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NOVA ScienceNOW

Memory vs. Intelligence

  • Posted 10.24.12
  • NOVA scienceNOW

With the latest imaging techniques, we peer inside David Pogue’s mind, witness the firing of his brain cells, and look at how scientists are beginning to map the complex neural networks that are the key to intelligence, memory, and problem solving.

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Transcript

How Smart Can We Get?

PBS Airdate: October 24, 2012

DAVID POGUE: Being smart involves many skills. Among them, how important is memory? To find out, I'm here at the U.S. Memory Championships.

U.S. MEMORY CHAMPIONSHIP ANNOUNCER: We have five minutes. Mental athletes, begin.

DAVID POGUE: First Round: memorize 500 numbers, in order, in just five minutes. Trying to remember more than 20 makes my head spin.

Nelson Dellis, a previous champion, memorizes 303 of them, making him the winner of this round.

Oh, come on. It's rigged. It's stacked against people with bad memories.

Next, I have five minutes to memorize the exact order of an entire deck of cards.

Maybe I'll get extra points for creativity, or not.

Of course Nelson beats everyone, recalling the order of the entire deck in 87 seconds.

Unbelievable, unbelievable! How smart is this guy? And how does he do it?

NELSON DELLIS (United States Memory Champion): I picture Olivia Newton dunking a helmet.

DAVID POGUE: Huh? Olivia Newton? Dunking a helmet?

Believe it or not, he's using an ancient technique that goes all the way back to 500 B.C.

So if I were to take this list…

I decide to put this memory technique to the test, so I invite Chester Santos, the 2008 U.S. Memory Champion, to use it to memorize a list of 60 numbers.

This would take me the rest of my life.

CHESTER SANTOS: I could definitely do this in five minutes or less.

DAVID POGUE: Go.

CHESTER SANTOS: Okay, I'm done. I got it.

DAVID POGUE: You're done?

CHESTER SANTOS: I got it. Yeah. Just let me know if I make any mistakes.

DAVID POGUE: Oh, you can count on it.

CHESTER SANTOS: 4…4, 1, 8, 1, 1, 2, 0, 9, 7, 5, 8, 0, 8, 7, 1, 5, 9, 2, 5, 9, 7.

DAVID POGUE: You got them all exactly right. Okay, that's highly freaky.

Now it's my turn to learn this ancient memory technique.

All right bring on the list.

Chester takes out a list of 40 random words for me to memorize, in order.

CHESTER SANTOS: Monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper…

DAVID POGUE: That's right I said 40.

CHESTER SANTOS: …bicycle, elephant, computer, sword, necklace and pizza.

DAVID POGUE: That, that would take me several hours.

CHESTER SANTOS: You will have this perfectly memorized in 10 or less minutes.

DAVID POGUE: All right, I just want to be clear, for the record, if I don't, it's his fault.

Step One: my lesson begins by walking around my living room, making note of objects I see every day, like my beloved grand piano, my favorite chair and my kid's guitar.

Toys (really meant to have these cleaned up), watering can.

Chester tells me to study these objects, because we're about to use them to help me remember those 40 words.

The globe and the pillars.

Now it's on to Step Two.

CHESTER SANTOS: Imagine that, on top of this piano, there is a monkey dancing on that piano. But you don't just see the monkey dancing around. Maybe you even hear the monkey making monkey noises, as it's dancing, because that's the first word, monkey. So, picture that. Really imagine that happening.

DAVID POGUE: Okay.

CHESTER SANTOS: And this monkey picks up a giant iron.

DAVID POGUE: How does this strange technique work? We asked a memory expert to explain.

LARRY CAHILL (University of California, Irvine): We are visual, we are auditory, we have all these different senses. And the more a single piece of information is locked in through the various senses, the better chance it's retained.

DAVID POGUE: So the crazier and more vivid the story, the better.

CHESTER SANTOS: Now at that chair, see a rope attached to a kite. And the kite is flying around in the air. Just picture that.

The guitar is smashing a house, and you discover that the house is made of paper.

DAVID POGUE: Now, all your visuals are very active, and there's a lot of motion to them. Is that part of it?

CHESTER SANTOS: Exactly. We tend to remember things more if there is something interesting actually happening, rather than just a stagnant object…

DAVID POGUE: Right.

CHESTER SANTOS: …just sitting there.

DAVID POGUE: So a dancing monkey, a shooting rope, a smashing guitar.

CHESTER SANTOS: Perfect.

DAVID POGUE: Further down the list, my tissues are having quite a memorable experience, as they get run over by a bicycle with an elephant perched on top.

CHESTER SANTOS: Can you see that?

DAVID POGUE: I can.

CHESTER SANTOS: Great.

