2 key things spaghetti junction can teach you about brain fitness

I hate it

You know it.

That slightly sick, nervous, tense feeling you get when you’re not sure if you’re in the right lane when you’re driving somewhere new? What was one lane suddenly seems like 500 lanes.

The instruction to stay in the middle lane becomes a question of which middle lane, there are so many? The sign says the off ramp is coming. You check. Recheck. Sweat a little. Grip the wheel more tightly. I hate that feeling.

If ever there was a device created to initiate the rapid onset of palpitations, sweats, dry mouth, tremor and various other symptoms of stress, it must surely be, at least for the uninitiated, spaghetti junction.

What kind of sicko conceives such a thing? Roads snarl in every direction, things join up and separate, cross over, cross under, bend and snake. At least to me.

But to the careful observer, they manage volume and flow, connect sensibly, join up in the right places and solve more problems than they create. And spaghetti junction tells us some important things about brain fitness. En route, we’ll meet three famous people, and a road crew.

Note: this is a long read! Thanks in advance.

Attention: highway to memory

In our last post we opened up the subject of attention as a, even the, critical foundation of any brain fitness program; a skill we need to enhance and an activity that is the front door to memory.

Naturally, without memory, life can be pretty meaningless, for it’s memories that tell us we’ve learned, connect us to people, and remind us of who we are. Without them, we are forever living in the instant, with no reference to anything. Large-scale damage to the hippocampus can do this.

For some of us, the ability to make memories has disappeared.

Henry Gustav Molaison was such a man.


Famous in psychological literature as HM, Henry suffered severe epilepsy and, as treatment to reduce his seizures, underwent a resection of both medial temporal lobes. That means he had the chunks of brain that sits beside each ear, removed.

Inside the medial temporal lobe is the hippocampus and its connections. He also had the amygdala removed, which sits alongside the hippocampus.

Along with the hippocampus and the amygdala went the capacity to remember.

He couldn’t learn new things except some new skills, because memory for procedures is managed differently from memory about stuff, but then couldn’t remember that he’d learned them.

But imagine the opposite.

Imagine forgetting hardly anything… and how it was that this happened.

S is for Sheresheveskii

In the literature, he’s known simply as ‘S’. In real life, he was known as Solomon Veniaminovich Sheresheveskii. However, with a name that reads like the bottom line of an eye chart it’s no wonder he was called ‘S’.

Son of a book shop owner and one of a number of siblings, S was a reporter for the local newspaper in Russia, in the 1920s. Although he intended training as a violinist and enrolled to do so, an ear disease rendered this career useless and S drifted into journalism.

As was the newspaper editor’s custom, he would hand out assignments each morning that included where to go, and what was to be accomplished while there. This particular morning, the editor had noticed that S wasn’t paying attention. At least, it seemed that he wasn’t because he took no notes. Not one.

Ready to reprimand S, the editor wanted an explanation, whereupon S repeated, exactly, everything he had been asked to do. Word for word, just as it had been delivered.


What was astounding wasn’t what he’d done, but that he thought everyone could do what he could do.

And for the next 30 years or so, Alexander Luria would find out just what S could do.

Alexander Luria

Situated at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka rivers, and now known as the Sports Capital of Russia, Kazan is Alexander Luria’s hometown. He graduated from the university there and began a famous career as one of Russia’s foremost psychologists.

He’s remembered particularly for two things. The first is the thinking that led to the Luria-Nebrasksa neuropsychological battery. Pardon the pun, but this isn’t a brain cell. ‘Battery’ is jargon for a series of tests.

The second, is his work with S.

Asked to test S, Luria discovered surprising, perplexing, things.

…it became necessary to admit that the capacity of his memory did not have any clear boundaries. The experimenter found oneself powerless in, what could be called one of the most simplest for a psychologist task – measuring the capacity of memory.

I appointed S. a second, then a third meeting. After those there followed even more meetings. Some of the meetings were separated in days and weeks, some – years.

These meetings made the position of the experimenter even more complicated. In turned out that S.’s memory does not only have clear boundaries in its capacity, but also in its reliability of retention.

Experiments showed that he with success – and without any
noticeable difficulty – can produce any long row of words, given to him a week, month, year, or several years ago. Some of these experiments, inevitably ending in success, were conducted 15 – 16 years after the first memorization of a row and without any warning.*

Effortless, limitless and nearly always flawless. It defied comprehension on many occasions. It’s a rare brain that does this.  One other brain of a similar style belonged to Kim Peek, but more on him another time.

