In Sept 2013 I gave my “Brain Coach” talk at both Dulwich College and Sydenham High School. That’s the second consecutive year that Sydenham girls entering their GCSE exam year will get my crash course in applied neuroscience. It covers changes that take place in their brains as they learn and various neuroscience-informed strategies to manage stress better, stabilise mood, boost problem solving and enhance exam performance. It’s the third year in a row that I’ve shared these insights with Dulwich lads about to embark on their A-levels. Nothing quite like repeat business to confirm you have a product that is highly valued and well received!
I’d jump at the chance to give this talk at schools all around the country. Feedback from teachers year on year indicates that students really do benefit from a better understanding of what is going on within their skulls as they learn and acquire new skills. Understanding that all their effort and hard work actually leads to physical changes in the brain is highly motivating – the audience is left to connect the dots themselves – there’s no need to ram it down their throats. Realizing that feeling stressed is a sign that body and mind are being mobilized to deal with the cause of the stress turns a negative into a positive – simply by pointing out the common misunderstanding. And advice on how to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol when it all starts to become too much to bear gives the students a sense of control over their state of mind. Mnemonic techniques to help them retain important information in mind not just for exams, but for a lifetime – surely the whole point of education after all – has a completely transparent utility. Here’s some feedback from a teacher Lisa Cornell who invited me to speak at Sydenham High School:
The talk .. was inspirational for staff and students alike. The students enjoyed your informal yet informative style. You made difficult concepts easy to grasp. They especially liked how you applied these high level ideas to their everyday lives and studying. You were witty and most importantly not in the slightest bit patronising. You managed to use an array of high level language and technical terms [yet] alienated nobody. I particularly liked how you broke down the latin of long words (eg explaining adrenal).
From a teacher point of view you were engaging, entertaining and a very safe pair of hands for our students to work with. A very good litmus test for any speaker is if students stay behind to speak with you. That you had a ten strong audience of Y11s for half an hour after home time says a lot. Some of those students who stayed I have never seen so enthusiastic about anything!”
The trouble is, popular as these talks are once teachers have actually had the opportunity to witness one, it is extremely difficult to find the right person to speak with in the first place. I’ve tried contacting the registered Heads of PSHE across London and into the Home Counties. This seemed appropriate given that my Brain Coach talk is beneficial to students and teachers from all disciplines, not just those with a particular interest in STEM subjects. But no new opportunities came of it in the long run and so I continue to do 1hr or 2hr talk just a handful of times per year in a few privileged schools.
I would love to get up on stage in front of many more schools each year as I genuinely feel it is one of the best uses of my broad knowledge of neuroscience and aptitude for conveying it in plain english. If you would like me to speak at your or your teenager’s school then please do drop me a line.
You might also consider following me on Twitter. I flag at least 3 interesting pearls of wisdom from the world of neuroscience and psychology research every day.
I gave my inaugural Brain Coach Live talk at the Chilton Trinity Technology College in Somerset for students about to take their G.C.S.E’s in the 2010-2011 academic year and another for their teachers. The students went on to score the best results the school had ever produced. Clearly I cannot take sole responsible for this brilliant achievement – the lion’s share of the credit must, of course, go to the fanastic work of teaching staff and determination of their pupils, alike. That said, there is every reason to suspect that the hour of Brain Coaching I gave those 200 or so bright young minds may well have contributed to this record breaking performance in some small but fundamental way.
“Dr Jack’s presentation was thought-provoking and engaging. With great clarity he reviewed the core functions of the brain and the implications for us as professional in terms of motivating student to learn. He provided both teaching and support staff with very useful, practical tips for engaging students and helping them “boost their brain power”.
Dr Jack also ran a brilliant workshop for students who took on board the messages he gave them about how to learn, revise and generally get ready for their GCSEs in the most effective way. Feedback from students collecting their examination results in the Summer highlighted the impact he had had on their attitudes to learning and their preparation. Indeed, a number said that they had gone into the exams feeling much more confident about how to show what they knew. They were certainly inspired!”
Understanding the hidden processes at work deep inside our brains as we acquire skills and learn a wide variety of information helps to motivate people, whether young or old, to stick to their guns for long enough to make a difference.
Being able to visualise the very brain areas that are physically changed by the cumulative mental exertion across many hundreds of hours can really capture the imagination of young minds – making the imperceptible, and often frustratingly gradual, improvements that their efforts ultimately result in, much more tangible.
