Bringing a physical place to the brain in a mind palace

I heard about the idea of a mind palace years ago but this recent description reminded me of the interesting idea of putting a physical place into one’s brain:


The most popular technique to improve memory is the method of loci, also known as the mind palace (or memory palace). This ancient Greco-Roman technique can help you improve your memory in ways you never thought possible.

Greek and Roman orators memorized lengthy speeches by building structures (such as a palace) inside their imagination. They would then strategically place each word or idea they needed to remember in a specific location inside their mind palace. They could then later mentally retrace their steps and recall the details when they needed them.

This practice might then lead to physical changes in the brain structure:

Using MRI scans, researchers could see that mnemonic training elicited changes within the brain’s network. They also saw discernable differences in connectivity patterns that weren’t present in participants without training.

This reminds me of the idea of “distributed cognition” where humans use external devices to record information. Think of a notepad or a voice memo on a phone. The information is moved from the brain in acknowledgment that we cannot remember everything.

While the mind palace does not put the information outside the brain, it imports a device in which to record the information. It encodes it in the abstract concept of a building. Humans know what it is like to walk through buildings and/or follow directions to a desired goal. The conceptualized building is not real but it holds the information within the brain in a way that makes it easier to recall.

Physical structures do not just exist in a material reality, subject to construction, erosion, and other forces. They can live in our minds in ways that mean not just the information stored in them stays but also likely the buildings themselves live on there.

Have I have seen that building before…on a studio backlot?

A recent WBEZ story highlighted the country’s first juvenile institution in Chicago. Here is the front of the building:

As soon as I saw this image, it reminded me of something I had seen on a tour years ago of the Warner Brothers backlot. Here is what I saw:

These buildings are not the same. But, their spirit is similar. They sit at an oddly-angled corner that gives the front entrance of the building a unique look. There are columns or pillars at the front. The buildings have a similar shape and set of materials even though they are slightly different. The backlot building has a subway entrance (from New York?) in front.

My experience with these structures hints at two larger processes at work:

  1. My memory is not quite perfect yet it is grouping similar buildings together. How many buildings in major American cities have this kind of look on this kind of corner?
  2. Linking to some of my research, how much do television and film depictions of place interact with our corporeal understandings of places? I can see a building on a screen, experience that same place or a similar place, and our brain and understandings then interact. Or, perhaps we may only know of a place through screen depictions and this backlot building in various forms stands in for all sorts of real settings.

I will keep looking for the Warner Brothers building on screen and continue to think through what it means for my understanding of Chicago, New York, and other places.

Overblown concern about Google “replacing” or “destroying” our memory

The headlines read: “Google ousts brain,” “Google replaces the brain,” “Here’s how Google search is destroying our memory.” These are all based on a new study:

The Internet is becoming our main source of memory instead of our own brains, a study has concluded.

In the age of Google, our minds are adapting so that we are experts at knowing where to find information even though we don’t recall what it is.

The researchers found that when we want to know something we use the Internet as an ‘external memory’ just as computers use an external hard drive…

‘The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.’

This an example of “distributed cognition,” the idea that humans use other sources to extend their brain’s capacity. In this case, memory space in the brain may be freed up by relying on Google and computers to store certain information. Instead of “replacing” the brain, Google is extending the brain and helping humans offload certain information that can helpfully be stored elsewhere. Google isn’t the first technology that allows this; so does the printed page. Rather than storing a bunch of arcane and typically unhelpful information in our head, we could look up basic information in a reference book.

Perhaps people are more concerned about Google itself and the idea that a corporation, an organization more interested in profit than our well-being, may be behind changes in our brain.

How jobless Americans are spending their time

Some new research suggests that unemployed Americans are doing a variety of things:

One study last year found that much of the extra time gets spent sleeping and watching TV–leading to news reports that the jobless “frittered away” their time. Another analysis–this one released in January and co-written by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who was announced Monday as the White House’s pick to serve as the chief economic adviser to President Obama–pointed in the same direction. It found that people tend to devote fewer hours to job searches the longer they’ve been unemployed, and that sleep–especially “sleep in the morning hours”–increases as joblessness goes on. Together, the studies appeared to create a picture of the unemployed as lazy and unproductive.But a sophisticated new analysis (pdf) complicates that picture. In a paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Mark A. Aguiar, Erik Hurst, and Loukas Karabarbounis, using data from the American Time Use Survey, found that the jobless do spend about 30 percent of their extra time–the time they would otherwise have spent working–sleeping or watching TV, and another 20 percent on other leisure activities. But around 35 percent is spent doing unpaid but nonetheless important work, like child-care and housework. And other investments–things like education, health-care, and volunteer work –account for another 10 percent.