Paying close attention

Although it might have seemed easy for him, and he certainly had different ways of shaping it, S most certainly paid attention. For example…

Some of these experiments, inevitably ending in success, were conducted 15 – 16 years after the first memorization of a row and without any warning.

In these instances S. sat down, closed his eyes, made a pause, and then said: “yes-yes … this happened with us at that apartment … you sat at the table, and I was in the rocking-
chair … you were wearing a grey dress suit and looked at me like this … here … I see what you were saying to me …” – and afterwards followed an unflawed reproduction of
the read row.

If we were to consider that S., who by this time became a famous mnemonist and was required to remember many hundreds and thousands of rows – this fact became even more perplexing.*

Two important, spaghetti junction things are evident here:

  1. Pay attention to Reconstruction
  2. Pay attention to Elaboration.

Reconstruction.We build memories afresh

Each time you retrieve a memory, what you absolutely don’t get is a fixed, inanimate thing that you’ve stored away for later use. We know that memory is a reconstructive process. Your brain builds memories again, reconstructing them as you go. It’s this reconstruction that, for example, allows the current context to influence existing memories, because we can include new things in the memory when we reconstruct them.

We change, adapt and amend memories over time – especially the more complex ones. It’s like a road crew constantly re-laying the roads, going over each section and re-doing what they’ve done before, sometimes the same, sometimes with new materials or techniques. It’s like re-laying the pathway in your brain.

As S reviews the scene, deliberately describing the detail and refreshing it on the way, his brain is re-building the memory. He’s not simply viewing a movie in his mind and repeating what he sees, he’s reconstructing the memory at the same time.

From when we form memories via the hippocampus, they gradually migrate in the brain to a place of permanent storage months, even years, after we’ve experienced something. Like S here, we, too, reconstruct memories.

Fascinatingly, HM could reconstruct too, despite his massive tissue loss. The hippocampus is responsible for transferring short-term memories into long-term memories but, the loss of his hippocampus did not destroy existing memories. They’d already migrated away from the hippocampus.

And when he retrieved a memory, and included new information in it, he retained the new information as a modification to the existing memory, rather than a new memory. He reconstructed the road, this time with a bend. He just didn’t remember that he’d remembered.

Elaborations make better memories

S was a synaesthete, which partly explains how he could do what he did. Synaesthesia gives you a rare experience where activation of one sense or neural pathway involuntary activates another also. Visual stimuli might activate sight and smell for example.

“Lines”, “spots”, “splashes”, appeared not only by a tone, noise, or voice. Every sound of speech immediately produced in S. a vivid viewable symbol, every sound had a viewer form, its color, and its contrasting tastes…the same held for numbers.

“For me 2, 4, 6, 5 – are not only numbers. They have form. 1 – is a sharp number, independent of its graphical representation, its something finished, hard…5 – complete finishing in the form of a conic, tower, fundamental, 6 – is the first before “5”, white. 8 – not guilty, bluish-milk, something like exhaust, etc.

This means that S. did not have that clear boundary, which in each of us separates vision from hearing, hearing from touch or taste…*

What it did allow, was extraordinary elaboration of the thing to be remembered, which is a basic aspect of building memories and, thus, developing brain fitness. S had it in spades, and if you read Luria’s little paper, you’ll see how extensive this really was.

HM, sadly, didn’t have this capacity and so brand new memories were a vain hope.

For us, elaborating on things to be learned is not only a great memory tip, it helps stretch the brain in new directions.

So it’s not just the road crew re-laying the roads and pathways, but building fantastic junctions and connections between all other kinds of pathways. It’s building connections that seem fanciful, outrageous, emotive or powerful, but which, like the roads, are designed to get us from one place to the next in a smooth, efficient manner.

Reconstructing memories is a good bit of mental warm up. Elaboration helps build new exercises in a brain fitness regime.

Side note: The curse

Unfortunately, S’s memory was so prodigious that he, at times, couldn’t control it and memories would come, unbidden, and interfere with other things. There was no toll booth on some pathways.

So here’s the take home bit

HM showed us that memories are safe only once they’ve moved out of the hippocampus.

Memory requires attention.

It also requires repetition, reconstruction, and elaboration.

Keep it up.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

S, HM, Luria, medial temporal lobe

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*Taken from the amateur, and generously available, English translation of Luria’s book, A small book about a big memory. You can download it as a Word document.


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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One Response to 2 key things spaghetti junction can teach you about brain fitness

  1. Pingback: How to create a false memory – in someone else’s head | Bite sized brains

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