A firm grasp of the key ingredients required to make a memory truly stick in the neural networks dedicated to storing and recalling information is captured by a variety of mnemonic techniques that make revision more fun, more effective and less of a grind.
And the 10 Brain Optimisation Principles (BOPs) that top and tail every Brain Coach Live presentation provide hints and tips that help everyone in the audience keep their brain firing on all cyclinders each and every day, for the rest of their lives.
On Tues 7th February 2012 I will be giving a Brain Coach Live talk at London’s Dulwich College as part of a new Buy One Get One Free Buddy Scheme (“BOGOF Buddy Scheme”) launched this year to enable all schools to get Brain Coach Live in front of their pupils.
This system simply allows any school who chooses to book a Brain Coach Live presentation at their school to elect another nearby school where the very same talk will be given for free. The concept is based on the idea that fee-paying schools, more likely to have funds for such extra-curricular activities, might cover costs both for themselves and a local non-fee paying school as a gesture of good will.
Dulwich College have chosen Kingsdale Foundation as their Buddy School, which was featured in episode 2 of Channel 4′s “The Secret Life of Buildings” to showcase its innovative architecture. So I’m particularly glad to be giving a talk at Kingsdale so that I can see for myself how their innovative use of space helps the school to function better.
Coincidentally, this was exactly the same episode which I contributed to by performing an EEG experiment in an open plan office to demonstrate how our brains are constantly processing the sensory distractions around us regardless of whether we are aware of it or not!
If your school would like me to come and give this talk I would be more than happy to consider your application. To get in touch please email me by clicking here.
If you wish to leave a comment below it would be happily received but you must also email me to let me know you have done this immediately afterwards. The reason for this is that I have lost the battle against the spambots. I currently have 15,000 comments waiting for approval and it simply takes too much time to go through them all to find the 1 in 200 that was actually generated by a real human being. So long as you email me to let me know what time your comment was posted I can identify and approve it straight away.
In addition to these regular brainposts you can get my daily #braintweets, which draw attention to recent breakthroughs in brain science and related subjects, by following me on Twitter.
Mnemonic Techniques by Dr Jack Lewis
There are a wide variety of mnemonic techniques that have been developed over the centuries, some more sophisticated than others. The first memory trick I was ever gifted was: “Richard-Of-York-Gave-Battle-In-Vain” which my primary school teacher taught the class to help us remember the order of the colours of the rainbow.
The first memory trick I ever made up, aged 14 or so, was “purple cof gas” – a memorable mnemonic for me personally because it conjoured up an image of Batman being knocked out with a big plume of noxious, magenta vapours spewing from the tip of the Joker’s umbrella. It was a vivid way to remember some relatively dull facts for when my biology exam came around: the system of classification for living organisms. Every one knows about the Kingdoms, we’ve all heard of the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom etc. But Purple COF GaS enabled me to remember, even now 18 years later, that the correct order for the rest of the classification system was: Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. I had a test that asked about the classification system on several occasions over the years and it was Batman and the Joker that helped me get full marks in that part of the exam everytime, effortlessly…
A useful little trick, but not terribly sophisticated or flexible. The “Memory Palace,” on the other hand, has been exploited since the Romans and Ancient Greeks. A time when poets were expected to recite 5-hour long poems from memory, word-for-word, or end up meeting an untimely demise.
It involves using a personal “Memory Palace” based on a real place that you know like the back of your hand. Each room is visited sequentially and each place and/or piece of furniture within that room visited in a specific order. This provides a mental framework in which to-be-remembered items can be “placed” to enable perfect recall when the journey is repeated in the imagination. However I’ll return to the Memory Palace at a later date in favour of explaining in more detail one that is fantastic for remembering a simple list. A list of historical events, a shopping list, a list of names, a list of points to be raised in a meeting – whatever you like. If you want a way of memorising a list so you can bring the items to mind in exactly the right order, then what I call the chain mnemonic is a great starting point.
