Visiting My Mind Palace

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 us 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 that 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 the beginning to the end of the route. It is said that you can strengthen your memories by walking backward. I have not found that to be true, but then again I have trouble saying the alphabet backward 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.

Finding True North

There’s a bit of a curse on those of us who studied literature in college. You tend to see symbols, metaphors, and analogies all around you. Maybe you see the games of Chess and Go as defining Western and Eastern societies.  Maybe the seasons take on symbolic significance. For me, using a compass has always felt like more than just literally finding your way and not getting lost.

Let me set aside symbolism for now and write about my own experiences with maps and compasses. As a kid, I was always playing with compasses. At first, cheap ones of the Cracker Jack prize variety probably, and then later a real compass by way of Cub Scouts. I knew very little about how to use it. Like most people, I knew it pointed North, which was useful if you wanted to go North. I had no idea how it would help you if you were in the middle of the forest lost and pulled it out. Which way is home?

It took me a while to learn that the compass really was only useful if you used it when you went into that forest, and it would help if you could use it along with a good (as in topographic) map.

Of course, this was all before GPS could be in your hand. But the GPS you have on your phone or car is not going to help you if you are in the middle of a big forest and get lost. I’m sure that using a map and compass will one day be considered an oddity – like doing calculations with a slide rule.

I enjoyed the compass and map and the drawing lines and angles on the map. It made me feel like a navigator or adventurer from the books and movies I loved in my youth.

Many years later, I got into orienteering for a time. Orienteering is a sport that requires using a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain. It can be very competitive.

You get a specially prepared orienteering map which has on it control points marked by flags (like the one shown above). The objective is to get from point to point as fast as possible. In many events, it becomes very much a race through the woods. I found your speed using a map and compass was sometimes only half as important as the speed of your running.

One of the big lessons for me in using a compass was the discovery that if you don’t know how you got somewhere, a compass won’t tell you where to go to get back to where you began.

That’s where the English major in me took over. I would often think in my daily life about where I was – not literally on a map – and wonder “How did I get here?”

Once lost, taking out a compass is nearly worthless. You needed to take a bearing at the beginning. You needed to keep taking bearings throughout the journey. You needed some kinds of reference points for when things around you look unfamiliar.

Why does a post I wrote here years ago called “Getting Lost” continue to be one of the most-read entries on the blog? I’d like to think that it was well written and a good combination of both the literal and figurative aspects of “getting lost.” I think it touched on something that sometimes sends people to counseling, religion, drugs or alcohol, or even thoughts about suicide. How did I get here? How do I get back on the path?

Orienteering courses have boxes (controls) that have been set up for you. and a path is there. You just need to find it. I lost interest in formal orienteering. That was a combination of time constraints (I had two young sons then.), bad knees (trail running is tough), and an inability to do the navigating fast enough to be competitive.

I started creating my own maps and courses. I drew my own maps of local woods. I picked landmarks – huge boulders, the confluence of streams, an unusual tree – and created my own courses. I walked them without concern for speed.

I bought my two sons compasses, gave them lessons, and took them out on treasure hunts. There was one in the Maine woods that we did with friends that led them to a cache of candy treasures that they still talk about 20 years later.

I liked the details in most orienteering maps – the large boulder, isolated tree, big stump, stone wall, fence, swamp, dry river, fields, dense bush – the personalized nature of the landmarking.

I have also had a lifelong fascination with survival techniques. My youthful readings of Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson, and adult readings of survival guides like those by Tom Brown, and non-fiction accounts like Into Thin Air and especially Into the Wild by John Krakauer always send me back, not away, from the woods.

Early on, I came across the survival acronym STOP.  Stop,  Think, Observe, and Plan.  You learn that the single most important survival tool is your brain.

Of course, I also liked the accessories of orienteering and survival training. I own too many compasses, too many maps, and plenty of store-bought and handmade items to take into the wild. (Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, packed in a film canister make a reliable, cheap, non-spoiling, non-spilling fire starter.)

