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Brendan Maloney


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Can a return to intensive memory training help our cultures and perhaps help us survive as a species?

Until the advent of printing presses that eventually made books common and affordable, students were rigorously trained in mnemonics that forced them to build massive visual "memory palaces" in their brains. This training made their brains physically different from ours today, and since mnemonics involves the pattern seeing, puzzle-solving right brain more than the linear, abstract and sequential left hemisphere, I submit that their brains were probably superior to our modern brains.

Babies are born with 40% more brain neurons than we adults have, but they vanish by about age 4. Most brain scientists feel that these are just "extra" neurons we don't need. But is that really the case? The babies of hunter gatherers were constantly on the move with their mothers, and their brains were certainly more active and engaged than those of modern "bored out of their gourd" crib-bound babies, one would think.

As those well-stimulated traveling young brains grew, they absorbed/learned multiple languages and dialects, as well. The most successful and long-lived among our ancestors had to have excellent memories, while we mentally lazy moderns let external data banks do the "heavy lifting" for us... And looking at our world today, is that a good thing?

None of these great teachers wrote their teachings down: Aristotle, Confucius, The Buddha, Jesus, and the Prophet Mohammad. They also told their acolytes not to write anything down, because they wanted them to employ their full brain capacities as well as actually embody their teachers' mannerisms and integrity as well as their words, in face-to-face oral teachings to following generations.

Your thoughts on this, my dear TEDsters?

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    Feb 17 2014: Depends on what will be memorized.
    Effects of memorizing written words may be limited by global ideas seen on internet exposing startling contradictions.
    Effects of memorizing dance or sequences of movement may intertwine body and mind.
    I think memorizing the ways plants, animals, and humans relate to one another would help humans survive.
  • Feb 15 2014: I think it would be beneficial to try to live up to our full potential. Not just memory training, but everything we could do to extend our cognitive abilities. Neural pruning.seems to imply that we have room for growth. Poch and I discussed in another conversation the consequences of pushing children to hard for the wrong reasons, but it seems that kids are wasting their time anyways these days, devoting all their free time to video games, face book, and the like. If thats all that was sacrificed in the pursuit of making them better and more capable "thinkers", then I'm all for it.
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      Feb 15 2014: Looks like Amanda and Jacob's possible future Princess or Knucklehead (Jacob's term for a boy) is gonna have great parents!

      My linear-thinking dad called this incorrigible right-brainer Meathead, Bonehead or Chowderhead so often I didn't know my name was Brendan until I was ten or so, it seems, when he finally threw in the towel, realizing the chance of me changing was somewhere around absolute zero...

      Best, Brother Coyote!
      • Feb 15 2014: I imagine we'll be as lost as any new parents, but we'll sure do our best. We were talking the other day about home school vs public school (private school not likely to be an option) and we agreed that the social interaction of public school is valuable, but ultimately our child's education is our responsibilty not whatever teachers they have. I think teachers are an extremely valuable part of our society, but it seems many parents expect them to teach kids everything they will ever need to know, taking no responsibilty for themselves.
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    Feb 15 2014: It is true that Rote memorization of certain kinds of factoids has limited value in itself. That is why we have the term trivia Yet there are different qualities to memory besides short and long term. I find that having a broad understanding of interrelated facts makes possible a sort of panoramic view . This allows for subliminal awareness that is quite useful when considering difficult questions. Yes wikipedia and other systems allow for retrieval of useful data but it is also helpful to have a broader and deeper understanding of history and human nature that melded together make a basis for in depth discernment that can be described as wisdom. Having multidisciplinary skills similarly allows new ideas to coalesce al la Edison.
  • Feb 14 2014: I don't think it'll help much. The opposite if anything.
    Training your brain to memorize things makes it better at memorizing things, no more, no less. I doubt it actually helps all that much with other mental skills like reasoning ability.

    There are actually memorization contests. The people who practice for them usually have very good memories, but as far as I'm aware, are not necessarily more competent then your average man in other mental disciplines.

    Throw in that training on memorization will without doubt come at the cost of something else (either though funding or through the time which could have been used for something else, if not from the brain's own limited resources), and it just doesn't seem like a very good idea in our modern day and age where information storage and retrieval is only getting better and more available.
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    Feb 15 2014: I don't think so Bren. In fact it might do more harm than good. We were born with different brain capacities and strength. We force train a weak mind with intensive memory training and the sure result would just be a burnout instead of an amplified brain.

