Password Brain Teaser: Too Many Passwords or Not Enough Brain Power?

We all know we shouldn't write down passwords on Sticky Notes, but we do because our brain can't possibly recall them all. Or can it? One researcher says we can memorize much more if we change the way we recall and store this information.

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The under-30 generation fared even worse with important dates, such the birthdays of close family members: 87 percent over 50 could remember the details, compared with just 40 percent of those under 30.

Other research proves the idea that the brain needs to be "exercised" to make it stronger. In 2007, Stanford University researchers discovered that "the brain's ability to suppress irrelevant memories makes it easier for humans to remember what's really important," notes a Stanford News Service article. For example, passwords that have to be changed every six months are an opportunity to forget an old one and remember a new one.

"The extent to which these brain mechanisms weaken the old password, then they don't have to be used as much in future attempts to remember the new one," says Anthony Wagner, a professor in Stanford's psychology department. "From a neural standpoint, forgetting the old password makes the brain more efficient."

How to Visualize Passwords

Robertson offers one somewhat easy way to remember numerical-based passwords, using what he calls visual imagery. ("This is not mine but a longstanding method," he adds.)

First, you need to create an easy-to-recall rhyming word for each number, one through 10. "One is bun, two is shoe, three is tree, four is door, five is hive, six is sticks, seven is heaven, eight is gate, nine is wine and 10 is hen," Robertson offers. So if, say, your code is 6329, you would first visualize a pile of sticks (for six), that are then spread all around a tree (three), and then there's a shoe (two) hanging on the tree, and lastly a glass of wine (nine) is pouring over the tree.

"If you care to spend a few minutes to do that and assemble the image, then the very act of doing that will make it very easy for you to remember that number," Robertson says. "The first few times will be time consuming and labor intensive. But if you get into a habit, you could remember two or three dozen visual images." The same approach can be used for alphanumeric passwords—letters receive an image: A is apple, B is bee, C is cat and so on.

"The links there embed themselves in the brain much more deeply and widely, such that you will remember that image much more readily than you will remember the verbal encoding" of a password, Robertson says.

Robertson is clear that technology itself is not necessarily a bad thing, however. He says that the jury is still out on whether the tasks that we are presenting the brain today are not having some benefit in ways we don't appreciate right now.

"It may be that that underuse is more than compensated for by the incredibly complex and demanding Grand Theft Auto and other computing games played today," he says. "It might be that much more valuable parts of the brain are being stimulated.

"I'm just saying, just as a bit of a warning signal to the younger generation," Robertson adds, "as more and more cognitive aids and technologies come out, is to realize that if you don't use your memory you won't be able to remember."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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