There may be a bright side to getting older these days. Although our bodies suffer the ravages of time, it is possible to become a world-class thinker — even at middle-age.
Dr. Barry Gordon explains on Tuesday's The Early Show that by using the part of memory responsible for creative and critical thinking, adults can become smarter, increase productivity at work and solve complex problems faster.
He says, "You have two kinds of memory inside your head. One remembers when your daughter's birthday is, but the other remembers what you should get her for the birthday and where to get it cheapest. Although they seem like one memory, they're two distinct kinds of memory, relying on two different areas of the brain. One is bad for many people. People have problems with dates and specifics, but the other actually is surprisingly good and it gets better as we get older. And it's memory we used to solve problems with."
While the first form of memory - names and dates - takes a hit with aging, the second type "resists injury and brain disease and as a result, experience alone will make it better and better," Gordon says.
So he put The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen to the test and after a series of exercises, he noted she is quite sharp.
But just because a person can remember as much as a Palm Pilot, he notes does not mean that the person is smarter. He says, "Your Palm Pilot can't figure out when a highway is blocked or when your babysitter is late. This intelligent memory, which is really where intelligence comes from, in large part, is what makes the connections and solves our problems."
Asked how this affects work and daily life, Gordon explains, "We're constantly solving little and big problems all of the time. What intelligent memory does, is help us solve those faster and more efficiently. No one ever really gives you the answer; otherwise, they wouldn't call it work. They wouldn't call it a problem. Instead, the clues are scattered around. It's up to your mind to put them together and find the connected dots. That's what intelligent memory does."
Gordon is a doctor and professor of neurology and cognitive science. He is founder of the Memory Clinic and holdes an endowed chair to study the treatment of brain disorders at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
In his first book, "Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Everyday Life" Gordon addressed ordinary memory - basic recall of facts, names, locations and more. His second book, "Intelligent Memory" he delves into the second form of memory, which he says is often forgotten because it is the memory that happens automatically.
Read an excerpt from Chapter One:
What Is Intelligent Memory?
Take a moment to contemplate how you think. Every thought is made up of many steps. Our mind is making rapid-fire connections between bits of memory, each taking a fraction of a second to produce. We use two very different kinds of memory in our thinking. The first is the kind of memory people are most familiar with, ordinary memory. Ordinary memory is responsible for remembering specific times, dates, places, people, events, and facts. It is what most people are referring to when they think or talk about their "memory." Because ordinary memory is a conscious process, we are constantly aware of it, when it works and, especially, when it doesn't. It is our ordinary memory that fails us when we forget where we put our car keys.
The second category, however, is a much greater kind of memory called Intelligent Memory. Intelligent Memory is the memory that contains everything else we know about our car keys, like what they're for, what they resemble, and what they can be used for besides starting a car. It is Intelligent Memory, not ordinary memory, that you're using to read these words. Your Intelligent Memory is sprinting along, translating the marks on the page into words you can recognize, and figuring out what the words mean.
While ordinary memory is where we keep specific facts, Intelligent Memory is where we keep connections and meanings. Ordinary memory is conscious and relatively slow—we are often aware of the effort involved in trying to remember a name or a date—but Intelligent Memory is quick, effortless, and usually unconscious. It's responsible for almost everything we do with our senses, our minds, and our muscles. But in particular, it's the engine powering most of our intelligence. That is why we call it Intelligent Memory.
Each of us, no matter how poor our ordinary memory, has an extraordinary amount of Intelligent Memory, and we use it all the time. We don't have to strain or force Intelligent Memory into action, as we do with ordinary memory. It creates ideas that pop to mind effortlessly. It sparks answers and solutions without us having to ponder them.
A perfect example of all the mental activity that goes into Intelligent Memory comes from Sherlock Holmes. Here is Dr. Watson's account of the first time he met Holmes:
"Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said Stamford, introducing us.
"How are you?" he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."
"How on earth did you know that?" I asked in astonishment.
Holmes replied: "...From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, 'Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.' The whole train of thought did not occupy a second."
Holmes's Intelligent Memory sharpened his perceptions, made connections, considered several inferences from those connections, and found an explanation that fit them all in a fraction of a second. While this example is fictional, it demonstrates how a good Intelligent Memory functions—observing and thinking simultaneously, moving so rapidly between memories and thoughts that it barely leaves a detectable trace of its operations.
PICKING UP WHERE ORDINARY MEMORY LEAVES OFF
Sherlock Holmes's ordinary memory could not have accomplished such a feat. It contains only specific facts, new faces, and dates and times, and it works slowly, often requiring a great deal of mental energy to produce a fact or an idea. It is the lightning-quick connectivity of Intelligent Memory that is necessary to produce Holmes's brilliant deductions.
Here are some examples that show where ordinary memory leaves off, or fails us, and Intelligent Memory steps in to generate an idea that saves the day. As you read on, you'll learn how it actually accomplishes this mental legerdemain.
• You forget where you put your car keys and search everywhere for them. You then suddenly remember that you put a spare key in a magnetic box under the car years ago.
