Memorize Nonverbal Material While Exercising Your Right Hemisphere

Tibetan Buddhism, tangrams, and the art of memorization

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Jigsaw puzzles and tangrams are not just fun, but they’re great for your brain! While much of our daily brain activity is devoted to words, that part of our brain used for things like drawing pictures or navigating maps is underutilized. Dr. Restak explains how to get a whole-brain workout while strengthening your memory.

Two people working on jigsaw puzzle
While we do puzzle work, we strengthen our brain’s visual-spatial processing. Photo by Impact Shutterstock / Shutterstock

Engage the Right Hemisphere

While we can rely on mnemonics and other techniques to memorize verbal information, it’s more challenging to memorize non-verbal material. Dr. Restak recommends increasing your memory for non-verbal material without resorting to words or any type of internal dialogue. 

This involves calling on your right hemisphere, which shifts your brain’s processing from primarily left-hemisphere activities like reading and writing to right-hemisphere activities like processing visual-spatial information. Jigsaw puzzles are great stimulators of the right hemisphere. 

The novelist Margaret Drabble has the following to say about jigsaw puzzles: “I think one of the reasons I am drawn to these puzzles is precisely because they have no verbal content; they exercise a different area of the brain, bring different neurons and dendrites into play. Like many people, I use the word-based, verbal left side of my brain too much.” 

Here is a right hemisphere exercise: Close your eyes and envision the room that you are in right now. Open your eyes and check for accuracy. 

Repeat this exercise with attention paid to small details like the number of magazines on a table. Also, during the day, carry a camera and take pictures. Check later to see what you can remember and the accuracy of your recall.

Tangrams and Nonverbal Memory

Other right hemisphere processes you can use to memorize non-verbal material include tangrams. This is an ancient Chinese puzzle game involving seven geometric pieces, which can be placed into hundreds of distinct figures. 

You can use them to make a bird or a woman pouring tea. Think of one of these figures, and try to form it by manually arranging the seven pieces. 

Next, mentally arrange the pieces and memorize the arrangement. Repeat it later, and see if you can do it. The tangram involves gaining a sense of the feel of the geometric figures in the hand. 

That’s one of the reasons many sets are made of fine woods. As you move the pieces around, your brain encodes the configurations and unconsciously manipulates it in mental space. The process of playing with this game hones your 3-D memory.

Paintings Enhance Memory

Tibetan Buddhist paintings were created with the art of visualization and memory in mind. Devotees studied the paintings until they could envision images in great detail. They believed visualization prepared their minds to assume the attributes of the beings portrayed in the paintings. 

Today, we would emphasize the memory-enhancing properties of these pictures for nonverbal concepts. Envision the scene as vividly as possible that you’ve seen on these pictures. 

Open your eyes and see what you missed. Close your eyes and see it again. Beyond Asian art, you can study any of the works of Vermeer, Canaletto, or the Dutch masters known for finely detailed images. 

Study the works closely and with great intensity. Close your eyes and recall all the details you can. Pay attention to one section of the painting, close your eyes, and envision it, and you should be able to see it with even greater detail.

Motor Memory

Dr. Restak also recommends exercises involving patterns that enhance right hemisphere functioning. Draw free-form designs, memorize them, and reproduce them. 

It’s not only a test of memory, but also of eye-hand coordination and motor memory. You can also memorize and sketch the layout of the room or the seating arrangements at a dinner table. 

“Here’s a personal example that I happen to know right here in Washington,” Dr. Restak said. “A waiter in one of my favorite restaurants never writes anything down. I asked him how he did this. He told me he first memorizes the menu.” 

As the customer orders, he substitutes that item on the menu with a mental picture of the customer. In the kitchen, he re-converts the picture to the menu item. If he forgets anything, he looks again at his internal picture of the customers arranged according to their places on the memorized menu.

All of these examples and exercises draw upon visual-spatial information to memorize nonverbal material. Not only do they help improve your memory, but they also strengthen your often-neglected right hemisphere, boosting your overall brain power.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.