I hadn’t scheduled a post for today, but I was fairly relaxed about it, since I knew both the topic that I wanted to write about and what the entire post would look like. Shouldn’t take me too long, I thought to myself as I went through my to-do list yesterday evening, and I kept some time aside today morning to do just that.
But just as I was about to settle down and thump said post out, my daughter came and asked me if we could “play the geography game”. What is the geography game, you ask? Oh, a very simple thing: we have created chits of paper on which we have written down the names of India’s states and union territories. We pull these chits out, one at a time, from a small pouch, and we have to name the capital of whichever state or union territory we’ve picked. A very simple, but also a very fun way to spend a part of the last chunk of her Diwali holidays.
But as with all young kids, remembering all of them is a little tricky. And even after four or five rounds of the game over the last two days or so, she was having trouble remembering all of them successfully. And so I taught her about ping!
Remembering random things used to be a weird little hobby of mine when I was in school. It helped me win all the quiz contests when I was in school (except for the last one, in my 10th standard, a fact which still upsets me – but let’s not go there), and it helped me mug up dreary old facts while “studying” in school.
I would tell myself little stories about these factoids to help me better remember them. These stories were completely nonsensical, almost utterly random associations, but they seemed to help. And the more I did it, the better I got at memorizing things. Much later, I learnt about neurons, synapses and plasticity (see here for a reasonably simple explanation), and the how and why of my little trick made much more sense. And I now think of the art of memorizing stuff as “ping!” – as neurons and synapses going, well, “ping!” in my head when I think of a particular topic.
To give you just one of literally millions of possible examples, here’s what the word “spice” brings up in my head. I “get” pings about “Spice Kitchen”, one of my favorite restaurants in Pune. I get pings about different kinds of spices, about my trips to Kerala, about Mark Wiens (a YouTuber who loves eating spicy food), about the Carolina Reaper – it goes on and on.
But as it turns out, you can train your brain to associate certain pings with certain things, and help you remember things better. Again, an example from my own experience. The word “ASEAN” I’ve learnt to associate with BIMP-ST-CMLV (I pronounce this as BIMP-ESS-TEE-CEE-EM-ELL-VEE). And that stands for Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that you remember the ASEAN countries this way (or indeed, even remember them at all). I’m simply explaining what works for me inside my head. And the more you play this game, the better you get at it. There’s much, much more that’s going on here, and far more than I can hope to condense into a single blogpost, but you might want to learn about more about, say, spaced repetition, eidetic memories and above all, memory of loci – just to get you started. And feel free to go down any rabbit hole that seems particularly interesting – ’tis Friday, after all. If you’re looking for recommendations, memory of loci would be my pick to get you started.
Which is what I call “ping!” I suppose – and isn’t it a much better way to remember this than “memory of loci”? And so we went ahead and “ping!ed” the list of India’s states and Union Territories. Himachal Pradesh, for my daughter, is a cold state, which she remembers now because I explained to her what the word “him” means in Sanskrit, and that reminds her of a trip she’d taken to Simla. Ping!
Tripura she now associates with agratala sancharam (she’s learning bharatanatyam), and that helps her remember the capital, of course. She was wearing pink pyjamas when we were playing this game, and that’s one way to help her remember the capital of Rajasthan! Again, to be clear, the specifics don’t matter, nor does the list of things to be memorized. Getting the idea behind “ping!” – that’s the important bit.
“Why did the pings in panji’s head go wrong?”
My maternal grandmother, and therefore my daughters great-grandmother (panji in Marathi) passed away earlier this year. She was suffering from dementia, besides other complications, and towards the end, she had forgotten almost all of our names. She would often confuse me with my maternal uncle, for example.
I was so happy that my daughter had learnt the concept, enjoyed applying it – and understood it well enough to be able to ask the question that she did – and at the same time, so overcome with emotion at the question and its timing, that I couldn’t fully respond. Kids, I tell you.
We’ll be ping!ing a part of today afternoon with our good friend Sal Khan re: this topic, and if you don’t feel like battling your work, feel free to “join” us instead!