This brings me to True North. True North is the direction along the earth’s surface towards the geographic North Pole. If you get into using a map and compass, you quickly learn that True North usually differs from magnetic north. That’s the direction of the magnetic north pole – the one that your compass needle to dawn to. The North on that compass I had as a child pointed at a North, but which one was the true North? (On the technical side, there’s even a “grid North”  – the direction northwards along the grid lines of a map projection.)

I learned to look up from my map and the trail.  The direction of true north is marked in the skies by the north celestial pole.  Basically, it’s the position of the star Polaris – AKA the North Star, the Pole Star, or the Lodestar. But, due to the precession of the Earth’s axis, the true north rotates in an arc. That arc takes about 25,000 years to complete. I found that to be a staggering thought.

In 2102, Polaris will make its closest approach to the celestial north pole.  (In comparison, 5,000 years ago the closest star to the celestial north pole was Thuban.

Find whatever symbolism you want in that looking up to find True North that I discovered. I did learn that looking only at the trail ahead was not going to get me where I wanted to go.

On maps issued by the United States Geological Survey, true north is marked with a line terminating in a five-pointed star. If only it was so clear in our own lives where True North was located. Not knowing our own destination before we start out, not taking note of the landmarks and milestones along the way, and not knowing that there are unseen forces affecting where True North is located make the journey far more frightening.

More Reading
Be Expert with Map and Compass, the Orienteering Handbook
Orienteering
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Orienteering: Skills and Strategies
Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS
Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass
Land Navigation Handbook: The Sierra Club Guide to Map, Compass and GPS
Walking and Orienteering

Eat 80 Percent

New Jersey diner dessert case

It’s not that I eat bad foods. It’s that I eat too much. I have a Jersey diner mentality. Big portions. There is a Japanese cultural habit of healthy eating called hara hachi bu, which means eat only until you are 80% full (literally, “stomach 80%”).

That is possibly easier to follow in Japan where portions are generally much smaller than in the U.S. and the pace of eating is also slower. One thing it does not mean in Japan is leaving a fifth of your meal on the plate. It is bad form to leave food on your plate. That is a rule my mother seemed to follow. “Clean your plate” was a rule in my house and it has stuck with me – which has not helped my waistline.

Stopping at 80% might be a good way to avoid obesity without going hungry. The stomach’s stretch receptors take about 20 minutes to tell the brain that it is full. That’s why you probably feel really full about 20 minutes after you stop eating.

Pastrami Reuben with disco fries at an NJ diner – not part of the Okinawa diet.

Hara hachi bu is discussed in a diet book called The Okinawa Diet Plan: Get Leaner, Live Longer, and Never Feel Hungry. It’s based on a traditional Okinawa, Japan diet that emphasizes vegetables, whole grains, fruits, legumes, fish, and limited meats.

Keeping that 80% in mind, I looked at some health statistics for Okinawa that I found: heart disease rates are 80% lower than in the U.S; the rate of stroke is also lower and cholesterol levels are typically under 180. Their rates of cancer are 50-80% lower – especially for breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate cancers.

When I started searching online for more information on this 80% rule, I came across a blog post that wondered if this principle could relate to other aspects of life. The blogger (who writes about business presentations) related it to the length of a good speech, presentation, or meeting.

He says, “No matter how much time you are given, never ever go over time, and in fact finish a bit before your allotted time is up. How long you go will depend on your own unique situation at the time but try to shoot for 80-90% of your allotted time. No one will complain if you finish with a few minutes to spare. The problem with most presentations is that they are too long, not too short. Performers, for example, know that the trick is to leave the stage while the audience still loves you and doesn’t want you to go, and not after they have had enough and are full of you.”

Does hara hachi bu relate to anything in your life?

I can certainly see situations where I would NOT want it to be a guiding philosophy. For example, I wouldn’t want my students to give 80% of their effort. Then again, in this current economic downturn, perhaps it makes sense for all of us to use the principle in situations like our spending. Maybe, as with food, you only need to buy 80% of what you think you need in clothing, dining out, travel and non-essentials. Spend only 80%, save 20% or donate the 20% to charity.