The chain mnemonic involves vividly imagining multisensory “pairs” of memories in a manner that creates successive links between one item and the next to form a chain. I’ll walk you through an example to demonstrate how useful it can be in retaining lists of information that must be recalled in a specific order. Lets say for instance that you wanted to commit to memory every team that has won a football World Cup since its inauguration (in reverse chronological order):
West Germany (1990)
West Germany (1974)
West Germany (1954)
The first challenge is to dream up a memory for the first link in the chain i.e. using your imagination to make an association between Spain and Italy that is personal to you. You create a symbolic representation in your mind’s eye for each of the two countries and then you combine them. Simple. When I personally think of Spain I think of bullfighting and matadors. When I think of Italy I think of pasta. So to create an unforgettable link between the two I imagined an action-packed, movie-esque scene with lots of bullfights and spaghetti:
Link number 1 in the chain: Spain (2010) –> Italy (2006)
A bull gushing blood (emotionally charged – shocking, disgusting etc) is charging towards the matador (fear, horror) at the centre of the bull ring. The light is glittering off his garishly decorated outfit (visual sense), the crowd is roaring their approval (auditory sense), there is an overpowering stench of sweat, dust and blood (olfactory sense), but at the moment the bull reaches the matador I realise (horrified) that the cape he is weilding is not made out of cloth, but of strands of spaghetti (emotion: strange, bizarre, worrying – HE’s GOING TO DIE!!).
The matador’s sword delivers the final death blow at the moment that the bull’s horns strike the cape – ripping it to shreds and sending an explosion of spaghetti up into the air (highly exaggerated bizarre image – see left – almost like something out of a cartoon). As the bull dies it’s twitching and tossing sends more and more spaghetti into the air. This is the key image that successfully intertwines the concept of Spain with Italy – the convulsing bull spreading unfathomable quantities of spaghetti all over the bull ring. Picture this vividly, emotionally and in a multisensory fashion and you will never forget it. The spaghetti splatters the matador from head to toe, it flies high up into the sky and showers down upon the noisy crowd who are finding the spectacle hilarious (emotion: bizarre, unreal). This might seem unnecessarily elaborate, weird and harrowing – but this is what makes the memory memorable. Matador/bull = Spain (winners of the 2010 World Cup). Spaghetti covering the whole bull ring = Italy (winners of the 2006 World Cup). We have successfully created the first link in the chain. Now we have to create the second link in the chain.
Second link in the chain: Italy (2006) –> Brazil (2002)
As I’ve mentioned, it is really important for these memories to be relevant to you personally. For me, something that sticks out in my mind about Brazil is that Brasilians absolutely love to eat barbequed chicken hearts. When I first set eyes on a skewer of chicken hearts it turned my stomach (but as with many things, I ended up loving them in the end). I find piggybacking my mnemonic symbol for Brazil onto a real memory THE most effective way to make it stick. The emotionally-potent real event that I’m think of is when a waiter came over to our table in a Churrascaria (Brasilian restaurant where the waiters constantly circulate with hot meat fresh off the barbeque) with a disgusting-looking skewer of 40 or so chicken hearts. I was coerced into trying it and I’ll never forget seeing the waiter saw ten or so frazzled chicken hearts onto my plate. Everyone must find their own symbolic representations that are emotionally charged and inextricably linked to the item that you’re trying to remember, but the charred chicken heart episode is my personal symbol of Brazil (disgulpa!).
So link number 2, at least in my World Cup chain mnemonic, involves our matador, starving hungry (emotional drive) after a long and arduous bullfight (he’s exhausted), scooping up an armful of spaghetti from the floor all covered in blood and dust (disgusting) and plonking it on a plate at a table that has been ceremonially placed at the very centre of the bull ring. As Ronaldinho (a very famous Brazilian footballer for those who don’t follow soccer) dressed as a very formal waiter (bizarre spectacle) with his big goofy teeth (emotion: humorous) approaches the table wielding a skewer of chicken hearts in one hand (emotion: disgusting, stomach turning) and a big knife in the other (emotion: threatening).
He politely bows to the matador who signals that he wants some hearts on his plate and so Ronaldinho saws off every single chicken heart one by one onto the top of the pile of spaghetti. This is the image that forms the core of link 2: a big knife wielded by a slightly deranged-looking Brasilian footballer (scary/funny), cutting many more chicken hearts than you could ever eat in a lifetime from a BBQ skewer (disgusting) which tumble down the sides of the big pile of dusty bloody oily pasta glistening in the sun (unappetising). We have now created link number 2: Pasta = Italy (winners of 2006 World Cup) and Ronaldinho depositing chicken hearts onto the plate = Brazil (winners of 2002 World Cup).
