Season 2

Ep 8: Memory Palaces and Digital Dummies: How to Stay Sharp When Feeling Stupid

With Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway & Francis Blondin

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Why did I walk into this room? And, why was I pulling out my phone again? That’s right, to listen to Infernal Communication’s episode on memory.

Join us as we speak to two-time Canadian memory champion, Francis Blondin about the power of memory palaces and how to access the untapped capability of our brains. We also speak with psychologist Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway, who has both short-term and long-term hacks for boosting our brain power. Dr. Alloway also answers the nagging question that creeps up after every time-wasting death scroll: are our devices making us stupid?

How can we do a better job of remembering things, and how do we get others to remember what we do? Join host Brian Tomlinson as he talks memory, attention economy and Ghandi. Heads up, there’s a quiz at the end.


Brian Tomlinson: Picture this. The best of the best from around the country have gathered to compete. They've worked hard, trained, sometimes for years. They're here to prove their worth. If they're lucky, they'll go home with gold. Francis Blondin was there.

Francis Blondin: It's just people sitting, looking at a piece of paper, and then writing down their answer.

Brian Tomlinson: Welcome to the competitive world of memory championships!

You're listening to Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase. I'm your host, Brian Tomlinson. Today, we're going to talk about memory. I often feel like my memory is shot. Maybe that's from having two kids. There's so much information floating around all the time, I feel like I'm not taking any of it in. Stress, screens, multitasking. So many things are crying out for our brain's attention. Is there still room for retention?

What do we do? How do we remember things? In this attention economy, how do we, as communicators, make things memorable? Well, we've turned to the experts. On the show today, we have psychologist and author, Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway. She's going to give us some tactics to help us remember what did I walk into the room to get? Or more likely, why did I open my phone before I started death scrolling Instagram 15 minutes ago? But first, let's hear a bit from our memory champion.

Francis Blondin: I'm Francis Blondin. Apparently, I'm some kind of memory champion or memory expert. I'm not completely at ease with those titles, but I still use them because it gives me some kind of credibility. But yeah, I did an event called the Canadian Memory Championship two years in a row, and I can do some impressive stuff, but it doesn't mean that I have a particularly powerful memory. I'm just good at how to use it.

Brian Tomlinson: Let's let him take us back to the National Championship in 2017. He also won the year before. But the way he tell is ...

Francis Blondin: The guy who should have won was too nervous, so I ended up beating him. Yeah, the next year I was even more ready and I sort of deserved to win that year.

Brian Tomlinson: But the year he sort of deserved it was a close call.

Francis Blondin: I thought I was doing well. At the middle, they said that this other guy, named Braden Adams, was now number one. He was in advanced, so I got really stressed. The very last event, speed cards, I needed to win that one, otherwise I would get number two. I was really stressed. I memorized the deck of cards in about one minute and five seconds. Then, during recall, I think I mixed up two cards, which means it was worth zero points because I mixed up those two cards. Then, on another attempt, where I needed to get it right and I did it in one minute and 10 seconds. I breathed a sigh of relief. It felt good.

Brian Tomlinson: That's right, Francis' winning move was to memorize the art of an entire deck of cards in one minute and 10 seconds. 52 cards with no mistakes. Right now, he's working on getting that number down to 30 seconds. It's amazing.

Francis Blondin: When I was in high school, I didn't find memorization to be either easy or fun. I found it just as difficult and boring as everyone else. Some of the memory-heavy class that I had to take, I passed them by cheating. It's only much later, when I learned around neuroplasticity and about memory technique, and I thought, “I got to learn that stuff.” It's a little bit like learning that there are some superpowers that normal people can acquire, with a little bit of reading and some training.

Brian Tomlinson: Who doesn't want superpowers? This is how he does it.

Francis Blondin: The main technique that we use in memory competition, it's called the Memory Palace. Memory Palace is any place that you can visualize in your mind. It could be your home, but it could also be a street, or a friend's place, or your office. It could even be a video game level, or a place you're visiting on Google Street View, like some museum in London that you've never been to but you're visiting online.

You're going to visit it in your mind, and you're going to place, mentally, images, character, objects, crazy stories. Different objects and characters, interacting with one another. Those information will roughly correspond to whatever you're trying to memorize. When later, you're trying to recall the information, you're going to think, “Oh yeah, that information, I placed it in the fridge in my parent's house.” You're in your mind, “What's in the fridge?” It's whatever it is and then you'll recall the information.

