Manipulate Your Memory (By Means of) Mental Trickery

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

Mark Twain once said, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.” This is a classic example of mental trickery. By using scientific research and experiments, I am going to illustrate the astounding and magic-like capabilities of memory.

In a recent study, psychologists at Notre Dame analyzed why you may forget what you are doing when you walk into another room. Interestingly, they came to the conclusion that passing through a doorway can trigger an “event boundary” in your mind. Your memory stores away the thoughts you had in the prior room and prepares a blank slate for the new location. Memory, as it turns out, is not concrete. It can be bent and manipulated.

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes people clench their fists when they are stressed or angry. Imagine if engaging in this behavior could actually improve your memory. A new study at Montclair State University suggests that clenching your right fist for 90 seconds activates the brain area involved in memory storage. Clenching your left fist thereafter can trigger the brain region involved in memory recall. Future research will examine the impact of hand clenching on verbal and spatial abilities.

Have you ever raided the refrigerator for a delicious snack when you have a lot on your mind? At Stanford University, professor Baba Shiv conducted an experiment where he divided about 30 to 40 undergraduates into two groups. Group A was instructed to remember a two-digit number, while group B was given a seven-digit number to memorize. They were then asked to walk down a hallway, where they were offered two different food options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. Subjects holding the seven-digit number in their working memory were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake. According to Shiv, the additional numbers (just five bits of information) took up space in the prefrontal cortex, causing the mind to work harder, thereby allowing it to give into the lure of a sweet dessert.

In the classic film “Nightmare Alley,” Tyrone Power plays a supermentalist who puts on shows for large audiences. In one feat, his assistant collects items from the crowd, with a blindfolded Power guessing what they are. The assistant communicates the nature of the items to the mentalist, utilizing mnemonic code and specific expressions.

For example, in the phrase “Now tell me what I am holding,” the first letters in the first two words “Now” and “tell” represent a number that corresponds to the object chosen by an audience member. Since most people tend to carry common items — wallet, glasses, purse, pen, etc. — it’s easy for a mentalist to accurately guess what they are as long as he remembers the correct associations. The illusion of mental telepathy was actually created via the application of a clever and valid memory technique.

Truth is stranger than mental trickery.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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