“I have always been a problem solver…that was always in me… that sense of wanting to solve the problem.”
Helen Devereux is a U3APP Tutor and has run a number of courses: Japan from Your Armchair, Grand Ridge from Your Armchair, Trivia (in the holidays), Japanese for Travellers and Memory for Fun, with a new Memory course commencing July 2023.
Helen was born and raised in North Balwyn. Her father was a Senior Victorian Police Officer. This provided an interesting background during her formative years. Her father was involved in a number of projects. “He was one of the first to go to the FBI Academy, spending 3 months in the USA. He introduced bulletproof glass into banks amongst other reforms. He headed up homicide for a number of years. Everyone loves a good murder mystery TV show, well I had the real thing at home over dinner most nights. I loved it.”
As a child Helen would visit the stables of the police horses. She recalls fondly the well-known horse Gendarme. “He was a big drummer horse, he would lead the parade through the city, back in the seventies.” She had horses of her own, stabled in Templestowe.
“I suppose the biggest heartbreak was not joining the police force. All I ever wanted to do was to become a police officer in the mounted division. But unfortunately, I was too short! Back in the seventies, there was a height restriction of 5ft 4inches, and I didn’t make it.”
In the late 1980s, Helen had an opportunity to join the police force when they changed the height restrictions. Other restrictions were also removed, such as “being flatfooted, certain eyesight issues, a whole range of things, which looking back now, were quite ridiculous.” But by that time, Helen’s work life had evolved in new directions along with caring for three young children, “so I just let it all go and focused on memory and the other things that I found fascinating.”
How did this evolve? “I did various things. I started off initially working for some QCs in Melbourne. I then shifted to Industrial Relations with Coles. I was given the task of computerising the national wage increase for every type of employee. Computers were very new then. I was thrown in at the deep end with no formal training and ended up writing code for the formula using a program called Datatrieve and Basic.”
Helen elaborates further, “I think it was a bit like learning a foreign language. You just had to understand the syntax and structure. This led me to writing a program to analyse theft and fraud for Myer.”
Do you have any comments about fraud today? “Fraud as we all know is prevalent in society. It is important to follow advice, such as, if you don’t recognise the number and you answer the phone, don’t speak. Your voice may be recorded, transposed, and used to imitate you. Never give any information about your bank or personal details to anyone who phones YOU.”
How did it come about, your interest in learning a foreign language? “That’s a long story, it goes back to the 1980s. I was doing some community radio work with 96.5 Inner FM. We would interview people from Meals on Wheels and other community groups. Another program at the station introduced a topic on the human mind. It was then I became aware of memory techniques.”
Helen taught herself memory techniques from a simple library book as at that time there were limited resources and no specific courses. “After learning the techniques, I wanted to put them to use and learn something new. So, I decided to study a foreign language.” Helen considered Japanese would be more challenging than French. She attended Japan Seminar House in Burwood where one of her fellow students, a secondary school teacher asked her, “how come you appear to be doing better than the rest of us?” Helen responded, “It’s because I am using memory techniques.” She was then invited to do a presentation to Year 11 students and teachers. This led to her running a series of courses with Holmesglen, CAE, Casey, community houses, schools, and a number of private businesses. The most memorable course was perhaps teaching memory skills and techniques at Barwon Prison.
Barwon Prison? “It was part of their education program. It was a two-day course on consecutive Thursdays. There were 15 in the group.” Helen was advised she would not be told about the criminal history of the group until after lunch on the first day. It turned out most of the group had committed murder and were long term prisoners. Some were in prison for well-publicised murders she had read about. “It was kind of strange, kind of scary, but they were probably one of the best groups I have ever taught. They were very, very polite. I guess you could say they were a ‘captive’ audience.”
Why do you think you have developed this interest in mnemonics and memory techniques? “I have always been a problem solver. As a child, if my mother couldn’t find something, I made it my job, I had to find it. That was always in me, that sense of solving the problem. And I just love learning.”
“Memory skills are not for everybody, but I find it personally challenging and satisfying to be able to reel off say, every state of America, every capital city in the world, or every oscar winning film by year.”
