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What’s Not to Love?
by: Zack Proser
Free, effective, and infinitely portable, brain building exercises are ideal for mental training regimens, travel, or filling the vast expanse of time between when your in-law’s darkened maw opens and when something worthy of audience escapes by accident. Herein I have assembled some of my favorites, and included reviews of each. This article focuses on those designed to improve memory, visual thinking skills, and to facilitate calm and focused mindsets. Links to sites where more can be found are included at the bottom.

Memory Tiles

This is a simple technique designed to store and retain separate pieces of information on the fly. It is ideal for creating lists in a flash, sequencing or linking items together, and boosting visual thinking skills. Next time you’re out and about and have to compose and retain a list of dissimilar items on the fly, imagine a clean sheet of whichever color you desire. On top of this, in the upper left hand corner, create a tile for the first item to be recalled. I like to use white square tiles, which make for easy overlays. Suppose you’re going to be married the next day. Envision your first tile imbued with two golden bells, perhaps even add a veil cascading down from the top of the tile if you’re feeling fanciful, or substitute tears for the bells’ ringers if you’re a realist. Simply by decorating your tiles step by step, you are affording yourself more retrieval cues and creating a stronger memory.

Suppose at 3 o’clock you are expected to sit with your mother’s friends for cake and pictures. Obviously, you would create a new tile stamped with bleeding and maggot-ridden skull and crossbones to the right, connected to your wedding tile by three red arrows (to encode the fateful hour). Cheekiness aside, the profane, repulsive and morally inconceivable make for stronger epoxies than sugar and water. The more bizarre or visually striking your tile, the more likely it will stick in your memory. This basic structure can be expanded and customized to suit your needs. The tiles can be animated to encode complex actions, the tiles’ sizes can be altered to encode priority, and they can even be moved into equations for the purpose of encoding conditional obligations or memorizing elusive exceptions.

Review/em>: I designed this one myself. It’s inherently flawless. It is, however, best suited for temporary and extemporaneous storage of information because it does not come ready made with a constant system of imagery.

The Journey System

Best for long lists, the journey system works by associating landmarks along well-known routes through the real world with dream world translations of the items to be stored. Your daily commute is an easily imaginable route and will serve as a starting point. “Hamburgers, chicken feet, liver pate and tums!” your stomach commands you as you leave for the supermarket. To remember this list, you might notice that your filthy coarse weave doormat looks like a hamburger patty, that the treacherous knot of roads you cross at one point resembles a chicken’s foot, etc. When it comes time to recall your list, just relive your journey to work, complete with bizarre cues.

Review: Certainly effective for straightforward lists and capable of holding much information at once, but slightly less effective for mapping out complex concepts. It feels a little unwieldy when it comes time to vocalize your list quickly; something like memory tiles might be ideal for meetings or classes when you want to have all of your information visible at once and close at hand.

Visual Thinking Skills

Image Streaming – adapted from Win Wenger, Ph.D.

This technique is entertaining and boosts creativity, communication skills and visual object manipulation. Sit before a blank word processor screen or an empty cassette recorder and speak or write a description of the first image that comes to your mind. Focus on the sensory detail of your image and include as much as possible without sacrificing rapidity. You can use a nearby object if you are having trouble jumping off, but the key is ‘flow’ and making your descriptions both as complete and quick as possible. Move right from one image to another. If you’re having trouble getting started, imagine a ball bouncing around a room. First describe the ball in all its red rubber glory as quickly and completely as possible and then move on to the next object it touches; floors, furniture, or even people as it winds its way through other rooms. Within even your first session, you may start to notice your visual fluidity improving as the details of visions become more easily rendered and one idea morphs into another. Doctor Wenger suggests that Image Streaming sessions should last from 10 to 30 minutes each.

Review: This is a very enjoyable exercise and allows for complete freedom of the imagination. It can even serve as a relaxation method, as you will begin to notice your focus tightening up as you approach the zone in which vivid descriptions streak effortlessly from you tongue or fingertips. After a few practice sessions with a recording medium, you can continue to image stream wherever you are, silently describing to yourself the images you generate. I strongly recommend this to those who often have a hard time quieting their minds for long enough to reap the benefits of traditional meditation techniques, for image streaming occupies much of the mind but soothes it as well.

