Thursday, November 21, 2013

Exploiting Our Children's Brains


Some big news recently:  Snapchat (which is like Instagram but with a “this-message-will-explode-in-ten-seconds” kind of ephemerality to it) refused a $3 billion buyout from Facebook.  This, despite Snapchat never having made any money.  The reason, of course, is that this novel technology is worth far, far more than $3 billion simply because teens love it.  As we all now know, the world revolves around teens.  (They’ve known this for generations, of course, but we grownups—always a bit slow on the uptake—have only just realized it.)

I don’t have $3 billion to throw around and yet I’d like to personally benefit from the teens, and I’ll bet you would, too.  What do I envy most about the younger generation?  Frankly, it’s their sponge-like ability to memorize stuff.  In this post I substantiate this “sponge” claim, examine what realms of vicarious memory I stand to get the most out of, and provide some ideas as to how to exploit children’s agile young minds.

Are children’s brains overrated?

I’m no expert on child development or the human brain, but—this being just a blog—I don’t have to be.  I would characterize a child’s brain as a miracle of raw processing and storage power, but without a lick of sense.  It’s widely known that a very small child transplanted to a foreign land can easily learn the new language while keeping intact his native tongue.  This is impressive considering that young adults can spend four years majoring in a foreign language in college without attaining nearly the same fluency.  And yet, even my own kids—whom I refuse to believe are below average in intellect—will laugh at even my coarsest efforts at physical comedy.

Not all kids’ brains work the same, of course.  At the risk of over-generalizing, I’ll say that you could divide kids into two rough categories:  1) those who apply their razor-sharp intellects to the task of how to become cool, and 2) those (like my pre-teen daughter) who do pointless eggheaded things like memorizing a bazillion digits of Pi.  I’m glad my kid is the second kind, because for one thing, I don’t want her to get any dates, and for another, in being un-cool she can better relate to her father, who has never been cool and never will.  (As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, “the essence of cool is not giving a [damn],” and parents bloody well better give a damn, and even if you used to be cool, like he was, “there is nothing cool about ‘used to be cool.’”)

So the best I can do is try to turn my daughters’ willingness to memorize vast troves of information into something I can tap into.  The problem is, kids don’t tend to memorize the kinds of information an adult might want quick access to.  They tend to memorize information that is useless.

Useless crap I memorized as a kid

One bit of information I wish my young self had committed to memory:  did I not bother trying to be cool because I realized that cool was probably an innate thing that I simply didn’t and couldn’t have, or did I not even register, until it was far, far too late, that there was even a such thing as cool?

No matter.  I applied my mind to memorizing all kinds of things, often without conscious effort.  For example, at age ten, my memory acquired all the lyrics to all the songs in Pink Floyd’s double-album “The Wall.”  Not only all the lyrics, but all the background noises and utterances (to the extent I could make them out).  All the tunes, the helicopter noises, the background TV snippets … probably terabytes worth of artifacts from that album.  Oh, and tons of other music as well, including music I didn’t even like.  To this day I’ll get songs from Styx’s “Kilroy Was Here” album stuck in my head.  It’s a curse, especially considering that there’s no room left in my brain to store new information.

That wasn’t all, of course.  Back in ’77, when I heard my brother Geoff listing off all the cast members of “Star Wars,” I naturally committed them to memory myself, no questions asked.  I’m not just talking about Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.  I’m talking about Anthony Daniels (who played C3P0) and Kenny Baker (who played R2D2).  Never mind that these weren’t actors who went on to have actual careers, where it might have been useful to recognize their names.  (Kenny Baker went on to play a character called “Bruce Foreskin” in the direct-to-video “Boobs in the Wood,” and no, I did not make that up, and no, I have not watched it.)  Carrie Fisher probably doesn’t remember much about her roles in the “Star Wars” movies, having been an adult when she acted in them, but I remember a ridiculous number of her lines (“Get this big walking carpet out of my way,” “Fine … if money is what you want, then money is what you’ll get,” “You came over in that thing?  You’re braver than I thought,” etc.).