    Btw, I can't find the reply thread on our chat on my convo so I replied using the main box.
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      Feb 15 2014: All brains are "weak" at birth, Poch. Humans have almost no instincts that all other animals have in abundance. B.F. Skinner and others showed that unless brains are stimulated they remain weak and atrophied, so that a young adult who was raised locked up in a closet as a child remains a child.

      Brains are like computers, and if you put garbage in, you get garbage out. When I was young studies showed that by age 18 the average boy saw 85,000 murders/killings on TV and in movies. Then computer "games" came along and you can now multiply that figure by 100, right? Garbage in, garbage out! We have plenty of brain capacity for something other than garbage, my man!

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        Feb 15 2014: But if the garbage in-garbage out principle is true, isn't it in conflict with 'Info Overload'?:

        Effects of information overload
        The study by Reuters identifed that the reported effects of information overload were stress and
        tension within the work environment, longer working hours, decrease in social life, tiredness
        and illness and a degradation in personal relationships.

        How can our mind undergo intensive memory training when it is already overloaded?
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          Feb 15 2014: Poch, my man-

          Read my topic heading carefully again, please. I am not talking about overworked/stressed adults- its too late for fully-formed and calcified "modern world" adult brains to undergo rigorous memory training- way too much garbage already in our stupefied brains for that!

          And although I call it "rigorous" training, it really was just a natural part of life before books stored data for us. Babies traveling far and wide saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted things that modern crib-bound babies don't. All these sensory experiences created millions of neural pathways and then lit them up once they were created. So these babies were already well on their way to being able to absorb formal memory training as early as 7-8 years old.

          The Jewish Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah age of 13 is typical of the age that many cultures acknowledged the manhood/womanhood of people at puberty. This because in times past the brains of most 13-year-olds were far more experienced -in the real world- than they are today, with so many external data banks doing our thinking for us and filling our noggins with artificial cyber-crap.

          In most ancient cultures, storytellers learned their people's histories for many years and then were rigorously tested by elders in the accuracy of their remembering the ancient wisdom and stories. Only the best student could become official historians. Thus rigorous memory training was a part of life for tens of thousands of years, long before writing was invented and long, long after. It is still a way of life in many, many cultures today, so there is absolutely nothing theoretical about it, Poch- while we are "theorizing," they are practicing rigorous memory training as naturally as breathing.

          We "moderns" are the ones out of sync/out of touch with our brains,not them, and thus we reach adulthood much later, if ever- as Robert Bly shows us in his book "Iron John."

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          Feb 15 2014: Poch-

          Another thing to consider: Until the invention of artificial light, overwork, extreme stress, and info overload was a rare thing indeed for Pan sui fallenda (Self-deceiving ape). Thus the modern world has become a vast madhouse full of raving, money-grubbing lunatics competing with each other 24/7/365, right?

          When, not if, the lights go out again when oil and natural gas resources are exhausted by 7 billion hairless killer apes... and counting... those that survive will resume the ways of our ancestors, looking back on our modern world and its vast monstrous creations as if it was only a bad dream.

          Peace Out!
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        Feb 15 2014: 'We "moderns" are the ones out of sync/out of touch with our brains... not them!'

        Ahh...that I definitely accept buddy.
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        Feb 15 2014: '...the lights go out again when oil and natural gas resources are exhausted by 7 billion hairless killer apes... and counting... those that survive will resume the ways of our ancestors, looking back on our modern world and its vast monstrous creations as if it was only a bad dream.'

        You know, oftentimes I wish that would happen at once buddy. Social inequality would surely be slashed to the minimum right?
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    Feb 14 2014: I dunno, Greg. But if Internet goes down all at once, the effects of that would go far, far beyond a mere communications black out. It is very likely martial law would be declared within a few hours of it going down... remember that here in the USA those chickens running around with their heads cut off will be carrying guns of every description, my man.

    Martial law provisions in place since WW II include Gov confiscations of private or corporate-owned vehicles, food stocks and fuel supplies. There is also the lovely provision that We the People can be drafted into forced work battalions. Not joking. Here is the best link I have found re presidential orders on martial law in the US:

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    Feb 14 2014: it seems to me, B, that what you do with the facts is more important than memorizing them in your brain. Because it's what you do with them that actually shapes life. However, it certainly can be good to remember things. For instance, I was asking my yahoo email to find a certain old email from a Microsoft engineer. It couldn't seem to find them using any search term I could think of, then I happened to remember the guy's first name was Anil, put that in, and voila, here's the email.
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      Feb 14 2014: Brains rule, Greg!

