SECRETS TO A SMARTER YOU
Improve your memory by harnessing the power of words, images and mnemonics
Memory champions share techniques to improve memory and never forget anything.
In an age when your refrigerator can help you manage your shopping list and your phone can answer almost any quest ion, you don’t really need to remember anything anymore. Which makes the feats of memory champions – who can recall hundreds of names and faces, strings of numbers or words or the order of multiple decks of cards – seem more superhuman than ever.
But here’s a nifty little secret about people with phenomenal recall: in a study recently published in the scientific journal Neuron, researchers found that super memorisers don’t have unusually large cerebral regions that allow them to absorb and retain prodigious amounts of information. Their brain structures are essentially the same as those of the rest of us.
Comparing brain scans of 23 memory champions (all placed in the top 50 at the World Memory Championship) with those of 23 average people of the same age, gender and IQ, the scientists found only one difference: in the memory champs’ brains, the regions associated with visual and spatial learning and the regions associated with memory lit up in a specific pattern. In the normal people’s brains, these same regions were activated differently.
Why is this important? Because we learn by seeing, and the more we see, the better we remember things. These super memorisers have perfected a method to convert items they want to remember (numbers, faces, cards, even abstract shapes) into pictures they ‘see’ in their minds. It’s a process called building a memory palace.
Here’s how it works: f irst, you transform your target items into an image – anything you’ll remember. For instance, to remember card sequences, Ed Cooke (recognised as a Grandmaster of Memory by the World Memory Sports Council) told American author Tim Ferriss that he assigns each card a specific celebrity, an action and an object; each three-card combination then forms a unique image with the celeb from the first card, the action from the second and the object from the third.
In his system, the jack of spades, six of spades, and ace of diamonds becomes the Dalai Lama wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress and holding Michael Jordan’s basketball. Cooke’s system is built on the idea that your memory hangs on to unusual cues better than mundane ones.
Then, mentally place that picture somewhere familiar to you: in your
MEMORY CHAMPIONS’ BRAIN STRUCTURES ARE ESSENTIALLY THE SAME AS THOSE OF THE REST OF US
house or a point along your commute, for instance. Finally, make up a story about the items, which will help you connect them in the correct order.
Here are a few of our favourite tricks that can help you to remember things in your everyday life.
To Remember: New words
Technique: Change routine
In a classic study conducted at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, a group of students studied a list of words in two separate sessions. Some studied in a small cluttered room and some in a space with two windows and a one-way mirror. One group of studiers spent both sessions in the same room, while the other split the sessions between the two environments. During a test given in a completely different room, the students who studied in multiple places recalled 53 per cent more than those who studied in just one room.
Subsequent studies showed that varying other aspects of your environment (the time of day, the music in the background, whether you sit or stand, etc.) can also help recall. The theory is that your brain links the words to the context around you, and the more contextual cues you associate with the words, the more your brain has to draw upon when it’s trying to remember them.
To Remember: Your PIN
Technique: Count it out
You could use your birthday, of course, or your phone number, but identity thieves have a way of ferreting those out. Instead, try this tip from Dominic O’Brien, an eight-time World Memory Champion. Write a four-word sentence, then count the number of letters in each word. For instance, “This is my PIN” = 4223.
To Remember: Facts and figures
Technique: Give yourself time
Mum was right: cramming is not the best way to memorise things. To learn and recall statistics (or pretty much any kind of factual information), reviewing the material periodically over a longer span of time is far more effective than repeating it in a shorter one.
This technique dates as far back as 1885, when psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that he could learn a list of nonsense words if he repeated them 68 times in one day and
seven more times before being tested the next day. But he could learn the same number of words equally well by repeating them a total of 38 times over the course of three days.
More recent research has demonstrated optimal intervals for study sessions: if your exam is one week away, study today and then again in a day or two. If it’s a month away, study today and then wait a week before your second study session. Three months off? Wait three weeks to restudy. The further away your exam, the longer the optimal interval between your first two study sessions. (A final review the day before the test is also a good idea.)
To Remember: A new language
Technique: Read and listen
In a study conducted at the University of Puerto Rico, 137 Spanish-speaking students were separated into two groups. Over the course of eight weeks, one group read a book in English while simultaneously listening to an English audio version; the other just read the book silently. Each week, all the students took a quiz. Those who both read and listened outscored the reading-only group on all eight quizzes.
To Remember: Faces
Technique: Focus on noses
While some super memorisers specialise in associating names with faces (one of the disciplines in the World Memory Championships), the memory-palace technique doesn’t work as well if the image of the face is cropped, normalised for colour, or changed in any other way.
Remembering faces and recognising them in different contexts may be a special skill that several studies have linked to personality: extroverts are much better at recognising faces than introverts, for example. One trick that may work: rather than focusing on someone’s eyes, as most people do, focus on the centre or to the left of the nose. The theory is that doing so allows you to take in the whole face at once.
To Remember: A shopping list
Technique: Engage your body
How often have you written your list – and then forgotten where you put it? In this variation on the memory palace, picture the items on your shopping list with different parts of your body. For instance, imagine balancing a package of cheese on your head, an egg on your nose and a bottle of milk on your shoulder.
REMEMBERING AND RECOGNISING FACES MAY BE A SPECIAL SKILL LINKED TO PERSONALITY