Tuesday, 9 July 2013

5 Brain Hacks That Give You Mind Blowing Powers

Sure, you could improve yourself the normal way, with hard work and years of slow, incremental progress. Or you could use some of your body's built-in cheat codes and just hack your way to awesometown.

These hacks come with various degrees of difficulty, but no risk or potential for injury. And actual scientists say that all of them work.

#5. Remember Long Lists With a "Memory Palace"

The human brain sucks at remembering lists. Think about it: When you go to the grocery store, how many items can you manage before you have to write them down? Three? Five? For most of us, if there's any more than that, we're going to get back home and find out we forgot the milk (which by the way was the whole fucking reason we went to the store in the first place).

That's weird, because there are other things in life we have no problem with. For instance, we don't have much trouble remembering the locations of a hundred different spots around town, even if we don't know the addresses (do you even know the street address of your favorite coffee shop?), or the locations of a thousand items around the house. Sure, you couldn't write them all down, but if a friend asks you where they can find a flashlight, you're probably going to have an answer. If only there was a way to exploit this strength to overcome the other weakness.

The Hack:

You're able to find your way around because a whole lot of your mental horsepower is devoted to spatial memory -- learning the layout of your environment. And there is totally a way you can tap into it as a hack to remember long lists. So-called memory champions have been doing it forever. They call it creating a memory palace.

Here's how it works: You pick a familiar place that you know well and can imagine without much problem -- the inside of your house, the layout of your neighborhood, whatever. You then imagine yourself walking along a specific route in that place and associate an item on your list with each location.

So let's say you're trying to remember a long grocery list, and you choose to use your neighborhood to mentally visualize it. You could imagine the first item on your list -- condoms -- scattered willy-nilly along your driveway. The next thing on your list might be beer -- you could picture your neighbor passed out drunk on his lawn, pants down, if you want. Next up is frozen pizza, so you picture pizza pies replacing all the windows at your drunk neighbor's house. Let your imagination do the hard work for you -- the more ridiculous/striking the image, the easier it'll be to remember.

It all sounds like a ridiculous extra step, but you soon realize how incredibly easy it suddenly makes it to recite a list. You're simply forcing the spatial memory part of your brain to help out. And you can start doing it at any time -- the memory palace (or method of loci) memorization technique isn't something that requires years of practice. In one 1968 study, college students were asked to memorize a list of 40 items by associating each item with a specific location around campus. Not only were the students able to memorize an average of 38 of the 40 items, but the next day they were able to name 34 of the original list (and that was in 1968 -- imagine how much more they would have remembered if the kids hadn't been on so much pot).

In another study, German senior citizens were also asked to memorize a list of 40 words by associating each word with Berlin landmarks. Before using the method, they could only recall an average of three words. After associating the German word for "father" with the Berlin zoo, for example, participants could remember an average of 23 words from the list. Oh, and you don't have to have one location for each list item, either. In yet another study, subjects just took their imaginary walk twice and were still able to remember 34 of the 40 items. Seriously, go try this.

#4. Retain Information by Spacing Out the Reminders
The hell of trying to learn anything is that time randomly wipes important information you've committed to memory -- you can't remember the Pythagorean theorem, but you remember the base stats of 649 Pokemon. This is why so many of us wind up cramming at the last minute for exams -- it's not just procrastination, it's fear that if we study a month ahead of time, we'll forget part of it by exam day. So our only answer is to cram everything into our short-term memory, knowing that we'll lose it right after the test. A hundred grand in tuition well spent!

No, what we need is a way to retain information for the long haul, without doing a lot of work. In other words, we need a scientific method to arrive at the exact minimum amount of time and energy we need to successfully retain important information.
The Hack:

There is a measurable process by which your brain drops information, a "forgetting curve." If you want information to stick, there's a specific hack you can do to work around it. It takes a bit more practice than the memory palace thing above, but if your job or degree depends on it, it's worth it. Basically, it's a matter of figuring out the rate at which your brain forgets things and adapting to it. They call it spaced repetition.

So let's say you're trying to learn Spanish, and you're going to have a big final on it in four months. The most rudimentary way to practice spaced repetition is to put the words you need to learn on note cards with the English on the front and the Spanish on the back (flash cards, basically) and get three boxes (or create three piles, if you don't have any boxes sitting around) marked:

1. Every Day
2. Every Week
3. Once a Month

The labels tell you how often you're going to look at the flash cards. "What?" you say, "I don't got time to be studying this shit every day! Besides, I know I can hold this stuff in my brain longer than that!" Right, you probably can. This method will tell you exactly how long. That's the point: to arrive at the exact bare minimum amount of time you need to study.

So, the first time you study, yes, you drill yourself with all of the flash cards. The ones you get right you promote to the Every Week pile. Ones you get wrong go in the Every Day pile. The next day you try it again, but now you've got a smaller pile. The next day, it will be smaller still. A week later, you'll try the Every Week pile again, and the ones you get right you stuff into the Once a Month pile. You're just filtering this shit right on down the line, giving yourself less and less to do.

A month later, you go through the Once a Month pile to make sure you remember it. The stuff you've forgotten goes into the weekly rotation again. See what you're doing? You're figuring out the exact rate at which this stuff falls out of your brain. Breezing through that monthly box? Great, make it every two months. The spans of time are flexible (conversely, if you have an exam or presentation in two weeks, you can shorten the whole process -- make your three piles Daily, Every Other Day, Every Three Days).

