Archive for November, 2011

The Giordano Memory System, as taught by the School of Phenomenal Memory, gives students certain exercises to enhance their ability to concentrate and visualize, if they are having difficulty mastering these skills while doing the course.

Here is an explanation of each exercise, as contained in the course, together with my comments on them.

1. Thumb twiddling: the instructions are to lock one’s fingers, leaving the thumbs free to move, and to rotate the thumbs around each other without them touching. The student is supposed to be totally focused on the action of rotating the thumbs, without allowing their thoughts to wander, for a minute or two. The whole exercise is done with one’s eyes closed. This is supposed to teach students to concentrate and divert from their thoughts. A more complicated version of this exercise is to do it in your imagination, without actually moving your hands.

I had long suspected that this had been drawn from some meditational practice or Yoga, but have been unable to find any webpage describing or video demonstrating that exact exercise in the context of those subjects.

Nevertheless, the following may be interesting. This page shows a homunculus – a “little man” showing the importance of various parts of the body, as seen by the brain. Notice how large the hand, particularly the thumbs, are on this diagram in relation to other parts of the body. An experiment was conducted where a spider monkey had to rotate a ball with his hand to obtain peanuts. The monkey would spend all day turning the ball to collect the treats. Scans of the regions of his brain relating to his fingers and thumbs were taken. Then the researchers tried something – they taped up his thumb and smallest finger, leaving only his three middle fingers free to rotate the ball. After three months, the monkey’s brain was scanned again. This time, the areas connecting to his thumb and pinky finger had decreased in size, whereas the brain regions connecting to his three middle fingers had increased.

Now, I hope that nobody thinks that they’re going to become Mensa material just by twiddling their thumbs for hours. Perhaps this exercise does have some effect on fine motor dexterity, if nothing else. There is possibly a study here waiting to be done by someone.

2. Focusing on the breath: simply taking a minute or two to concentrate on the sensation of the breath going in and out, without thinking about anything else, and without trying to slow down or speed up the breathing.

This one is a classic meditation exercise, one which is often taught as an easy exercise for newbie meditators. I am uncertain, however, of the supposed benefits of only doing the exercise for 1-2 minutes, as the instructions direct. I can only speak for myself here, but it can take me at least that long just to settle down and clear my thoughts.

3. Warmth: placing the hands close together, with the palms facing each other but not touching, and feeling the sensation of warmth in between. It is not made clear whether this warmth is supposed to be real or imaginary. Again, this is only a short exercise to be done for 1-2 minutes, and if any other thoughts occur, the student is to try and get rid of them and carry on doing the exercise.

Again, I suspected that this was supposed to be a form of meditation, and then I found this.

As with the breath exercise, I question whether any benefits to be gained from doing the exercise are curtailed or prevented by performing it from such a short period of time.

4a. Moving the attention up and down the body, and feeling a “warm wave” as the attention passes over the various muscle groups.

This is very similar to something we used to practise at a Yoga class I used to attend many years ago, although what we were doing was tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. Right at the end of the description of this psychotechnical exercise, the next topic is introduced with, “After a few relaxation exercises…”, although the preceding exercise was not explained as such. It merely gave the instruction to place one’s attention on various parts of the body. I think perhaps this was supposed to be a relaxation exercise, it just wasn’t very clearly explained.

4b. Focusing the attention on a room object, and then moving the attention to another room object nearby. The point is to focus exclusively on that object, and not allow any other distracting thoughts.

This is a concentrative meditation technique, designed to build up one’s ability to concentrate. To make the exercise even harder, it is suggested that the student tries this technique with a radio or TV on in the background to build up the ability to ignore external distractions.

So far, with all these concentration/meditation/relaxation techniques, I had two rather large questions or uncertainties while doing them on the course. The first, as I have mentioned, is the length of time which they are to be done seems very short, too short to get the maximum or indeed perhaps any benefit. Perhaps it would be better to pick one of these early exercises and go for broke, rather than try to fit them all in the same practice session.

Secondly, we are told that whenever other thoughts crop up, we are to get rid of them and carry on doing the exercise. OK, so how do you get rid of a thought? Don’t think of pink elephants! I bet you just did, didn’t you? Thinking about trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts is still thinking.