The 80% food rule is good as long as you can tell you’re at that point. I’m not a fast eater, so you’d think that I could sense I was full and just stop. My wife rarely finishes a meal when we go out. Eat half and take half home for lunch tomorrow. I have to break the habits of my childhood. And maybe go to fewer diners.

Tilt-Shift Photography

toy cars
looking down on some toy cars

Doesn’t the photo above look like some little set with little toy cars? It’s called “tilt-shift” and it’s a photographic technique. Photographers use a type of camera lens that can be moved (shifted) and pointed at different angles (tilted).

Tilt-shift miniature photos are photos of real-life scenes that are made to look like miniature scale models. Though it was originally done using those special lenses, these days a lot of people are doing it using apps. I suppose that if you use the software for the simulated depth-of-field trickery, it’s fake tilt-shift, but since most of us amateurs don’t have these special lenses, it may be your only shot at it.

Using the software, you are distorting the focus of the photo, to simulate the shallow depth of field of a macro (closeup) lens. That gives the illusion that the scene is much smaller than it actually is.

It seems to work better if your shot is from a high angle to get that illusion that you are looking down on a set. Horizontal objects also seem to work better than vertical objects that would cross the in-focus & blurry areas.

I actually discovered this years ago via a website called TiltShiftMaker that lets you transform your photos into one of these “miniatures.”  It’s free and easy to use. There is also an inexpensive premium version and probably other apps that can do it too. The hardest part is getting an appropriate starting image.

You can also get this effect using software like Photoshop with its image blur and layering functionality and it would probably be better (if you really know how to use that complicated piece of software) but the online tool is a good way to try out tilt-shift photos. 

knights and horses
In a museum – but it reminds me of my toy knights and horses.

Samples and more information

http://flickr.com/groups/tiltshiftmaker/

http://www.tiltshiftphotography.net/

Photoshop tutorial

The Fall To-Do List


I’m guilty of making too many lists of things I need to do. This weekend I got an email with suggested fall things to do. Along with the usual autumn list (fall foliage leaf peeping, apple and pumpkin picking, apple cider and donuts, Halloween-ish things), there were some others that I already do this time of year but probably are not on everyone’s lists. That’s if you have any lists. You don’t have lists? I envy you a bit.

For so many years of my life, September meant back to school, either as a student or teacher that I can’t help but think about that even though I’m no longer in classrooms. I still have school dreams. I still like watching movies about some schools – Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Cub, and Good Will Hunting, for example. Or maybe a fall football film, such as Rudy or Remember the Titans. There are films that just have a kind of autumn aesthetic, like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “When Harry Met Sally.” I’ve lost some of my interest in Halloween and scary movies but that makes some lists.

I spend a lot of time outside in September and October and always hope to continue working in the garden in November if frosts and winter don’t arrive. People like to decorate their homes with fall chrysanthemums, dianthus, black-eyed Susans, and pansies, but I prefer the optimism of planting in fall for next spring. As I dig up cannas and gladiolus I am also planting tulips, daffodils, peonies, and Shasta daisies.

My mental fall list also has things that might not be any “official lists.” ( I wrote a short poem this morning about that.) One such item is something that often appears on this site – nighttime celestial events. On a cool night, I will pour a warming drink, start up the fire pit, and sit outside looking for the Draconids and Orionids meteor showers in October and the South Taurids, North Taurids, and Leonids meteor showers in November. It is often cloudy and sometimes even on a clear night I won’t see any “falling stars” because of light pollution. But sitting there is a bit like fishing for me. You don’t have to catch a fish or a meteor for the time to be enjoyable.

Finally, my favorite spontaneous autumn thing is taking a drive to nowhere special but somewhere rural. Yesterday, we drove north and ended up near Warwick, New York after driving through many farms and fields and where I walked years ago on the Appalachian Trail. We ended up at a brewery for a beer and lunch. It is early for foliage but lots of people were out apple and pumpkin picking, taking kids on a little hay ride, and going through corn mazes. I love an unplanned stop to see a view, take a photo, and buy some cider and donuts. The air was cool and clean with a hint of someone’s fire or some ribs smoking.

