Nobel Prize awarded to discovery of ‘memory GPS’

6 October 2014 by in Book publishing, Current events, Lifestyle

Today it was announced that Professor John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser will share the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. The trio discovered that we all have an innate ability to know where we are and navigate to places. Modern life is made much easier with Google maps and sat navs for our cars, but hundreds of years ago, people explored the globe with just a rough map and a compass. It would seem that our brains want us to discover. The research has also paved the way for a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and why it is that we lose our memory.

On those occasions when we have left our sat nav at home or run out of battery on our phone, we find we have to ask some helpful stranger for directions. But how good are you at remembering the directions you’re given? Darren Bridger’s book, Boost your memory has some excellent tips to ensure you’re able to anchor the instructions in your mind:

There are a couple of occasions when you’re most likely to need to remember directions. The first typically occurs when you are lost. You stop to ask someone how to get somewhere (usually as a last resort), and suddenly a stream of directions issues forth from their mouth at such a rate that you lose track of what they are saying, and simply nod and smile politely. Unless you have writing materials or a map for them to point at, you are still lost – still, that is, if you don’t use any memory techniques!

The first thing to note is the importance of paying attention when the person gives you the directions. Focus as intently as possible on what they are saying and tune everything else out. Then get them to repeat the directions.

Most directions are of the ‘left, right, straight on, left…’ variety. You can use a bit of repetition and rhythm to stamp them into your memory. For example, if the person tells you to go ‘Straight on until the next left turn, then take the next right, then the next right after that, then go straight on and take the third left’, this will become ‘Left, right, right, straight, straight, left’ (where you have a ‘take the third left’ you substitute with ‘straight, straight, left’). If you then repeat this several times, bunching the words together into twos or threes and adding a bit of rhythm, you will find it far easier to remember. You can also add any landmarks which are mentioned. So your repeated phrase in that case might be something like ‘Left, right, right, church, straight, straight, mall, left’.

Map of the WorldResearch has shown that, in general, women are more likely to use directions of the ‘left, right’ and landmark variety, while men are more likely to mention compass bearings and distances. Be aware of which system you are more comfortable with, as this is the one you are most likely to remember. If someone gives you compass directions, and you are unsure of where north is, make sure you ask them to orientate you. Equally, you may like to stand side by side with your helper, rather than opposite, as they are giving directions – the reason being that it’s very easy for them (or you) to get confused when giving ‘right, left’ directions. You may be trying to remember to go in the opposite direction than you should be.

The other occasion when you might need directions is when you are setting out on a journey and can’t take a GPS or map with you. The advantage you have here is that you typically have longer to memorise the route than when you are asking for directions. Firstly, work out your route and simplify it down to the essentials, the turning points of the journey and the approximate distances. You can then use some basic mental imagery to memorise this list of directions. Try to keep your list of essential directions within ten (ideally, within seven). If you are a visual person you can use a number-shape method, which turns each number into a visual image resembling the shape of that number, then pairs that with an image of the thing to be remembered. You might remember a list of directions as follows:

  1. looks like a pen. Drive until you reach the church then turn left (direction); imagine a giant pen on the left side of the church’s cross (mental image).
  2. looks like a swan. Take the third turning on the right (direction); three swans jump onto the cross from the right (mental image).
  3. looks like a pair of handcuffs. Turn left at the school (direction), a schoolchild grabs the pen from the left of the cross, and puts handcuffs on the feet of the swans (mental image).
  4. looks like a sailing boat. Drive past the duck pond (direction), the swans turn into ducks on a pond, with a huge sailing boat stuck in the middle (mental image).
  5. looks like a hook. Turn at the police station (direction), the sailor on the boat throws his fishing line into the water, and when he pulls it up, there’s a policeman attached to the hook (mental image).

If all that seems complicated, comfort yourself with the fact that it’s only new directions that tend to be so hard to memorise. Routes quickly become familiar with use.