I wrote about this a while back, but here's a video I made about how riding a bike can improve your memory. I hope you enjoy it.
You might get lost the first time you try a new a bike route. But chances are you’ll never get lost in the same place a second time.
On the second bike ride, you’ll remember where to go, what the route looks like, and definitely how steep the hills are. Certain landmarks will look familiar. Even if you don’t go back there again for a week, you’ll remember where to go.
Compare this to reading an article or a chapter in a book. How much do you remember a week after you read it?
Reading and memorizing facts are difficult tasks for your brain. But your visual memory is extraordinary.
For tens of thousands of years, human beings had to find their way around without maps or GPS. To this day, we’re still pretty good at learning our way around in one sitting. Your brain is hard-wired to detect visual cues and physical locations.
One of the great secrets to a better memory is to harness that visual memory to perform the more difficult tasks.
The story goes that the Greek poet Simonides once did a recitation in front of a room full of dinner guests. When he finished, he thanked his audience and left the building.
Moments later, an earthquake struck, and the building was reduced to rubble. Simonides was incredibly fortunate to survive, but an even greater fortune was the discovery he made about the human mind that day.
The Greek building was made of heavy stone and marble. Not only were the guests instantly killed, but it was virtually impossible to identify their remains.
This is where Simonides came in to help. He remembered what everything looked like as he stood before his audience. He could visually recall where each guest was seated, and he could lead their loved ones directly to the spot.
This event led to the development of the "memory palace" technique. You substitute visual data that's easy to recall with difficult information that you want to remember.
We'll illustrate this with a bike ride.
Let’s say you have to learn a list of Italian verbs. You can associate them with different places on your route, and you’ll be able to remember them about as easily as you can remember the route itself.
Let’s say I start by riding out of my driveway into the street. My first Italian word is calciare, which means “to kick.” So I picture my neighbor’s SUV parked in the street, and I stop and give the tire a big kick.
Next I ride down to the main street, where there’s a bike trail that goes along the railroad tracks. The second word is “attraversare” which means “to cross,” so I imagine crossing the tracks.
I leave the bike trail and take a road that winds up into the mountains. Pretty soon I’ve worked up a sweat, so I add the word “sudore” which means to sweat. The next word is “stappare” to “unstop.” It’s like the motion of uncorking a wine bottle, so I “stappare” my water bottle and pour half of it over my sweaty shiny bald head. Then I drink the rest, remembering the word “bere” which means to drink.
I’m just getting warmed up at the beginning of the bike ride, and already I’ve memorized half of my list.
Why am I writing about Jedi mind tricks in a bicycling post?
The bicycle is one of those things that can liberate you from what I call the soft perils of 21st century life. Already you're probably healthier than a lot of your peers, because you often travel on your own physical power. Why not give your mind the same freedom?
One of these days, a dead battery or a weak signal will turn your smart phone into a mere decoration for the inside of your pocket. Then it’s time for you to take control and use the resources you have. That means your bike, your body, and your brain.
Limits of the Memory Palace
I showed you how to memorize a bunch of verbs. But that's a far cry from being able to speak a foreign language. The truth is that memory is just a foundation. There's a lot more to learning.
But riding your bike will help you with other thinking processes such as fluency, synthesis, and creativity. We'll get to that in another post.
Note: There's a free prize at the end of this post!
Are you looking for a new bike ride?
Here's a way you can have a good ride anytime, anyplace, anywhere in the world. Try this technique and you'll never get bored. You'll get some good exercise, make new discoveries, and... well, I'll save the third thing, the big bonus prize, the absolute number one reason you should try this out, for the end of the post.
- Open up Google maps or some other mapping browser and look up your own address.
- Put it right in the center of your screen.
- Zoom out once or twice. The more ambitious you are, the more you'll zoom out
- Figure out a tour that takes you through the safest, most challenging, most scenic areas on your screen. If you don't know what they are, go out and find them!
It's up to you what you'll include in step 4, but here are few things that come to mind: Coffee shops, parks, museums, places you're not supposed to ride but you'll do it anyway, steep hills, your favorite place.
I just made this up. As far as I know, nobody else has talked about it. Maybe there's a reason for that.
Try it out, and tell me what you think. I'll share mine in a future post.
Now for your free prize:
I'm reading a book called The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler. It's about how to achieve "flow," a very powerful state of mind where you can do things that are normally out of human reach.
Think riding your mountain bike off the roof of a skyscraper, landing on a slanted roof farther down, which you use as a ramp to propel yourself into the air where you do a double backflip before opening your parachute and gliding to a perfect landing on the front lawn of the Embassy.
Kotler writes about the conditions that can put you in that state of mind in a "normal" day-to-day world. If you get there, you can move beyond your limits as a musician, photographer, dancer, or stock trader. You can take something you're good at and become extraordinary in a short amount of time.
One of the key conditions is novelty. There's a reason the best athletes, artists, and professionals are always pushing the envelope. Whenever you stimulate your mind with something new, it creates physical, chemical, and electrical changes in your brain and in your entire nervous system.
These changes don't just enable you to do the impossible once. They help you learn faster, so that you can redefine what is possible and what is impossible.
If you start seeking out new bike routes in your old neighborhood, you might discover that you have more energy, or you're communicating with people more easily. You'll think more clearly, even when you're dealing with issues that have nothing to do with bike rides.
When you bike a new route, you're on your way to developing superhuman powers.
Some days I feel like a centaur. If I'm cut off too long from my better half (that's the bicycle) I'm stuck--immobile and mutilated until I can get two wheels firmly underneath me again.
Last night we did some unusual exercises during a taijutsu class outdoors in exceptionally cold weather. I wrenched the muscles in my back, and the pain slowly creeped up on me as the evening wore on. By dinner I was in agony, by bedtime I was groaning in pain. I woke up several times at night, painfully heaving myself around to find a position that didn't hurt.