It sounds like it something for crazy people and that it wouldn't work, but I test it with all kinds of groups, young people, old people, and it works pretty much 100% of the time.

Brian Tomlinson: Here's an example. We give Francis three things to memorize. Invictus Games, horse and lava lamp. This is the memory palace he came up with to memorize these words.

Francis Blondin: I'm going to use the background behind you like a very small Memory Palace. Lava lamp, it's not even a word that I have in my vocabulary. I imagine, in the right corner of your screen near the door, there's this lamp.

For me, to remember that it's the lava lamp, that there's lava at the bottom of it so maybe it's slowly melting. The lamp is really bright, and maybe it's keeping me from seeing your face. Maybe the brightness of the lamp, it's annoying for the horse that lives with you because you have a horse, you bought one recently. Maybe the horse walks in, and he close the lamp using his mouth, and he walks back.

Then, Invictus Games, that's much more difficult. I don't really know what that is. I think invasion, and also Invictus, it sounds like some demon might be named Invictus. I think just above the two doors behind you, I imagine tiny two armies facing against each other. It's the Invictus Games, so there's an invasion and there's a demon. It's kind of biblical, like Lord of the Rings type of fight.

Hobbit: Frodo!

Brian Tomlinson: This exercise feels a bit more like a peak into Francis' brain than anything else. But the thing is, it works. He says people have used this technique to learn languages, nail a presentation. He's even done workshops with school kids to help them study. Hello, Periodic Table of Elements! Francis has a website that really breaks this method down. We'll have it in our show notes. Aside from the Memory Palace, he also has some sound advice to help make your memory better.

Francis Blondin: What's most useful for people to hear is that first of all, they should prioritize sleep. They should sleep at consistent hours. I know it's very tempting to stay up late and watch Netflix, or prepare works for the next day, but it's a sacrifice that's worth it. It will make you happier, and healthier, and smarter, and better at memorizing, and better at everything. The other important tip is focus, make an effort. Close your cellphone or drop it in a volcano.

Gandalf: Cast it into the fire! Destroy it!

Francis Blondin: Or at least, leave it in airplane mode whenever you're trying to learn something, or trying to do some cognitively demanding task. The other tip is divide and conquer. Take whatever it is you're trying to memorize and take it one step at a time. Maybe one sentence, or one word, or one paragraph, or one question. Or even, for difficult words or difficult names, you can break them down into different pieces, like that piece, and then this other piece, and then try to put it together.

Brian Tomlinson: Let's bring in Tracy Packiam Alloway for a different take on how to improve our memories.

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: I'm a psychologist and an author. I write books, so I have 15 books, a number of them cover educational topics like memory. Most recently, I published a series of children's books, looking at the memory superpowers of children with ADHD, autism, anxiety and dyslexia. I also published a Popular Science book called Think Like a Girl, where, as a psychologist, I wanted to unpack the way the female brain works and to dispel some of the myths that we are told, either culturally, or socially, or that are passed down, and really address what's happening in the brain. And ultimately, how can we maximize our brain's strengths?

Brian Tomlinson: She has some simple hacks on improving brain power. If you're looking for longterm memory health, turn to flavonoid- rich foods like blueberries, spinach and kale. Basically, the more vibrant the color, the higher chance it's rich in flavonoids.

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: One study, for example, found that adults over 65, when they consumed an amount of blueberries on a daily basis, after five weeks, their working memory was significantly improved. Dark chocolate is another example. One study found that making a hot chocolate drink with a cocoa solids of 70% or higher can also improve working memory, and it can maintain those benefits up to two hours after consuming. If you are a chocolate fan, maybe switch out your milk chocolate or hot chocolate with 70% cocoa solids.

Brian Tomlinson: I like blueberries and chocolate, so that's a good start. But, that takes weeks to show improvement. What if I want a better memory now? Like, right now.

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: Study have shown that when you learn new information before bed, or even before a short nap, it can consolidate that information. It kind of locks it in. We're not entirely sure about the mechanisms, but what we do think is happening is that when you're studying before bed, or reading something new before bed or before you take a nap, it kind of keeps it buffered. It almost seals it in to that safe, if you will.

Brian Tomlinson: Getting creative, just drawing aimlessly on a piece of paper, can help improve memory. But the method that kicks in the fastest involves two particular smells.

