How the brain works

I don’t know about you, but I think the brain is the most fascinating part of our body. Out of all the parts of the human body, the brain is the one thing that we have yet to fully discover and study. The human brain is even more complex than any other known structure in the universe.

Not only does the brain allow us to move and coordinate every part of our body, but most importantly, the brain also allows us to understand and remember anything and everything we learn and experience from our day-to-day living. 

The brain literally enables us to function!

What’s inside the brain?

The brain is made up of fat and protein and weighs about three pounds. All of that is just comprised of two main types of cells – glia and neurons

Let’s talk about glia first. Glia (“glue” in Greek) are primarily responsible for insulating each neuron and holding them in place, for transporting nutrients to neurons and for cleaning up unwanted debris like dead neurons and pathogens. Recent research has also proven that glia play an active role in facilitating the communication between neurons.

What we’ll be focusing on are the neurons or nerve cells, which transports information to and from other neurons or other cells of our body. Aside from the cell body itself, every neuron has an axon, dendrite and synapses, where the dendrites and axons connect. 

There are about 100 billion neurons in our brain, and each neuron can have 1000-2000 synapses. There are pretty much more neurons in our brain than there are stars in the galaxy. 

Doesn’t it sound like there’s an entire universe inside our brain?

How does our memory work?

Let’s say you were scrolling through Instagram when you see a post by Oprah where she is talking about Michelle Obama’s memoir called “Becoming” and how it is an inspiring read.

As you view Oprah’s post, this is what happens in your brain:

  1. The information is received – you see an image of Oprah, Michelle Obama’s photo on the book cover, the book’s title, the couch Oprah was sitting on, you hear the background noise when you play the video, etc.
  2. Key information is selected – you focus on specific details from the post like the person who wrote the post, the book title, whose memoir it was, what the book cover looks like, when the book would be available, etc.
  3. The information you selected gets stored in your brain – in other words, you end up remembering those key details.

What we just talked about are the three types of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Brain anatomy

Everything you do is encoded in your brain. Your habits, your memory, your exam books, your feelings. 

But which parts of the brain play big roles in remembering?

Pre-frontal cortex – This is where immediate information is processed.

Hippocampus – Which is in the brain’s temporal lobe, on the sides of our head.

Neocortex – Whatever was processed in the hippocampus is then known to be transferred to the neocortex as knowledge.

Now you have a better idea on how the memory process works and which parts of the brain play big roles in remembering. 

Want to go in depth into how the brain works and learn the four steps for “encoding” what you want to remember?

Understanding is not memorizing

Sometimes, I wonder why memorization has such a bad rep. Everyone talks about critical thinking and problem-solving skills, but nobody really emphasizes a lot of importance on memorization.

But think about it – if doctors wouldn’t memorize the veins, nerves, and the location and function of all human organs, how could they treat us properly? They are able to help us without looking up information from the web all the time.

Rote memorization

Why do we think that memorization isn’t so important? Maybe it has something to do with us thinking that learning is painful. We may have gone through many quizzes or big exams where our memory failed us and we ended up with a bad result.

How do we usually learn? 99.99% of us start by repeating things over and over again. This could involve reading entire chapters of a book many times, or repeating a list of important terms to yourself again and again.

This simple repetition technique is what’s called “rote memorization.” The idea is that we can quickly remember something the more we repeat it. Rote memorization is mechanical and it is not meaningful, and it’s definitely not the most time-efficient way to learn.

It’s the old way of learning. Way back then, when knowledge about the brain wasn’t that much, rote memorization was probably a good option. Modern research has shown that you can learn more efficiently using other techniques rather than boring old memorization.

Memorizing is boring

The brain thrives when you add a sprinkle or more of fun things that you can see, smell, feel and hear. And when you are mindlessly repeating something to yourself, you’re basically shoving the same bland fact to your brain every time, and your brain would grow bored of that.

We’ve all gone through the struggle of trying to memorize a long list of important terms, dates, definitions, etc. Sometimes, the information “sticks” and we still remember those things until now. Other times, we forget them as soon as we’ve completed the exam for that chapter.

In the end, we didn’t really understand whatever it was that we memorized.

