Global Brainpower: How Brain Training Could Save the World

Sometimes I wonder why it’s important to me to work on improving my memory, concentration and overall brainpower. And why is it that I want others to do the same?

If the potential to have a “better” brain is there, why not take advantage of it? There is no real downside, and there are many possible benefits.

How to Get an A

For one thing, learning memorization techniques is just plain useful.

For example, let’s say you’re in high school, and your history teacher is obsessed with World War Two.

He wants you to remember the date of every major battle. You can remember a lot of them, but the Battle of Iwo Jima just won’t stick.

US Marines War Memorial

The Battle of Iwo Jima began on February 19th, 1945.

If you live in the real world, you probably only know one technique for memorizing this information: drilling. Endlessly rereading, rewriting and/or repeating it.

Now imagine you live in a slightly better world, a world where high schoolers learn memorization techniques.

Memorizing the start date of the battle of Iwo Jima? You’ve got this. Thanks to your memorization training, you know you can remember it by using a simple visualization exercise.

You imagine yourself standing in your school gym, a gold medal around your neck. “I won gym!” you shout. You take a few big gulps from a glass of cold water that you happen to be holding, and it makes you say, “Ah.”

“I won gym! Ah,” sounds enough like Iwo Jima that you should be able to remember the name.

February 19th, 1945 can easily be shortened to 02/19/45. Using the mnemonic major system, you can turn that into Santa putting tape on a rail. This can be the next part of your memory image: after you drink the water, you see that the railing on the stairs across the gym has fallen off. Santa appears and uses tape to repair the railing.

That’s a really stupid way to fix a railing, right? Good! A little absurdity makes the image more memorable.

If you know the mnemonic major system, you will remember the date of the Battle of Iwo Jima, possibly for years to come. If you don’t, the silly little scenario will not help you very much.

See what a difference a little time being taught memory techniques could make?

What’s Your Name Again?

In adult life, there are mental skills to help just about anyone.

Let’s say you just met a woman named Paula. You need to remember her name, but there’s just one problem: you’re terrible with names.

Fortunately, you live in that nice little world we conjured earlier, the one where everyone has studied at least a few memorization techniques. You know a trick for remembering names. All you have to do is find something unique about the person’s face.

Unfortunately, this Pamela (no, not Pamela! Paula! You’re already forgetting her name? Better hurry!) has the most generic face you can imagine.

Then you see them: two small birth marks in the middle of her forehead.

Now you need an image to go with that, an image that reminds you of her name. How about a paw print? “Paw” for “Paula.”


You imagine a vivid image of a paw print, with the birth marks being two of the toes. Her eyebrows can be two more toes.

Next time you see Paula, you’ll have a pretty good chance of remembering her name.

Cognitive Skills and Us: A Brief Prehistory

We’ve seen how useful brain training can be for an individual. Now, it’s time to think bigger. But first, a little background:

Not too long ago, I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It really opened my eyes to the complexity of human prehistory.

Homo sapiens were not always the only players in the hominid game. There was a time, about 100,000 years ago, when the world was inhabited by at least 5 species of human-like creatures.

Somehow, homo sapiens gained an edge. How did we do it?

By using our brains, of course!

caveman thinking

“Me think. Therefore me am.”

Neanderthals, our most famous extinct cousins, lived in groups of up to 150 individuals. So did we.

From a competitive standpoint, we were in trouble. Neanderthals were stronger than we were, and probably had similar intelligence. How could we compete with them?

About 50,000 years ago, we developed a powerful new weapon: fictive language.

Fictive language is the ability to talk about imagined things or abstract concepts, from gods to nations to corporations.

Reading between the lines, it seems likely that homo sapiens united into larger groups to defeat neanderthals when they came into conflict. Armed with fictive language, homo sapiens now had more than kinship ties to help them band together.

A common religion, an alliance or a coalition could have made it possible for larger groups to work together. No matter how strong they were, a relatively small group of neanderthals could not have stood for long against an army of homo sapiens.

This is not to say that we committed genocide. It was likely a long process in which homo sapiens took over all the desirable land and the neanderthals starved or interbred with us until they were all gone. It wasn’t planned; it just happened.

Why We Need Brain Training

As a species, we outgrew our brains a long time ago.

For 50,000 years, we have used cognitive skills to supplement our natural intelligence. But as our thinking has grown more complex, so have our problems.

Global warming, terrorism, bigotry, and economic inequality are tough nuts to crack, but crack them we must.

All the brain training in the world will not enable a single person to solve any of these problems. We will not be saved by a single great genius, but by many intelligent people, working together.

We are not ordinary animals that must wait and hope for evolution to make them smarter. We have been pulling ourselves up by our intellectual bootstraps since before the dawn of history.

Let’s not wait for brilliant people to appear. We need to make ourselves into those brilliant people. We can do it by learning new skills and striving to reach our potential.

people standing around a globe

To find out more about how to do that, visit my Resources page.

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