Jog your me­mory

Hav­ing good re­call is a skill, not a gift

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - BREATHING SPACE - WITH 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.

• OVER­COME YOUR LIM­IT­ING BE­LIEFS 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.

There is no such thing as a good or bad me­mory for names, there is only a good or a bad


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