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Memories are Made of This  

Taking a look at the wonderful world of memory and exploring why it is that we can remember some things with ease, whilst others just seem to be a blank.

by Stuart Brown

Memory is the glue that binds our past with our present and makes us what we are. Descartes said, 'I think, therefore I am', and yet in a truer sense he should have said 'I remember, therefore I am', because without memories what are we?

Thinking about memory is hardly a new thing though. The whole edifices upon which current ideas of memory development are built were first established with the Greeks, and other oral cultures that relied upon word of mouth to spread their ideas. In such a setting it is perhaps not surprising that methods of remembering developed that were more advanced then simply repeating back fifty times and hoping for the best.

To go beyond where we currently are we need a new way of reflecting on the world around us. It seems strange that if I were to ask you to describe your couch to me that you can do it in remarkable detail, and yet if I ask you for a scientific fact that you learned at school your mind is a miracle of blankness. What's the difference? The same engine (your brain) is driving both mechanisms, and yet for one you are blessed with photographic type powers and for the other your resistance is so great that you are convinced that you probably never learned the fact after all. That it was instead some other 'younger you' that used to possess mastery of 'the force' that has since deserted you.

Nothing could be further from the truth of course. The 'Good' you; the Jedi Knight who can lift the weight of a spaceship with the sheer force of his mind; and the 'Bad' you; the Darth Vader character who is constrained by the black mask of blankness are one and the same. The problem is not with your brain. It is with how you choose to use it.

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Lets take the two and have a think… When I ask you to describe your couch what do you do? I'll tell you what I do. For me, I go in my mind to my living room. Stand next to my couch and take a good look at it up and down, and then just describe what I see. In fact I don't do any 'active' memorising at all. It is all remarkably painless. It's green, slightly faded, has low arms etc. In fact, apart from being in my head it almost looks good enough to sit on!

But ask me the atomic weight of uranium and I have no idea (In case you are curious to know the atomic weights you can find all of them here). Literally, 'nothing springs to mind'. Now why is that? Why can I tell you all about my couch from every angle, and yet a scientific fact that I once knew is totally absent?

Lets start by doing our Indiana Jones bit. Now, if you have ever watched any of the Indiana Jones series of films (I highly recommend them for strained brains everywhere); then you will know that Indiana is a somewhat dashing Archaeologist type, who, when he isn't being swooned at by girls in his lecture classes, is off around the worlds exotic hot spots looking for lost booty. Only, he cannot just stumble upon the stuff. The world is a big place, and to know where to look he has to follow a whole series of clues that through logical deduction lead him to find the goodies.

The brain is not too different. It is a wonderful piece of work. Dashing and attractive in its own wrinkled kind of way, and able to store away vast amounts of gold in its neuronal pathways. We swoon at its ability to solve problems, and curse at its seeming intractability to give up the facts that we felt sure were stored within. So, we need to give it clues.

Now, ironically with our rather boring old couch we do this automatically. We have an image of our couch that we can replay in our minds eye at will. But with our atomic number we are totally clueless. The number has no associative links. It employs no imagination. It has no particular location that we impart to it. And so, guess what…You forget it.

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Used in this way is it any wonder that your brain gives up? To help it out you need to create a compelling reason why it should remember.

Imagine this rather unusual scene with me if you will … A sandy desert with dunes rising up to the sky. Suddenly two magnificent, red, shiny new trucks drop from out of the sky and land in the desert sand. The sand kicks up, and then from out of the vehicle step three pixies wearing green boots and purple waistcoats. You peer at the lovely silky material and notice that each waistcoat has eight golden buttons. Turning around you see a big burning circle just ahead in the distance; and as you walk to it and step through you feel the heat before disappearing down the right hand of two wooden trapdoors that were in front of you. You land hard on the floor of an open cave to see eight men with spears all pointed at your head, and then shortly after, another steps out of the shadows to make it nine. They all then turn around and throw the spears at a giant target at the end of the cave with them all missing apart from one, which hits the bull's-eye.

And there you are. Recognise the key elements of the story and you have now memorised the atomic weight of uranium 238.02891. Not too tricky was it. Imagine that story vividly enough in your mind, and replay it back over time and you will never forget it. Indeed, science has shown that the best way to remember is to go through this a couple of times today, then tomorrow, in a weeks time, then a month, and then in six months and it will be so ingrained in your brain that you couldn't prise it out even if you wanted too.

Now, I realise at this point that you may have a guilty secret…

Lets face it. That was just way to easy. Heaven forbid, it was almost fun! If you transformed all the boring stuff you have to learn into stories your life would be filled with way too much pleasure, and that would never do. Rote memorising is like trying to dry your clothes in a cooker, whilst cooking your dinner in the tumble dryer. The brain simply was not built that way. The good news though is that if you memorise the way your brain likes to do it, then literally the sky is the limit as far as remembering goes.

So how does your brain like to remember?

Well, the three crucial elements are imagination, association and location. An event that is vividly imagined, has immediate associations and a specific location is always going to be memorable. That is why our little story is so memorable (you can still remember it can't you?). Add to that the fact that it has an unlikely scenario, and you have a winner memory wise. The old synaptic connections in your brain are positively dancing about wanting to get acquainted.

So, don't let your memory be a blank. Turn it on with Imagination. Tune it up with Association, and Drop In to your own rosy mental Location and enjoy new memory muscles.


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First Science 2014