This morning I could barely lift a coffee cup to my lips.
Excused from work, I spent a few hours this morning experimenting with yoga and tai chi to figure out how bad the damage really was, and what I could and couldn't do.
By noon I could walk if I was careful not to lean too far in the wrong direction. I could lift a decent amount of weight if I paid attention to my posture. It was time for a bike ride.
I think you can guess what happened next, especially if this has ever happened to you. I'm completely healed, free of pain, back to full mobility.
Chalk it up to circulation, the benefits of bike exercise, gently working the muscles of your lower back by pedaling. Maybe it's the magic of just going out and doing what you really love and want.
The truth is we're resilient creatures. I think a lot of suffering comes out of our own minds. The best thing you can do is break out of the rut you're in, change your environment, assert your freedom to go where you want on your own power.
Get out on your bike and ride.
It was pouring rain in Los Angeles today, and I was skidding all over the place as I weaved my bike around drivers who aren't used to driving in the rain.
But in this case, the destination was more important than the journey. I was heading for Griffith Park with two goal in mind:
1. To stop procrastinating and begin doing hill sprints--as I had told myself I would do six months ago.
2. To practice taijutsu--another promise I made to myself.
Maybe there was a little bit of the macho thing going on, riding out in the rain to do strenuous exercise and crazy martial arts stuff in the mud. But even if it had been sunny, I would have done it.
We're not in this world to sit like rocks, and slowly erode in the weather. We're here to rise and grow and always seek greater heights.
As the drizzle streamed down my face, I launched myself at the top of the first hill, sprinting full on, trying to get up there as fast as humanly possible. Finding the limits, and pushing beyond them. Flinging past gravity, mud, exhaustion--any obstacle that dares to say, "This is all you are. You can go no further."
Riding a bike is the same battle, in slow motion. Every time you use your own power, you expand that power. And here you are. We are extraordinary human beings, and we don't do ourselves justice if we stay inside our comfort zones all the time. You can do something extraordinary today. Right now.
That's why I ride.
A few weeks ago I started learning Enbukan battojutsu, a school of Japanese sword fighting. After biking to Griffith park to practice, and pondering the connection between biking and martial arts (which I've mentioned before), I wanted to share this with you.
Italy biker Lorenzo Viaggi writes:
"The cyclist should practice his skills and regard them with the same discipline and reverence as the Japanese of old mastered their fighting arts. When you conquer a hill or a great mountain pass, when you complete a long journey, your bicycle becomes a tool of honor, and instrument as sacred as a finely-crafted steel sword."
--Lorenzo Viaggi, La Via della Bici (Which could be translated as "The Way of the Bike")
I'm still at the stage where I can barely draw a wooden sword out of the sheath without hurting my wrist. If I had a real sword I'd be all stitched up by now, probably with a few missing fingers. I tell you this only to point out that my Italian translation skills are somewhat better than my swordsmanship, but any mistakes in Lorenzo's quote are mine.
I was biking downtown, and when I stopped at a red light someone rolled down their window and said, "I'll bet you're saving a lot of money riding that thing."
Indeed. Probably tens of thousands of dollars over the last 15 years. Before the motorist took of at the green light, he said he was planning to ride his bike to work soon, because of gas prices and the recession.
But this isn't at all about saving money. That's just icing on the cake. Which got me thinking...
There's a lot of talk in the media about an economic slowdown, recession, depression, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. And there may be some truth in what you've been hearing, although the jury's still out on how bad it's going to get.
But spending less money doesn't have to mean lowering your quality of life. I put that in italics so you'll remember it, and burn it into your brain. Most bike commuters probably ride their bikes to work by choice, not necessity. And even if your credit card debt, your salary cut, rising costs or some other economic factor compelled you to ride your bike to work, you'd still get all the benefits that lead to this choice by people who have other options.
You'll pump oxygen into every cell in your body, burn fat and build lean, powerful muscle. You'll get to work relaxed and happy, looking and feeling a lot better than the stressed out commuters who had to hunt for parking. You'll see your town from a new perspective, and make discoveries that motorists miss. Every day is an adventure, because you're using your mind and body and wits to overcome new obstacles that wait for you just around the corner. It's fun!
Not to mention the self-righteous ego-boost you can indulge in, knowing that you're saving energy, reducing pollution, giving your fellow citizens more parking and road space, and generally making the world a little bit better.
And you'll save money. Maybe start getting ahead, paying off your debts and building up your net worth while people all around you are worried about defaults and bailouts and who knows what else. But that's not the point.
Riding a bike is just one example of how downsizing your life, spending less, can actually improve your standard of living. The new economy (and that's what's happening here--not a reduction of total wealth but simply a transfer of wealth) may look scary on the surface if you're stuck in old ways of thinking. But really it's an adventure of new opportunity. Embrace the adventure.
Race you to the top?
Almost everyone knows the benefits of bike riding. But I've been thinking about the similarities between biking and various martial arts.
Both are essentially practical survival skills that benefit your health and physical fitness as a "side effect," (Although for many people this side effect is the main reason to take up the art.)
If you get into it at all, it can become a lifestyle with social, mental, philosophical and spiritual dimensions. The experts incorporate daily rituals that include stretching and breathing, possibly visualization, and eventually dedication to the care and maintenance of your equipment. (For the bike Samurai, your bike is your sword).
Could this evolve into the richness of a martial art? Are there certain qualifications to be considered a master? What do you have to do to become a bike blackbelt? Who are the different, rival schools? (Think Karate vs. Kung Fu, Mountain Bikers vs. Roadies or Commuters vs. Messengers.)
At what point does a "sport" become an art, or a way of life? Are we there yet?
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