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A Simple Trick for Remembering Things That Are on the Tip of Your Tongue

The human mind

There’s a recent post on the Psychology Today site entitled “The Science of Rick Perry’s Brain Freeze,” in which psychologist Ira E. Hyman attempts to explain how a governor of Texas and presidential candidate could have had trouble remembering the Department of Energy, obvious jokes aside.

You may be pleased, annoyed, or uninterested to read that Dr. Hyman thinks Perry’s gaffe isn’t an indication of stupidity, but I’m guessing you’ll come away from the article happy based on the following potentially helpful tip. In it, he refers to the problem of “blocking,” a situation in which our brain has so much related information readily available that the specific piece of information needed can’t be found in the pile. Dr. Hyman says:

In cases of blocking, a brief period of thinking about something else may be enough to remove the block. In essence, you remove the competitors from active thought and then the next attempt to retrieve the information works more effectively.

I haven’t had the opportunity to try this yet, but you can bet I will next chance I get. If you try it, or have other tricks, I’d love for you to post in comments, below.

Photo by Dr Craig

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Learn It Again, Sam

The human mind

If you’ve read many articles on this site, you’ve probably noticed that every once in a while I come back to talk about the same subject from a different perspective. There are a few reasons for this, and they’re the same reasons that learning the same thing more than once can be valuable in almost any situation where you really want it to sink it.

First, effective learning usually requires repetition over time, as I discuss in Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning, delving briefly into points brought up by neuropsychologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules.

Second, getting a new look at something heard before offers a new perspective to facilitate understanding it.

Third, that same new perspective (as well as the new situation in which you’re learning) makes it possible to develop more and different neural connections to that idea, increasing mental mastery of it.

Fourth, revisiting a useful piece of knowledge creates a reminder that the knowledge is available and increases the chance that we’ll use it. And as also discussed in my learning article mentioned above, using knowledge is one of the most effective ways to fix it in memory.

That extra opportunity to use the idea is particularly important because knowledge alone is not enough to reap us the benefits of an idea, even an idea about our own behavior. It’s easy to pick up a new piece of knowledge and imagine that it will be life-changing, only to have it fade away without ever having made an impact. The impact, of course, comes only from actively using the idea–for learning purposes, the more often the better.

Photo by khowaga1

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Book Review: Brain Rules


BrainRulesI’m working on expanding my list of books on the left to include some of the resources I haven’t yet reviewed on the site, and going forward I’ll be posting reviews of books I’ve read recently or some time ago, eventually linking to the reviews from the book list on the left. (The book reviews are in addition to my regular Monday, Wednesday, and Friday articles.)

John Medina’s book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School is a fascinating read both for its content and because it is written about how we think and learn, so that it uses some of its own strategies to become more effective. For instance, Medina talks about how much more powerfully highly emotional situations imprint on our memories, and he uses several emotionally-charged situations in the book to illustrate his principles, helping make them more likely to sink in. As another example, he talks about the profound improvement we experience in learning when visuals are added to spoken or written words, and he helpfully supplies a very visual Web site,, to help underscore the points in his book.

Medina is a developmental molecular biologist who knows his stuff in great detail and isn’t shy about bringing in practical research from all quarters, which makes a much stronger case for the information he presents.

Several of his brain rules are extremely meaningful to our daily lives: the sections on exercise, short-term memory, sleep, and vision struck me particularly. Some of his other brain rules seem to be less profound and less useful, although there is some useful material in each of the twelve chapters.

Toward the end of each chapter, Medina offers ideas on how the information could be put into use. Unfortunately, he offers this information as a scientist does, coming up with hypotheses about what might work in classrooms or workplaces and suggesting that people try these things on a large scale to see how they work. That’s great, but it’s not much use to us in the trenches who are trying to find better ways to teach children or accomplish work or cooperate. I would rather he had focused on things that had already been tried and documented and pointed out where there were practices that could be adopted for definite gains. At least, though, there’s a chance that his suggestions for experiments will inspire other scientists to tackle those experiments, and if we’re lucky, Medina will follow up with another book.

