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.