It does feel like autumn. The equinox untitlted the Earth. How are you feeling?

Reading Aloud

Now that I have a grandchild and another one about to arrive, I’m reading aloud to children again. I did it with my own sons but in my 25 years of teaching in K-12 (and even sometimes in my undergraduate and graduate classes) I would often read to my students. My draft title for this piece was “Reading to Children” but I realized that it is really about reading aloud to anyone. Reading to the baby yet unborn and to the senior citizen in the nursing home or a patient in a hospital are all terrific things to do.

I enjoy reading out loud. I enjoyed it when I was a student in my post-kindergarten days when I could read. Not a good thing, but I didn’t have a lot of patience for my classmates who were not good readers. I would get in trouble because I read ahead and then didn’t know where we were in the book. I learned as a teacher that you have to let everyone read – the good, bad, and the average readers.

I was inspired to write today because of an excerpt I found online from The Art of Teaching Children: All I Learned from a Lifetime in the Classroom by Phillip Done.

He is writing about reading to the really young ones. as when you say “Boys and girls, please join me on the carpet” and read from a picture book holding it up for all to (sort of) see.

I never had the chance to read to a class of mostly non-readers, but I did get to do that one-on-one and one-on-two with my sons and with my granddaughter. But the advice he gives often applies to reading aloud to any age group. And as a big fan now of audiobooks, the best readers follow most of these suggestions too.

His book probably goes deeper into the research on reading but in brief, we know that “reading aloud stimulates the imagination and lets children explore people, places, times, and events beyond their own experience. It builds motivation and curiosity. When you read to kids, you are conditioning them to associate print with pleasure, whetting their appetite for reading, and fostering a lifelong love of books. Reading aloud also increases kids’ attending and listening skills.” They also learn what good writing sounds like and that will influence them as writers.

It really helps grow children’s vocabularies. H states that the average number of words in a picture book for children is around a thousand, so in a typical school year (around 185 days), if you read one book a day to your class, by the end of the school year they will have heard 185,000 words.

Reading aloud well requires “the voice of an actor, the timing of a playwright, the expressions of a mime, and the rhythm of a musician.” We don’t all have those talents, but we can all read with a better expression than some AI device (sorry Siri and Alexa and my GPS).

The best part of reading 1:1 is when the little ones start to ask questions about the story. Those interruptions probably aren’t a good thing in classrooms but when the audience is on your lap, it’s great. It shows they are paying attention and that their imagination is at work. I love hearing my son read to his daughter and ask questions like “Can you find the apple? How many ducks are there in the pond?” I did the same thing when I taught Dickens or Shakespeare just at a higher comprehension level.

There should be reactions from your audience – just like at any performance. Laughs, giggles, maybe a gasp, or an “oooh” when the llama finds its mama. No tears in the early years, but I saw those in my classroom sometimes. (I always read Johnny’s letter to Pony in The Outsiders aloud to get that emotional reaction.)

I used to have my “sophisticated” middle school students bring in a children’s book they loved as a kid that they thought had a “message” for grownups too. They had to read it aloud to the class – dramatically – and discuss the “theme” with their classmates. It was a good and not too threatening front-of-the-class experience. I was pleased that a number of students would connect their children’s books with something we had read in class. “I think that The Sneetches (Dr. Seuss) is a lot like what happens in Romeo and Juliet with the two families.”

I remember a girl who brought in another Dr, Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! She said, “My mom got this for me at the end of fifth grade when I graduated elementary school, but I think it applies to middle school or high school too.” Yes, yes, and for college grads, and people changing jobs, and someone starting retirement. No matter where you are in your life, there is still much to see and do. The possibilities are still pretty endless.

Now, get your mat from your cubby, and let’s all take a little nap and dream about all those things.