The notion advanced by some that jobless benefits are being used to support a life of leisure is, at best, simplistic.

But as Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, notes, there’s a limit to how much useful unpaid work the jobless can do. “They lack the capital, land, tools and skills needed to flexibly shift from wage employment to production for their own use.,” she writes. “Even when they can make a partial shift, their productivity is likely to be lower in unpaid work than paid work.”

I’m a little surprised by the quote from an economist at the end: unpaid work still needs to be done by someone whether they currently have the skills for it or not. Perhaps she is referring to longer-term issues: do the unemployed go back to work (perhaps by changing fields or getting educated in new areas) or do they adjust to a life of unpaid work? In the meantime, there is a transition that has to be made. But I can imagine that some people would see this quote and wonder what this means for people who have always done unpaid work, particularly mothers.

Another way to interpret the earlier study that the unemployed enjoy a life of leisure is that this is due to feelings of restlessness and perhaps even depression.

In general, I find time use studies to be quite interesting. When you ask people general questions about how they spend their time, like how long they spend at work, the numbers can be quite inflated. The better studies require logs or diaries and ask questions about recent time periods where memories will not be as distorted. Here is how the American Time Use Study describes some of its methodology (starting at page 11 of this document):

The ATUS sample is randomized by day, with 50 percent of the sample reporting about
weekdays, Monday through Friday, and 50 percent reporting about Saturday and
Sunday. Designated persons must report about their activities on their designated day,
without any substitution of days…

The ATUS interview is a combination of structured questions and conversational
interviewing. It consists of four major topics: the household roster, the time diary, the
summary questions, and a section related to information collected in the eighth CPS
interview. The portion of the interview relating to the CPS is divided into four sections:
labor force status, looking for work, industry and occupation, and earnings and school
enrollment. These questions are used to update or confirm time-sensitive CPS data or
to fill in missing CPS data. Each section is described below in more detail…

For all parts of the interview except the collection of the time-use diary data (in
section 4, above), interviewers read scripted text on the CATI screen and enter the
reported responses.

For the time-use diary, the interviewer uses conversational interviewing rather than
asking scripted questions. This is a more flexible interviewing technique designed to
allow the respondent to report on his or her activities comfortably and accurately. This
technique also allows interviewers to use methods to guide respondents through memory lapses, to probe in a nonleading way for the level of detail required to code activities, and to redirect respondents who are providing unnecessary information. As each activity is reported, the interviewer records the verbatim responses on a new activity line. The interviewers are trained to ensure that the respondent reports
activities (and activity durations) actually done on the previous (diary) day, not
activities done on a “usual” day. Interviewers do this by placing continual emphasis on
the word “yesterday” throughout the interview.

This study relies on both a diary and asking questions about yesterday.

Vested interests in the telling of history

In a recent class, we were discussing an article that talked about a number of issues of doing research after an event has happened. One of the main concerns was the vested interests of the respondents. Particularly, if the respondent were socially near to the event or phenomenon, their retelling is filtered through their own personal interests.

A classic example of this came across the news wires today: some new information that sheds light on why the Titantic hit an iceberg and then sank so quickly. A brief part of the story:

The Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912 because of a basic steering error, and only sank as fast as it did because an official persuaded the captain to continue sailing, an author said in an interview published on Wednesday.

Louise Patten, a writer and granddaughter of Titanic second officer Charles Lightoller, said the truth about what happened nearly 100 years ago had been hidden for fear of tarnishing the reputation of her grandfather, who later became a war hero.

Lightoller, the most senior officer to have survived the disaster, covered up the error in two inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic because he was worried it would bankrupt the ill-fated liner’s owners and put his colleagues out of a job.

I’ll be curious to see how quickly this new information can (or cannot) be corroborated.