Magical Memory

Workshops offer techniques for improving recall

By George Morris

Advocate staff writer

Customers at Bacio de Roma on recent Wednesday nights have been getting magic lessons and math skills to go along with their gelato. In more ways than one, Dr. Steven Zuckerman hopes these evenings are memorable.

Zuckerman, a Baton Rouge neurologist, is a big believer in giving the brain the kind of workouts that not only prevent memory loss, but improve recall ability. He notes that Alzheimer’s disease patients who speak multiple languages show less impairment than monolingual patients whose brains have the same degree of degeneration.

“Use it or lose it,” Zuckerman said. “No question.”

So, in February, Zuckerman started a series of workshops called “Magic, Math and Memory.”

It includes memory techniques that can allow people to memorize names and numbers, plus formulas to determine on what day of the week a specific date will fall.

How well do these techniques work? In the first seminar, Zuckerman had a grid of 16 boxes — four rows of four boxes — projected onto a wall, each box represented by a letter. He asked the audience to select a number between 34 and 100. Someone chose 86. Then, Zuckerman asked individuals to select a box and choose a word to go there, until all 16 boxes were filled. Zuckerman then assigned each box a number. All of this information was recorded for the audience, but not Zuckerman, to see.

Then, from memory, Zuckerman gave the correct word and number assigned to each box, and pointed out that the numbers he chose, when added in row vertically, horizontally or diagonally, added up to 86.

That got everyone’s attention. All of this, he said, involved learning mnemonic techniques, some of which he learned from the book “Ageless Memory” by Harry Lorayne.

“Harry Lorayne was very, very famous way back in the day for his card tricks, but he’d also perform on television a great deal showing these memory effects in which he would remember the entire audience’s names on the Johnny Carson Show or whatever, at least 500 names.”

These techniques impressed Zuckerman enough that he did more than learn them to impress audiences. He incorporates them into his medical practice.

“Especially in people who have difficulty in retrieving information, using those techniques enables them to put down new information in a way it can be retrieved,” he said. “So, the analogy is of a hard drive in computer information. This allows them to imprint the information on their hard drive — i.e. brain — so that it’s readily retrievable as opposed to being information that never gets remembered.

“You don’t forget anything. You just don’t remember it in the first place.”

But remembering requires effort, and it helps to have a trick or two up the sleeve.

One of the mnemonic methods Lorayne used is called the Major System in which consonant sounds are used to represent the numbers zero through 9. Thus, 1 is represented by “t” or “d”; 2 by “n”; 3 by “m”; 4 by “r”; 5 by “l”; 6 by “j,” “ch” or “sh”; 7 by “k” or a hard “c”; 8 by “f” or “v”; 9 by “b” or “p” and zero by “s” or “z.”

Using this system, numbers are converted to descriptive words using these sounds. Need to remember that the battle of Gettysburg was fought in 1863. That, Zuckerman said, was a “tough jam.”

“The whole concept of mnemonics is enabling you to associate what you’re trying to remember with something you already have remembered, and to make that association it’s best to start with imagery,” Zuckerman said. “That imagery should be as active as possible, as absurd as possible, using exaggeration in terms of size, something absurd or even something raucous or naughty.”

To those who think such a system seems hard — well, that’s sort of the point.

“You have to really put your brain into gear to get that whole Major System mnemonic skill, and using the mental math to use what you would otherwise let someone else figure out or do with a calculator,” Zuckerman said. “That’s very good for you.”

Zuckerman said he will repeat the seminars if there is sufficient interest.