Saturday 15 December 2018

Jog your memory

Having good recall is a skill, not a gift

'There are plenty of techniques that we can employ to improve memory'
'There are plenty of techniques that we can employ to improve memory'
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I've lost count of the number of younger people who have told me that their memory isn't what it once was.

They can't remember the name of the documentary they watched last month, the Spanish word they learned last week, or the joke they were told in the pub last night.

Sound familiar? Well, we can at least take comfort from the fact that we're not alone. Neuroscientist Dr Manfred Spritzer has coined a term for this phenomenon - digital dementia - and he says it's a rising concern among people who rely heavily on digital devices.

Our general apathy towards this epidemic only makes matters worse. There are plenty of techniques that we can employ to improve memory but most people labour under the misconception that they have no control over its function. They think of the brain as a machine with limited space and built-in obsolescence and, besides, they have Siri…

"People assume that memory decline is a function of being human, and therefore natural," said Tony Buzan - the inventor of Mind Mapping - when he was interviewed as part of Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking With Einstein.

"But that is a logical error, because normal is not necessarily natural. The reason for the monitored decline in human memory performance is because we actually do anti-Olympic training.

"What we do to the brain is the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks 10 cans of beer a day, smokes 50 cigarettes, drives to work, and maybe does some exercise once a month that's violent and damaging, and spends the rest of the time watching television."

There was a time when I thought of digital dementia as an unfortunate yet inevitable symptom of modern life. I'm now beginning to realise that defeatism is half the problem. Memory is a skill, not a gift, and even those who have forgotten how to remember can learn some simple techniques that will instantly improve their recall.

Here are just a few of them.


Our limiting beliefs about our cognitive function affect our memory consolidation. This was proved in a study which found that middle-aged and older learners perform worse on memory tasks when they are exposed to negative stereotypes about ageing and memory. The takeaway? Stop telling yourself that your memory is declining and instead focus on the idea of improving your memory with training.


Our tendency to rely on the internet as an aide-mémoire is what researchers call 'cognitive offloading'. And whether it's Google or GPS, they've found that these online resources are affecting our thought processes for problem solving, recall and learning.

If you want to improve your recall, get out of the habit of going to the internet for answers and try to remember from memory instead.


"There is no such thing as a good or bad memory for names," writes Grandmaster Kevin Horsley in Unlimited Memory, "there is only a good or a bad strategy.

"Imagine you meet a person and they say that they will give you a million dollars if you could remember their name a week from today," he adds. "Would you then remember it? Of course you would. We are all brilliant at names if we are motivated enough to hold on to them."

Horsley tells readers to repeat the name back to the person to improve recall and, if it's a difficult name, to spell it out. Next, he recommends that they make an image out of the name, which brings us to…


The Baker/baker paradox is often used to explain why people forget names. If you meet a person at a party and they tell you that their surname is Baker, chances are you'll forget it within a few minutes. If they tell you that they're a baker by profession, however, you'll more than likely remember. This is because we make instant visual connections to bakers as a profession, but not so much with Baker as a family name. So if you want to commit an abstract concept to memory, establish a clear visual connection.


Dominic O'Brien, who went from forgetting appointments to becoming an eight-time World Memory Champion, says "the key to a perfect memory is your imagination". The more exaggerated a mental image, the more likely it is to stick.

Take Horsley's technique for remembering the various parts of the brain as an example. He imagines a Pharaoh wearing red lip gloss for the Glossopharyngeal, the Las Vegas sign for the Vagus nerve and a hippo wearing red lip gloss for the Hypoglossal. They're visuals that you won't forget in a hurry - and that's the point.


When they need to memorise a group of items, the memory masters imagine them placed, in sequence, in a familiar setting. They might use their home - hallway, living room, kitchen, etc, or their body - eyes, nose, mouth, etc.

Take a shopping list of eggs, orange juice and butter, for example. You might imagine cracked eggs splattered all over the hallway, a river of orange juice running through the living room and butter oozing out of the kitchen taps.

At first, it will feel like you're retaining additional information but, with practice, you'll realise that we learn by association, and the sillier associations are often the ones that stick.

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