This process continues all the way through the list. Link number 3 in the chain: Brazil –> France, for me, would involve a revolting scene whereby some of the chicken hearts sprout antennae and start crawling off the plate and leave disgusting looking slug trails all over the table. Chicken hearts are about the same size as a snail and not-dissimilar in texture, so the main image here is the chicken heart (symbol of Brazil) miraculously metamorphosising into a snail (symbol of France).
Once a chain of mnemonics has been imagined and elaborated: linking item 1 to 2, item 2 to 3 all the way to the end of the list – it must be revisited. Shut your eyes and imagine the sequence of events from link 1 to 2 to 3 and if you get stuck re-rehearse the transitions that you’re not remembering well. I cannot emphasise enough how important this step is. Focus on isolating weaknesses in the chain and making them more memorable by imaging more disgusting, horrifying, inappropriate or erotic (yes erotic – if it’s risque you’ll remember it even better) scenes and/or adding more imagined sensory information to the scenario to ensure perfect recall. From time-to-time you will have to change the symbolic representation for an item so that it fits into the flow of your chosen narrative, or you might have to change the story a little bit to make it work. Once these imperfections in recall have been identified and fixed, you’ll find that you can roll off the list of items no problem in no time at all – amazing your friends, family and colleagues with your gob-smackingly-good memory.
It may seem like a lot of effort to begin with. However, as with all things (see here for more) the more time you spend experimenting with your imagination the faster, better and more efficiently you’ll be able to create and recall the memories. After a while you’ll be able to sit down for 10 minutes with your list of to-be-remembered items, be it a shopping list, or points that you want to raise in a meeting or during a presentation without using prompts, and you’ll nail it every time.
MEMORY AND THE BRAIN – going deeper into HOW and WHY these mnemonics work so well…
The successful creation of memories relies upon a densely packed and highly interconnected network of brain cells called the hippocampus residing deep within the temporal lobes.
We know that the hippocampus is vital for the formation and retention of memories because when it is damaged, by oxygen starvation resulting from ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke, encephalitis, certain types of epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease, people become amnesic.
The hippocampus is so named because if you take cross-sectional slices of the temporal lobes, which run horizontally along the left and right sides of the brain, it looks like a seahorse (In greek “Hippo” means “horse” and “campus” means “sea”).
The hippocampus nestles inside the medial or “inward” facing part of the temporal lobe, which is a key component of the emotion-producing limbic system. So the first tip to creating memories that are easily and effectively recalled is to ensure that they incorporate some kind of potent emotion. More on this later.
The hippocampus is also highly connected to all sensory areas. Visual brain areas at the back and underside of the brain that make sense of the light that strikes the retina at the back of the eyeball feed into the hippocampus. Auditory brain areas on the upper portion of the temporal lobes that create the sounds that we hear send millions of neuronal tendrils through the hippocampus. Touch information coarses down from somatosensory areas located within regions of the parietal cortex right at the top of the brain. Tastes feed in from brain stem regions involved in processing chemical stimulation of the tongues taste buds. And smells feed directly in from the olfactory bulb directly above the nasal cavity. Consequently, the second tip for creating memories that are swiftly and faithfully recalled is to make them multisensory. So with any mnemonic strategy you must commit items to memory not just by imagining what it would look like, but also what would it sound like, smell like, feel like and taste like too. This makes them much easier to recall than unisensory memories – those that exploit only one sense. This is because multisensory memories are embedded not only in connections from the different sensory areas to the memory forming and recalling hippocampus, but also in connections between the different sensory areas. Multisensory memories are more powerful than the sum of their parts.
Emotionally-labelled memories are given special priority treatment when it comes to recall because the amygdala, a structure densely connected with the hippocampus and residing at the tips of the medial temporal lobe, becomes activated when the brain is processing emotionally-significant information, imprinting it with HIGH STATUS. The amygdala is most famously involved in the fear response, in which it responds to sensory information indicative of a threat to life and limb, by mobilising body and brain to fight or flee the danger. More recently it has been discovered that it becomes activated by stimuli that induce positive as well as negative emotions, so long as they are potent. Presumably the reason that the mechanism for making emotional inducing stimuli and events more memorable evolved is because, for the event or scene to have produced a strongly positive or negative emotional response, then it is likely to be useful to be able to recall it in the future to guide our behaviour.