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How Much Sleep Do You Need? 8 Hours Isn’t for Everyone



I’ve been particularly looking forward to the sleep chapter in John Medina’s book Brain Rules (one of my current reading books) because I was interested to know once and for all how much sleep I needed. Was 8 hours really the magic number? What were the consequences of averaging, say, 7 hours, or 6? What about naps? I was interested in knowing how sleep affects our brains so that I could begin to see how it might affect self-motivation.

The answers were very helpful in some ways and completely unhelpful in others. What are the findings about how much sleep we need? Research so far seems to say that there is no definite number, and sleep needed varies widely from person to person. Some people (who have a condition called “healthy insomnia”) only need 4 or 5 hours a night and don’t seem to suffer any ill effects. Kids going through puberty definitely need more, preferably in the morning. There also seem to be genes that determine whether someone is a morning person (a “lark”), a night owl, or (like most of us) a “hummingbird,” which is to say someone with a “normal” sleep schedule. Sleep needs and daily schedules change as a person ages, too.

Too little sleep has serious costs
But one very clear finding across the board is that not getting enough sleep actively sabotages the brain’s abilities. As Medina puts it, “Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge … manual dexterity … and even gross motor movements.” Also, interrupted sleep or inadequate sleep severely limits our ability to remember things we learned that day, increases stress, and causes effects that mimic accelerated aging. Not getting enough sleep even forces the body to crave sugar while reducing our ability to make good use of sugar when we get it, playing havoc with healthy eating.

Figuring out your own sleep needs
Most of us already knew that shorting ourselves on sleep was bad (though maybe we didn’t realize it was that bad). But how do we figure out how much sleep do we actually need to not condemn ourselves to tired, inattentive, grumpy days? The best answer I can give is that we probably already know. If you wake up feeling overtired, it’s probably no secret to you that you could use more sleep. Some of us treat sleep as expendable if something else important is going on, but since even small sleep shortages can have a major impact on performance, we may be more effective if we get the right amount of sleep even though that takes away from the waking hours in which we can actually get things done. If you find yourself adding in extra “down time” during the day because you’re tired, or making mistakes, being distracted, or having trouble getting things done because of a sleep debt, then the “bonus time” you’re getting by cutting out sleep–and possibly more time besides–may be getting used up by the problems caused by not getting enough sleep. In other words, shorting ourselves on sleep is both unpleasant and unproductive.

The need for naps is built into our genetic code
Pretty much everyone, it turns out, is programmed to need about a half-hour nap in the early afternoon, although some of us need it more than others. This isn’t just an artifact of not getting enough sleep at night: it’s a normal part of the sleep-wake cycle in human beings. Many of us won’t have the option of getting this extra sleep on a regular basis, but it may be worth experimenting with it when you do have the freedom to try and seeing if it doesn’t give you a lot more energy and attention. In one study, pilots who took a 26-minute afternoon step performed 34% better than pilots who didn’t. That’s a big improvement!

At the very least, it’s best not to schedule things that require a lot of attention in the early afternoon if you can help it.

Sleep and self-motivation
How does this affect self-motivation? Pretty profoundly, it turns out. Self-motivation requires knowing what you need to do, paying attention to your priorities, devoting a little time and focus to moving forward, being self-aware, and solving problems that come up with your process. All of those things are compromised when we short ourselves even an hour or two of sleep a night. So with enough sleep, self-motivation will tend to get noticeably easier.

I know you will have gotten the advice to “get plenty of sleep” time and time again, and if you aren’t currently getting enough, it might be because you are trying to get enough time in the day to accomplish everything that’s important to you. Only you can judge whether or not a little sleep-deprivation is worth being less intelligent and less capable while the sleep debt lasts. In the past, at least, I’ve often gone with a little sleep deprivation in the service of what sometimes seems like a good cause. Put in this light, though, I’m not sure I want to continue to make that kind of a bargain. I’m beginning to think of it this way: if I can accomplish everything I already accomplish without always getting enough sleep, how much better could I do if I were actually operating at full capacity? It’ll be worth finding out.


