Like many of my peers, I never learned to locate the countries of the world, and I've always felt disadvantaged when I read about nations I can't place. So last year, I decided to memorize the locations of all 195 countries.
The difficulty of the task was part of its appeal. The aging mind needs challenges, and I knew that this exercise would test my memory — and hopefully strengthen it. My spatial ability is poor, but psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that mental abilities are not fixed: We can improve them if we believe we can. Dweck calls this attitude a growth mind-set.
Armed with my own growth mind-set, I started with the Middle East. It's always in the news, so at least the names were familiar, but I had a hard time anchoring down their places. What I'd learned on Monday, I forgot by Wednesday, so every day I had to go over it all. For 10 minutes each weekday, I stared at maps. Finally, I mastered the region's 17 countries.
On to Africa! It has 54 countries, most of which rarely appear in the news. Here, I used mnemonic devices. In southeast Africa, for example, I seized on “the 4 Z's" — Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Then my first grandchild was born, and I had a new Z to think about: Zadie. For days I stopped memorizing countries and instead gazed at photos of the baby. When I got back to my Africa map, I'd forgotten Gabon, as well as the Republic of the Congo, even though it's right next door to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Clearly, I would backslide if I didn't rigorously cleave to my practice.
Europe was next. Only after many days staring at Hungary and Austria did I recall that, at age 10, I failed my interview for the TV program Quiz Kids by being unable to name more than two landlocked European countries. Could this failure be the deep reason for my current obsession?