The Head, Nicola Huggett

Memory

It is interesting to think nowadays how much we have externalised our own memories. We don’t remember directions as we have a Sat Nav. We don’t remember phone numbers as we have a contact list. We don’t really need to remember things like that anymore.

Joshua Foer is a science journalist who was sent to cover the National Memory Contest in the USA. He was astounded by the fact that the contestants were competing to remember huge lists of numbers, or the order of a pack of playing cards backwards, twice, or 40 line poems having only read them through for a couple of minutes. Having thought the people competing must just have special neurological make-up, Joshua Foer soon learned that these people with amazing memories were just ordinary people in the main, but ordinary people who had trained and developed their memories to a far higher degree than anyone would imagine possible.

A few years ago, he reported that a group of researchers at University College London brought a group of memory champions into the lab. There was one really interesting and telling difference between the brains of the memory champions and the control subjects that they were comparing them to.

When they put the memory champions in an MRI machine, scanned their brains while they were memorizing numbers and people's faces and pictures of snowflakes, they found that the memory champions were lighting up different parts of the brain than everyone else. They were using a part of the brain involved in spatial memory and navigation. These champions were using a concept that psychologists refer to as "elaborative encoding."

It is well illustrated by something called the Baker/baker paradox. If we tell one person to remember that there is a man whose surname is Baker and you tell another person that they must remember that the same man is a baker - the person who was told his name rather than his occupation is less likely to remember that fact. It is, of course, the same word, but it takes a different amount of remembering. Imagining someone baking something has all sorts of great associations. Cake, soft white bread rolls warm from the oven, a bakery full of things we love to eat. It is easier to remember facts when we put these associational hooks into them. The entire art of what is going on in these memory contests is figuring out ways to take information that is lacking in context and meaning, and transforming it in some way, so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.

One of the more elaborate techniques for doing this dates back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece. It came to be known as the ‘memory palace’. The story behind it began with a poet called Simonides, who was attending a banquet to entertain the guests. He stood up to deliver his poem from memory, and when he had finished, he walked out the door. At that moment, the banquet hall collapsed, tragically killing everybody inside. The people were crushed beyond all recognition and their families were distraught that they could not be identified.

Simonides, standing outside, the sole survivor amid the wreckage, closed his eyes and had the realization that in his mind's eye, he could see and therefore remember where each of the guests at the banquet had been sitting. He was able to guide each relative to identify their loved one because he had created a memory palace in his mind. He proved that, as bad as we are at remembering names and phone numbers, we have really exceptional visual and spatial memories. The idea behind the memory palace is to create this imagined building in your mind's eye, and populate it with images of the things that you want to remember - the crazier, weirder, more bizarre, the funnier the image is, the more unforgettable it's likely to be.

So how might we all use this in our everyday life? Perhaps you can start by learning facts for a test by creating links to something that means something specifically to you. Learning the elements of the periodic table by visualising words attached to each symbol, or dates in history by the numbers that they signify. I find it much easier to remember people’s names when I know something else about them, which is why I enjoy having lunch with pupils and seeing you play sport or perform in plays and concerts. If you can train yourself to remember one extra fact every day, by repeating the ever-increasing list, you can create a memory palace of your own.

Joshua Foer finishes his talk with a thoughtful conclusion: “We often talk about people with great memories as though it were some sort of an innate gift, but that is not the case. Great memories are learned. At the most basic level, we remember when we pay attention. We remember when we are deeply engaged. The memory palace as a memory technique works because it makes us work.”

One of the most important things in our lives are our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives, by letting them be lost to lists on our phones? Perhaps we will make a start at training our memories better today.