By the way, if noise interferes with your sleep, or if you just want a little more silence in your life, you might want to try any brand of soft, foam earplugs with rounded ends (above). I’ve found these very helpful, especially for sleeping when someone else has to get up early, during travel, working while someone’s watching a TV or listening to music nearby, concentrating while my neighbor is mowing the lawn, etc. I haven’t been as happy with plastic earplugs or with the kind that are made of harder foam and don’t have a rounded end. Fortunately, the earplugs don’t block out sound completely, so it’s still possible to hear (faintly) a phone ringing or an alarm going off even while wearing them.

Photo by tempophage


Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning



Learning and memory can be essential in self-motivation. Why? Well, consider two examples.

Let’s say a man, Scott, has trouble with being late, and he’s trying to change his habits to always be on time or a little early. Scott has three children, all in school, with various afterschool activities. Sometimes they take the bus home, but sometimes Scott needs to pick them up, while sometimes his wife, Selena, does. Sometimes activities get changed at the last minute.

So Scott might get much better at paying attention to what he’s doing before leaving to go somewhere, and he might start setting aside extra travel time in case of delays, but if his daughter shouts “We have an extra soccer practice tonight, so you have to pick me up” as she’s leaving for school in the morning and Scott doesn’t remember this fact, then his other preparations are useless, and his daughter will be left standing in front of a deserted, locked school until someone catches Scott’s mistake.

To take a different kind of example: let’s say Lisa wants to become much more organized at her job (she’s an architect). She attends a special training seminar on organization for architects, with all kinds of wonderful information–but she’s distracted during the seminar by a very sick man sitting next to her, and so while she scribbles down a lot of notes, the information doesn’t sink in. When she looks back later, her notes aren’t of much help: she wasn’t really understanding the material when she wrote it down, so she’s not going to suddenly understand it from looking at her own notes later. She has a vague recollection that the system seemed to be exactly what she needed and involved a lot of colored folders, but that’s it. The system never gets implemented and Lisa continues to spend hours every week trying to find documents she needs.

So if learning and memory are important to self-motivation, how do we improve them?  There are a few important facts to keep in mind.

Make sure you understand as you’re learning
We don’t remember things like a video recorder: our brain breaks up everything see, hear, touch, etc. into a lot of separate kinds of information and store it all over the brain, bringing it together as needed. That means that if you don’t learn something when it’s presented to you, you usually won’t be able to learn it by trying to recall the details. Effective learning requires focus at the time you’re learning.

We learn better when information has meaning
The more meaning and connections information has for us, the easier it is to remember. As an example, many top chess players can look at a chess board mid-game and instantly memorize the location of every single piece on the board. In one study, chess players with this ability were able to remember layouts set up from actual games beautifully, but were much poorer at being able to remember layouts where pieces were just set randomly around the board. The actual game layouts were meaningful to them: a possible threat to the queen here, mutually protective knights there, and so on. Random game layouts didn’t have these meanings, so they couldn’t “chunk” the information (that is, bind up many pieces of information into a single “chunk” that can be recalled as one piece), which was what was enabling them to memorize so much information so well (I’m trying to help both myself and my readers chunk concepts from posts when I use subheadings, like in this article). More meaning connections to a piece of information also gives you more possible ways to remember it when you need to.

Emotion is a powerful force in memory
We learn things better when we have emotional associations with them. Have you ever used your own personal information, or a family member’s, when making up a password? Those kinds of passwords are much easier to remember than random passwords, because our lives and those of family members have much more meaning to us than random information. (Unfortunately, such passwords are also usually easier for other people to guess.) In the same way, experiences that are powerfully joyful or frightening or that are emotionally charged in some other way tend to be very memorable. If you run out of your house while it’s on fire, you’re liable to remember that in much greater detail than if you run out of the house to get to the hardware store before it closes. (Although this is also because we tend to remember unusual things better than everyday things.)

To really learn something, start using it immediately
When learning how to do something, one of the strongest possible ways to fix it in memory is to start using it. This serves several purposes: it provides a lot more neural connections for the information; it allows you to experiment and apply the information while it’s still fresh in your memory; and it helps turn up any misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in while you’re still close to the source of the original information.

