Bridge players can benefit from knowing the techniques of memory champions. It just takes imagination…
If you wanted to pinpoint the most absurdly geeky event in the world calendar, it would be difficult to beat the binary numbers challenge at the World Memory Championships. In it, a bevy of trained memory masters fight it out over 30 minutes to memorise as many 1s and 0s in order as they possibly can.
Back when this was my idea of a good time, I was able to “do” more than 2,000 1s and 0s in the half-hour. My then archrival, Dr Gunther Karsten of Germany, was not afraid to tell me this level of performance was “really quite lame”. He could do 3,200. The current world record is over 4,000: more than two 1s and 0s every second.
Dig past the mystery of such feats, and you discover a set of techniques and an approach to learning that is full of strikingly simple wisdom and fun. Even if, quite sensibly, you’ve no interest in learning to recite computer code, the memory techniques that enable such performance are a treasure trove of insight into how to motivate and direct the learning brain.
I first got hooked on memory techniques when – 18 years old and in hospital with nothing to do but try to impress the nurses – a friend brought me a book by “seven-times World Memory Champion” Dominic O’Brien (I remain unable to think of a more badass epithet).
In the book, O’Brien dangles the extraordinary and unbelievable claim that that there is nothing special about his memory: he has trained himself to be world champ through the use of techniques. He goes on to describe the methods he uses, which go all the way back to the 5th-century BC in Greece, when they began to find popularity among orators, oral poets and students.
It was immediately obvious that this supercharged learning wasn’t even remotely boring or computer-like: it was intensely colourful and fun, the opposite of most rote-learning at school. It was more an exercise in emotion than it was in concentration.
I kept toying with my memory skills over seven years of study in psychology and philosophy that took me through such diverse topics as the difference between smell and colour sensations (the answer is time) and how to make someone think their hand has got bigger (employ the “rubber hand illusion” – with a bigger glove).
As I immersed myself in these topics, I kept finding memory in the most unexpected places, and came to the view that rather than being a storehouse in the centre of our brains, memory is much more integral: it’s a tissue that underlies our thoughts, words, feeling, and our perception of the outside world. And I found that this tissue isn’t a kind of robotic storage, but is instead intensely creative, and full of humanity.
How to put these insights to practical use? The great psychologist William James once said that “the great thing in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy”. What our memories reveal is that our nervous system is tuned to anything that excites emotion, that’s personally interesting, that’s colourful, unusual and, above all, anything that’s personal. Let’s take a look at some practical things you can do today to boost your memory.
Make learning musical
Huge chunks of school learning comes in the form of little verbal sequences: whether thats “amo, amas, amat”, the colours of the rainbow, the sequence of planets, or the dreaded Haber process. Sequences are difficult to remember by themselves. By turning them into a little musical ditties (ideally tied to a pop tune you know and like), you can make them vastly easier and more fun to learn.
Make learning visual
Let’s imagine you’re trying to understand the internal structure of a cell, and you need to get your head around all these intensely boring-sounding concepts such as cytoplasm, centrioles, mitochondria or, more encouragingly, the “golgi apparatus”.
Mapping them to things you know about, and ideally people, brings the whole diagram to life. Picture cytoplasm as ectoplasm from ghostbusters. Picture the golgi apparatus as your mate who’s a goal-keeper. Make centrioles centipedes. The scene comes to life: it’s suddenly accessible and full of emotion. And through this fiction, you can learn the underlying structures and come to understand them much more easily.
Whether teacher or student, you can give these ideas a go without any training: the golden rule is simply to always look to engage the imagination, to connect with your personal interests and, finally, to repeat and test yourself frequently to bed the memories in.
Ed Cooke is a grandmaster of memory and the CEO of Memrise.com, an online learning platform that uses memory techniques.
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