If that still sounds too complicated, a Polish psychologist named Piotr Wozniak created computer software that does it for you:

Wozniak actually conducted an experiment on himself by memorizing thousands of nonsensical syllables ... and found that he could repeat the list three years later. So when you're walking around the city and you see filthy people mumbling nonsense syllables to themselves all day, this is probably what they're doing. Ask them about it!

#3. Write It Out (Even if You Don't Read It Later)
Quick! When was the last time you held a pen and wrote something? It was probably while signing a receipt, wasn't it? A note you left on the parked car you dinged at the mall? Child support checks? In this age of smartphones, constant texting, and spending half our waking hours online, most of us have lost the gentle art of holding a pencil and scratching out ransom notes the old-fashioned way. Which is too bad, because if you want information to stick in your brain, you need to write that shit out by hand.

The Hack:

The act of handwriting actually engages neural activity that you don't get by hammering on a keyboard. During an experiment at Indiana University, preschool kids who were learning the alphabet were separated into two groups. The first group was shown letters and told what they were, while the second group had the additional task of practicing writing the letters. When the kids were put into a "spaceship" (an MRI machine), the brains from the writing group lit up like somebody had crammed a road flare into their ears. Their neural activity not only was more enhanced, it was more "adult-like," which we presume means they later asked researchers to check their cholesterol levels while they were there.

In other words, it seems to be the same principle as the memory palace thing above -- forcing another part of your brain into the action to help out with memorization. We invented keyboards because typing is way easier and faster than writing, but making it faster means we're losing handwriting's unique ability to imprint information in our brain. So those flash cards we had you make above? Get a pen and write that shit out instead of printing it off your computer. Watch your score improve.

A 2008 study proved that this works especially well when you're doing something that involves learning unfamiliar characters, like some computer languages, or sheet music, or Japanese. Again, making your fingers draw out the shape engages a completely different part of your brain than if you're just staring at it on a screen and saying, "Remember this, goddamnit!"

But of course your brain is good for more than memorizing stuff. For instance, this next hack is for those of you with rage problems...

#2. Control Anger by Using Your Less-Dominant Hand
Everyone knows at least one guy who hulks out over the stupidest things -- a messed up coffee order, a red light, global warming. Usually these people are just harmless joke fodder until they road rage on an elderly person over a politically charged bumper sticker. If you don't know one of these people, consider that it might be you.

Of course, there are all these tricks that your mom taught you that are supposed to calm you down ("Stop and count to 10!"), which of course don't work because in the moment you're enraged, you can't think logically anyway. What you need is to beef up your anger defenses before it gets to that point.

The Hack:

This one comes from the University of New South Wales, who found the perfect anger-management trick, and it wasn't cool jazz music or playful kittens wearing sunglasses. People who had anger issues were asked to spend two weeks using their non-dominant hand for anything that wouldn't endanger anyone: opening and slamming doors, writing hate mail, pouring coffee, and other dirty activities that are now crossing your mind. After two weeks, the subjects could control their temper tantrums better, even when other participants deliberately insulted them to get a reaction.

Why would this possibly work? Well, looking at angry people under brain scans shows that outbursts are less about too much anger and more about depleted self-control. That's both good news and bad news. The bad news is that self-control is a finite thing, and you can run out of it. The good news is that it's a physical mechanism of how your brain works, and you can strengthen it (or hack it into working better).

Now, you'd assume that the only way to do that would be some kind of meditation or long classes in anger management. Or maybe to pay somebody to make an annoying noise in your ear for hours at a time and slowly decreasing the frequency with which you punch them in the head. But it turns out it doesn't take anything like that -- just asking these people to use their clumsy hand to do everyday tasks forced them to deal with hundreds of tiny, totally manageable moments of frustration. But that was enough to make them somewhat immune to it.

So, when things got ugly, suddenly they found that the walls around their internal anger demon were stronger. And it's probably also calming to know that if things get so bad that a gunfight breaks out, you're now capable of dual-wielding that shit.

#1. Boost Your Immune System (by Looking at Pictures)
Getting sick is something you wouldn't think you have much control over beyond the obvious things (eat healthy, wash your hands, etc.). But damn it, this article isn't about the obvious shit. This is about weird hacks that let you trick your system into working better. And if you want to beef up your immune system, find some pictures of disease.

The Hack:

Your brain manages everything, including your immune system. And we already know that seeing certain images can trigger physical responses in the body -- some pictures make us salivate, while others do downtown business on our private parts (boners). Well, when you see sick people, your body beefs up its defenses.

Scientists from the University of British Columbia showed students a 10-minute slideshow of sick people to measure their immune system's responses. So for 10 solid minutes, test subjects looked at images of people with rashes, bad coughs, and those weird booster shot scars you see on the middle-aged. What they discovered was that after the sick reel, the participants' white blood cells went into overdrive and began to produce interleukin-6 (IL-6), the same kind of protein a body would produce to fight off infection or combat burns.

And if you're wondering if the triggered immune system was just a general response to stress, the answer is not really. While the participants certainly weren't held at gunpoint, there was a group who got the opportunity to look at pictures of people pointing guns at them, which netted a negligible 6 percent increase in IL-6. Looking at sickies, on the other hand, resulted in a 23 percent increase.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this sort of makes sense -- if you see your cave brothers and sisters spilling their guts all over the place or falling victim to the prehistoric flu, your body has to work a little harder to avoid catching the same illness and dropping dead. So your doctor is kind of screwing you by filling the waiting room with pictures of calming landscapes and clowns. If he or she wanted to beef up your defenses, the walls would be full of oozing sores.

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