• You can't recall the name of someone who greets you on the street, but his conversation implies that he knows your spouse, and that suddenly gives you his name.
• Arriving at the grocery store, you realize that you've forgotten your shopping list. However, as you walk through the store and glance at the shelves, you remember what you need.
• You drop your glasses behind a sofa too heavy to move. You can't figure out how to retrieve them at first, but then you have an idea: You undo a wire coat hanger and use it to snag them.
• You're waiting for a friend in front of a department store. Your friend told you he had business to do on the fifth floor. While waiting, you idly look around. You notice that the building has four stories, and immediately realize that you must be in the wrong place because your friend was going to be on the fifth floor.
• You're in a field trying to help your son with his model rocket, but you're as much of a novice as he is. Both of you are desperate to find help. Another father and son are doing rocketry on the same field. You overhear that father tell his son that the cloud cover looks like it's at about 5,000 feet. You realize that this man knows rockets and can help you and your son, even though your son doesn't see the connection.
• This cartoon makes you smile before you know why:
HOW IT WORKS
Intelligent Memory is at work almost everywhere. It directs our senses to help us see, hear, move, smell, and taste. It powers much of our higher thinking, including problem solving, social skills, and creativity. It is normally almost invisible, but you can learn to recognize its workings. To give you a sense of how it functions, we'll start with how it sees and interprets a relatively simple concept, such as a visual image. What do you see in the following picture?
Do you see the Dalmatian looking toward the left-hand margin? You may see it instantly or only after a second or two. If you did see the Dalmatian, the visual parts of your Intelligent Memory enabled you to do so. Since there are only splotches of black and white in the picture, your visual Intelligent Memory matched the splotches with all the shapes and forms you have ever seen. In a split second, it sorted through the millions of images in your memory and found that the best fit was a Dalmatian.
You won't see a Dalmatian in the picture if you've never seen this type of dog before. However, if you have seen a Dalmatian, even if you don't remember seeing it, then you have an Intelligent Memory of it. That's because Intelligent Memory "learns" automatically every time it is used, whether it captures a visual image, like the Dalmatian, or generates complicated ideas. It arises from the activity of nerve cells and their connections in your brain, which learn more every time they are activated. Everything they experience changes them a little and becomes part of the mosaic of nerve connections that produces Intelligent Memory.
This activation of nerve cells, and the consequent learning, can occur even if it is unintentional. Though you never set out to memorize all the dogs you've ever seen, your brain automatically embeds them in its visual Intelligent Memory. So while you may have forgotten that Pongo and Perdita were the Dalmatians in 101 Dalmatians, the essence of their Dalmatian looks were locked into the visual part of your Intelligent Memory. Once that Dalmatian is in there, the process of gathering together the blotches on the page, comparing them against everything in memory, and finding that a Dalmatian is the best match takes less than half a second in most people.
The Dalmatian example highlights the basic hallmarks of Intelligent Memory:
• It really is a function of memory; you have to have had the experience in your mind to tap into it or build on it.
• It works very quickly. Its basic steps take only fractions of a second.
• Many parts of Intelligent Memory can work at once. Even during sleep, some parts of your Intelligent Memory are churning.
• Intelligent Memory is always learning. Whenever it works, it remembers what it is doing, automatically.
• Most of the time, you are not aware of it working. You're aware of the image or idea that it generates, but not of the process it goes through to produce that image or idea.
• You can consciously steer some parts of your Intelligent Memory and make them learn what and how you want them to learn.
Try this next picture. What do you see?
Despite the fact that the zebra is harder to see than the Dalmatian for most people, if you saw it, you probably saw it faster this time because of your earlier experience with the Dalmatian picture. Chances are you probably didn't have much experience looking at blobs before, but searching the blobs in the Dalmatian picture taught you how to look at them more effectively and stimulated more visual images in your Intelligent Memory. As a result, the mental operations you used to look at the picture and to match it against the images in your mind also became more efficient. Your Intelligent Memory just improved. And it did so without any deliberate mental effort on your part.
THREE PARTS OF THE ENGINE
Intelligent Memory has three major components: pieces of information, connections between the pieces, and the mental processes that manage the pieces and connections. (The processes are themselves made of the same basic stuff, pieces and connections.) It's like a network of computers, managed by a network administrator, and the network administrator is a computer too. There is memory in every part of this system, so every part can learn from experience or can be taught.
We possess a vast number of pieces of information in our Intelligent Memory. Your mental pictures of Dalmatians and zebras, as well as of any dogs or wild animals that you've ever seen, are pieces of information. Some pieces are facts ("Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States"). However, most pieces are not facts; they're sensory perceptions and visual images, like the feel of velvet or what your high school English teacher looked like. Or they're concepts and knowledge, like honesty. Skills are also pieces of information. They can be as simple as how to the turn the key in a lock or as complex as how to ride a bike, shoot pool, or play golf.
