Monday, October 24, 2011

Train Your Brain!

Working memory expert TRACY PACKIAM ALLOWAY tells SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH how she makes cross-training techniques for the little grey cells more accessible for everyone

“I REALLY ENJOY running barefoot.” This might sound like a declaration from an experimental athlete or an unpredictable free spirit. However, Tracy Packiam Alloway is neither a professional runner nor a head-in-the-clouds hippie. In fact, she couldn’t have a more down-to-earth day job. She is a teacher.

To be more precise, Alloway is a professor of psychology at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Every year, she leads hundreds of undergraduates through the intricacies of Psychology and is the University’s Director of the Centre for Learning in the Lifespan where she simplifies complex academic research on neuropsychology, developmental psychology, health and education for the general public.

The professor’s penchant for running sans shoes isn’t the only surprising thing about her. She has none of the characteristics routinely associated with established academics. Professors are frequently pictured as serious, perhaps bespectacled, older men and women who have the unfortunate tendency to intersperse their conversations with scholarly language and topics that are of little or no interest to anyone.

Alloway is the polar opposite of this general assumption. The petite 36-year-old mother of two little boys is vivacious, friendly and has a delightful habit of peppering her conversation with infectious laughs and friendly smiles. Plus, there isn’t a pair of spectacles in sight. There is, however, one important trait she shares with her studious peers: Alloway is a brilliant scholar. “I love learning and I’m always curious and interested in finding out more about everything.”

The young professor has a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Stirling and has conducted intensive research on working memory, which is essentially how the brain stores and manages information in order to tackle complex cognitive tasks such as reasoning, learning and comprehension. Alloway expertly explains it in easy-to-understand terms: “IQ is the knowledge that you learn. Your working memory is what you do with that knowledge.” She refers to working memory as the brain’s “Post-it” note. “You may read something and when someone asks you a question that’s related, you have to think about what you read and know how to use the information in your answer. Working memory is your ability to hold information in your mind and then manipulate that information mentally.”

Alloway is one of the world’s most respected authorities on working memory, particularly on how it impacts learning in children. In 2009, she won the prestigious Joseph Lister Prize, which is awarded by the British Science Association, for making her scientific research accessible to a wider audience. “I conduct a lot of research and studies on how children learn. I’ve worked with typically developing children, those who are gifted and the children who struggle with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and learning disabilities. It is my absolute passion.”

A sought-after speaker and world traveller, Alloway can be found on any continent at any given time. Her flight schedule for a particular month could include Brazil, Switzerland, the US and anywhere in between. Her expertise on working memory and her talent for simplifying academic papers littered with scholastic jargon means she is equally skilled at presenting a keynote address to academic professionals at an important conference or giving a personalised talk to teachers and parents who are intent on helping their children learn efficiently.

Despite her hectic schedule of teaching classes at the university and fulfilling speaking engagements, Alloway managed to squeeze in some time to develop a highly popular online learning programme called Jungle Memory with her husband Ross, also a university professor.

Jungle Memory allows children to dramatically improve their working memory and subsequently, their achievements in school. To date, the programme has close to 10,000 users from 30 different countries. “It’s so rewarding and inspiring when I receive emails from parents and teachers reporting the amazing progress they see in children who use Jungle Memory,” says Alloway with a wide smile. “I just received an email from a teacher in Canada telling me about a boy who’s moved up three reading levels after just eight weeks. That’s remarkable progress!”

Alloway’s own amazing progress to the heights of academic success is the result of a lifelong passion for knowledge. After some prodding, she modestly admits that she was a straight A student in school. “I’ve always loved learning,” confesses the former Assunta Primary School student. “I think it was also partly because of my mum who’s a teacher. She made learning enjoyable. We’d always play games at home to improve our knowledge, like we’d race to see who could recite the most number of capital cities in the shortest period of time.”

