This Is How You Can Teach Your Brain New Tricks
Exercising these four talents is a good reminder that, even on a bad day, your built-in computer is actually really powerful.
The average person’s brain contains 86 billion neurons and trillions of synapses. All those brain cells mean your mind can do so much more than you think—such as these seemingly impossible feats.
Say I asked you to memorize this list of ten words: ladybug, comb, oatmeal, lawyer, coal, stamp, knife, worm, bell, lettuce. You’d normally have to repeat them in your head many times before you achieved 100 percent recall. Even after accomplishing the tiring feat, a few hours later, you’d probably remember only two to three words from the beginning and end of the list. That’s because of what cognitive psychologists call the primacy and recency effects: Information at the beginning and end of a series interferes with recall of information in the middle of a series.
This difficulty stems from the limitations of our verbal memory; the linguistic portion of our brains, where we store arbitrary lists of words, has limited storage.
However, our visual brains have vastly more storage than our linguistic brains. Thus, when you store information visually, as opposed to linguistically, you can recall it much better. And that’s the secret to remembering the ten words above.
Instead of repeating the words in your head, convert them to images—and not just any images, but extremely vivid pictures. Then visualize your house and mentally place the image of each object on the list in a different room or distinct location, such as a closet, within the house.
For instance, place a very large ladybug—say three feet in diameter to make it really vivid—where the welcome mat would lie by the front door. Then deposit a large orange comb on the floor just inside the front door. Continue to place each successive object on the list throughout your house, preferably in the order you would take someone on a guided tour.
When you’re done, take another stroll through your home and “see” the objects you’ve left in different places. You should have no trouble visualizing each and every object—and thus, each and every word.
You can use this same trick to memorize strings of numbers, letters, symbols, or anything else. Just convert what you’re memorizing into something meaningful; for example, the number 2 might be represented by an image of you and your spouse.
Move things with your mind
Tie a two- or three-foot piece of string (or dental floss) through the handle of a coffee cup and dangle the cup in front of you, keeping it as still as you can. Then, using only your mind, will the cup to sway forward and back. After 20 to 30 seconds, you will see the cup start to move forward and back. Then, again using only your mind, order the cup to stop. Repeat the exercise, this time willing the cup to sway left and right like a pendulum.
No, you can’t literally move things with your mind—here are other brain facts that aren’t actually true either. But this experiment—which feels eerily like telekinesis—proves that your unconscious exerts extraordinary control over your muscles, causing them to contract in subtle ways that produce tiny but precise motions that move the cup. Although you probably weren’t aware of which muscles you contracted to cause the cup to sway, your body knew what to do through a process called implicit memory, in which your brain files away enormous amounts of information unconsciously, such as which muscle groups will cause which kinds of subtle motions. Perhaps such unconscious movements are what gave rise to the concept of telekinesis in the first place.
Navigate in the dark
Bats navigate in the dark by listening for the returning sound they create from ultrasonic clicks, chirps, and tones. We all have an inner bat that can also echolocate. Find a long stick or pole with a hard tip (metal is ideal) and a friend to spot you, then go to an uncarpeted area of your house. Close your eyes and tap the stick in front of you, as blind people do. Observe that you can get a rough sense of the presence of large nearby objects, and even their distance, just by listening to the clicks.
If you’re like most sighted people who do this for the first time, you will just “know” when you are getting close to a wall or a large object without knowing exactly how you know. This “knowing without knowing how” is another example of implicit memory.
But if you listen carefully to the clicks of your stick, you’ll start to notice that a click made from tapping the floor a few feet from a wall has a hollow quality because of slight echoes that immediately follow the original click of contact. The echoes from the stick tapping the floor follow too quickly to distinguish as distinct replicas of the original click, but they add slightly to the original click sound nonetheless.
If you tap the stick closer to the wall (within a few inches), the click will have a somewhat higher pitch. Some people report that clicks right next to the wall sound “deader” because they contain fewer echoes and overtones.
See behind you
Sound shadowing is a close cousin of echolocation. It lets you sense when someone—or a large something, such as a predator—is right behind you, even when that someone (or something) makes no sound.
Stand with your eyes closed on a carpeted surface (or another sound-deadening surface, such as grass or beach sand), and have a friend sneak up behind you so that you don’t hear his or her footsteps, breathing, or clothes rustling. The experiment works best when you have a conspicuous sound source, such as a radio, located about ten feet behind you to create background noise.
As your friend approaches from behind, even though you can’t see or hear him or her directly, you should be able to “feel” the person’s proximity by the sound shadow that he or she casts—the way the person blocks the sound. If you pay close attention to the sound shadow, you’ll perceive it has two parts: a slight lowering of volume and a deadening of echoes of the radio noise off surfaces behind you. These two effects become increasingly obvious as the person gets closer to you. Our unconscious ability to sense that someone is behind us may have given rise to that overworked phrase in thrillers and mysteries: “She felt someone watching her.”
Although the perception of sound shadows, like echolocation, is yet another example of implicit memory, it may also have a hardwired survival component that helps us fill in a large blind spot behind us that predatory animals (and nasty humans) could otherwise exploit. Your brain is infinitely interesting—find out 30 other brain facts you never knew.