Memories are made of this

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Wish you had a better memory? Some people are born with an extraordinary memory; others develop their skills over time. Memory athletes compete for the title of Grand Master of Memory, memorising among other things the order of shuffled decks of playing cards. One of the toughest memorisation exercises of all is the training required to become a London cabbie. But if that vocation doesn’t appeal, there are simple techniques you can learn right now to improve your memory.

Research shows observable changes to London taxi drivers' brains before and after learning the city's complex road network. Image credit Glenn3095 via Flickr and Google maps

Research shows observable changes to London taxi drivers’ brains before and after learning the city’s complex road network. Image credit Glenn3095 via Flickr and Google Maps

The real Rain Man

When you think of someone with an extraordinary memory, chances are you think of a savant. Perhaps Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man springs to mind. Babbitt’s character was largely inspired by the life of Kim Peek, a real memory savant. Peek could read both pages of a book at once – one page with each eye – and memorised roughly 12,000 books. He could provide precise driving directions between any two cities in the US or Canada and had an incredible memory for politics, sport, music, dates, movies and postcodes.

Unlike about half of all savants, Peek was not autistic. But he did have an unusual brain. He was born without the fibres that normally connect the two halves of the brain and was also missing parts of the cerebellum, the part of the brain that coordinates and regulates muscle activity. As a result, although he had memorised the complete works of Shakespeare, Peek couldn’t dress himself or brush his teeth without help.

What did you eat for lunch?

If I ask you what you had for lunch yesterday, it seems likely you’ll be able to answer me easily. But could you give me an accurate answer if I asked you what you ate for lunch on 15 February 2008? If you had hypermythesia, you’d have no trouble at all. Hyperthymestics can remember almost every day of their life in near perfect detail. At last count, at least 33 people in the world could recall tiny details of every day of their lives since about the age of ten. Rather than having features of the brain missing, hyperthymestics have stronger connections than normal between the mid- and fore-brain and the region of the brain associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is also larger.

Research has found these people perform no better than average in standard memory tests but when it comes to their own lives, their recall is enough to make your mind boggle. One woman, known as AJ, was able to recall the exact date Easter Sunday fell over a period of 24 years. Not only could she recall all of these dates, she was also able to describe where she had been and what she had been doing on each of them.

‘The Knowledge’

As far as we understand, savants and hyperthymestics are born that way (although savant syndrome can be acquired as a result of an accident or stroke). But there is a well-studied group of people who actively acquire their exceptional memory capabilities: London cabbies. In order to get their license, London cabdrivers have to memorise a labyrinth of 25,000 streets. And it’s not only the streets they must know, but also any location on any one of those streets – think restaurant, business, park or tourist attraction. The qualification process takes an average of four years of study, training and grueling oral exams. This series of tests has been termed the hardest test of any kind in the world. If they do pass, candidates are considered to have acquired ‘the knowledge’.

Neuroscientists have shown that acquiring ‘the knowledge’ brings with it clear growth in the brain. Brain scans show the hippocampus, the part of the brain strongly associated with memory and spatial navigation, is substantially larger in London cabbies than in other people. On the downside, these taxi drivers have worse short-term memory than most people – perhaps there’s just no more room in their brains?

Create your memory palace

If you’d like to have a better memory but have no reason to believe your brain is anything other than average, fear not. Research shows that there are no clear differences in brain structure between world-class memory performers and ‘normal’ people. These record holders don’t have photographic memories. Rather, their skills usually come down to carefully-learned and practiced memory techniques.

The World Memory Championship has been running since 1991 and the feats of the competing memory athletes are astounding. The current Pi world record holder, Suresh Sharma, can recite 70,030 digits of Pi from memory. Akira Haraguchi has an unvalidated record of successful memorisation of 111,700 digits of Pi. Johannes Mallow can learn 124 random words in five minutes and recite them in perfect order.

The methods behind these astounding memory feats are simple and accessible to everyone. The techniques involve the creation of personal characters and stories which then occupy a ‘place’ in your mind – often referred to as a memory palace. The idea is simple – every number or object you have to remember has a character. You visualise each character in a specific place and commit to memory the resulting images. It works because we’re so good at remembering images – the more distinctive, crazy, flamboyant or crude the better.

So if you need to memorise a pack of cards, you assign each card a character – perhaps the eight of spades is a dancing snowman. You then visualise the location in your house where that snowman can be found – maybe on your sunny deck. Now you’ve got an image of a snowman trying to dance the cha-cha as he melts in the warm sun. Repeat 51 times, with different characters and locations, and you’re set.

If you want something to aspire to, the current World Record Holder Simon Reinhard can perfectly memorise a randomly-ordered deck of 52 cards in 20.438 seconds. I think a bit of practice is on the cards.

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  1. How very interesting. Golly, being a memory freak sounds stressful remembering all the minute details! Their heads must be so busy and full! I have a dreadful memory thanks to motherhood. I think there is a good half a decade gone all fuzzy thanks to it!

    • I hear you on the motherhood thing – my memory has definitely deteriorated since having kids. Wonder if it will ever recover?!

  2. My 4 year old daughter beats me at a game of memory so I think I have no chance of memorising 52 cards in 20 seconds!!

  3. I listened to the audio for the first time today. It was great as I picked up on other things not in the write up. It’s a fascinating topic and who would have guessed that the humble London cabbie would have such an amazing memory. They are truly deserving of the title ‘Grand Master’, not just one who has acquired ‘the knowledge’…

    So, you mentioned the shopping list test, how did you go?

    • Can’t remember my score, it was pretty good but not full marks. How about you Marti? I can totally imagine that with practice you would get very good at the technique. Thanks for listening!

  4. Pingback: Memory of a goldfish? - Just Outside the Box Cartoon

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