The connections between pieces of information are dense webs that link to form complex ideas. We possess a connection between the sound of the word "brain" and the letters B-R-A-I-N. We have connections linking what our senses detect, like a cold nose, a panting tongue, or a wagging tail, and concepts, like the mental picture of an eager dog. A television, a VCR, and a remote control are similarly connected to produce the notion of a couch potato. These connections were all learned. There was a first exposure to them, when they were new to us, but once they were learned, they became part of Intelligent Memory.
At any one time, most of the pieces of information in our heads, and the connections between them, lie dormant. Similar to a computer that has not been turned on, a part of our memory has not been awakened. This was probably the case with all your pieces of information about dogs before you saw the picture of the Dalmatian. But if something triggers latent pieces and connections—like seeing a picture related to them—they become activated. Once activated, they trigger other pieces through the connections in Intelligent Memory. This activation can be automatic and run on its own. If you saw a Dalmatian when you looked at the blobs on the paper, a flood of activation went in the right direction and wound up triggering the image of a Dalmatian in your mind.
The third part of your Intelligent Memory, the memory processing administrator, didn't have to do anything with these activations. But if it took you a few seconds to see the Dalmatian, the memory processing administrator went to work. It recognized that nothing was connecting and began directing the activation of pieces and the flow of information. Because it was working so hard, you were probably aware of the feeling of "searching" through your memory. That feeling was the memory processing administrator determining what parts of your memory had been searched and checking to see if anything came from that search. If the search did yield information, the administrator made an extra effort to lock it into your memory.
Another way of thinking about what goes on in Intelligent Memory is that it is like connecting dots to form a picture. The dots are pieces or ideas, the lines between them are your connections or associations. The lines can coalesce into larger fragments, and these fragments can merge to form a whole thought. This whole thought may be a visual image, a piece of knowledge, an idea, or even the solution to a problem.
Individual pieces, their connections, and the mental processing that orchestrates them generally work together so they appear to be a single cognitive event. That's what happens when ideas or concepts "pop" to mind. Your ability to read these words is an example. When you were a small child and unable yet to read, written English could have been Cyrillic for all you knew. You had to learn about the lines that form each letter and recognize each group of lines as a familiar pattern. Now, not only are many lines molded into single pieces, which you think of as individual letters, but collections of letters have also become pieces—words—in Intelligent Memory. And if you're an experienced reader, collections of words have become pieces loaded with meaning: "Fourscore and seven years ago," "It was a dark and stormy night," "The dog ate my homework," "The check is in the mail."
Each combination of pieces and connections, and the processing that meshes them, functions like a miniature mind within our brain. These "miniminds" are capable of thinking for themselves swiftly and usually below the surface of our consciousness. Many miniminds can be active in the brain at once, monitoring and making decisions. The miniminds that deal with reading, for instance, quickly give us the meanings of words, sentences, and passages. Sherlock Holmes's miniminds processed large pieces of information to produce a deduction about the meaning of Watson's features. Miniminds boost the power of our conscious mind, which is pretty much limited to one thought at a time.
This mental processing packages complex perceptions, ideas, and skills into your Intelligent Memory. Remember, it remembers! Each new arrangement or packaging of pieces and connections makes our Intelligent Memory larger and stronger: larger because a new concept has been added to your mental arsenal, and stronger because once-separate pieces are now a single, distinctive idea that is readily available.
BECOMING A BETTER THINKER
Intelligent Memory thinks on its own, automatically. But you can guide it so that it will work even better. Cramming your brain with lots of facts may help your ordinary memory, but it may make only a modest improvement in your Intelligent Memory. The best way to improve your Intelligent Memory is to strengthen the mental processes that manage it. These processes are paying attention, storing memories or pieces, building connections, finding the right memories or pieces, and tuning the entire system by testing your results as you go along.
Since Intelligent Memory learns automatically, improving it doesn't have to be work—it can be fun. When people think slowly or produce mediocre ideas, it's often because they haven't tuned up their intelligent memories properly. They've neglected the mental activities that give intelligent memory a workout and make it perform better. Good thinkers don't neglect these mental workouts. The situation is similar to the difference between amateurs and professionals in sports. The amateur swimmer rarely thinks of the specific parts of the motion that moves her from one side of the pool to the other. The professional swimmer, however, mentally breaks down the main components of a stroke—like the elbow lift, catch, pull, and hip rotation—and considers how she uses them while she's swimming. That way, she makes each movement better, and makes them all work together better.
When we look back at the several examples presented earlier in this chapter, we can now see that a well-honed Intelligent Memory unconsciously sought out the connection between, for example, the lost key and the spare key hidden long before. Intelligent Memory took the threads from the conversation in the street, and found the link between spouse and stranger. At the grocery store, Intelligent Memory was triggered by the items on the shelves.
As Holmes points out, it was practice that made his Intelligent Memory work so quickly, smoothly, and correctly. The first steps toward improving your Intelligent Memory are understanding more about how it works and identifying where it is not working as well as it might. In the next chapter, we'll give you a chance to feel your own Intelligent Memory and test how well it's working.
Copyright © Intelligence Amplification, Inc. and Lisa Berger, 2003
All rights reserved.