The Sharper Mind by Fred B. Chernow (book review).
Having spent some time in recent months seeing if I can interest you people in upping your mathematical skills, through Fred B. Chernow’s book, ‘The Sharper Mind, the same publisher, Souvenir Press, turns to how to make the best use of your other abilities. Here, Chemow starts with coaching you into to make things stick in your long term memory by improving the cross-connections to make it easier to recall. Although I find it easier to learn by a couple repetitions, my kind of memory is rather unusual. If you saw the way I can write parts of reviews with minimal pointers from the books on a daily basis, you’d see I’m probably applying a mid-memory more than a long-term memory, although a lot ends up there as well but as with other memory practices, it becomes better with practice. I suspect for a lot of you, a lot of your early abilities as youngsters have atrophied simply from a lack of practice than not being there at all. This book should put them back into use.
A lot of the memory tricks relate to sorting things out into ways that makes it easier to memorise. If you want to remember long numbers like your national insurance number in the UK, do it by pairing numbers makes it work as well as making it more singable. I was surprised when, after years of not even being able to remember mine a couple decades ago, I suddenly reeled it off when I wasn’t carrying a note of it one day.
There are a couple of occasions in this book that I’ve talked about before that I’ve found that I did years ago to learn something. Here Chernow says it’s very effective way to remember things. For those who don’t know another one of mine, if you want to learn the Electro-Chemical Series, which is the 16 elements and their run from reactive to non-reactive, you’ll find other than the last element, gold, can be recited sing-song so you only really have to remember the final element.
We’ve all heard that it’s easier to learn in small amounts than try a massive cram and hope things stick in your head. Something I would add to Chernow’s methods is that if you understand something implicitly then the details will be there as well. Let’s try something here by related association. If I said ‘evolution’, you should automatically know Darwin, his book ‘The Origin Of The Species’ and wherever your memory takes you on the subject. For learning purposes, all you then need to do is fill in the details on such a skeleton like Mendel and Huxley and even why Creationism doesn’t work. If you understand that, then you can apply this to any subject and you’d be surprised how much you can dredge up from your own memories.
Something that I do find an interesting learning exercise is the number of odd facts laid in to test within this book, like all the states in the USA and the Great Lakes as well as various mnemonics. I do wish for the UK audience that we had British counties and such though which would have far more meaning over here.
I did delight in how Chernow explains how to retain what I read because it’s practically the same way I practice when reading books for review and indeed, you see the results in my reviews. He explains in detail that it is important to react to what you’ve learnt and pass comment about it strengthens the memory in your head. That would also explain why I carry so much of this knowledge in my head because I question everything. Chapter three should be required reading for everyone.
Chernow’s advice on concentrating when reading and to do so at a time when you’re not cluttered by the day’s events is something that you all should do. If you want a comparison, see how much you can remember when reading in, say, bed to when you are reading on the Net and which do you remember the most. Based on what he says, although he doesn’t compare the two, I suspect for the majority of you reading it would be the same, assuming, of course, you read and not scan webpages. A demonstration of your levels of concentration that can be applied to other times as well if you put your mind to it. Interestingly, Chernow also points out that you read and learn better by reading fast than slowly, especially if you can group words together than read them individually. I’d probably go one step further in don’t just read the words but understanding them and their associated meaning will make absorbing information easier.
I’m not so sure if I like his idea of using a highlighter pen to mark books because it damages their resale value but if you have a poor memory, then making notes or leaving bookmarks on the relevant pages makes a lot of sense if you think you’re going to refer to it later and also a good use for scrap paper. It’ll also make you a better researcher.
Chernow also places emphasis on really listening to what is said and build up conversational questions to ask back to tell the person you are hearing that you have grasped what they have said. I’ve always done this as a matter of course. If anything, I tend to scare people because I tended to go up to the next step from what is said and where it leads and a lot of people have never been able to make that kind of mental jump or keep up with me. I could almost say if you learnt some of the lessons from this book, it might make it easier to mentally spar with me, although that should never put you off talking to me as I do listen.
There are also lessons in public speaking in how giving an energetic talk will ensure people will remember what is said. I think the stumbling block for a lot of people is just talking as they do in normal conversation. Chernow points out that establishing eye contact with various people in the audience ensures the effect is carried on to the others and ensures you can see how easy your message is being picked up. Looking at this objectively, I think I now understand why this is done so much at me over the years because of the way I look back at people and always give eye contact.
When it comes to writing articles and such, then I’m really on home ground and much of the advice Chernow gives is something that I’ve always done. Whether it affirms that I’m just a natural writer or not is left for you to decide but if you can just learn a few of the techniques he explains in chapter five then it’ll certainly show in your writing.
We all have spells of absented-mindedness. Although his examples are orientated towards American house design for where they place keys and such, it isn’t that difficult to remember to put things in regular places. The only thing I have always found odd is why would anyone would put their keys down inside their house rather than in their pocket? If any of you say you carry a big bunch of keys then surely it makes sense to carry a small bunch. Do you really want to be accidentally locked out of your own home simply because you don’t keep keys in your pocket?
Verbalising your thoughts does help remember things and as a lot of us do it anyway then those who don’t are going to be the ones most likely to forget the people who don’t. I do think it’s a real demonstration of how our verbal and non-verbal memories work.
Chernow’s technique in how to learn to remember people’s names by establishing the right links in your head is useful. Saying that, it doesn’t explain how people like me can have long meaningful discussions with other people and neither of us ask each other their names in the first place. Maybe that’s a reflection on how I write my material. Not knowing your individual name out there isn’t a deterrent to a friendly conversation or you wouldn’t be here in the first place.
Again, the vulgarities of deadline doesn’t allow me to try out everything here but the chapter on creativity had me either saying I did that recently or doing the examples in my head very quickly.
I do think that this book will point out where your strengths and weaknesses are and show how to improve the latter which is always a good sign. I suspect if you buy this book you’ll end up reading it more than once. If you can also apply some of what is shown here then you’ll be formidable. Almost like me. Hmmm…
(pub: Souvenir Press. 292 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-285-63598-0)
check out website: www.souvenirpress.co.uk