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tower of babel

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Great Tower of Babel, 1563

My memory isn’t as strong as it once had been. For example, when I started this post, I had to search the site to make sure I had not already written about this topic. I have written a lot about memory and it is something I am fascinated by more and more as i grow older. No surprise there. I think all of become more interested as we grow older and as we watch those around us who are even older. Memory starts to fail.

The Mind (AKA Memory) Palace has been used since ancient Rome as a way to enhance memory. It is a mnemonic device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises, such as Cicero’s De Oratore. People use this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. It is based on the fact that most of us are very good at remembering places we know.

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Memory Palace is a metaphor for any place you know really well and that you’re able to easily visualize.

If it sounds less than serious, you can call this method of loci (Latin for “places”) is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualizations with the use of spatial memory, familiar information about one’s environment, to quickly and efficiently recall information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique.

There is even a poetic connection, such as with William Wordsworth’s The Recluse.

“The idea of the mind as a palace or church, whose individual rooms can be explored with training, is familiar from the memory treatises of antiquity and the Middle Ages. The “memory palace” as a mnemonic device was widely used before the advent of printing to organize and remember vast amounts of information. By memorizing the spatial layout of a building and assigning images or ideas to its various rooms, one could “walk” through the imaginary building and retrieve the ideas relegated to the separate parts.”

“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

What do you need to do to try the mind palace approach?

Choose a place to use that you know very well and are able to mentally walk around that place remembering everything in detail. Most people use their home, but it could be where you work or even your childhood home. You need to mentally walk around this place and see the specific order of things.

You will need to be able to focus on particular features you remember very well. If I imagine my home, I can start at the front door, entering the porch there is a storage bench on the left. Entering the house itself, there is a mirror on the left, then a window seat, then a large bookcase, and so on.

Visual learners are undoubtedly better at this technique as you need to really imprint the location and specifics. From what I have read, some people find it effective to walk through the place mentally and say the specifics aloud. You could also draw the location. Always use the same perspective for looking at the features.

When you know this place and every feature, you have your mind palace. Now what?

First, build the visual associations between the features and the information you want to memorize. You could use it to memorize a list in a particular order. More challenging would be to use the palace to remember the parts of a presentation.

I tried this for a presentation I was going to do without notes or PowerPoint slides. I created “memory pegs.”  On each peg I would hang an item I associated with it.  The association should be strong, perhaps even a bit ridiculous, but memorable.

This step is similar to other mnemonic systems which often rely on memorized spatial relationships. Similar techniques are known as the “Journey Method” (for lists of related items) or the “Roman Room” (for storing unrelated information).

Maybe you should start with a shopping list, rather than a presentation.

Walk your Mind Palace from beginning to the end of the route. It is said that you can strengthen the memories by walking backward. I have not found that to be true, but then again I have trouble saying the alphabet backwards too, and I know that really well in the normal order.

Using this technique, can improve your memory in general, and it can improve your visualization skills.

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.” ― Edgar Allan Poe

I think Ed could have used a lesson about the Memory Palace.

Being a virtual worker has its obvious advantages, such as no commuting, variable work hours and days, and working in your pajamas from the couch. It also has its disadvantages, such as allowing you to do nothing and lose track of time.

Because much of my work these days are billable hours rather than a salary, it is important that I keep track of how long I work on a project. I need those stats both to invoice clients and to give estimates to new clients.

This was a skill I needed to develop when I shifted my working days to virtual ones. One technique that I started using turns out to have a formal name. More on that in a bit…

This time management and productivity technique is very simple. When you start a task (not a project, but a piece of it), set a timer and work on that task for 25 minutes. Then, take a short break (3-5 minutes). Start working on the task again for 25 minutes and repeat until it’s completed.

I just started doing this on my own and it was only later that I discovered that I was using the Pomodoro Technique.

Il pomodoro.jpg
Pomodoro tomato timer – from Erato at Italian Wikinews. – Transferred from it.wikinews
to Commons by Fale using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. His technique was to use a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Originally, he broke it down into six steps. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.

The technique has been popularized more recently via a bunch of apps and websites that provide timers and instructions.  I just use a cheap digital timer that can count down. I tried using my phone timer but for some reason it was less effective. Perhaps because the screen would go to sleep, so those numbers weren’t always staring at me.

One of the app options is Focus Booster which will automatically record your timesheets  for each project or task and lets you export it for easier invoicing.

This technique is closely related to several other productivity techniques, such as timeboxing, and iterative and incremental development.

Timeboxing allocates a fixed time period, called a time box, to each planned activity. Several project management approaches use timeboxing. It is also used for individual use to address personal tasks in a smaller time frame. It often involves having deliverables and deadlines, which will improve the productivity of the user.

Iterative and incremental development, which is often used in software design, uses the basic idea of developing a system through repeated cycles (iterative) and in smaller portions at a time (incremental). This allows software developers to take advantage of what was learned during development of earlier parts or versions of the system.

