recommend that everyone solace themselves by purchasing a copy of the original MPH.  If you already own one, go ahead and buy another—it’s probably getting dog-eared.

mind performance hacks

Conclusions regarding MPH #1

(This post is part of a series describing implementation of the hacks in O’Reilly’s Mind Performance Hacks book. You may want to refer to the first post in this series, or the post describing my setup for Mind Performance Hack #1.)

It’s been nearly a month since I started implementing MPH #1’s suggestion of using a memory peg system to ensure I don’t forget anything important when I leave the house in the morning; I’d say that this is enough time to draw some conclusions about the efficacy of the technique.

My implementation of this hack has been rigorous: every morning before leaving I have quickly stepped through the mental list, usually placing each item in my pocket or bag as I think of its peg. I have not forgotten any item on the list during this past month. In fact, this morning I thought I had left my catch on the kitchen table, but I discovered that I had automatically placed it in my coat pocket as I went through the list. Using this hack hasn’t necessarily made me less absent-minded, but at least I’m putting my robotic trance to good use.

I have extended my original peg list with three additional entries:

  • Ten is ‘hen’: wildcard. I often have some item that’s not on my regular list that I nonetheless have to remember to take with me: a deposit to take to the bank, a letter to mail, quarters for the parking meters, and so on. M—— not infrequently has been exasperated as I’ve failed to take some item that she’s left where I’ll be sure to notice it (on top of the key box, say, or hanging from the door knob) . . . I’ll happily move whatever it is aside and never have a conscious thought about it.

    Usually, it’s enough to remember that there’s something else that I have to bring . . . like a string tied around the finger. I try to give myself a hint, though, with a multilevel peg. For this image, I picture a hen pecking at the key box on top of the microwave. Suddenly, the box flies open like Pandora’s box, and the hen flaps off squawking in a flurry of feathers and swirling Technicolor troubles. All that is left behind in the box is the joker from a deck of playing cards . . . a wild card. If there’s something else I need to remember, I’ll associate it with the joker using the same mnemonic techniques.

  • Eleven is ‘leaven’: Kleenex. (I couldn’t come up with a good noun, so I went with a verb.) I picture myself kneading bread dough. I add Kleenex, and they adhere to the sticky mass.
  • Twelve is ‘shelve’: USB thumbdrive. (Another verb, it seems . . . it was this or ‘delve’.) I imagine driving a bookshelf down the street. The front end is a giant USB connector.

The Queen of DiscsMy pegs are pretty much filled up, though. One could perhaps add “thirteen is ‘dirt queen'”, using, say, an image of the Queen of Discs from Crowley’s Tarot, and “fourteen is ‘floor sheen'”, but I admit my my invention has been failing me on a rhyming peg for “fifteen”.

Extending this further would probably be best done with a different memory system. I did manage to get extra mileage out of some of the pegs by stacking several items into one image (both cellphone and headset for number three, for example, and my Hipster, Moleskine, and a pen for number six). Some of my images (such as the cartoonish St. Peter for number seven) are rather spare, and there’s probably room to hang additional items on the peg.

In general, I am satisfied with the results of this experiment. I would judge this hack to be quite effective at its modest goals, and would further observer that it’s a good introduction to the principles of basic mnemotechnics. I’ll be continuing to use this system for the foreseeable future.