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Overcooked

Martin Parkinson gives a curious example of something sensible deliberately dressed up to look like nonsense

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First appeared in: The skeptic Vol 18 no 1 Spring 2005


In his online Skeptic's Dictionary Robert Todd Carroll gives a list of subjects he is considering for future entries and I was surprised to see our very own Tony Buzan included, misspelt as Buzon. I was surprised because my recollection was that although Buzan's books on memory, speed reading, study skills and general learning tricks may be a bit stylistically embarrassing, they did not contain anything that is actually incorrect or pseudoscientific. Furthermore, his books did contain stuff that I found personally useful: so I took another look. A bit embarrassing did I say?

The Mentally Literate human is capable of turning on the radiant synergetic thinking engine, and creating conceptual frameworks and new paradigms of limitless possibility. (Buzan 1995, p287)

Errr yes. So what are we talking about here? This quote comes from The Mind Map Book. 'Mind mapping' is a graphic technique which can be used in many kinds of note-taking and planning. It has the advantage that it avoids the linearity of normal prose and therefore clarifies connections between non-adjacent points and enhances understanding of overall structure. I use the method myself and have found it to be, for me, the only satisfactory way of taking lecture notes. More sober books on study skills include mind maps as a useful option; except that mind maps are actually Mind Maps™ so they have to call them 'spidergrams' instead. What we are talking about here is a humble but useful product which is ludicrously overpackaged and hyped.

Some of the oversell is doubtless caused by the fact that Buzan has to make a living in a noisy marketplace and so must make his mental-improvement products appear unique. Briefly stated, any mnemonic technique exploits the 'stickiness' of memory. Using a mnemonic actually increases the amount of memory work you have to do, but the extra work is of an enjoyable kind (personally relevant, amusing, sensual etc) and so the mnemonic information is easily acquired and sticks effortlessly onto the target information. (One might call this kind of thing 'cognitive gearing'). None of this is at all new or secret or difficult, though it is very well worth repeating.

But Buzan also says things that seem slightly odd and which might indicate that he has a rather naïve model of the relationship between memorising and learning. In Use Your Memory he refers to Shereshevsky, the man of seemingly limitless memory famously described by the Russian neurologist Luria. Buzan holds up Shereshevsky as a wonderful example to whom we could all aspire, yet an implied theme of Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonist is the importance of forgetting. Shereshevsky's life seems to show that his faultless memory was of no great advantage to him and may even have been a mild handicap; this is certainly the message that most readers seem to get. Did Buzan actually read the book properly? Or is this a demonstration of the disadvantages of speed-reading above a certain point?

However, it seems quite wrong to dump Buzan into the same category as alien abduction and astrology, and inaccurate to put him in the same bin as homeopathy and crystal healing. I'm very interested in areas that contain something genuine mixed in with the nonsensical, mistaken, or overblown and would like to propose that the Buzan-type genre of self-help is best categorised as overcooked. I propose this metaphor because food which is overcooked may be edible to some degree and is of some nutritional benefit. It just doesn't look very appetising and seems like a waste of good ingredients. No wonder Robert Carroll would rather just have the salad, thank you.

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References

Buzan, Tony. (1995) The Mind Map Book. Radiant thinking The Major Evolution in Human Thought. London. BBC books.

Buzan, Tony. (2000) Use Your Memory. London. BBC Worldwide Ltd.

Luria, A R. (1968) The Mind of a Mnemonist. A Little Book About a Vast Memory Harvard University Press. Cambridge Massachusetts.

Carroll, Robert Todd. (2004) Suggestions for future entries in the The Skeptic's Dictionary retrieved 14/3/04 from www.skepdic.com/future.html


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© copyright 2005 Martin Parkinson, all rights reserved; moral rights asserted. Last updated 22 may 2005