LPN interview with Dana Steinova



Fate had a hand 22 years ago in turning Dana Steinova into a passionate memory trainer who has shared her know-how in countries around the world. At the time she was already busy creating a formidable legacy in the Czech Republic, working to vitalize aging through education and cultural activities.

While on maternity leave from 1983 to 1985, with her fifth and sixth children, she founded the Club for Active Elderly, a platform of social contact for lonely elderly. Active aging was then still a largely uncultivated field in the Czech Republic. Beginning in 1986, she she started and gradually implemented a variety of novel initiatives, such as the U3A (University of the Third Age) movement. In 1993, she founded her own intergenerational non-vocational educational project and introduced memory training in her country.

Nowadays, she runs the self-financed Center of Lifelong Learning, which has an enrollment of 3,500 mostly senior students, in Prague. She has been the head of the Czech Society for Memory Training and Brain Jogging since it was established in 1998. Besides that, she is the head of the Prague Senior Council and the secretary general of EURAG/European Federation of Older Persons. She is scheduled to talk at the New England quarterly meeting on June 26, be the featured speaker for the LPN summer webinar, and give a weeklong memory training workshop July 13-17 for LPN in Weston, Massachusetts. She recently talked with Bruce Frankel, LPN communications chair and co-chair of LPN New England, about memory training and her experience teaching it.


How did you become involved with memory training?

I was invited to the European Symposium on Memory Training in May 1993. It was organized by the Council of Europe in Rüschlikon, near Zurich, Switzerland. By chance I sat next to Belgian psychologist Arlette van Assel during dinner, and she asked me, “When were you been born? Let me guess...not in 1949?”

Yes, in 1949.” She went on, “Not in September?” “Yes, in September,” I said. “Not on 13th???” “Yes, on 13th!!!”

So we realized that we were born on the same day, month and year! And I asked my newfound twin to come to Prague and give a seminar on memory training. She could not possibly refuse! And that was the beginning of memory training in the Czech Republic and my becoming a memory trainer.

Shortly after I became a trainer, I moved to the U.S. so that my children could have a year of American schooling. I gave my first memory training class in New Hampshire. It brought me great satisfaction. The participants looked happy and contented as well. After my return to Prague, I invited more foreign experts to expand the scope of knowledge of the Czech trainers. We were building optimal know-how from different sources.

Do you teach the art of memory, or mnemonics, much the way the Greeks and Romans have since Simonides and the Greek sophists?

Yes, my approach is based upon mnemonics, but the strategy and philosophy, which I added to it, is what works so miraculously. Its power is in its ability to change the mindset of people who suffer from memory lapses, people who are giving up, accepting their memory problems as inevitable, something that belongs to the natural process of aging. The trainer is trained to convince the participant that, in reality, they have tremendous mental potential. Memory training is addictive, not only for me, a memory trainer, but also for people who come to the class. Most of them become memory-training addicts. I have been teaching one group since 1998, they are determined to attend the class till the end of their days.


Does memory training restore or improve brain function?

Have you ever wondered what the brains of those winners of memory championships look like? Are they bigger? Do they have more neurons or more synapses? No, they posses a normal brain, but they mastered the art of mnemonics and they are taking advantage of it. They are activating special circuits in the brain which people who are not familiar with such techniques leave idle.


Your course certifies memory trainers to train others. What’s your goal for your students in the course?

The trainer must be able to convince people that they are good, that they have only underestimated their own skills for a long time. And that they are able to remember things that others believe impossible to recall. The trainer must be able to give people tangible proof of their potential—otherwise people would never believe him. Additionally, the trainer must be able to provide such proof quickly, within minutes!

Is the importance of memory training more social than cognitive?

It’s good that cognitive and social effects are so connected. People learn how to remember well and usually don’t resist performing their new skills in front of family members, friends. Here’s an example: There was a lady in her early 80s who learned how to remember telephone numbers. Great! But, now think twice—will anyone be impressed that she can remember a telephone number? No, everybody can do that, if he makes a certain effort. So her homework for the next class was to learn the first 100 digits of Pi. It takes no more than half an hour; it is a primitive technique.


Why Pi? Why does she need to learn first 100 digits of Pi?

It’s true—she didn’t need that knowledge for daily life. But nobody around her can remember anything like it. It seems astonishing to them that she can remember it! What’s more, others can easily check on her to see if she gets it right, because it is an existing number, you can print it from the Internet.