What’s a better way to learn?

I coach a lot of students and educators through the WakeUp Memory System, and for subjects that are known for being dry and difficult like Pharmacology. 

Here is how it works:

  1. Observe
  2. Connect (the word or number with a special image or memory)

Let’s look at an example. 

Imagine you want to memorize that August 26th is International Dogs Day.

August 26, could transform into August being the number 8. Eight sounds like ate. Then, the number 2 sounds like Boo. Do you know that famous dog, Boo, who was one of the cutest dogs on earth? He was a pomeranian, super fluffy and he was a celebrity. So, I think of BOo, with the number 2. Lastly, 6 sounds like sneakers. So I imagine a boo, getting a new pair of sneakers, actually, he will need to pairs of sneakers because it’s his day, international dog day. So together, Boo ate the new sneakers. 

I know…. This does not really make sense, and it sounds weird. 

But try to visualize it in your mind. We are all visual learners and images are so much more powerful than dry facts! Now you have the story of Boo, you can recall that international dog day is on August 26th.

When you do this, you engage several regions of the brain that are known to be involved in two specific tasks – visual memory and spatial navigation (including the right posterior hippocampal region that’s associated with the excellent memory of London taxi drivers).  

Yes, memory is a trainable skill

Want to master memorization without getting bored? 

Alzheimer and memory

Using memory techniques can help the brain develop new pathways for learning and improve memory, even for people with early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests.

People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) improved their scores on a memory assessment by 33 percent after learning how to properly use memory devices like mnemonics and word lists, the study said.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed that the memory techniques increased activity in certain regions of their brain associated with processing language, learning skills and remembering space and objects, said study researcher Sylvie Belleville, director of research at the University Institute of Geriatrics of Montreal.

Recent Discoveries Show T. Rex Like You’ve Never Seen It BeforeBaby T. rex was an adorable ball of fluff! 

The learning improvements are likely a cause of brain plasticity, Belleville said. Brain plasticity is the brain’s ability to change the way it learns in response to external influences, but health experts had long thought plasticity decreased in people with mild cognitive impairment.

But the study shows that even the brains of people with MCI have plasticity, a promising discovery for delaying the effects of Alzheimer’s disease , Belleville said.

“We have evidence, here, that there’s a lot of potential for brain plasticity in this early stage” of memory loss, Belleville told MyHealthNewsDaily.
The study was published online this week in Brain: A Journal of Neurology.

Activation increases in the brain

Belleville and her colleagues examined the memory of 15 elderly adults with mild cognitive impairment and 15 healthy elderly adults. The adults with MCI participated in a memory training program that taught them how to use memory devices to improve the retrieval and encoding of memories, the study said. Then, they took a test to assess their memory.

Adults with MCI improved their scores on the memory test by 33 percent after undergoing memory training, the study said.

To see what was going on physically in the brains of adults with MCI, researchers also conducted MRIs on the adults six weeks before memory training, a week before memory training and a week after memory training
In adults with MCI, there was decreased brain activation in the hippocampus, located in the medial temporal lobe, compared with adults without MCI, Belleville said. The hippocampus is one of the first parts of the brain damaged during Alzheimer’s disease, and plays a central role in forming and storing memories.

But after the adults with MCI went through the memory training program, the MRIs showed an increase in activation of parts of the brain responsible for language processing, learning skills and remembering spaces and objects, the study said.

Many pathways for learning

The finding suggests that memory is not achieved by only one pathway in the brain, Belleville said. Rather, the brain is able to compensate for decreased activation in the hippocampus by increasing activation in other areas of the brain, she said.

“We don’t see an increased activation in areas that are impaired, but we see increased activation in areas [of the brain] that seem to be normally functioning,” Belleville said.”It shows that [the brain] is quite malleable, in a way.”

Therefore, by improving brain plasticity through these memory techniques, it could be possible to delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, she said. Pass it on: Mnemonics and word lists can improve memory and learning in people with early Alzheimer’s disease.

