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Mind Performance Hacks

Ron Hale-Evans
Published by O'Reilly Media
304 pages
£ 17.50
Published: February 28, 2006
reviewed by Gavin Inglis
   in the June 2006 issue (pdf), (html)

The predecessor of this book, ``Mind Hacks'', was subtitled ``Tips and Tools for Using Your Brain''. ``Mind Performance Hacks'' goes a step further, with ``Tips and Tools for Overclocking Your Brain''. This sums up the difference quite neatly; whereas the previous book was focused on understanding how the brain is put together, this title concentrates on specific applications to improve its performance.

Each of the eight chapters concentrates on one area of cognition. Ron Hale-Evans is clearly a fan of Frank Herbert's Dune books, and inspired by the Mentats -- human computers -- of that universe. This reader fully expected to find Hack #76: The Litany Against Fear in the chapter on Clarity.

Chapter one deals with memory. It introduces various systems which exploit visualisation, association and even rhyme to improve your recall. Some, such as the mnemonic system designed by World Memory Champion Dominic O'Brien, require a little preparation to use. Others are more intuitive, such as surreal images constructed around a familiar location. The Hotel Dominic system, designed by the author, can supposedly be used to memorise 10000 pieces of information, or more.

Information processing is covered next, from capturing and storing ideas you have during the day, to programming yourself with a deck of cards. Learning styles are explored, such as visual versus aural or kinaesthetic learning. This might help you understand your friends and colleagues better. Valuable for clutterbugs is the eerie Hack #18: pre-destroying rubbish through coded marks. The text reflects on the nature of the past and the mental traps it lays for us in the present.

The Creativity chapter is full of fun stuff to do, from using a completely irrelevant item as a trigger for brainstorming, to channelling heroes of stage and screen: ``What would Mary Poppins do in this situation?'' We're introduced to creativity decks such as Brian Eno's famous Oblique Strategies, and the odd constrained writing of the Oulipans. We voyage even into the unconscious, with simple techniques like keeping a dream journal and cunning tricks to access the hypnogogic state, halfway between wakefulness and sleep. Interestingly, sleep, nutrition and exercise are key components of the later chapter on maintaining mental fitness.

The sections on Maths and Decision Making are shorter and include the kind of `rules of thumb' that used to be taught in schools but have been exterminated by the calculator. Whilst estimating square roots and applying game theory to decision making are certainly valuable, one wonders if the seven pages devoted to Hack #40: Count to a Million on Your Fingers really justify their inclusion.

It's surprising to find an examination of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake in the chapter on Communication, and readers could be forgiven for not learning an artificial language such as Klingon. However there are some very valuable ideas here for turning a fear of public speaking into a positive state of excitement. This theme continues in the brave subsequent chapter, with rational thinking about emotional states and irrational behaviour. Here there is controlled breathing, meditation, and even interviewing oneself to get to the root of what we *really* think.

After all this mental graft it's a relief to encounter Hack #67, which advocates playing board games to improve strategic thinking, negotiation and deduction. Even easier is Hack #68, which suggests improving visual processing through first person shooter video games. At last, a way for teenagers to answer back parents who complain they spend too long on the Playstation. ``Aw mum, but I'm reducing my attentional blink!''

``Mind Performance Hacks'' is an entertaining and rewarding read for anyone interested in improving the way they use their brain. Many of the hacks are really a framework upon which to build your own systems. Relatively little of the material is brand new, but collecting it in one book makes it very accessible. The techniques are inspiring and practical.

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