      We are fools if we depend on Internet too much. A number of Defense Contactor Internet security types I know expect the Internet to crash and burn in the next 4-5 years because of exponentially increasing cyber warfare worldwide.
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        Feb 14 2014: well, even when you surf the net, you still have to use your brain, figuring out how to find the info you need, and then absorbing and processing the info you're getting. So I'm not convinced it creates laziness. Actually, I'd like to deal more with thinking about facts than using a big part of my brain to store facts.

        I do believe it's good to get info from a variety of sources, net, books, live people. And just thinking. I don't know, it's hard for me to believe the net would just do a sudden all-around crash, if it did crash, it would crash here and there in parts, wouldn't it? So people would be able to cope with it, learn to cope with it, because it wouldn't come at them all at once. I do have the impression that people are creative, that they could cope with a partial crash of the net. What is your opinion on that, Brendan, yes at first people might run around like chickens with their heads cut off, but fairly quickly I think they would develop strategies on what to do, necessity being the mother of invention.
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    Feb 14 2014: Well, Nadav, since the best neuroscientists freely admit that we really don't know Jack about the brain, you and I are as qualified as anyone to consider these questions and express opinions on them.

    R. Douglas Fields' discoveries re glial cells are the perfect example of that. Why do we still call it "neuro"-science after that huge discovery? "Science" is a huge, lumbering, 120-foot long "Supersaurus" of a dinosaur with agile-minded interdisciplinary scholars like you and I running circles around it like Velocoraptors. Frankly, I have found it all too easy over the years to kick the butts of single-field scholars who have their heads buried in the sand while digging deeply into their one field of study. Interdisciplinary scholars have an eagle's-eye view of the world; and in my experience, old, wise single-field scholars are often delighted with the intellectual "gems" I have brought them from far afield, if they have applications to their studies... tho not so much when that "gem" is actually a torpedo that sinks their pet thesis. But "all is fair in love and war," eh?

    Your reply here came pretty quickly, as might be expected from a young scholar (I'm pushing 60), so I bid you to explore this at your leisure since you are a busy student, and let your cross-referencing mind work on it for a while. This chat will last 2 weeks and maybe longer if it gets a lot of input from TEDsters.

    Huge Newsflash re the brain here, which indicates it has exponentially more resources than previously thought. I have been following the work of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff for 12 years now, awaiting this very recent 1/16/14 confirmation of their work, which I believe they should be awarded a Nobel Prize for. The discovery of quantum phenomena in our brain is simply astonishing!

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    Feb 14 2014: Nadav-

    Since this is not a debate - thank the Goddess -joking with a fellow atheist - I will not/should not take an opposite position. And frankly, I don't know much about this, since it just popped into my noggin a week or two ago, so I am seeking a mutual learning experience with TEDsters here.

    Your points about funding resources are likely quite valid. But I still wonder about those 40% "extra" brain neurons babies are born with... any thoughts on that from an aeronautical engineering student like you? Would you design and install all that wiring... only to rip it out later? That would be a major "funding resource" issue too, wouldn't it?

    Evolution, even tho it builds redundancy into the DNA of all fauna, is actually quite conservative in its use of physical resources. Remember that geneticists once believed 90% of our DNA was "junk," and it is anything but that, since that vast soup of DNA snippets is composed of those lovely epigenetic "switches" that activate or deactivate our genes all our lives; with redundancies built in in case an enviro catastrophe slaps us off our evo "branch." These redundancies often allow an organism to "grab onto" a lower branch of the evo tree/bush, rather than vanish altogether in a Game Over scenario. Example: Deactivation of a single gene in freshwater Stickleback fish reverts them to an ancient armored salt-water form that defends them from predators.

    Also, in a November 2002 Scientific American article headlined, "Has science missed half the brain?" R.Douglas Fields showed us that glial cells and astrocytes, once thought to be lowly support cells for neurons, actually design and lay out neural pathways and then direct the actions of neurons once they are in place. Since 90% of brain cells are glials, science actually missed 90% of the brain, right? Thus our brain has vast resources we are just beginning to explore, Nadav, so let us speculate further!

    Sooo,,, are those 40% "extra" neurons really useless? Very doubtful.
    • Feb 14 2014: Not a clue honestly.
      You'd have to ask a neuroscienctist, and I'm not sure even they know for sure.

      Not sure exactly how relevant it is to memorization training. Again, outside my field of expertise.