Juggling Technique

This technique initially requires a ball and a seat. Sit in the seat. Rest the ball in your left palm, both palms upward and even and shoulder’s width apart. Careful to use only your left hand, toss the ball in a respectable arc and catch it in your right palm. Toss it back, careful to maintain a nice arc. Ensure your hands are moving only a few inches each time you throw. Repeat at a steady state until you can do so while staring straight ahead. Repeat for five to ten minutes until you feel yourself relaxing. Now lose the ball and close your eyes. You can keep your hands palm up, but imagine the ball jumping from one palm to another in a perfect arc. Repeatedly toss the visualized ball for ten minutes at a steady state. When you feel you have the basics down, try changing the color of the ball as it passes from one hand to another, first switching between two colors and, once that is mastered, running through the whole rainbow as it passes in its arc. Try changing shapes, and then try changing shapes and colors simultaneously, all while tossing the object back and forth in a perfect arc.

Review: This is very calming and can be done anywhere. It is ideal for ironing out frustration when there is work to be done, and is another alternative for people who find clearing headspace for meditation to be too difficult.

Concentration and Relaxation

Meditation

There is much research demonstrating the impressive benefits of various forms of meditation. Studies have shown increased cortical thickness [1], increases in nighttime levels of melatonin [2], and heightened attention and control of the autonomic nervous system [3] to be related to meditation. There are a great many traditional practices of meditation, so keep looking for one that suits you if you haven’t found the right fit yet.

A very basic technique I sometimes use involves getting comfortable either in a chair or lying on your back in bed. Lie still for a few moments and breathe regularly to relax, then close your eyes and begin taking deep breaths, focusing on the sound and feel of your breathing. You can inhale and exhale for three counts each if it helps you maintain concentration. Your thoughts will distract you, but continuously return to the sound and feel of your breathing. Try maintaining this for 15 to 30 minutes at a time.

A spiritually inclined friend once taught me a more interesting variation. On a pleasant day, sit beneath a tree and follow the first steps as outlined above. Once you feel yourself sliding into a meditative state, try to “sense the tree’s energy” while drawing your hands, facing together and several inches apart, toward your upper chest from your belly, heels first with each inhalation. With each exhalation, move them back down to rest before your belly button. With each ascending motion of your hands, imagine that you are bearing energy up toward your face to be breathed in; with each descending motion, imagine you are exhaling this energy back into the space between your palms. Repeat for ten minutes at a steady pace until the motion becomes smooth and your mind is cleared.

Next, your hands still facing each other and apart, imagine that this energy between them has grown into a ball. You can feel it glowing ethereally in your palms; at once weightless but scarcely palpable. Concentrate on feeling its warmth between your hands, all the while continuing your steady breathing.

Next, begin to move your hands around this ball of energy as if it were real, each cupped hand moving in opposite directions but simultaneously, to outline the ball’s shape. If you are doing this correctly, curious passerby will be entranced to see you holding an invisible ball, so convincing shall your movements be. If you are doing this correctly, you will almost believe you are holding a ball yourself.

Review: Both of these techniques reward patience. While a mood brightening effect can be experienced after only ten minutes of meditating, constant practice allows one to attain the meditative state more quickly, and to remain in it longer without interruption by distraction. Nevertheless, I find that even 10-15 minutes of meditation in the early morning is anxiolytic, and can infuse me with calm and focused energy for several hours afterward.

Get to It

Many of these exercises can be performed in sequence for greater effect. Try meditating for fifteen minutes before constructing your own visual mnemonic while studying or preparing for an event that will require information retrieval. You will find that your confidence is increased, your mind is stripped of superfluous noise, and that your freshly boosted attention will serve you well as you memorize. Additionally, performing several different types of brain builders will provide an overlapping effect whenever a single skill is targeted by multiple exercises. Visual thinking skills, for instance, can be enhanced by image streaming, but are also improved when practicing the second variation of meditation outlined above. Below are a few good resources for more brain builders.

References

1 – Lazar et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16 (7), 1893-1897.

2 – Tooley et al. (2000). Acute increases in night-time plasma melatonin levels following a period of meditation. Biological Psychology, 53(1), 69-78

3 – Lazar et al. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. Neuroreport 11(7), 1581-1585.

Additional Resources

http://www.memorise.org/memoryGym.htm – a training site. Test your improved memory.

http://www.mindtools.com – geared towards the workplace; much on the mechanics of the office and interpersonal interactions therein, but also offers many good exercises.

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