Why Jacko sought 'memory man' and his keys to genius
People need to keep the mind fit and active to fulfil their potential, expert Tony Buzan tells Ed Power
THERE'S a crack in Tony Buzan's plummy voice as he reminisces about his friendship with Michael Jackson. "I spent 10 days with him. His main passion was not fame or money – it was learning and developing intelligence and genius."
Buzan (71) is a leading authority on memory and how we can use it to maximise our potential. He has written more than 20 books on the subject and is an advocate for the 'mind mapping' technique, whereby visual cues are utilised to trigger recollections.
Jackson sought the Englishman out having read several of his bestsellers. He wanted to harness his own formidable mental talents – and to teach his children, Michael Joseph, Paris and Prince, to do likewise.
"He was eager to know, 'what is genius?' How do you develop it? Pass it onto your children? He was very focused. His heroes were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin – and Charlie Chaplin.
"Michael believes Chaplin was the most creative, the most sensitive, the most receptive and brilliant entertainer. Chaplin had the most enormous vocabulary even though most people didn't think he spoke at all. Michael wanted to study their genius."
Buzan told Jackson the same thing he tells all his students: that memory is one of our most important attributes, even as it has become increasingly devalued in the modern world. In the years since the singer's death, the truth of this statement is more obvious than ever.
In our age of smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity, it is easy to regard memory as a quaint leftover from another time. Why go to the trouble of recalling anything when all the knowledge in the world is at your fingertips?
"Memory is based on imagination, on the optical senses and on creativity," says Buzan. "When you (develop) your memory, your mental and cognitive skills get stronger."
Conversely, if we allow memory to wilt away – through the wholesale outsourcing of its functions to technology, for instance – the brain inevitably suffers, turning flabby and weak.
"Everything becomes weaker and your life becomes forgetful," says Buzan. "You start to lose your self-confidence. If you take memory out of your mind, what is left? It is like an empty building – the building is crumbling and tumbling. You have to build it, you have to strengthen it."
This may sound highly abstract. However, Buzan's solutions to the problem are reassuringly concrete. Far from an inevitable side-effect of the internet age, we can actively address the dwindling of our memory with a series of exercises – the mental equivalent of 20 push-ups in the morning.
"There are a number of ways of improving memory," says Buzan. "You can train your imagination – in other words, ensure your memory is imaginative. One means is to daydream. You 'direct' your daydreams. This exercises the imagination and the memory.
"Let's say you are day-dreaming about learning to drive, getting a nice house or a nice mate. As soon as you think about that, and 'direct' (the thoughts), you increase the possibility you will get it.
"When you focus on that, you will find that you remember more. It is exciting and invigorating."
If this seems counter-intuitive it is because in school we are taught that daydreaming and imagination are childish. Therefore, we have to push against the prejudice that tells us that being "colourful and playful" in how we use our brains is wrong.
Physical health is also key to a keen memory. Mind and body function in synthesis – so if you are overweight and torpid your cognitive abilities inevitably suffer.
Buzan says: "When you are fit, especially in the cardiovascular sense, your heart works better – your blood works better. It is akin to a Formula One car. If there is good petrol in the body, then your brain is better powered. If you are using low-grade fuel it goes more slowly and breaks down."
Often the best way to boost your memory, he suggests, is by engaging more fully with the world around. Don't just dash through life pell-mell. Appreciate all that it has to offer. Luxuriate in it.
"Leonardo da Vinci said the best way to use your brain is to employ all your senses and I fully support that.
"Most people look but don't see, they listen but they don't hear, they touch and they don't feel ... they talk and they don't think.
"When you reverse that – you look and you see, you touch and you feel, the memory really grows. This is the way to meet people. You become socially more popular. Others understand that you care because you are interested – you remember their names and so forth."
The fear that the internet may be profoundly reshaping our memory is supported by data. A 2010 study in the medical journal 'Science' suggests that we don't remember as much as people did in the pre-internet age.
Conversely, we have become very good at retrieving the information we are seeking via the web with the minimum of disruption. "The internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves," said the authors.
In his book 'Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art of Science and Remembering Everything', meanwhile, science writer Joshua Foer suggests that, on average, we 'squander' 40 days a year compensating for things we have forgotten.
While it is popular to blame technology for the decline in cognitive ability, Buzan believes memory has been undervalued for centuries.
He pins culpability on formal education, which has historically stressed the importance of following instructions and letting others do the thinking for you.
'Education emerged from the military industrial complex. People needed to be taught how to work in a factory or in an army. It sounds like the wrong approach nowadays. Back then, however, if you were a soldier or a factory worker, things became disrupted when you tried to change things.
"If a general said, 'all right everyone climb a hill and engage with that group over there' ... well, if the soldiers started to think for themselves and say 'well, we could do that – or we could do something else' then the enemy would quickly be all over them."
In the information era, though, new ways of teaching and thinking are required, he says. "Images and colours and associations are the balustrades of memory," says Buzan.
"They are memory. And yet, around the world, children are taught to take notes in black. Black is a monotone colour. It is monotonous. And if something is monotonous you tune out and shut down.
"That is why memory is regarded as unimportant and boring. It's drab – we've got the internet, who needs memory?"
This he suggests is a disastrous mindset. "It's like saying, 'I have a car. Someone can drive me places. I don't need to move. I don't need to pull and lift. Actually, I don't really need my body at all'.
"Consequently, the body goes weak, it goes flabby. That is why people suffer from so many illnesses. It's the same with memory. You meet people and fail to remember their names, you go to the airport and realise you have forgotten your passport. If you don't use your memory, memory doesn't work."