I didn’t learn a bazillion digits of Pi because, though I didn’t know what cool was, I knew what a dork was and felt I’d already presented several of the risk factors.  Peers were more judgmental back then, I think.  In contrast, my daughters boldly pursue whatever they like.  (Paradoxically, this probably makes them cooler than I was.  It’s complicated.)

Can kids be ordered to memorize things?

It’s tempting to say that kids cannot be ordered to memorize things.  For example, I have been trying to teach my kids a set of “family best practices,” like saying “thank you” after a meal, but they almost never comply.  I think this is an authority issue.  After dining at friends’ houses, my daughters do remember to say thank you (unless their hosts are lying to me).

Teachers do seem to have enough authority to command kids to memorize stuff.  I still have bits of dialogue rattling around in my head from junior high French class, when I was made to memorize my side of several rote conversations.  These snippets pop up almost whenever I choose what to eat—“Je voudrai avoir un bifteck frites … et une salade, bien entendu!”—and whenever I’m running late—“Zut!  Il est déjà cinq heures!”—with this last utterance continuing to cause me much confusion, every time, because “cinq heures” is 5:00 a.m., and surely these French kids weren’t waiting for a bus at 5 a.m., so why did our textbook say that?  Perhaps the most egregiously useless thing a teacher made me memorize was the entire list of prepositions in the English language, in alphabetical order.  That list survived in my memory for at least a decade; probably I removed it through sheer will.

(Not that I memorized everything I was assigned.  I refused to learn the many parts and functions of the female reproductive system in Health class.  My reasoning was that I don’t even possess any of these organs, though truth be told I was only a little better at learning off the male parts.  I did, however, remember the single most important lesson from Health class, which we kids summarized as “Remember the rule:  protect your tool,” along with like a dozen cruder variations.)

Likewise, my kids are given all kinds of things to memorize for school, and they dutifully comply.  They haven’t yet learned to instantly forget everything five minutes after the test.  For example, my younger daughter was commanded to memorize a really, really awful rap song about the parts of speech, and as she practiced it, my older daughter chimed in, still remembering the song from when she had to memorize it three years before.  (This is why I didn’t let my kids see my own, child-inappropriate “parts of speech” rap:  for fear that they’d instantly memorize it, start singing it on the playground, and get us in trouble.)

A few nights ago my older daughter announced that she had most of the Periodic Table of the Elements memorized; this came on the heels of her little sister memorizing, for school, a poem about an exploding turkey.  Of course my younger daughter had gotten a really late start on her homework and had to memorize three stanzas of the poem in like five minutes, and though she was totally panicked (in fact, perhaps because she was totally panicked) she pulled it off.  This pair of memorization episodes is what got me thinking that I really need to capitalize on this childish parlor trick.  If kids can memorize this much stuff with no greater a carrot than decent grades or their own whims, then I—the holder of dessert and video privileges—should be able to get in on this action.

What should we make our kids memorize?

Oddly enough, even though I curse myself daily for my inability to shunt things into memory like I used to, it wasn’t easy to come up with something for my kids to memorize for my benefit.  The most obvious things adults struggle to remember are passwords, but for obvious reasons I don’t want to entrust my kids with those.  I could assign my kids memorization tasks like remembering the birthdays of my dozen nieces and nephews, but I’ve decided not to, for a couple reasons.  First, since there is a tangible consequence of a failure of memory here (these are kids, after all), I don’t want to take the risk.  Second, it really does seem that the most amazing feats of memory involve pieces of information that are linked:  a poem, a song, or a list. 