DAVID POGUE: Something's wrong with me.

CHESTER SANTOS: But you'll remember this stuff.

DAVID POGUE: Yes, I will. I'm sure.

CHESTER SANTOS: You will definitely remember that.

DAVID POGUE: The time has finally come.

I don't have any particular confidence that this will work…

CHESTER SANTOS: I have a lot of confidence.

DAVID POGUE: …beyond the monkey. I know I got the monkey.

So, on a piano we have monkey and iron, and then next to it was a chair, and it had a rope and kite, and then guitar smashing a house, paper,…

Lo and behold, as I mentally traverse the room, the words come pouring out.

…river,…

CHESTER SANTOS: That's right.

DAVID POGUE: …rock,…

CHESTER SANTOS: That's correct.

DAVID POGUE: …tree,…

CHESTER SANTOS: That's right.

DAVID POGUE: …cheese.

CHESTER SANTOS: Correct.

DAVID POGUE: But then…there's something about the tissues, uhhhh, I'm sure it has something to do with smashing. It was something violent. Uhhhh, let's see, the tissues…uh oh.

CHESTER SANTOS: The tissues are getting run over by…

DAVID POGUE: Oh! A bicycle ridden by an elephant.

After a close call, I miraculously whiz through the rest of the list.

The necklace and the pizza!

CHESTER SANTOS: Awesome. Great job. That was great.

DAVID POGUE: Next year's memory champion: David Pogue! Thank you.

I want to know what parts of my brain accomplished this Herculean task. I ask Drs. Zagzag and Golfinos to show me.

DAVID ZAGZAG (New York University Langone Medical Center):So why don't you…

DAVID POGUE: Are you kidding me?

This is what I call a brain knife. So, this one's going on the resume. Okay, ready.

DAVID ZAGZAG: Right there.

DAVID POGUE: Oh, man! Oh, wow!

DAVID ZAGZAG: I'm very happy to inform you that you have made the most symmetrical cut, and that the two hippocampi are right here in front of you.

DAVID POGUE: Just below the pointer.

The hippocampi are toward the middle of the head, just a few inches in from the ears. These tiny structures help store our short-term memories.

So that little thing is our memory?

DAVID ZAGZAG: Short-term memory, yes, sir.

DAVID POGUE: Wow.

So what about these people from these memory championships? They translate everything into visual metaphors.

JOHN GOLFINOS: So, if you think about it, they are attaching extra information and using other parts of the brain—the part that processes language, the part that processes images—and that's how they attach them onto the memory and make it a stronger memory, by recruiting other parts of the brain to help.

DAVID POGUE: Having a good memory is important, but for a brain to be really smart, it has to do even more.

Woman: Tell me which of these pieces should go here.

DAVID POGUE: It has to have the ability to problem-solve.

Number four.

For over a hundred years, we've measured the brain's ability to solve problems with I.Q. tests like this.

Number three.

Could there be a better way?

My quest to find out how a smart brain works takes me to a research center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where state-of-the-art technology could give us a whole new way to assess intelligence.

RICHARD HAIER: We now have the opportunity to evolve the definition of intelligence away from just relying on test performance and toward a definition that includes brain physiology that we can measure.

DAVID POGUE: How will they do it?

Using this strange looking device, called an M.E.G. scanner, Richard Haier and Rex Jung are trying to reveal what parts of the brain we use when we're problem-solving.

This is like an outtake from the Star Wars prop department.

Yes.

DAVID POGUE: But instead of impersonating Darth Vader, I'm taking a pop quiz. Questions, like the kind you find on an I.Q. test, will appear on this screen.

I'm supposed to solve brainteasers, like this. As I do, my high-tech helmet picks up what's happening in my brain.

The brain is made of billions of nerve cells, and every time one communicates with another, it generates an electrical signal. Those signals give off a magnetic field, which is picked up by my helmet.

The result is an animated image of my brain. All these blue and red flashes show, millisecond by millisecond, the areas hard at work.

REX JUNG (University of New Mexico): Around 400 milliseconds in is when you see the hippocampus fire up.

DAVID POGUE: I'm making good use of the areas I used to memorize those 40 words, but Haier and Jung's research shows I'm also relying heavily on that area, so unique in Einstein's brain, the parietal lobe. And I'm also making good use of my frontal lobe, which helps me with planning and decision-making.

RICHARD HAIER: Both of those areas have been linked to visual-spatial ability, numerical ability, abstract reasoning, but our research suggests that it's the communication among those areas that really is the key.

DAVID POGUE: How do different parts of the brain communicate?

JOHN GOLFINOS: Look at the structure of the brain. You can see what you call the white matter. These are the connecting fibers. We call it white matter because they're really white compared to the darker areas,...