One way to start using knowledge immediately is to write, talk, or teach about it. If you find out something you think will be especially useful in your life, you might consider calling up a friend and telling them about what you’ve learned, or blogging or writing a journal entry about it. This forces you to use the information in a way that creates more connections and helps you see exactly how well you’ve understood it, at the same time that you’re doing other people a service by passing it on.

Come back to the same information several times to fix it in memory
Getting information to permanently take up residence in long-term memory usually requires revisiting it several times, with perhaps a few hours to a few days between repetitions. If you make notes about something you want to learn, you can leave yourself two reminders to come back to it two more times, just to review. You can also use the write, talk, or teach approaches at timed intervals. The same amount of study spread over a day or a few days or a week seems to be much more effective than taken all at once.

How this all works in real life
So for instance, if you were writing an article on how memory applies to willpower, you might start out with some examples that people could easily envision, to give meaning to the idea that memory applies to self-motivation. You might even make those examples a little emotionally loaded, with a stranded child here, anxiety about a sick person there … actually, that sounds like it might work. Remind me to write something like that sometime!

And if you want to make the best possible use of this article, you might glance over it to make sure you understand everything, asking yourself questions about each of the major points and seeing how well you can answer them. You might then go blog about it, tell a friend about it, try to summarize the main points in a quick written outline, or go use this information to learn something else. Reviewing it twice over the next couple of days would give it the strongest chance of sticking around.

For more information on how memory works, along with other useful information about how the brain operates, I highly recommend John Medina’s book Brain Rules, which provided some of the information for this entry.

Photo by clappstar.


Living in the Now, Visualizing the Future, and Learning from the Past

States of mind


Here’s a funny problem with motivation: in order to understand ourselves well enough to manage our emotions and ideas, we need to be mindful, which is to say, to live in the present, to pay attention to what is really going on inside and around us right now. But we also need to visualize where we’re going, to gain inspiration and energy from seeing what we could become and to anticipate both obstacles and rewards. And despite present and future, we also need to look back at what we have done regularly, to understand how things we’ve tried in the past have worked out so that we can repeat or change them, depending. We can’t do all of these things at the same time. Which is really more important?

Of course, that’s a trick question. Mindfulness is essential to changing ourselves, and visualization is an important step in motivating ourselves, and reflecting on the past to change the present (that is, creating a feedback loop) is an essential part of getting and keeping on track. The trick is to know when to do what. If anyone tells you to always live in the moment, ask them whether or not they look both ways when they cross the street.

The past (reflection or feedback) is important when we’re already working steadily toward a goal and are not conflicted in what we want to do. Reflection helps us correct our course and repeat successes.

The present (mindfulness) is where we need to put our minds when we are feeling conflicted or unhappy or distracted, or just want to be able to focus better. Mindfulness practices (especially mindfulness meditation) help us become serene and attentive.

The future (visualization) is where we need to place our thoughts when we’re not sure what we want to accomplish, or else when we want to build up enthusiasm for moving forward. If we’re feeling bad and unready to face the future, that’s a good sign that we need to concentrate on the present for a while instead, but if we’re calm and want to make decisions or get ourselves moving, visualizing the results of good choices now can be a tremendous help.

It will certainly be worth going into more depth on each of these subjects–feedback loops, mindfulness, and visualization–but even without that kind of detail, we’re ahead of the game just by knowing where in time to put our attention so as to best help our own motivation.

Photo by azharc

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How to overcome specific fears and anxieties

Handling negative emotions

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

In his book Mind Wide Open: The Neuroscience of Everyday Life, Steven Johnson provides some highly practical information about where strong fears, anxieties, and phobias come from, and how people get past them. This post passes on some of that information.

The human mind is an orchestra of specialized systems, handling everything from sight to heartbeat to speech to emotion to complex planning. At least two of these systems handle fear, and they handle it differently.

The most obvious way we experience fear goes like this: we see something (like someone writing tickets and approaching our car, where the meter has just expired), we identify it, we dig up information about it from memories, and we make a rational conclusion as to whether or not we should be worried. This process mostly goes on in ways that we can observe with our conscious mind. This route is called the “high road.”