Loci = Memory Palace

The Freakish Willpower Of A Memory Wizard

As an Italian Jesuit priest and missionary, Ricci’s memory techniques were so powerful that some of the people in China who heard him recite their books forward and backward thought he was a wizard. In some cases, people saw him as a religious threat because Ricci also believed he had the ultimate salve for the human condition: Christianity.Indeed, as Jonathan D. Spence suggests in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, “by impressing the Chinese with his memory skills, Ricci hoped to interest them in his culture; through interesting them in his culture he hoped to draw them to an interest in God.”

Talk About Ambition!

Although Ricci’s proselytization had only middling results in China, he was a friend of memory techniques, and we can learn a lot from him about how to use mnemonics at a much higher level.He wrote about his approach to memory and quoted the scholars from whom he learned the Memory Palace technique in a book called Xiguo Jifa.

Speaking of books, Ricci was said to have the ability to memorize them cover to cover – and recite them forward and backwards.But is this a useful skill? You be the judge.But memorizing entire books aside, as with all interesting lives, Ricci’s was filled with drama. Along with his many thrills, chills and spills, this “wizard” of the dark mnemonic arts we can learn …

The Many Dangers Of Using Memory Techniques

The first danger with using memory techniques is that as your memory grows stronger, so do your powers. You may even find that special new powers grow, abilities that you did not anticipate.And, as all fans of Spider-Man know …

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

This is certainly true, but those of us living today can probably ignore the idea that using mnemonics fuses your brain with the cosmos. But it was a common concern in the sixteenth century, the flames of which Giordano Bruno had no problem fanning.But for Ricci’s contemporaries, the threat was real. Being accused of magical powers regularly led to imprisonment, disfiguring torture and public execution. Often all three.

We can also probably dismiss the idea that rosemary helps with memory improvement, something promised by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, pray you, love, remember.”Other than that, the rest is golden. Drawing on Spence’s book about Ricci, we can now turn to …

Matteo Ricci’s 5 Memory Palace Tips For Total Memory Mastery

1. Cultivate eloquence by using familiar buildings.Ricci grew up during a time when fortresses were taking on more prestige than cathedrals in European cities. This historical circumstance meant that Ricci could use the best of both worlds.And you can too by visiting the most modern architecture where you live and the oldest remaining buildings. You can transform these buildings into well-formed Memory Palaces simply by following a few simple principles. The great thing about many civic buildings is that they’re well-planned. You can also usually find a floor plan on one of the walls. If not, a guard or other official will probably know where it is and let you take a photograph for later reference.

Get Freakishly Insane Results With This DIY Memory Palace Strategy

Or, for very good practice, you can sketch out a floor plan of the building yourself. This activity translates your immediate impressions through your muscles and other representation systems directly into your memory, and if you can start memorizing information before you leave the site, all the better.The most important point Ricci draws out is that familiarity breeds eloquence when it comes to creating top-notch Memory Palaces. As he noted in his letters, even the biggest and most chaotic cities he visited during his travels became small and manageable in his mind through familiarity.For us, this means spending more time visiting the homes of our friends and maximizing the value of all the Real Estate surrounding us. Even the most sprawling metropolis can provide you a tightly organized system of Memory Palaces if you take it just one corner cafe at a time.

This “Best Friend” Secret May Be The Best Way To Get Ahead With Memory Techniques Ever

2. You Don’t Have To Use Memory Palaces On Your OwnMemory improvement takes places in your mind and your mind alone …Or does it?Not for Ricci.As Spence unearths, Ricci and his friend Lelio Passionei created Memory Palace systems together while studying in Rome. Twenty years later, Ricci still reflected on these Memory Palaces. No doubt they were even more memorable to him than others because he did not create them alone.If you’re creating Memory Palaces all alone, you could be limiting your success. Check out this post on how to play memory games using your childhood with a friend to maximize the potential of your memory and the Memory Palaces you want to use.3. Flexibility is kingAll memory techniques involve encoding information, storing it, consolidating it and then decoding it when you want access to it later.But many people think that using a Memory Palace and visual memory techniques requires creating perfect images. They sweat and labor and fight with their minds to come up with 100% accuracy.