DAVID POGUE: Oh, wow.

JOHN GOLFINOS: …which are the gray matter.

DAVID POGUE: Gray matter is mostly on the outside of the brain. It's filled with billions of nerve cells. Beneath that is white matter.

The white matter is made up of long nerve fibers that crisscross the brain, connecting different areas of gray matter to each other. The amount of gray matter you have is really important, but intelligence researchers are discovering that that spaghetti-like network of connections is just as crucial.

JOHN GOLFINOS: That's the next great frontier of the brain is figuring out every single connection.

DAVID POGUE: And how those connections work together.

RICHARD HAIER: We want to understand not just the areas that light up during intelligence, but also how those areas communicate with each other. Is that the same in every person? We think not. We think there'll be differences, and we think those differences will be related to intelligence.

DAVID POGUE: Richard Haier and Rex Jung are just beginning to unravel the secrets to how an intelligent brain works. But until they can solve this mystery, I'd like to know if there's a way you can make your brain smarter.

You know, a lot of times you read about ways you're supposed to help your brain. There's food, and they say you should do crossword puzzles, as you age, to keep your brain fresh. Is there anything we can do to make ourselves smarter?

RICHARD HAIER: There could be, and if you come outside with us, we'll show you one thing that we can try.

DAVID POGUE: You might be surprised at what the good doctors order.

When you guys said that you'd be able to do some experiment demonstrating that you can actually grow your brain, I thought the equipment involved would be a little more expensive than juggling balls. What is this about?

REX JUNG: Well there's this very famous study that showed if you juggle over a period, over a long period of time, it actually increases the gray matter in a certain region of your brain that sub-serves juggling.

DAVID POGUE: Not only can you increase your gray matter, recent studies show you can increase your white matter too.

Well, I don't know about you gentlemen, but I feel like increasing my cortical tissue. Let's juggle.

REX JUNG: Let's give it a try.

DAVID POGUE: I actually don't know how to juggle.

I can do two pretty well. Does that count?

Ladies and gentlemen, you are witnessing for the first time on television, the growing of my brain.

I can feel it growing. I'm going to look like an alien in 20 minutes. Oh, wow.

RICHARD HAIER: If you want to know, "How can you make your brain work better?" Use it or lose it; and use it to learn new things, like juggling.

DAVID POGUE: So remember, learn something new and you too can grow your brainpower!

Your brain: By the numbers

Neurons:
100 billion.
That's the number of humans that have ever lived.
Connections between neurons:
100 trillion.
That's the number of emails sent in a year worldwide.
All the wiring inside your brain stretched end to end:
Over 621,000 miles.
That's enough to go to the Moon…
And back again
And then wrap around the Earth six times!

Credits

How Smart Can We Get?

HOST
David Pogue
WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
Terri Randall

Sian Beilock Profile

WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Joshua Seftel
PRODUCED BY
Joshua Seftel & Tobey List

NOVA scienceNOW

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William Seeley, Unravelling Bolero, Brain 2008 Vol. 131 1 39-49, by permission of Oxford University Press
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-------------------------------------------------

The images of Einstein's brain are published in Falk, Lepore & Noe: 2012, The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs, Brain (doi #doi:10.1093/brain/aws295) and are reproduced here with permission from the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, MD.

-------------------------------------------------

SPECIAL THANKS
Alex Adams
Robert Adams
Craig Andrews
Rob Berlin
Elmhurst Hospital Center
Joy Faber and Con Edison
John Giambrone
Dolores Gonzalez
Scott Kaufman
Roi Cohen Kadosh
Vitali Khomitch
Henry Landau
Robert Landau
Gary Lennox
Junior Lopez
Stephanie Magdziak
Mind Research Network
Thomas Murray
NYU Langone Medical Center
Jason Padgett
Robert Plomin
Ricco/Maresca Gallery
Jon Sarkin
Melissa Sy
Sharon K. Tison
Eleanor Weber
Michael Weisand
Dolores Williams
Ron Yeo
Brenda Coffield
Dario Maestripieri
John Phillips
Nicole Power
Jennifer Rhind
University of Chicago
Hamilton Spectator
The Lancet
Society for Neuroscience
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NOVA scienceNOW is a trademark of the WGBH Educational Foundation

NOVA scienceNOW is produced for WGBH/Boston

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0917517. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

© 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Image

(sliced open brain)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Participants

Larry Cahill
UC Irvine
John Golfinos
NYU Langone Medical Center
Richard Haier
UC Irvine (Emeritus)
Rex Jung
University of New Mexico
Chester Santos
2008 U.S. Memory Champion
David Zagzag
New York University Langone Medical Center

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