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
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.
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 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.
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
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.