But there’s a completely different route, the “low road,” and in some ways the low road is much more powerful.

This different route is governed by a fairly primitive part of our brain called the Amygdalae. The Amygdalae are concerned with major threats that require us to act before we even recognize them, and they don’t really care if there are some false alarms now and then as long as the job gets done.

Imagine (not too vividly, please) that you’re driving to work. A few small, dark clouds are scudding across the sky. Some clarinet music is playing on the radio, and you’ve just passed a big, orange truck. Suddenly, you hit a piece of sharp metal that has somehow gotten onto the road, your tire blows out, your car spins of out control, you smash into the guard rail, and two other cars plow into you, after which it takes emergency workers almost half an hour to get you out of your totaled car. Let’s say that you’re miraculously all right, just to keep this as low-stress as possible while still making the point.

When this horrible thing happened, your body knew on a profound level just how horrible it was, that it was something to be afraid of. As soon as you knew to be scared, the Amygdalae charged into action and started taking note of all of your sensory impressions–the orange of the truck, the clarinet music, the scudding clouds. Your Amygdalae take in everything they can, but they don’t really understand any of what they’re tagging in your memory; all they know is that something horrible happened that you never want to have happen again, and all of those sensory impressions occurred just before the Bad Thing, which as far as the Amygdalae are concerned, makes them suspect. As a result, the next time you experience one of those sensory impressions, your Amygdalae may notice and scream “danger, danger!”, leaving you frightened and confused simply because your next door neighbor’s kid is practicing her clarinet. This is where phobias come from.

And because of mood congruity, the fear or anxiety your Amygdalae give you can kick off memories of other frightening experiences, making you more fearful and perhaps making it harder to figure out what you were responding to in the first place.

A widely-accepted approach to dealing with these kinds of fears is to get in touch with them, to re-experience them. This is part of one possible solution, but only part: the key is that revisiting those memories–or simply experiencing the same sensory input, like the color orange or the sound of a clarinet–has to occur in a safe environment. If you experience the thing that produces the fear but feel safe because you’re in a different environment, the Amygdalae begins to recognize that they may have been too hasty with that particular stimulus. When the danger-signal-in-safe-environment experience is repeated, the Amygdalae’s warning signs begin to fade and eventually disappear altogether.

This is partly why talking with a trusted friend about something fearful can help the fear go away, and why talk therapy can work well for people in certain situations. It’s not necessarily an easy solution, since it involves facing fears, but it can be immediately comforting and encouraging.

As always, please keep in mind that I’m not a therapist or physician, and that nothing I say on this blog should be considered professional advice.

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Why Moods Magnify Themselves

States of mind

A section of Steven Johnson’s book Mind Wide Open throws some light on moods and why they can persist for a while even without anything going on outside us to influence them: it seems that our brains are set up so that when we’re in a particular mood, we tend to access memories of other times we were in that same mood. The technical term for this is “mood congruity.” Johnson says, “your memory system tends to serve up recollections of past events that are themselves congruous with your current mood.”

Photo by Rachel A.K.

So for instance, if I’m feeling anxious about something, my mind will automatically come up with memories of things that have made me anxious in the past–the weird sound my car has been making lately, the comments about cholesterol the doctor made at my last physical, or that creepy eighth grader who used to ride the same bus as me when I was twelve. Of course these things tend to make me more anxious.

This is great if the mood I’m in suits me: if I’m happy about something, I’ll tend to remember other happy times and not worry about things. (Although if I’m in a situation where I need to “come back down to earth” and deal with something pressing, happy may not be the ideal state of mind.)

If I’m in a mood I don’t want to stay in, one way I can break the pattern is to make myself think about things that remind me of whatever mood I want to be in.

“Think happy thoughts” (or more precisely, “Remember things that made you happy before”) may not be the most profound advice either of us has ever heard, but since it is an effective way to feel better, it’s worth trying the next time you’re in a mood that doesn’t suit you.

  • Takeaway: If you want to change your mood, make a special effort to dredge up memories of times you were in a better one.

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