August 1, 2013 | Yiddish

Mental Deficits

There are things wrong with my brain, and I'm wondering how common this is among language lovers.

I have been considering what it is about my brain that makes it love language so much. I am just back from a three-day trip to Boston, where I very happily ran a series of seminars in business writing and grammar for a client of mine, and while there I was struck by how truly, oddly bad I am at certain non-language things.

Boston of the Swirly Streets

Boston of the Swirly Streets

Here’s an example. For this training series, I was staying in downtown Boston and working about eight minutes from my hotel. Over the past few years I have stayed in this hotel multiple times, and I have done work for this client multiple times. This week, each morning on my way to the client’s location, I got disoriented and had to ask directions, and each day after class I got completely, hopelessly turned around on my way back to the hotel. 

Boston is rather swirly in its downtown street design, but you’d think I’d have at least this one route figured out by now.

If streets are at right angles, I can often do quite well. In Manhattan’s highly logical and mathematical grid, I have noticed I am better than most at orienting myself as I emerge from subway stations. Give me an x-axis and a y-axis and I am fine.

However, there are limitations. While I can remember two steps in a set of directions—such as “turn right, then left,” or “turn left, then right”—I cannot remember “turn left, then right, then right.” In fact, being told that third turn causes an explosion in my brain that then also vaporizes the previous two steps.

In addition, although I can read maps and match them to my surroundings, I have to be able to point them in the exact same direction as the streets in front of me. Paper maps are obliging in this regard; phones are more recalcitrant. The phone map is either in portrait or landscape orientation, and as you move, it keeps naughtily rearranging itself. On my way back to the hotel from my Boston client this week, I was using my iPhone for directions, and the electronic map wouldn’t hold still like a well-behaved paper map would have. The result was me repeatedly standing forlornly on street corners.

My poor sense of direction afflicts me not only outside buildings, but also inside. For example, if I use the restroom when I am at a client’s offices teaching a seminar, I have to concentrate hard along the route to that restroom, because if I don’t, I may not figure out how to get back. Failing to return to a seminar I am teaching because I got lost going to pee would be highly unprofessional.

The number of dimensions involved in a subject affected my performance in school. Although I was captain of my high school math team, although I generally loved algebra and doing geometric proofs involving all manner of two-dimensional shapes, I disliked math problems that involved rotations or calculating volumes of things. I did well in first-year calculus, but found multivariable calculus painful by comparison. 

My Amtrak Travel Companions: German, Hebrew, Yiddish

My Amtrak Travel Companions: German, Hebrew, Yiddish

I do not learn routes or recognize buildings unless I buckle down and study them. But while I am bizarrely deficient at noting my physical surroundings, for most of my life I was able to recall faces to the point that it was socially embarrassing.

At a certain point I realized that it was best not to tell someone, “Oh, we met once when we were 11 at so-and-so’s house.” Faces have volume and three dimensions, but perhaps because they are relatively flat compared to buildings and streets, not to mention expressive, they are exceptions to my physical oblivion rule. When I meet someone, there is a feeling of kind of absorbing his or her face, in particular the eyes and eyebrows and nose. I do not notice mouths (even though that’s where the language emerges!) so much as the upper half of the face.

The process through which facial data enter my brain feels not totally unlike my brain’s process for absorbing spellings and verb tables.

So maybe when there is a clear up and down, right and left, my brain likes it. Otherwise, forget it. I am mentioning all this because I am curious whether these aptitudes and non-aptitudes will be familiar to other language lovers.

I know that some linguaphiles like mnemonic devices. With few exceptions, I hate them. The reason, I am thinking, is that many of them involve using three-dimensional visual tricks to assist with memorization. I have a synaesthetically inclined friend who associates images and odors with concepts. She sees and smells her numbers. They loiter against the sides of buildings, doing what I don’t know, maybe smoking a cigarette. That boggles my mind.

But she does this automatically, by nature. Many times when people push mnemonic devices they use, I believe they are not realizing that the reason those devices work for them is that they match their brains’ idiosyncratic operations. Mnemonics are not automatically transferable, much as a 10-minute-a-day fitness device won’t give the average person stomach muscles on which you could grate cheese.

The idea of using three dimensions to help me remember something in two dimensions? No, thank you. In almost all cases it is easier for me to remember the images of the characters or letters or vocabulary than to multiply dimensions and complicate my mental life.

Comments (2)

Alex • Posted on Tue, August 06, 2013 - 1:55 am EST

Ellen, you did far better than me at calculus. I was just fine in pre-calculus in high school, but I flunked-out of an engineering degree owing in large part to the calculus. That was STUPID hard. Fortunately, I found Pimsleur after that, and for once I’m good at something.

I think mnemonics force me to look at things too, I guess, mathematically. I mean, you probably at least heard of the BANGS thing in French - “beauty, age, number, goodness, size”, it’s the pattern for how to arrange certain adjectives that are placed before the noun rather than after it. The only problem is, when am I going to use more than three of those categories? And if I do, why would I want to stop myself in the very way that I’m using Pimsleur to get around - which is to take a minute to build the sentence in my brain?

Mnemonics also mostly work for the people who make them. I noticed this when, as a guitar player, I discovered a few mnemonic tricks of the trade myself. Experience is what helps these mnemonics ring true for the people who use them, but no one uses them or understands them better than the people who come up with them. Even trying to teach them to others, I’ve noticed, seems not to work as well - you really have to see it for yourself. There’s something about having it explained to me that just makes it harder to understand; I always have to see it firsthand. I can’t even have it explained to me and then see it for myself - if anything I have to do it the opposite way, if I need a verbal explanation at all.

And if I do use a mnemonic, it’s always a private, subconscious thing. For me, there’s just no better way to learn than that.

Elizabeth • Posted on Thu, August 15, 2013 - 8:18 am EST

I could have written this up to the part about facial recognition. My sense of direction is incredibly deficient. I can get lost inside and outside, in both new and familiar places. My usual limit when following directions is also two steps, after that it’s a constant referral to notes to get any further. And the only way a map is of any use to me is if it is pointed in the direction I am going.

While I don’t have your same ability to recall faces, I can remember conversations I’ve had when meeting new people. The next time I meet them - sometimes years later - I will be clueless about their name, but will pull up something from the past conversation to prove I do remember meeting them. I just don’t tell them I remember the whole conversation.

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