Control context to aid memory

Reader Matt Doar writes in with this Mind hack which uses our brain’s natural ability to encode context as an aid to writing code:

My hack/tip/thing that makes people look at me oddly, useful for when I’m working on a large piece of software, an activity which involves holding a lot of related abstract information in your head. Here it is:

1. Pick one tune or one album that you like.

2. Listen to it while you develop the code. Over and over, on repeat. Listen to no other music. Headphones are a must for the office!

3. Don’t listen to it again until …

4. You need to work on the same code, then listen to it.

Lots of context returns with the tune and helps to write better code. One colleague suggested using scents too. Other colleagues (and my wife) just stared at me, then shook their heads sadly 😉

I think this is great. By training in a tune-as-context you can then use it as a trigger to help recall everything else that was on your mind at that time. And the idea of using scents instead of tunes might work well – smell and memory are famously intertwined, and there may be a neuroanatomical basis for this: the nerves from the nose enter the brain next to the areas associated with storing memories for episodes. The only drawbacks are that you may not get as many distinct smells as distinct tunes, and tunes come with headphones to stop you distracting your colleagues – there’s no such device for smells (although maybe the message is that smells should be used for pair-programming or group projects).

Subliminal mesages in music


Here we go. I’m no expert on subliminal messages, but I did some research on it a few years ago, and again recently for the book. The title of the section in Mind Hacks should give you a good clue as to scientific opinion “Hack #82: Subliminal Messages Are Weak and Simple”. Even that may be an exaggeration.

Continue reading “Subliminal mesages in music”

Reviewing the brain on film

Movies often borrow themes from psychology and neuroscience, although only a few have the compliment returned by scientists in the field. Two recent films however, have sparked engaging commentaries from a number of scientists, owing to their accurate depiction of brain function.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was praised by Kirk Jobsluder for eschewing the clich√©s of a linear ‘videotape’ memory, and Steven Johnson for accurately capturing the role of emotion in memory.

Johnson’s article also touches on another highly regarded film, Memento, but is surprisingly critical, despite the lead character displaying almost identical memory problems to famous cases in the medical literature. One of the most notable is Patient HM, although there are several well-known cases with similar impairments.

Rashmi Sinha further discusses the influences of clinical neuroscence in Memento with some insightful comments, but my favourite has got to be this wonderfully geeky review from a team at Rutgers University:

Unlike patient HM, Shelby acquired his anterograde amnesia through an accidental brain injury. This does happen, but it’s much more common for people to develop anterograde amnesia from a stroke, viral encephalitis, chronic epilepsy, or the interruption of the brain’s oxygen supply due to near-drowning or strangulation (hypoxia or anoxia).

Nevertheless, the prize for the most popcorn consumed in the service of science undoubtedly goes to neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale, for her comprehensive reviews of movies about epilepsy and amnesia. Surprisingly, animated movie Finding Nemo is rated as a particularly accurate portrayal of amnesia.

Personally, I’m a big fan of The Man with Two Brains, but I think that’s just wishful thinking.

Spare popcorn ? Check out some videos from PBS on amnesic patients EP and ‘Chuck’, and the neuroscience of memory.

Gay men and maps

Gay men seem to read maps in a similar way to women. Although this seems like an insigificant finding, it may help uncover some of the neural functions that are related to sexual preference, as these abilities are known to involve specific areas of the brain.

In fact, this isn’t the first study to find a similarities between gay men and women in spatial abilities. Result published in 2003 showed that both women and gay men performed better on a memory test for locations than straight men.

These sorts of abilities are known to rely heavily on area of the brain known as the hippocampus and differences in these abilities are likely to reflect differences in how these brain structures process information.

What is not clear however, is how much these differences can account for individual sexual behaviour. This is because sexual behaviour can be motivated by a wide range of different desires and motivations, all of which may be supported by complex network of brain structures. Few of these are currently known about or understood.

Link to story from New Scientist.
Link to story from The Telegraph.

D√©j√† vu: Overdrawn at the memory bank

Déjà vu is one of the most fascinating of experiences and, until recently, was thought of as an interesting anomaly but virtually impossible to study scientifically.

This has recently begun to change. Psychologist Alan Brown is one of a number of scientists who have begun making considerable headway in researching this curious but fleeting state.

In Brown’s recent book (The Deja Vu Experience; ISBN 1841690759) he notes some interesting facts gleaned from research in this area, for example:

About two thirds of people experience it. It is more likely to occur indoors, while relaxing and in the company of friends. It occurs more often in the afternoon or evening, and towards the end of the week. It is more common in those who travel and remember their dreams. It is less common in people with conservative politics and fundamental religiosity. It decreases with age.

Exactly why the experience is linked to these things is not altogether clear, although research has made some progress in understanding which brain areas might be involved.

One clue has been from temporal lobe epilepsy, in which people can have intense feelings of d√©j√† vu, either as the main part of the seizure, or as a pre-seizure experience (called an ‘aura’). These studies have suggested that an area of the brain called the hippocampus and nearby area known as the parahippocampal gyrus (both strongly linked to the temporal lobes) are a likely source.

These areas are strong candidates for the source of déjà vu, as they have also been identified as involved in recognition and producing feelings of familiarity by previous research into memory function in healthy volunteers.

Link to excellent article on the science of déjà vu from The Chronical.
Link to NYT article on déjà vu.
Link to transcript of ABC Radio National programme on déjà vu.
Link to list of different types of déjà vu.

Caffeine rituals

Ah, this is good to see. There’s a hack in the book about the rituals around coffee and tea. It’s on the O’Reilly catalog page for Mind Hacks as a free sample, Hack 92: Make the Caffeine Habit Taste Good. It’s like Pavlov and his dogs. He conditioned them to associate a noise with food so that they started salivating when they heard the noise. As with that, the ritual of making coffee gets associated with the caffeine high, and so the ritual becomes part of the buzz.

Anyway, here’s someone who has found the same thing.

My particular ritual seems to be boiling the kettle, putting the teabag and water in the mug to brew, and then forgetting about it for the next 20 minutes as I suddenly get back into work again.