I thought about assigning one of my kids to memorize the table of civil twilight start and end times for this area, because those tell me how early in the morning or how late in the evening I can go for bike rides on any given day.  It would be so handy to be able to yell across the house, “Hey Alexa, what time is civil twilight tomorrow morning?  And when are you going to practice your piano?”  The problem is, the civil twilight table comprises 730 data points.  Sure, I could have Alexa memorize the start and end times for the first day of each month, and the average “drift” for that month, to be able calculate this information for any given date, but it’s a non-linear thing and would end up being more of a math problem than a memorization stunt.  Besides, I have a handy printed chart for this, just like I have my nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays in my computer calendar.

I finally got my inspiration after joining a work-related conference call.  This was a high-attendance bi-weekly training thing where a roll call is required, so operators field each incoming call, asking for each attendee’s name, with spelling.  As often happens, the operator had difficulty with my name, even though I spelled it out:  “Dana—that’s Delta Alpha November Alpha.”  She said, “What?  Bana?”  I think this is because I have a girl’s name.  Perhaps she thought it was more plausible that there was a word she didn’t know, belta, and a name she hadn’t heard before, Bana, than that a man could possibly go by “Dana.”  It seems like I go through this issue almost every time I join this conference call.  Maybe the operators are screwing with me.

Anyway, my own struggles notwithstanding, the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (aka NATO phonetic alphabet), is a very handy thing to know for spelling things out over the phone.  For one thing, it’s faster than thinking up words on the fly.  For another, it’s less ambiguous (e.g., if I said “D as in dog,” the operator might think I said “B as in bog”).  And most of all, the NATO phonetic alphabet gives your speech an air of military authority—it sounds official.  What seems cooler to you:  “A as in apple, L as in lion, B as in boy, E as in elephant, R as in rabbit, T as in tennis,” or “Alpha—Lima—Bravo—Echo—Romeo—Tango”?

Naturally, you’ve already spotted the flaws with this scheme:  it’s not such a lot to memorize, and I’ve apparently already memorized it anyway.  It’s not like I’m going to pause my phone conversation to yell across the house, “Hey Lindsay, what’s the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet word for Y as in, uh, yellow?”  So this memorization task falls short of my dream of using my kids as portable voice-activated almanacs.  On the other hand, having any influence at all over what my kids memorize is a nice win as a parent, particularly as they reach their tween and teen years.  Getting them to memorize something slightly useful, for their own edification, is enough for me.

Getting them to do it

I mentioned above how teachers, in commanding children, seem to have more authority than I do.  I also alluded earlier to powers of persuasion I myself might have due to my control over dessert and videos.  Gosh, that was sloppy blogging.  In fact I would never bribe my kids with dessert or videos because that would set a dangerous precedent.  Any intelligent kid would realize, Hey, I could do this cool thing I’m already inclined to do, but since this thing would also please my parent, I should hold out for some kind of reward!  (Believe me, my kids have tried this, but I always refuse, telling them “I will not negotiate with terrorists.”)

So instead, I talked to my wife, in my younger daughter Lindsay’s presence, about how cool the NATO phonetic alphabet is, and then I threw Lindsay a bone by mentioning the game Battleship, which (like many children) she unaccountably enjoys (despite its being completely pointless).  When I was a kid, the play console was very spare and we called out simple letter and number coordinates (e.g., “G-4!”).  Now the console looks all badass, with pictures of military technology like targeting systems, and simulated rivets, etc., and the x-axis is labeled with Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. instead of A, B, and C.  So the kids call out “Bravo-7!” instead of just “B-7!”  I told Lindsay this was probably to help prevent confusion, such as B not being confused for D.  (This probably has less to do with it than the modern hardcore military aura the game tries to create.)  Then I asked her how many of the letter names she could remember.

By afternoon, she and Alexa were talking about this phonetic alphabet, and though I never made good on my plan to print out the list and leave it lying around, I didn’t need to.  At dinner the next night I asked Lindsay how much of the phonetic alphabet she could recite.  I figured that after Oscar, which is where Battleship leaves off, she’d fizzle out, but she didn’t.  She needed hints on about ten of the letters, but she eventually got them.  Then Alexa rattled off the entire list like an old pro.  Mission accomplished!

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