So You Want To Be A Mentat

Mentats are described in Frank Herbert's Dune as "a class of Imperial citizens trained for supreme accomplishments in logic - Human Computers." They can survey astonishing quantities of information and perform analytical feats - all without computers.


(Thufir Hawat, Mentat to the Atreides)

Here is a basic outline of the Mentat "feature list:"

  1. Extraordinary capacity for conscious information acquisition
  2. Rapid computation skills
  3. Near total recall
  4. Unshakable concentration
  5. Calculates human and social costs without emotion
  6. Wide-ranging analytical talents (social, financial, military)
Are there any tools or techniques available that could help? Let's take a look at these items one-by-one.

1. Extraordinary capacity for conscious information acquisition

There are a variety of different methods that supposedly increase your ability to take in information. Early work by psychologists was done using the tachistoscope, a machine that flashes words before the user at a set rate. Additional work was done in trying to increase the size of the reader's field of focus. The Evelyn Wood Speed Reading method was well-known in the 1960's. (She coined the term "speed reading."

A variety of methods have been evolved to help people acquire different kinds of information. Hermann Ebbinghaus introduced the idea of a "learning curve" in the late 19th century. The would-be Mentat would be able to surmount a steep learning curve effortlessly.

Individuals have shown remarkable results, so there is some real potential here. However, no study I'm aware of has distinguished between people who had a remarkable natural capacity, and those who were average and became extraordinary.

2. Rapid computation skills

There are a variety of different tricks for performing math in your head; some of these methods work well enough to encourage the idea that a person could have Mentat-level calculation skills.

One typical example that I recall reading about in the 1960's was the Trachtenberg speed system. Trachtenberg was a Holocaust survivor who created the system himself in a Nazi concentration camp. His method consists of a number of different tricks to make particular mathematical operations easier to perform without pencil and paper.

My personal interest in speed calculation waned when I noticed that a) science and math teachers tended to make the answers "come out even", b) slide rules worked well enough when only 2-3 significant figures were required and (the death knell) c) hand-held calculators were right around the corner.

Heinlein fans will recall the calculation method mastered by the "man who was too lazy to fail" in his Lazarus Long collection Time Enough for Love. By memorizing a table of logarithms, he was able to perform remarkable feats of multiplication and division by simple addition and subtraction.

3. Near total recall

As one of those people with a good memory, I naturally wanted a better one. A variety of books came out starting in the 1960's on improving memory. Most of these books use some sort of a system to make sure you are really paying attention by using some sort of imagery or other mnemonic device.

I was really impressed when Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris' greatest literary creation, is shown to use a memory palace, also called the Method of Loci. The idea is at least several millennia old.

The traditional progenitor of this system was Simonides of Crete. He was attending a dinner with a large number of guests; when he stepped outside, the roof chanced to collapse. He was able to identify all of the mangled remains by going remembering their positions relative to each other.

The basic idea is that you remember a place, or a journey, well enough to visualize it. Then, you take the first of the facts to be memorized, and "walk" to the first location. Then you create a fantastic image that helps you remember the details of the fact. Off you go to the second location, where you create another image. By mentally "retracing your steps" and examining each image, you can recall the facts.

Mnemonics is another favorite; it takes time and concentration to create a good mnemonic, which reveals it as another trick to get you pay careful attention. It also puts facts into an ordered set, which provides additional information. For example, all physics and astronomy students remember the spectral types of stars in order by temperature - OBAFGKMRNS - using the mnemonic "oh, be a fine girl, kiss me right now, sweetie."

Putting the facts in the form of a rhyme or song also helps; back in the day, I could reel off all 180 four line stanzas (plus lengthy introductory mantras) of my favorite meditation text from memory with no problem. I can remember all the words to "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mixalot using the same method.

4. Unshakable concentration

This brings us to concentration; there is no substitute. My daughter claims that she is at her learning peak when she is "multi-tasking," which is what she calls it when she is a) watching "America's Top Model," b) instant messaging friends on a laptop, c) listening to music and d) studying - all at the same time. As soon as her grades start to slip, I'll get my chance to defend the virtues of concentrating on one thing at a time.

Methods of forcing human beings to concentrate are as old as humanity. Most religions have some sort of tradition of improving concentration. Modern meditation teachers detach the methods from the religion for you.

As a sidebar on concentration, I would add that Mentats are known to use a substance, sapho juice, to "amplify mental powers." The idea that there is a materialist method (that is, some sort of pill) for improving one's concentration and mental powers is undergoing a real renaissance now.

5. Calculates human and social costs without emotion

It is very difficult to calculate and evaluate without emotion. Warren Buffett can do it, and most financial gurus believe that it is one of the keys to his success.

Mentats were famed for using Zen-like states of concentration - the Mentat semitrance - to enter new heights of one-pointed meditation on their data.

There are software products available that teach stock trading without emotion; the StockReflex simulator claims to help people learn to trade without being unduly influenced by fear and greed.

6. Wide-ranging analytical talents (social, financial, military)

This is probably the most difficult area for those who would like to become a Mentat. Although business schools teach that once you have learned the necessary principles, you can analyze any business situation, I've found it to be more difficult. Unless you know the details, you can't really master any situation well enough to perform a successful analysis.


(Piter de Vries, Mentat to the Harkonnens)

You might as well begin your Mentat training by carefully studying and memorizing all of the technology of Dune. Thanks to Adi for suggesting this topic.

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