Alloway, who is the elder of two children, grew up in Malaysia. In her early teens, she moved with her parents and brother to Oregon in the US for three years. While Mum and Dad attended Bible College, the two Packiam children attended a local high school. “I was 13 at the time, which I suppose is a difficult age, but our family is really close and we did everything together. It was easy to adjust to life in a different country.”

Alloway’s journey to becoming a respected psychologist began at her high school in Oregon. “We had called an Early Careers Class and our teacher invited people who worked in various professions to speak to us.” The talk, given by a psychologist, captivated young Alloway. “I was impressed with the value of psychology and the potential of it. I know it sounds clichéd but I really felt inspired to help people by studying psychology.”

Although Alloway spends a great deal of her time writing about the subject that ignited her passion all those years ago, she never thought she’d see her name on the cover of a book. “I’ve published scientific articles in over 75 different journals in the course of my work, but I don’t really think of myself as an author,” she reveals, flashing another one of her bright smiles. “I suppose when I think of writing I think of fiction and I don’t think I’m a good fiction writer!” she adds, laughing.

This self-assessment may or may not be true but Alloway is undeniably a prolific writer and her non-fiction books are certainly well received such as the insightful Improving Working Memory published by Sage. In less than two years, the young professor had written and published four books on the subject of working memory. Her prowess as a writer attracted the attention of John Wiley & Sons, publishers of the well-known Dummies series of guidebooks. “They approached me in February last year. The book I wrote for them is basically a guide on how to improve your life from your brain to your toes,” explains Alloway.

In keeping with her incredible writing pace, Alloway completed Training Your Brain for Dummies between March and August of last year. The book hit bookstores in December 2010. “I like writing in the early morning. I finished the whole book by writing bits of it between 5 and 7 or 7.30am each day. Sometimes, I would pick it up again at the end of the day when the kids were safely in bed,” she says. Alloway reveals the secret behind her ability to juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities. “I try to be very organised…you have to be with kids! I work whenever I have the time; I just do it. I don’t really have the luxury of telling myself I’ll do it later.”

The meticulously systematic professor is currently working on another book with her husband. “It’s about working memory in relation to the different aspects of life and I’m very excited about it. We’ve already completed a few chapters and one chapter is about happiness.” Alloway and her husband use true stories and experiences to demystify the edicts of working memory. “We talk about Mario, one of the Chilean miners who was trapped underground for more than two months in 2010. He was known as the joker and kept his spirits up even when everyone else had given up hope,” says Alloway. “There is evidence to show that we use our working memory to keep a goal in mind and in Mario’s case, his goal was to focus on the positive. Staying happy requires working memory.”

Alloway writes her books about working memory with a very specific goal in mind. “I want the cutting edge information found in journal articles and research papers to reach the people who need it,” she says. “I want the parent with the child who has dyslexia or the teacher who’s handling a student with a learning disability to know what methods and practices work and what don’t.”

Alloway has never wavered from the reason she chose to study psychology. “I want to help people. I want parents to have access to information but I also want them to have access to the idea of hope.”

Alloway is the co-author (with Ross Alloway) of The Working Memory Advantage: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

TRACY PACKIAM ALLOWAY, author of Training Your Brain for Dummies and renowned authority on working memory, offers three ways to train your brain:

1. Pick up a newspaper and choose a fairly common word like ‘find’ or ‘positive.’ Give yourself 30 seconds to scan that page and circle your chosen word as quickly as you can. If you train yourself to scan and pick up specifics really quickly, you can improve your focus and attention.
2. Get your friend to tap a rhythm on a table—maybe start with four or five taps and see if you can mirror that same rhythm. This trains your memory. The same part of the brain that is used to find order in rhythm is also used to remember information in order like the sequential digits that make up a phone number or a set of instructions.
3. Working memory can also be honed by remembering something backwards. You can make a fun game of it on a road trip. For instance, everyone in the car can compete to remember the backward sequence of the colours of five cars that pass or you could try to recite car number plates backwards.

Reproduced from MPH’s 105th Anniversary Issue of Quill magazine


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