by Gary Blankenship
The Florida Bar News
Take your brain for a tune-up?
That’s sort of what Matthew Barrett does for his clients, who for the past year have included graduating law students from Florida Coastal School of Law. Barrett, who has a master’s degree in psychology, runs Brain Trainers, a Jacksonville-based company that aims to help people get the most out of their greatest asset.
He calls it “cognitive neuroscience.”
“Your brain is your greatest tool, and most people don’t know how it works. If you can learn how it works, you can get more out of it,” said Barrett, who calls himself a “personal trainer” for the brain.
He uses an automotive metaphor to make his point: “I drive my car every day. That doesn’t mean I’m a mechanic. If I learn how something works, I can get it to perform better . . . the courses are equal parts education and exercise. I teach people about how the brain works, because you’ve got to understand the limits of something, or you’re going to get frustrated with it.”
Jordan Johnell, the Bar prep coordinator at Florida Coastal, said the school learned about Barrett’s service from a student who worked with him. He was brought in to help graduates prepare for last July’s and last February’s Bar exams.
The school had courses that “focused on skills, how to write an essay, and also the substance of the law,” Johnell said. “This kind of filled in a blank that we had on how to memorize all the material they had.”
She said the training was popular with students, but noted there’s no way to measure how effective it was in passing the bar exam.
“I liked the presentation,” said Matt Polimeni, who took the course late last year and is now an assistant state attorney in the Fourth Circuit. “For me, the course provided a lot of value; it had some nice innovative techniques that could be used to help memorize a large quantity of information.”
Barrett conducted group sessions for all of the students, and then individual sessions because, as he said, while brains are made up similarly, everyone has their singular characteristics. (Polimeni said he only took the group session, not the individualized training.)
While he can spout off the Latin names for parts and sections of the brain along with some amusing translations, Barrett used more down-to-earth explanations to explain mental functions and how to get the best use of the neurons zipping around our cortexes.
For example, he said the brain has distinct short-term and long-term memory functions, which he likens to a desk and a filing cabinet.
This desk is “short-term memory, something that only lasts in the short term 12-20 seconds, 30 at the outside. Short term is not intended as a storage space, yet that is how we use it all the time. It was never constructed for that. It holds five items for 12 to 20 seconds. It’s a work space,” Barrett said.
Long-term memory is the filing cabinet. “What I teach people to do is how to move things from their desk to the file cabinet smoothly,” he said. “There are five ways to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. The more of those you use, the better the transfer, and the easier you’re going to be able to pull it out at will.”
One technique Barrett uses is to recall a particularly meaningful location — someone’s first apartment, a home, perhaps a boat cabin. For one student who loved to shop, it was a mall.
When a student or client has to memorize a list, he has that person mentally go through that home, boat, or mall and assign an item on the list to a specific section or part of that structure. Say a grocery list: the milk is on the coffee table, the eggs in the easy chair, and the cereal on the sofa.
Most people can’t reliably recall more than four or five items on a list, but with this technique much longer lists can be successfully committed to memory, said Barrett.
For the law students, he used the list to cover general legal topics, such as landlord tenant or criminal law, and then has them invent a “story” that encompasses the points they must remember about each topic. (When it comes to creating the stories, “Crazy is memorable,” Barrett said.) He likened it to an interactive museum where each station has a button with a recording. The “list” he has students create becomes the stations, and the stories are the “recordings” that have the information they need.
It’s about creating relationships, said Barrett, and the more a particular memory is related to other memories, the easier it is to recall.
And that can be important because of the size of the brain’s “file cabinet.”
“The good thing is it’s an infinite file cabinet. The bad news is, it’s an infinite file cabinet,” said Barrett. “Sometimes there’s information you know is in the file cabinet, but you can’t pull it out.”
There are ways to jog the memory, he said, including by trying to remember other things associated with the memory.
Some of Barrett’s other observations:
• If you’re one of those persons who recalls faces and forgets names, that’s actually a fairly common issue. “You have a structure in the brain dedicated to remembering faces. You don’t have any such structure that looks for names. That right there makes it harder to remember names than faces,” Barrett said. Also, “We’ve worked hard in Western society to make names unmemorable . . . we make them boring and unmeaningful and then they don’t transfer over” to long-term memory.
• Stress debilitates the ability to pull up memories. Because of human evolution and genetics, the brain sees “any stress as about being physically attacked, so it’s going to respond the way it thinks it ought to respond to a physical attack,” he said, even if it’s not caused by a physical problem. Stress can be complicated, too. Barrett noted that the 9/11 attacks occurred on a clear day, and many New York City residents had stress problems for a couple years afterwards on clear days because their brains related that condition to the attacks. “Stress forces us into the lower brain. I sometimes call it the caveman’s brain,” he said. “It will kick in and interfere with getting information into the upper brain.”
• Multitasking may let people address more than one issue, but they do so at a reduced capacity, and there are other limits on multi-tasking. “I do lessons in more effective multi-tasking, which in many cases means just don’t do it,” said Barrett. “There’s lot of experiments that have shown the dangers of multi-tasking; it’s like you’ve delegated that task to a very responsible 8-year-old; that’s about the level of competence we get.” He said the brain is divided into a section that handles routine matters and another, higher part that solves problems and addresses complex matters. “You can give each of them a job; when you’re driving your car and listening to your radio at the same time you’re giving both of them something to do,” he said. “But when someone gets lost, he or she typically turns off the radio to improve focus, because the ‘routine’ part of the brain, which had been handling the driving, cannot cope with being lost,” he said. In addition, the upper part of the brain, which handles the complex issues, cannot multi-task, Barrett said.
• The brain is also divided in other ways. One segment deals with listening and language, and another with numbers and spatial relationships. Barrett said he can listen to someone talk and do a Sudoku puzzle at the same time because language and numbers involve different parts of the brain. He can’t do a crossword and listen to someone because both use the language side of the brain.
• The implications of multitasking limitations means that when people, such as lawyers, sit down to address complex issues or do critical thinking about a matter, they should eliminate distractions and focus entirely on the matter at hand.
Barrett uses his training for professionals seeking certification, students, those with attention deficit disorder, people with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism, and even some people with mental problems. He emphasized it is not a cure for mental problems, Asperger’s, or autism, but rather a tool for helping people get the most out of their brains.
“I help people get more out of understanding the brain; I don’t treat the sick,” he said.
More information about Barrett and his programs can be found at www.brain-trainers.net.