This post originally appeared at Ronkowitz LLC

 

Galen

In ancient medicine of Greece and Rome, aging was viewed as a disease. As a disease, it was thought that it could be “cured” or perhaps even prevented.

The most prolific of ancient writers on the topic is Aelius Galenus (129 AD – c. 200/c. 216), usually Anglicized as Galen and better known as Galen of Pergamon. He was a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire.

Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic.

Galen did not see aging as a disease. In his treatise Hygiene, we find the only surviving classical study of gerontology which Galen viewed as a natural process.

During the three centuries from Homer to Hippocrates, views of human aging and longevity evolved in a socio-cultural sense. The physicians of that time began to believe that the aging process could be influenced by natural factors, such as environmental influences and lifestyle.

It was radical to think that an individual has any choice in health and aging  when beliefs in the primacy of the supernatural, and that the gods could predestine one’s life. Could you defy the gods by changing your diet?

I don’t expect readers to dig into Galen’s Hygiene , but I found a number of articles about it online and about his views of aging. Some of those views still make sense today.

Galen’s understanding of medicine was influenced by the then-current theory of humorism. The Four Humors were black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. That theory goes back to ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates.

A more modern term we might attach to Galen’s approach would be to say he thought of ageing holistically. His writing shows that he thought this lifelong process had a number of stages. Three of those stages were crucial to health and a longer life: the first seven years of life, maturity and old age proper.

He also believed that rather than a generalized approach, a person’s aging path is highly individual. There are many possible health outcomes at each stage.

He believed that those first seven years were the basis for a robust old age.

I dipped into a library copy of the biography The Prince of Medicine and learned that Galen’s theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years.

When he wrote Hygiene, he was at the peak of his career, as physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

He was not totally “modern” in his views. He did adhere to the concept of humours which was based on bodily fluids. He believed in the curative properties of “divinely-inspired” dreams. He developed treatments based on herbs and spices, which he tested on fellow physicians. Some of those would be viewed today as questionable, while some are probably still used.

In his time, there was a religious taboo on the dissection of corpses. Galen studied anatomy through skeletons exposed in flooded cemeteries, and while treating the wounds of gladiators. He was known for some rather gruesome anatomical demonstrations on animals, such as public vivisections of live Barbary macaques (monkeys) to demonstrate the function of nerves.

Galen is thought to have lived to age 80 – a long life in that time. What would be Galen’s “anti-aging” regime?

He advocated walking and moderate running.

He saw health benefits of a simple diet involving gruel (oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice, boiled in water or milk), raw honey, vegetables and fowl.

He suggests as suitable for the elderly, “yellow wines… always choose the thinnest in consistency.”

He was not a proponent of the strong purges and bloodletting of that time, but encouraged gentle massage for kidney and bladder problems.

He would have appreciated the modern approach to preventative

Hygiene became part of the Western medical curriculum by 500 AD. His output was prodigious. He may have produced more work than any author in antiquity, rivaling Augustine of Hippo. In fact, his surviving texts represent nearly half of all the extant literature from ancient Greece.

It was said that Galen employed twenty scribes to write down his approximately 500 treatises, amounting to some 10 million words. About 3 million words survive today.

 

When I was working and teaching at NJIT, I learned about reverse engineering, also called back engineering. It is the process by which a man-made object is deconstructed to reveal its designs, architecture, or to extract knowledge from the object.

I had also learned earlier in my teaching about backward design which is a method of designing educational curriculum by setting goals before choosing instructional methods and forms of assessment.  That seems very logical but in reality much curriculum is done is the “regular” order rather than reverse.

For example, a teacher knows there will be mid-term and final exams. You have a textbook that determines the course content and you always lecture on the fifteen chapters you plan to use.  Your goals? They may not even be clear or stated. If goals ever emerge, it will be a factor of the design, not part of the design.

I’m wondering if those two approaches can be used for non-academic and non-engineering events in our lives. Could you use this “in reverse” approach to do something like a job search?

When you are facing a deadline or you are starting out on something big, you probably approach it by planning from the beginning and then working your way forward. Step one, step two and so on.

Some colleges use backward planning with students to help students reach their goals. Though there are suggested ways to do this, the idea is simple: start with your end goal and then work your way backwards from there to develop a plan of action.

If the goal is to get a new job, what would be the previous step? The interview? Maybe, but thinking backwards, perhaps it is the job offer. Do you have in mind what salary, benefits and work conditions you would accept?

Some of the research on reverse planning has shown enhanced student motivation and perception, and also changed the actual outcome by improving student grades.

In the end, if you look at backwards and forwards plans tend to look pretty similar, but the process in each is what differs.

When you focus on the end goal, you use your imagination to think of future events as if they already happened. This can help you visualize the steps you need to take. Researchers refer to this as “future retrospection” and it can increase our anticipation of pleasure from achieving our goal.

So…
Start with the end goal
Outline clear steps
Focus on the process
Visualize a positive outcome

That last step is probably the oddest one. When you visualize a positive outcome, like getting that job offer, you can feel closer to that goal than if you focus on all the steps to come and all the problems that might occur.