The Best Way To Prevent Failure Is To Stab Perfection In The Heart And Leave It For Dead

Not only is 100% accuracy not necessary. It also rarely works. There is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between what you want to memorize and the images you use to memorize that info.What you need instead of verisimilitude is flexibility and trust. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the rabbit hole of perfectionism.Ricci, as Spence tells us in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, often made adjustments, getting things just right enough to trigger the right memories at the right time.It’s almost like getting a car engine running just well enough to get it on the road until it can either repair itself or coast based on that initial momentum. When it comes to mnemonics, that’s usually all you need.

Do The Right Work

Ricci did this not only in his mind but in his religious teachings as well. Indeed, to communicate the larger ideas of Christianity, Ricci often adjusted the Gospels so that the visual pictures he had fashioned could do, as Spence puts it, “the right work.”Our takeaway as memory enthusiasts is that it really all comes down to flexibility and letting your mind fill in the blanks once you’ve got mnemonic imagery that is good enough to do the right work.4. Information Can Be Broken And Put Together AgainRicci had the mind of a strategist. Instead of trying to memorize Chinese ideographs as a whole, he would allow them to be as complex as he found them, but cut them into pieces so he could better create images for them.By doing this, he had an easier time compounding multiple meanings onto the same ideograph.Spence gives the example of “yao,” which may mean to want, to need, shall and fundamental. To fit all of these possible meanings into the single mnemonic image he placed in his Memory Palace, Ricci saw a Muslim tribeswoman from the Xixia territories. She has fundamental beliefs that oblige her to do certain things. In other words, her fundamental beliefs require that she wants, that she needs and that she shall.Once created, Ricci places this image of the woman in his Memory Palace so “she will stay there, in the quiet light that suffuses the Memory Palace, calm and unmoving, for as long as he chooses to leave her.”

How Do You Stack Up When It Comes  To Breaking Things Down?

The point being that most, if not all pieces of information can be broken down into multiple components. Even the smallest words, in a language like Chinese Mandarin, can be separated to learn better and memorize tone structures.The Magnetic Memory Method for language learning takes this approach a step further by using Bridging Figures that we can apply to numerous similar word pieces and the various combinations they make with other sounds to form complete words.Using the MMM, you can also trigger both the sound and the meaning of the word using the actions and interactions of the Bridging Figure in your Memory Palace.Cool Stuff Or What?5. Study As Many Memory Masters As You CanIt was common during Ricci’s time to quote from a number of different sources. We still do this in many books today, but in the world of memory, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many references to books written by other memory trainers. Many want you to think that they’ve got the best “system” and no one else exists.That’s fine and dandy for branding and marketing purposes (though it’s ultimately destructive in the age of the Internet). Luckily, Ricci had no such concerns, nor did Spence. Not everyone in Ricci’s time held memory techniques and mnemonics in high esteem.In Of the Vanitie and Uncertainties of Arts and Sciences, Cornelius Agrippe said that the “monstrous images” required by mnemonics dulled the mind. He even went so far as to suggest that mnemonics “caused madness and frenzy instead of profound and sure memory.”Erasmus and Melancthon agreed and Rabelais went out of his way to mock memory techniques. In Gargantua, the title character learns to memorize bizarre books of grammar and the commentaries written on them by Bangbreeze, Scallywag and Claptrap.

The Enduring Tragedy Of The Memory Palace Of Matteo Ricci

Sadly, Ricci spent so much time in China, but apparently wasn’t aware of the countless Chinese mnemonists capable of memory feats that made his abilities pale in comparison. So although we get a wealth of information in his writing about the Western mnemonic tradition, Ricci could not expose us to the untold treasures of the Chinese memory wizards as part of his extraordinary career.And like Ricci …

Use Knowledge To Change The Entire World For The Better

Sensory Memory Blessings

As someone who is not very visual, I’m so glad I learned how to use sensory memory to help me use memory techniques better.

But at first, it was really hard coming to grips with the fact that I don’t really see pictures in my mind.

After all, how is a “Memory Palace” supposed to work if you can’t “see” images in your imagination?

Well, whether you’re low on the visual scale, like me, or have full-blown aphantasia, I’ve got 5 simple memory tricks.

Each involve a different kind of sensory memory you can combine with your Memory Palace Network.

These tricks will help you create and use Memory Palaces and your own mnemonic examples (a.k.a. Magnetic Imagery) quickly.

