Friday, September 20, 2013

How to Improve Your Short-Term Memory without Playing Computer Games

IF YOU WANT TO PLAY COMPUTER GAMES to shore up your memory and cognitive skills, go ahead. There are plenty of scientific studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of programs from LuminosityPosit Science and other brain exercise companies.

But if you are like me, the idea seems retrograde. When personal computers first came out in the mid-1970's, I played lunar lander on an Altair and was a fan of Microsoft's Flight Simulator which was once the most popular computer game for the IBM PC.

But that was then.

Today my work life revolves around computers. I spend hours every day writing articles, sending out tweets and positing on Facebook and LinkedIn.  I regularly use a dozen or more iPhone apps and I read books on my Kindle. The very idea of finding another reason to stare at a screen (big or small) is an anathema.

If you share this sentiment, you may be interested in the simple exercise I've devised to shore up my short-term memory which leverages off a daily ritual that I have been doing for at least 50 years.

It has been amazingly effective for me. I can remember names, facts, numbers, and visual images better than I could 20 years ago and while I can't back up my claims with double-blind studies, it won't take much of your time to try it out.

All you need is a daily newspaper.

Every morning I read The New York Times, usually but not always at a coffee shop. I read the entire front page first without turning to the pages where articles are continued.

Today's edition, for example, had six front-page stories and a striking photograph of Pope Francis waking though a large joyous crowd of presumably Catholic worshipers.

The lead story was about Iran seeking a nuclear accord to end sanctions that have pretty much wrecked their economy. There was a news analysis piece by David Sanger, one of my favorite reporters, noting how things in the Middle East have shifted dramatically in the past couple week with both Iran and Syria wanting to negotiate deals with the United States.

The other articles included one about the many signs of distress exhibited by the shooter who killed a bunch of people in a Washington, D.C. navy yard, a report that the Mars rover has failed to find signs of life on the planet, the surprising news that the textile mills in South Carolina are operating again, and finally, the shock waves created by the Pope who said the church had grown "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception (no duh).

While reading the front page I made a mental note to myself to remember the name of Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, and also the name of the Mars rover, Curiosity.

Moving on, I turned the pages one after another, picking up the continued stories and reading the other stories all the way through to the final opt-ed page.

I usually read every article in the front section but only articles that interest me in the other sections.Reading The New York Times takes about 30-40 minutes (I'm not a fast reader). And of course it takes longer on Sunday.

The memory exercise comes during the 10-15 minutes it takes me to walk home. I simply try to remember as much as possible about what I've read, including names and numbers.

Usually I can I recall what articles were on the front-page and where they were positioned. Today, I remembered the photo of the pope, the name of the Iranian president. I chuckled thinking about David Sanger's observation "three chess players President Obama deeply distrusts" are pulling the strings in the Middle East:  Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Rouhani.

I try to remember every article I've read. I remembered how many barrels of oil are being stolen daily by thieves in Nigeria--100,000, and the annual cost is $3.8 billion. I remembered the phrase "Nigeria's larcenous ingenuity" was used in describing how the thieves tap into oil pipelines and even process the oil in makeshift refineries.
I remembered the somewhat weird article about John McCain's essay trashing Putin which was published in the old communist newspaper, Pravda.

I could picture the photograph of Syrian rebels teaching women wearing hijabs how to fire machine guns. By time I got home I've remembered about 25 specific articles, facts, names, photos, etc.

Some days I go back to this exercise later in the day or before going to bed just to see how much stuff I can still remember.

This may or may not work for you, it definitely works for  me and it doesn't cost anything, doesn't really takes much time, and I would read the paper anyway.

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