So, bear THIS in mind: when dreaming up these mnemonics…
- a disgusting scene such as someone you know vomiting in front of you
- a funny scenario that makes you feel genuinely amused inside
- or, perhaps, an “inappropriate” scenario such as walking in on your boss, your teacher or your parents having sex
…will be much more effective in ensuring recall than emotionally-neutral scenes. Don’t forget: as well as being multisensory in nature, your imagined scenarios must be emotionally-charged.
If you find this useful and/or interesting it would be really great if you could take the time to write a comment. I don’t get paid for this and it’s very time consuming. I do it because I’m passionate about the brain and want to share this passion with the world. So prove yourself to be one of the determined few who got right the way through to the end and please do me a favour by letting me know you’re there and leaving a comment.
All the best and enjoy expanding your mnemonic abilities, DrJ
You can also see Dr Jack’s daily #braintweets by following him on Twitter.
If you liked this post and wish to leave a comment please also drop me an email to help me locate your feedback within the sea of spambot comments to approve your one. I’d be really grateful if you would take a few moments to let me know what you found most interesting / useful plus any suggestions for future blogs.
If you are an actor or actress wanting to use the Memory Palace to help you memorise your lines then please allow me to recommend Josh Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein”. Of all the books I’ve read on memory I think it is the best combination of being an entertaining read AND very informative. It’s a real page turner, with all the most important bits of hard science scattered thinly, digestibly and evenly along the path of a real life adventure into the world of memory. He went from covering the World Memory Championships as a journalist one year, to winning the US Memory Championships the very next. A very impressive feat. But also, you get the impression, one that you or I could do if we got round to putting the time in! His is the best description I’ve as yet come across of how to use the Memory Palace to memorise lines of prose or poetry. If any of you know of any better techniques please leave a comment below.
In addition to these weekly brain posts you can get a daily #braintweet by following me on Twitter, which reminds me… I haven’t found today’s one yet so I’d better get searching
Dr Jack will be MAKING YOUR BRAIN BETTER FOR LONGER live on ITV1′s THIS MORNING
Over the summer I’ll be making a series of contributions to ITV’s THIS MORNING. The aim is to get the nation interested in how their brains work and ultimately to help YOU get the most out of YOUR brain. I’ll offer easy-to-follow advice on how to get your brain firing on all cylinders each and every day.
I’ll be answering the questions that YOU want answered. Is your brain not what it used to be? Want to know what you can do about it? Bad with money? Ever wondered why you can’t kick your habits? Ever worry about your children’s development? You can either get in touch with your questions directly by clicking here, or get in touch with THIS MORNING via The Hub.
Topics I’ll be covering in detail will range from money management to memory, from love to hate, from happiness to sorrow, and all the way from child development to holding onto your marbles in old age. You most definitely CAN teach an old dog new tricks and it is never too late to start getting more out of your brain!
Each item will kick off with a discussion with Phillip Schofield and Co. on the sofa to explore ways in which they feel their own brains’ work well and not-so-well. We’ll then be asking members of the public to participate in experiments live in the studio. And we’ll meet some extraordinary people who’ll either demonstrate some amazing abilities or some shocking disabilities. Each item will be packed with useful tips, nudges and strategies for optimising your brain function. So, each week, you’ll be able to put my advice to the test to see how it can benefit your life by boosting your brain power.
Most people would agree that their memories are far from perfect. So, on Monday 13th June 2011, I’ll be showing you what part of your brain creates a MEMORY for people, places, facts and faces. I’ll be putting some members of the public through their paces to see how much information a noraml “working” memory can hold. You’ll even be able to join in the fun and play along at home. I’ll reveal a classic memory trick that is virtually guaranteed to boost anyone’s memory for lists of facts or any other kind of information you might need to remember.
So tune into ITV1 from 10:30-12:30 and SORT YOUR BRAIN OUT!
- Jack has studied Brain Biology for nearly 20 years
- Jack has a First Class batchelor’s degree in Neuroscience from The University Of Nottingham
- Jack earned his PhD in the Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London
- Last year, Jack published a paper in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience describing human brain scanning experiments that investigated multisensory perception; carried out during a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics
- Despite Jack’s extensive knowledge about the human brain, he is NOT medically qualified and so will not be able to answer questions relating to medical care.