And more importantly than learning to create a Memory Palace Network and mental imagery quickly, you’ll use sensory memory to make the information stick in your mind. It’s actually very easy.But here’s a quick warning before we get started:

There’s going to be some people who will still insist that they can’t do any of these exercises.If that’s you, keep reading until you reach the final tip. Few, if any, will find an excuse for the final tip I’ll share.

The Strange History Of My (Non-Visual) Sensory Memory Blessings

It’s true. I don’t really see pictures in my mind.Although it’s not true that I see nothing at all, if anything, I find what I do see almost useless, if not distracting.When I tell my memory athlete friends this fact, they either:

  • Know exactly what I mean
Use some of the same processes I’m about to share
  • Sometimes are purely “visual” in some sense I have yet to understand…

I say “some sense,” because even with our current technology, it’s not possible to peer into anyone else’s imagination.Anyhow, if you know the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast, you may have heard some of these conversations before.If not, I recommend you listen to some of them – I’ve learned a ton that have improved my practice and even re-listening to some of them will help your practice too.Here are some of my favorite episodes that touch upon sensory memory:

Of course, you need to listen to these episodes with yourself in mind.Why?Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what others do in their minds. Each of us experiences only one mind – the mind we’ve been blessed with.And what a blessing indeed! (Unless you decide not to make it the most incredible experience it can be.)But I understand that some people currently have miserable experiences, and not being able to use memory techniques must be very miserable indeed.So, if you can’t see images in your mind, here’s the first memory trick that will help you find more Memory Palaces and use them:

#1: The Auditory Sensory Memory Palace Trick

Think about a familiar place.Take your school, for example.When I think purely about sound, I hear the voice of Mr. Andrews:“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.He used to say this every time we were supposed to hand in our homework.I have an idea of what the classroom looked like, and since he was a big fellow, I have a general sense of his physical presence. But it’s his voice that really stands out.Likewise, I think of my various band teachers and can even place where different sections of the orchestra were in the different rooms without needed to render a visual picture.

Zero Visualization Needed

There is a way to turn this into a picture that requires zero visualization, but we’ll get to that soon.For now, is this a cool memory trick or what?The more you focus just on sounds, the more you’ll explore powerful dimensions of your memory.This auditory focus will make a huge difference – especially in connection with the video I’ve created for you on mining your autobiographical memory for more Memory Palaces. (Coming soon. Make sure you’re subscribed to this blog and complete these episodic memory exercises in the meantime)📷

#2: The “What do you feel?” Exercise

Let’s go for something soft with this exercise.When I completed this exercise, I thought of my Cheshire cat.I’ve had two in my life – once from when I visited Disneyland around age 10 and one my mom sent me just a few years ago to fill in the gap.I had to get rid of the old one during one of my epic moves around the globe. Thanks, mom!In terms of the Memory Palace this brings to mind, it’s not Disneyland, though I have used parts of the park as a Memory Palace.Rather, in this case, I think of the plane ride home.Now, you might think that an airplane is not great Memory Palace material.Au contraire, and we’ll talk about using them one day soon. Make sure you’re subscribed for when the day comes.

A Smiling Sensory Memory Example

Anyhow, I have this vague memory of being a 10 year old hugging the Cheshire cat. He joins me here:📷To make this brain exercise work, I really dig into what that felt like in my memory. Then I dig further.And there are indeed other physical sensations related to flying that come to mind.Try accessing these different levels of sensation-based memory for yourself:

  • The softness (or hardness) of the seat beneath you
  • The temperature of the glass when you touch the window
  • The feeling of anticipation as the plane accelerates down the runway

Suddenly, all kinds of sensations emerge when you complete this simple memory exercise.

Now It’s Your Turn

Think about flights you’ve taken. (Or train trips, road trips, etc.)When I completed this exercise, all kinds of flights I’d forgotten emerge.Write the ideas that come up into a Memory Journal and include all the sensations you can think of.Think of it as a kind of personal, private sensory memory test.Bang presto!When I completed this exercise, I found myself with oodles of airplane and airport Memory Palaces to work with along with a wide variety of sensations.Give them all a try!