Helen explains further, “It’s like taking your brain from guessing, to a very deliberate structure, where you can control it. I am in control of what I am doing when it comes to specific memory. I can of course still forget things.”
“Children and young adults can have a tip-of-the-tongue, (TOT) experience, but it does increase in frequency as we get older. I just say to people, if you experience a TOT, stop immediately. Your neural pathways have just sent you down the wrong track. Just let it ease back on itself and it will find it for you…the brain is so incredible.”
Tell me more about mnemonics. “This is just another word for anything that aids memory. Like tying a piece of string around your finger, for instance.”
(Mnemonic devices are techniques that were developed by the ancient Greeks thousands of years ago to help them memorise lengthy speeches. Quote from The Learning Scientists.)
“Converting numbers into words. Words are more tangible than numbers, they conjure up an image. Then there is Loci, a very old system where you are setting up locations in your brain that follow a particular order.”
“With names, you look for some way of tying in something about the person’s appearance with their name. If you do something extra, for example, form an association, you have a much better chance of recalling the information. I call it two second memory. Just do something.”
Together with Carolyn Angelin, Helen will run Memory for Fun and General Knowledge classes, commencing in July 2023.
Helen is firmly of the view that “it is really important for people to know that you can keep growing your brain. Neuroplasticity is part of what we look at in this course.”
“The U3APP is a fabulous environment to keep our minds stimulated, to meet interesting people and make lifelong friends.”
Your trip to Japan? Helen took a small group of U3APP members to Japan in March of this year. This group (Japanese for Travellers) would meet on zoom or at Helen’s apartment every week. “We really had a lovely group and developed our own pathway towards learning Japanese.”
Tell me a little about this “pathway.” Helen explained they commenced learning particular key sentences, using a couple of memory skills to aid them. These included words and phrases they might need on a visit to Japan. “It was probably after we were 12 months into the course that we started to talk seriously about going to Japan.”
They would meet up and go out for Japanese meals. “A Japanese friend would do cooking demonstrations. We became very close and decided to go to Japan once Covid restrictions permitted this.” Helen notes with much sadness Sheila Quairney was a member of this group although she did not accompany them to Japan due to personal commitments. “While we were in Japan, we sent Sheila photos and messages, so she was part of the experience.”
Helen spent a week with family members before meeting up with the U3APP group in Kyoto. “We couldn’t believe we were at last actually meeting up in Japan.” They went to Naoshima, an island of contemporary art and sculpture (the famous Pumpkin installation), Okayama (one of the three famous gardens), Uji (green tea area), Hozugawa (river cruise) and Kurashiki (the Venice of Japan).
“We did some interesting things. We would find a bar and have a drink, enjoy a meal together, then walk the streets at night, taking it all in. Karaoke was a highlight. The whole experience was very bonding. Japan is so incredibly clean, polite, and so safe. I think these are huge factors for older travellers. Kyoto is probably my favourite place.”
Helen has plans to form another travel group, in a year or so.
Other interests? “Well, probably just driving in the countryside, doing things with my grandchildren, walking my dog, riding my bike, computers and writing.”
Creative writing. Helen received an Award from the 2022 Port Phillip Writes Festival. She enjoys writing short stories “with a twist.” Her last year’s entry is titled, ‘Captain Google’.
Helen has been fascinated throughout her life with the challenges inherent to problem solving. She developed a specific interest in memory techniques, applying their usefulness to learning a foreign language, expanding her general knowledge, amongst other skills.
She enjoys the personal challenge of furthering her studies, particularly those relating to brain development and neuroplasticity.
U3APP members are fortunate to have the opportunity provided by Helen to expand their knowledge and awareness of the different techniques used in learning a foreign language, practising memory techniques, encouraging confidence when a tip of the tongue pushes you down the wrong pathway.
We are now living longer. Acquisition of memory techniques, assisting confidence and a sense of wellbeing, is being actively sought by both the older and also younger generations.
Felicity May interviewed Helen Devereux