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: Peppermint and rosemary oil. The reason those are beneficial to working memory is because it works to activate a memory neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Choline is one of the first things to decline as we age. If you say, “Oh, I have a hard time keeping focus, my mind keeps trailing, I keep drifting off,” maybe put on some peppermint or rosemary oil as you're reading to activate that memory neurotransmitter. If you're not an essential oils person, or maybe you find scents too overwhelming, another fun one is that chewing peppermint gum can also give you the same memory benefits.

Brian Tomlinson: Dr. Tracy also conducted a study that shows running in your bare feet helps improve memory function. It's worth a try, right? But why do we need these tricks and hacks? What's the problem? Is it screens? Should we really throw our phones in a volcano, as Francis suggested?

Hobbit: What are you waiting for? Just let it go!

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: Sometimes, our current technological advancements gets painted with a negative light. There was a headline that came out a little while ago that, now college students have the attention span of a goldfish, and that's not entirely true. There were multiple factors. It's more nuanced than just that. However, we do know that we use attention very differently than our parents and our grandparents. I think, in part, it's about understanding and recognizing how to harness that.

In my own research, I've found that people who use technology more, whether it's phones, social media, devices, the more frequently we engage in those kinds of technological devices, the more likely our attention is to be divided. In other words, we are more able to go from A, to B, back to A, to C, to D, rather than having what I've called a spotlight approach to attention.

Typically, in the past, we often think of attention as having that hyper focus, that spotlight. I'm doing one task, I've got to focus, I've got to get it done. If I get distracted, we view that as a negative. But our world has changed and our brains have changed to adapt to that accordingly. Or, our attention has certainly changed to adapt to that. Right now, we typically use a floodlight approach. We're looking at the whole scene, the field, and we're saying, “What do I need to focus on? Do I need to look down here?” We can decided where do I place priority. “I did hear a ding, a text is coming through. I don't need to respond right now. I'm in the middle of this email, I'll finish that, then I'll go back.”

It's not so much that our attention is decreasing, but we are indeed using it differently. I don't view that as a negative. I think it's just us being adaptive. It's us growing and recognizing these are the resources. How can we learn skills about how to prioritize, and how to inhibit or ignore what's distracting information?

Brian Tomlinson: How about having the entirety of the world's knowledge in a little device we carry around with us? Is that making us kind of dumb?

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: In fact, what research has found is that our memories have shifted in the same way that attention has shifted. Now, we don't remember the information but we remember where to look for that information, so we're more efficient. They did that by giving people folders on their laptop or their computer station, and they said, “Here's some facts.”They were random facts about animals, and so on. People couldn't remember the facts, but they could remember which folder to look at to extract that fact.

I would say that it's not negative or positive. I don't like to use words like good or bad. But, we're certainly not doing our memory a disservice., what we're doing is using our memory more efficiently. Instead of saying, “Hey, I have to storehouse all of this,” I now know where I can look it up. Instead of remembering everyone's phone numbers or birthdays, I'm offloading some of that, and it frees up that Post-it Note space for other more salient or important information that I need at this moment.

Brian Tomlinson: How about our split focus? You know, trying to watch YouTube shorts while simultaneously answering emails? How's that going for us?

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: There was another piece of research where they had people in a driving simulator, and they had them remember information as it was fed to them in an earpiece. Most people said, “Oh, I can do both. I can efficiently remember information as well as drive.” When in fact, when they took their memory scores and their performance scores separately, and then looked to see how it happened when the two activities were combined, there's a decrement across the board. Their driving was worse, their memory was worse, unsurprisingly. But there is a group of people, about 5%, that could do both without any decrement to performance. These are called the super taskers.

Most of us are not in this 5%. I think part of that is recognizing your own Post- it Note size. If you typically can manage four, five things with no challenge and there's no decrement to what you're doing, great. All of a sudden, you have six, seven, eight things added on, that “memory loss,” and I say with quotes, so that memory challenge, is not a function of a cognitive deficit, but maybe your external circumstances have become too overwhelming for that Post- it Note that you have. It may be just for you to check and say, “Okay, I can do five, I can't do eight.”

Brian Tomlinson: Our phones are necessarily making us dumber, but as expected, most of us are lying when we say we're good at multitasking. Dr. Tracy has another simple test we can give ourselves to stay engaged and get our brains ready for action. It's called a Fluency Test.

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: A couple things that can help, both keep your brain in alert mode or in highly functioning mode, it's what's called a Fluency Test. This is very simple. You can do this while you're driving, you can do this while you're cooking, while you're walking around doing errands. You give yourself 10 seconds and you list as many things in a category as you can. 10 seconds, list as many animals that you can think of. 10 seconds is short, animals is a big category, that's an easy Fluency Test to play.