The next time I saw the woman, I could see how she was excited with her new achievement. I asked, “Could you resist the temptation to show off in front of your family members"? She confessed, "I could not, I showed off in front of my 15 year old grandson."

"And what was his reaction?" I asked impatiently.

Grandma, I have never considered you to be an idiot, but you have just convinced me that you are a GENIUS! Ms Steinova, I could never ever buy a medication in any pharmacy, for any amount of money that could do what that did. And imagine, my grandson started to consider me an equal partner. He started to consult with me about his problems! In the past when I asked him something, he would always say the same thing: "I don’t want to waste my time explaining this to you because you won’t understand anyway!"


What evidence is there that memory training has those salutary or beneficial effects?

The best evidence is that people can really remember better. I am convinced that the positive expectation plays an important role. Once people get proof that they can remember well, they start to approach any new information with positive expectation that they will remember it and it does affect the result.

So the outcome is that they minimize the memory lapses in daily life. They do not need any calendar, because they keep the full year in their mind and can tell you what day of the week is any date in the present year. They can easily remember shopping list with 150 items or any line of digits, they improve their ability to remember faces and names. In my classes people can remember 100 Czech rulers on positions or 30 statues on the Charles Bridge in Prague, or the list of American presidents or 50 U.S. states—which does not take more than 20 minutes—or anything else what they wish. And there is one more effect of memory training class— it’s a great way of socializing.

Some scientists say that the elderly are not able to transfer the mnemonics into daily life. What nonsense! Those scientists have never tried it.


Will taking the training teach students how to improve their own memories?

Definitely, they have to demonstrate to themselves that they have mastered the curriculum. How could they teach others if they didn’t know how it works? They will be the first to feel like geniuses themselves. And they will be surprised to learn that all that overwhelming result is only a side effects, that we can minimize memory lapses. But that is not the most important gain. With mnemonics we are exercising new parts of our brain and building our brain reserve which can be beneficial in the case of stroke, brain injury or onset of dementia.


Do you have to continue to practice the memory training to benefit?

Whatever we learn we have to repeat once in a while, otherwise we forget that knowledge, or better said, it will become less accessible. But we never memorize in memory training. It is a hard work and no fun, and it is time-consuming. Whatever we learn with mnemonics, however is durable. We are taking advantage of a rope that takes us safely around the edge of the abyss.... but we have to go back to it every three months or so to refresh that knowledge. If you learn something by heart then you have to repeat it over and over not to forget it. That’s the difference.


One of the issues for memory as we age is that our level of distractibility increases and we lose working memory.

The youngsters can do several activities at the same time without any difficulties. With age, we lose the ability to multitask. And we have difficulties concentrating.  When we watch youngsters at work or play or talking, it looks to us as if they are surrounded by an invisible wall. Nothing can distract them. Nothing intrudes. Even if you call them to dinner a hundred times they don’t hear you. They seem oblivious. But as we age, the wall around us gets thinner and we are unable to resist distractions. In the program, we use a special concentration exercise that help us to make the wall around us thicker again.


Will you describe working memory and explain how memory training reduces distraction and increases the ability to manipulate information in memory, if it does?

The relationship between short-term memory and working memory is described differently in different sources. Generally, it is believed that the name of working memory is derived from work. That is, we are working, manipulating information. We are only equipped with a very limited capacity for short-term memory. It seems that youngsters between 16-23 years of age not only have a larger capacity for short-term memory, they also possess more efficient working memory.

Working memory is the only stage of memory that can be trained. It is where our program’s intervention goes. We are able to improve the working relationship between the short-term while exercising the working memory and long-term memory to such extent that we can be sure that the information will be not only successfully processed but also easily retrievable in the future. That´s why it is so important to teach the older population how to work or manipulate information in order to distinguish it from all the other petty things that our brain is not interested in. We teach them to serve their brains only such food as it wants. If you make information attractive and truly digestible, and it is evident that even the aging brain can’t resist processing such information successfully.

There are a lot of brain training systems online, including BrainHQ (formerly Posit Science) and Luminosity. Do they have value?

There is not enough scientific evidence to claim that computer-based cognitive training really helps. Too many scientists who claim that it does are on the payroll of these brain game companies. On the other hand, serious research has never been done examining what mnemonics can do for the elderly. Therefore, some scientists are doubtful that it works. I have for some time been traveling the world doing memory training, and the results are always the same. At the end of my lecture, people are astonished. But don’t be mistaken. They’re not astonished with me because I’m such a great memory trainer… they’re astonished with themselves and how great they are! And that’s what makes this so worthwhile for me.