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  • Writer's pictureGina Greenlee, Author

Help Your Brain Better Encode and Recall Important Information

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Before I developed the Formula 5 system, I was overwhelmed by ideas. Couldn’t keep them straight. Then I watched Peter Doolittle’s TED talk, How Your Working Memory Makes Sense of the World. (Dr. Doolittle is professor of educational psychology in the School of Education at Virginia Tech.) A sound bite leapt at me: “We can remember 5 pieces of data for about 10 to 20 seconds unless we apply it, process it, or talk to somebody about it. We have to actively engage with it.” Intuitively, I believed for years I could write more than one book at a time. How many, though? Doolittle’s talk reminded me that I already knew: 5.

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Batch It!

In the 1980’s someone taught me a trick for easily remembering telephone numbers: batch the seven digits into 3 numbers; one 3-digit number (832), and two 2-digits numbers (54 and 71). This strategy puts me comfortably inside the 5-item limit of working memory. I’ve been using it ever since, not only with telephone numbers but with grouping anything I need to remember. Still, I never understood or cared why my 5-item hack worked.

Doolittle’s research on working memory is based on brain MRIs of people asked to recall information. Linking Doolittle’s TED talk to my enduring telephone memorization trick led me to experiment with batch writing. I was eager to create a system for organizing a flood of ideas and managing them over time. I started with 10 books in a batch. Too much. Then 7. Still unwieldy. Clerically, I could manage batches of 7 to 10 books. As a storyteller though, I couldn’t inhabit them.

True to the MRI research on working memory, I couldn’t retain the individual flavor of each book within a batch larger than 5. Beyond that number, the books all began to look, feel and sound alike.

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Dr. Doolittle, Mnemonics and Ben Franklin

“Working memory,” says Dr. Doolittle “is that part of our consciousness that we are aware of at any given time of day. It’s not something we can turn off. If you turn it off, that’s called a coma… It is our ability to take what we know and what we can hang onto, and leverage it in ways that allow us to satisfy our current goal. Working memory has four basic components that allow us to:

  1. store some immediate experiences.

  2. store a little bit of knowledge.

  3. reach back into our long-term memory and pull some of that in as we need it.

  4. process this information in light of whatever our current goal is.

“Working memory,” continues Dr. Doolittle, “allows us to investigate our current experience as we move forward [to make sense of the world around us, problem-solve and critical think]. We can be in the middle of a meeting, listen to somebody’s presentation, evaluate it, decide whether or not we like it, ask follow-up questions. All of that occurs within working memory. It also allows us to go to the store to get milk and eggs and cheese when what we really want is Red Bull and Bacon."

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Though Doolittle says working memory is “awesome,” he also reminds us that we perform at our most effective when we strategically manage its limits of capacity, duration and focus. “We need to take the amorphous flow of life experience and somehow extract meaning from it with a working memory that’s about the size of a pea.”

A well-established trick for recalling names is to associate them with a familiar image or idea. That – and my telephone number recall trick – is called a mnemonic device. “Mnemonic devices,” says Wikipedia, “are memory techniques to help your brain better encode and recall important information.”

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Adding multi-modal actions to these techniques – sound, movement, percussion – is especially helpful in assimilating new ideas that surface when we are unable to immediately write them down.

The Muse loves to show up when I am without pen and paper – say, when walking or driving. Through experimentation, I learned how specific multi-modal actions better help me retain new ideas. In addition to linking new ideas with familiar imagery, mnemonic devices are more effective when I:

  • add hand clapping, finger snapping or foot stamping;

  • sing-song or chant the idea aloud.

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Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn. Ben Franklin

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ROYGBIV and Righty Tighty

“Righty tighty, lefty loosey” has never failed me when I need to remember in which direction to turn screws and jar lids. And, ROYGBIV is a useful acronym for recalling the color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet:

  • ROYGBIV is 7 letters long. Most humans struggle if they try to recall those letters individually.

  • Combine those 7 letters into one pronounceable word and you’ve eased the brain’s recall of seven sequenced colors.

  • To further encode the ROYGBIV acronym, batch the 7 letters this way: Roy. G. Biv. You’ve transformed the letters into a first name, middle initial and last name.

  • Roy. G. Biv helps your brain to more easily store and later retrieve the colors of the spectrum because you actively processed and applied it.

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“Have you ever walked from one room to another and then forgotten why you’re there?” Doolittle asks the TED audience. “Have you ever forgotten your keys? Been involved in a conversation, and you realize that the conversation to your left is actually more interesting? All of that speaks to working memory, and what we can and can’t do…We need to realize that working memory has a limited capacity and we negotiate that through strategies.”

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Formula 5

Understanding, respecting, and creating strategies for the limits of working memory is the foundation of Formula 5: a system rooted in brain science for developing several writing projects with ease.

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Brain Science Your Way to Batch System Writing


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