Now, the reason that's so relevant is because what it does is it keeps the connection between your working memory and your longterm memory active. That is often one of the first things that starts going as we get older. It's also used as a sign of Alzheimer's and dementia. It's called word finding difficulty. If someone's looking at you and they say, “Oh, can you pass the, that thing, the thing on the table? I forget the name, you know what I'm talking about.” That's that word finding difficulty. Fluency Tests are a great way to keep it active.

Start with something easy. 10 seconds, a big category. Colors, animals, foods. Then, maybe make it more challenging. Give yourself 30 seconds and make the category narrower. Animals at a zoo, animals that you see at a farm, whatever you want. Sometimes, it's fun. You can do this in a car, if you need to keep the peace between warring siblings or children. That can be a fun way for everyone step in. But for yourself, it keeps that pathway between your working memory and your longterm memory active.

Brian Tomlinson: The Fluency Test could be a great way to help remember other people's names. But what can we do to help other people remember us?

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway: We're social creatures, we're wired to connect. Oxytocin is the first neurotransmitter, the bonding hormone, the hug hormone as it's sometimes called. It's natural to want to feel seen and to want to be seen by other people in social environments. A great way to do that, again based on research, is to be empathetic.

There's body language that we pick up, even subconsciously. When you physically turn you body towards the person you're speaking with, they will subconsciously detect that you're interested. But if you're having a conversation and you notice your eyes turning to the door, or even your feet move towards the door, those are giving subtle clues that you're not interested or not engaged in that conversation. Your listener may subconsciously code that as, “Oh, all right, it was a fine conversation. I don't need to remember what Tracy just said.” But creating those physical cues, if you will, those underlying physical cues that, “I'm interested,” will make your recipient, your listener more likely to be interested in you and remember you.

The second is showing interest, with your questions. People love to talk about ourselves, so asking questions is very likely, nine out of 10 times, that person will say, “That was a great conversation I just had,” mostly because they were talking about themselves.

Brian Tomlinson: Well, this is a lot to remember but what our guests are saying makes sense. Get some sleep, eat healthy food, don't let your phone bring you down. It's another tool in the toolkit to help us navigate in the world, but maybe we should shut it off once in a while. If you want others to remember you, be kind and ask them about themselves. As communicators, I think that could be applied to what we do. Engage, show that you're listening. Create conversations that people enjoy because they feel seen.

Lottie Bazley: Hey, Brian.

Brian Tomlinson: Hey, Lottie. What are you doing here?

Lottie Bazley: Remember earlier, when you said there'd be a quiz?

Brian Tomlinson: Uh-huh(affirmative).

Lottie Bazley: Well, this is it. Do you remember the three things we gave Francis to memorize?

Brian Tomlinson: Invictus Games, lava lamp and horse.

Lottie Bazley: Sorry. Horse what?

Brian Tomlinson: I don't know. What was the last one? Invictus Games and lava lamp, I remember.

Lottie Bazley: Horse.

Brian Tomlinson: It was horse?

Lottie Bazley: Just horse, Brian.

Brian Tomlinson: Well, the Invictus Games I remembered, and lava lamp.

Lottie Bazley: That's pretty close to three out of three.

Brian Tomlinson: Not bad for a first timer. But hearing Francis just blows my mind. Here's a little bonus tip of how he remembers Pi to the thousandth digit. Get a load of this.

Francis Blondin: I place them in some villa that I've never visited, but I've only visited online, so a huge house. That huge house has the first 1000 digits. It starts in one bedroom, there's Gandhi, and he's shaving his legs. That's one, four, one, five, nine. Then, it's two, six, five, three, five, eight, nine, seven, nine, three, two, three, eight, four, six ...

Brian Tomlinson: Today, our guests were Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway and Francis Blondin. I'm Brian Tomlinson, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase, with production support from Jar Audio. Join us next time, when we wade into the murky waters of apologies. There are right ways and there are wrong ways.

Majorie Ingall: When we are faced with a situation that requires an apology, there is a cognitive dissonance there. “I'm a good person, how could I have done this terrible thing?”

Brian Tomlinson: If you enjoyed the show, please tell your friends. Tell your goldfish. Tell Gandhi. Tell your blueberry dealer. You can also follow us on your favorite podcast app and leave a review. We'd love to hear from you. Until next time.

Francis Blondin: Two, six, four, three, three, eight, three, two, seven, nine, five, zero, two, eight, eight.

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