Brain trainers’ mind games give a heady workout
Nathan Hakimi, right, covers his face while trying to remember a set of images during a brain training course at CogFit-Quest, as fellow student Joel Strauss cogitates, too.ALLISON WILLIAMS~FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Updated: April 20, 2012 8:11AM
There was a time when I could carry two sheets of drywall up three flights of stairs, go from first to third on a bloop to short-center, and remember verbatim three key quotes of any interview.
Now, if I have to lug a full cup of coffee, I use the elevator. I don’t run unless I’m being chased. And if I don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.
But Joanne Telser-Frere gave me a list of 10 words or phrases to remember more than three weeks ago, and I still remember all of them, in order.
This is very strange, because five minutes ago a fellow employee told me I’d left my car’s hazard lights flashing, and for the life of me, I can’t remember turning them on.
But Telser-Frere, one of the honchos at CogFit-Quest brain training in Skokie, showed me a trick: link words together with something out of the ordinary.
The first word: Desk. Second, Bracelet.
“OK, a Bracelet is clasped around the leg of the Desk,” I had told her.
She made a face.
“OK, OK. How about, the Bracelet jumps up and smashes a hole through the Desk, clasping itself around the edge in a big splintery catastrophe?” I asked.
“Now you got it,” she said.
Third word: Corn. Flying through the wrist-hole of the bracelet is a cob of Corn, kernels scattering everywhere. Gather the kernels and smush them to make pages for a Paperback Novel, No. 4. The Paperback Novel was written by a paperback writer, immortalized by The Beatles, each of whom can be called a Rock Star. 5. Together, The Beatles were photographed strolling across Abbey Road, which is a Highway, the sixth word. Out in the middle of that Highway, a 1960 Peterbilt hits an abandoned Armchair, smashing it into a thousand Pencil-like fragments. One of those Pencils flies through a young girl’s ear, preparing her for her first Earring. And the violence of that ear-piercing causes her to squeeze her sandwich in her little hand, squirting Peanut Butter everywhere. The End.
This is a miraculous thing, one that Telser-Frere maintains you can use all the time, like an iPod, or Coffemate. She said she remembers her partner Richard Goodman’s first name by thinking of him as Rich Man.
“I picture him with moneybags hanging from his ears,” she maintained.
I turned to Goodman. “Kinda stinks to be you,” I said.
He said it was even. He thinks of her as Joe Hen.
Memories are made of this
This all sounds kind of silly — kind of? — but when it came time for me to help the two of them teach a two-hour, 15-segment memory course for our Unemployee series, their methods actually worked.
For instance, each of the three students remembered the names connected to five or so of the eight photos of people that they had seen once, and not for over a week.
All the pictures were normal-looking except for, bizarrely, an eye-patched pirate with a parakeet on his shoulder. Surprisingly, the students had difficulty remembering his name.
That’s likely because instead of being called Blackbeard, Bluebeard or Snooki, Scourge of the Sea, he was named Samuel Middleton.
Not even Samuel RRRR Middleton.
The name-remembering segment of our class was enhanced by the method of famous mentalist Harry Lorayne, which employs several steps. One of them is to make a remark about the name to help it stick in your head better.
How’s this: “Samuel Middleton — what kind of a ridiculous name is that for a pirate?”
Rhyme without reason
CogFit courses are intended to help a wide range of people, from executives wanting to sharpen up to dementia patients just trying to slow down the disease.
Each of the three people in the class — their last of a six-session course — had a different reason for being there. Joel Strauss, a retired teacher from Wilmette, told me he used to memorize whole books, but felt “a natural decline in cognitive ability,” and wanted to recharge his batteries a bit. Nathan Hakimi, a Skokie college student, wanted to push his academic envelope. And Amy Segami, a Chicago artist, told me, “I have always been interested in the brain and creativity.
“And my memory has plateaued a bit.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Segami excelled at some of the more creative segments of the training, including recalling limericks, after being given just the first line.
“There was a Young Person of Crete,
Whose toilette was far from complete;
She dressed in a sack,
Spickle-speckled with black,
That ombliferous person of Crete.”
I find it particularly difficult to remember words that don’t exist, don’t you?
Perhaps it didn’t matter as much to Segami, who is not a native English speaker, that 19th-century smart-aleck poet Edward Lear had used one of his least-transparent made-up words.
With slobaciously or flumpetty, I would have had a chance.
Math times two
Strauss was particularly good at the Mental Math exercise, in which the students are given four numbers, and asked to add, subtract, multiply them and divide them to come up with a fifth, or just under it, if it won’t come out even. Of course, you have to remember how you did it.
All in one minute.
On one of the problems, both Segami and Hakimi figured it out and happily announced their steps.
“I’ve got it two different ways,” Strauss said.
I didn’t try to keep up with him.
I’m a word man.
Hakimi was aces at the list-remembering. Sixteen straight. And his mind had progressed to the point that he didn’t have to think of a truck clobbering an armchair to remember the furniture. His brain was rewired.
Or he was cheating. I really have no way of knowing.
The only segment with a real physical component involved reciting memorized words, then throwing a ball at one of the other students. Goodman said the physicality exercised a function of the brain that didn’t get much of a workout just from thinking.
He either said that or that he liked to play catch. I don’t remember. I just did this for one day, OK?
So we’d say our name, plus a color and a country of our choice, then say the name of another player, along with the color and country he or she had chosen, and toss the ball to that person.
There were a couple of complicating variations, but I found the original way challenging enough.
During one of my thoughtful silences, Strauss, smiling, couldn’t help himself.
“You do remember your name, right?”