Can you train your brain for a new task?

uxorialMarch 23, 2007

A friend of mine has taken on a new activity that involves viewing a group of objects for a limited amount of time and then having to remember what they are and how they are positioned in relation to each other and in the overall area. She's having a hard time with this, as her line of work has never required this kind of skill. I told her that I was pretty sure that you could hone this skill with the right type of training/exercise or maybe just by practice. But I don't have any good suggestions for her on how to go about it.

Do those of you who are either naturally observant or have been trained to be observant for your occupation (law enforcement? military?) have any ideas? Are there any computer games that would help? Or should she just practice in some way, like by using a model?

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There are the classic "concentration" games - where you have to uncover tiles one by one to find matching pictures. So if there are 40 tiles and the first tile you click is a bluebird, then you need to remember that for 25 tiles down the line when you uncover the matching bluebird.

Mahjongg solitaires are also great for this exercise, and there are Mahjongg concentration games too.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2007 at 3:48PM
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Trixie Belden used to play a game to boost her powers of observation. She'd look at a scene and try to memorize or notice 14 things, then she'd look away and see if she could remember what they are.

Also, is there any pattern--like, number of things? Or relationship, etc.? If she can develop a mental framework, almost likea form, to fill in, that might help.

Also, often it's a remembering problem, not an observation problem.

My German teacher memorized all our names after the first day by grouping them (I still remember 'Rory, Lori, John'); maybe she could memorize them in little clusters, instead of individually. That's how typists get up to 125 wpm (ask me how I know), by grouping letters as words, instead of letter-by-letter.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2007 at 5:20PM
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To add to tally sue's comments about pattern: we often teach writers that one method of description is to use spatial organization. It is much easier to both give a clear picture and remember a visual observation by organizing it spatially. For instance, when describing a room you can start with a main object, like a doorway, and then think of how everything in the room relates to it. "The doorway is in the center of a long wall. Immediately to the left is a medium oval mirror with a small vanity and stool..." Organizing your brain with patterns is one device for better recall. She might look up mnemonic devices on the internet and see if there are some other methods that might help her.

Here's a funny thing I thought I'd share that really doesn't have anything to do with helping your friend but is related to tally's observations about typing. I used to (well, still do it sometimes) type in my head a lot. When I was first learning to type, I'd practice in my head by mentally typing words. As I got better, I would try more and more difficult mental lessons. Eventually I would "type" what people were saying to me as they said it. It's weird, but I was able to speed type just by practicing in my head! I should have tried this method with the piano :)

    Bookmark   March 24, 2007 at 11:14AM
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uxorial, have nothing to add substantively (the idea of remembering items in sequence as they're related to each other sounds good to me, if your friend has the time) but I'm wondering, if I may ask...what kind of activity requires this particular kind of memorization? It's o.k. if you don't want to say but I was just wondering...

and seeking, I type everything I say--at first I started doing it in my hands and now I do it in my head. I also used to practice piano into my hands during boring assemblies at school...didn't want to look *too* weird :) but I found that really doing it in my head was too hard; typing is only one finger at a time and once you get beyond that in piano, it's hard for me to "see" it all at once...what I regret not doing is learning to sight read. Wish I'd acquired that ability.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2007 at 11:49AM
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You can absolutely train your brain for new tasks, although some types of tasks will be easier depending on your age. Recent research is showing that the conventional wisdom that the brain can't grow new neurons is wrong, and you can continue to improve your brain throughout your entire life.

Others have indirectly hit on some principles of cognitive psychology. Namely that memory can involve a small part of the brain, or a much larger part. Memory is integrated across many senses, and the more you can involve, the better your recollection will be. Hence trying to visualize or use tricks or other sensory stimuli to aid recall. Also, research has shown that visualization of an activity will actually cause pretty similar brain function to actually doing the activity, which is amazingly cool. So trying to remember "red door" will not work as well as visualizing walking up to a red door in a tudor-style home and opening it to the smell of fresh-baked cookies. Because if you had actually done all of that, you'd obviously remember it much better as many senses are involved. But the visualization will stimulate the parts of the brain involved in those senses, and so help "embed" the memory.

Also, rote memory (there are different types of memory) works best with groups of 3-5 objects. That's why numbers like phone numbers, social security numbers, etc, are always in groups of 3-5. Trying to remember a sequence of 7 numbers is much much harder than two groups of four numbers! Also, brute-force memorization (i.e. trying to memorize a sequence by sheer willpower) is the hardest type, and generally doesn't last longer than a few seconds.

So... break stuff down into small groups, relate the colors and shapes to familiar objects, and possibly build a story around them (e.g. the green square told the red triangle "I have more corners"), and involve more senses such as taste/sight/smell (e.g. "I can make sour rasberry limeade in a square glass with traingle ice cubes").

    Bookmark   March 24, 2007 at 1:08PM
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Gina--That was the first thing I thought of, too! I'm going to email her links to a couple online "concentration" games. I'm not sure how much it will help, but it sure can't hurt.

Talley Sue--Your description of looking at a scene is almost exactly what my friend has to do. It is a combination of observing and memorizing. The only pattern is that the six or so objects are chosen from the same group of about a dozen. But they are in a different place each time and arranged in a different way. And there's not enough to put them into groups or clusters. I never knew that about typing--how interesting! No wonder I can't type more than about 50 wpm; I'm still doing it letter by letter.

Seeking--I learned about spatial organization in college (I'm a writer/editor) as one way of organizing a description. That's exactly what my friend has to do--remember how the objects are placed within the space. But unlike writing, in which you have time to organize your thoughts, she needs to do it in a matter of about ten minutes. I know from working with her on documents that it takes her a long time to organize her thoughts, so having to do it in a few minutes is causing her some trouble.

Flyleft--Here's an analogy: You are the boss of a cook. You walk into the kitchen (for about 10 minutes) and have to remember where each piece of equipment is, what it is used for, and where it's positioned in the room. Then you have to instruct the cook what to do on each piece of equipment and the sequence in which to use each piece. The speed and ability to use each piece of equipment are timed, and points are deducted if the cook does something wrong (the cook does exactly what you tell him to do, in the order you tell him). So not only do you need to know where the equipment is and what it's for, you have to tell someone else to use it properly. (A similar analogy would be a doctor doing triage in a room full of accident victims.)

Chiefneil--Are you saying you can teach an old dog new tricks? ;-) I didn't know that visualizing an activity will cause the same brain function as actually doing the activity. I think that's the key. I suggested that she "practice" by making a 3D model that she can work with at home. I tried to come up with a "story" situation like you describe, but she didn't seem to understand what I was getting at, and I think it confused her further. But I hadn't thought about involving other senses. I'll have to give that some more thought.

Thanks everyone for your responses and suggestions. I have a feeling that the best method will be practice, practice, practice.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2007 at 12:13PM
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