It sounds so simple. The first time I thought about visualizing a positive outcome to a goal, it felt a bit like believing in magic. It made me think of guided imagery, a technique that I tried unsuccessfully many years ago. It is not the same thing, but they do share the optimistic and positive approach of starting with the notion that you will reach your goal.

People want the quick fix. That’s why short-term diets and five-minute self-help plans are always popular. I would say that in almost all these cases, quick fixes are not great fixes.  But I read this week about recent research on people who deal with anxiety may experience psychological and physiological benefits from a single introductory mindfulness meditation session.

It is a small study, but after participating in an hour-long guided intro session to mindfulness meditation, the participants with high levels of anxiety experienced lower resting heart rates and other cardiovascular risk markers. They self-reported feeling less anxious than at the start of the study.

Maybe more importantly, a week later, the participants still reported anxiety levels that were lower than the levels pre-meditation.

All that from a single mindfulness meditation session. Imagine what a regular practice might accomplish.

Mindfulness means being aware of where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, withholding judgment, and paying specific attention to breath.

The study I read about had participants meditate for 20 minutes before being led through a 30-minute “body scan” (similar to progressive muscle relaxation). They concluded with 10 minutes of self-guided meditation.

Lately, I’m reading more about “revised meditation.” There are methods that don’t involve sitting motionless on a pillow for hours. In one approach, you just find moments of gratitude and awareness in your day.

Though I may still be somewhat doubtful of a quick fix, I would agree that if you can get in a few minutes every day of mediation in some form, you will benefit.

If meditation just doesn’t work for you, you can do some everyday tasks more mindfully It may sound silly, but you can meditate while you eat. Mindful eating means slowing down, paying attention to your food, and listening to your body.

As a seeker, I have gone down many roads. One thing I’ve decided traveling all those roads is that it is you are primarily responsible for what you get in life.

I have found that certain mottoes or mantras or whatever you want to call them talk about this idea. I have found this in religions and self-help books. It’s a wide range.

I don’t advocate the  idea that you can  visualize what you want from life, though that certainly will be an appealing way to attract followers. I’m also don’t buy into the law of attraction.

So many of these approaches involve thinking positively, and having a positive attitude is certainly better than having a negative one. The more scientific (or psychological) version of this is something I encountered when I was “in therapy.” That is cognitive restructuring. Right off, let me say that this helped me, but it was not enough on its own. It was a tool in the toolbox.

I have also seen this called cognitive reframing. I don’t have the degrees to explain all this properly but this technique is part of cognitive therapy. My doctor wanted me to identify and then change thought patterns and beliefs that were causing stress and/or depression.

When I was depressed, I found everything meaningless. I had a very difficult time naming any things – food, places, activities – that I enjoyed or that I felt were really were important. At the time, that did not seem odd. Now, it seems very odd – and sad.

The doctor wanted me to keep a journal, which is easy for me because I have been doing it most of life. I agree that writing our thoughts down is one way to take control of them. I do it currently with food as part of a diet I am following.

From my journal entries, the doctor observed that a lot of my anxiety seemed to come out of my imagined scenarios of situations that were really quite unlikely to happen. This observation made sense to me, but controlling or training my mind to think constructively and positively was difficult. It wasn’t working and I just could not believe that I could change things in my life by thinking differently about them.

I looked back at my journal from that period and found an entry that had the line “Reframe Your Negative Thoughts and Beliefs” written at the top.

Therapists like to turn your comments into questions. It is some kind of reflection technique. I was unhappy with my work life at that time.
“Why are you unhappy with your job,” he asked.
Well, for one thing, I’m making less money than my previous job.
“Do you equate happiness with financial status?”
No, but it would be nice to be paid what I think I am worth, and it would be great to get things I want and not worry about bills.

Then we would talk about what I might do to get a raise in salary or a promotion or even apply for other jobs that could give me what I was seeking. Of course, it was really about not just the money but feeling like my work was not valued in non-monetary ways too.

I had read back then that we have somewhere 10 and 20,000 thoughts per hour. This statistic freaked me out. Too too much thinking. In my insomniac nights (of which there were many in that period), I just could not turn off thoughts. Despite years of meditation training and practice, nothing worked.

This was a time before smartphones and early in the Internet days, but the therapist wanted me to tune out the news on TV and radio. (Probably more important today to do some tuning out, especially if you are anxious or depressed.) He suggested that I return to some print novels that I had loved earlier in life. But since most of us are online a lot (and you are online now reading this), and not everyone can afford or is willing to go into therapy, you can find websites with names like TheEmotionMachine.com and VeryWellMind.com that might get you started.

I can’t say that it did not help me, but I can’t say it was the action that pulled me out of that negative state. There were drugs, which I was opposed to at first, but seemed to help too. There were other changes in my life – some made by me, some made to my life by others.

Have you had any experience with this approach to making your life better?  Comments welcome.

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