I was given a different perspective on this whole business of stopping one’s thoughts and just focusing on one thing earlier this year. I was explaining how I’d never had any success in learning to meditate. I’d get to 10 breaths, perhaps 20 if I was lucky, and then I would find myself sitting there thinking about some other thing entirely, with no idea how long I’d been drifting off onto other things instead of doing the exercise! The opinion I was given was that exceptionally high functioning people simply can’t meditate like that – the urge and need to think and be doing something with the mind is too strong. They need to use creative visualization meditations instead. So perhaps that is why some of the exercises described further down were always much easier for me to do than these beginning exercises.

5. Letters: this exercise requires the student to take a newspaper or magazine, and count all instances of a certain letter within a few chosen paragraphs. Different letters can be chosen each time, and then moving onto whole words. A timer can be used to see how long it takes the student to find all the letters.

Perhaps it’s just me, but this exercise was just too easy to do for it to be a simple attention stability exercise. The mention of the timer was the clue, and perhaps this exercise again could be more clearly explained. The way I found to turn this exercise from a pointlessly easy drill to something fun and challenging was to treat it as a speed exercise. As it was far too easy counting all the letters A, B etc., as explained in the exercise instructions, I tried finding two or three letters at a time. For example, looking for every instance of A and M in the paragraphs chosen, and try to cross them all out within a certain time limit without making any mistakes. The constant switching certainly beefed up the drill, and the more letters looked for simultaneously, the greater the working memory load too. If that still becomes too easy, I guess you could try doing it now with the page upside down.

6. Mental drawing: exactly as it says, whereby the student is supposed to visualize a chalkboard, whiteboard, paper surface or any surface on which characters and shapes could be inscribed. Letters, numbers, short words, foreign language symbols and geometric shapes are recommended as characters to be drawn in the mind’s eye about 2-3 feet in diameter, on an imaginary surface 3-6 feet away.

I felt that this was the first exercise presented which directly related to the content of the course. In GMS, mental drawing is used to learn new foreign words and complicated signs, and also to fix associations between the figurative codes and the numbers etc. which they are supposed to relate to (an apple for the letter A, for example). However, in actual practice, I did not find mental drawing to be the most effective way of learning all the figurative codes, especially as there are over 100 to learn in the early lessons. (I cheated. I made a Superlearning session to learn all those instead.) It could be that I just never fully mastered this as a skill, but I just didn’t find it that efficient as a learning technique.

7. Image manipulation: taking a couple of objects, such as a glass and a box of matches, and performing every possible mental manipulation with them – matches in the glass, glass in the matches, and so on. When this is done, more objects can be added.

8. Image stabilization: visualizing any item, a spoon, for example, and viewing it from one angle but keeping the image in one position without allowing it to move or rotate.

9. Image transformation: taking any kind of object and transforming its form or shape. So if you used as your image a pencil, it could become long and thin, short and stubby, etc.

10. Image modification: taking an object but this time changing its type, while keeping the types of objects within the same general category. So for example, if you chose a house, you might visually transform it into a hotel, an office block, a beach hut, a church, and all other kinds of buildings.

11. Memory activation: basically, running through from moment to moment all the events of the day before. If that is too easy to do, the student is instructed to run through his/her life video of yesterday backwards.

12. Visualizing colours: an orange fruit, the red, amber and green of traffic lights, a blue sky, white snow etc.

I wanted to discuss points 7-12 together, as they all seemed like slightly different variations on a similar theme – that of enhancing the ability to really see and manipulate images in the imagination. I’m possibly calling this by the wrong name, as my attempts to Google “creative visualization” all returned pages and pages of hits relating to sports performance and people’s hopes that they can attract desirable outcomes into their lives by visualizing them.

Obviously, the way these exercises are used in GMS are for neither (although if you develop the skill and then go away and use them for other purposes, I hope you will let me know what successes you have!).

Very little came up when I tried searching for “creative visualization effect on the brain”. However, we do know that visualization enhances the amount of theta waves, which are linked with memory ability, among other things.

While taking the GMS course, I frequently felt that there were certain exercises, techniques and pieces of data that could have benefited from some extra background or explanation, and these psychotechnical exercises were a prime example. I would have preferred a little more (well, quite a lot more actually) about what exact cognitive processes are being trained, and a more precise explanation of what is supposed to be gained from doing the exercises. These are my speculations so far, and if I come up with anything else, I will write a follow-up post.

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