Improve Your Brain Power

Posted on: 09 January 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

The UK memory champions share their secrets. From phone numbers to names and faces - here is how to boost your mind power.


In 477BC the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos devised a memory technique called the “method of loci”. This entails memorising items along an imagined journey and then mentally retracing one's steps to recall each article.

More than 2,000 years later, the same mnemonic system is still being used by memory champions.

Faced by two days of gruelling mental challenges, from memorising a sequence of 200 random words in five minutes, to remembering the sequence of playing cards in as many decks as possible, today’s competitors know any person untrained in the art of “mind sports” can expect humiliation.

To put it into perspective: on average most of us can recall between five and nine numbers in a row. The eight-times world memory champion Dominic O'Brien can remember the order of 54 randomly shuffled decks of playing cards - an astounding 2,808 cards.

The 50-year-old has turned his memory into a full-time career, running memory workshops and writing numerous books.

Memory exercises, diet and physical activity all play a part and Dominic cuts out alcohol for four months before competitions and takes fish oils and Ginkgo biloba.

According to scientists, the competitors' skill has not come from any in-built ability; it is simply the result of practice.

When Eleanor Maguire, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, scanned the brains of O'Brien and other mnemonists, she found nothing unexpected in their brains' structure.

The secret of their success lies not so much in how their brains are wired as in how they have trained them.

Maguire and her colleagues matched ten memory champions with ten regular people and set them tasks recalling numbers, faces and snowflake patterns.

The “normal” controls set about memorising the information as best they could, but with no set system. The experts had failsafe techniques, almost all using the “method of loci”, sometimes called the “journey” or “mental walk”.

Using brain-imaging techniques, Maguire found the memory experts made greater use of the areas of the brain associated with spatial navigation - specifically the hippocampus, the area that you use when thinking about which way to walk or drive to a real location. The “journeys” that the experts were taking were vivid enough to feel almost real.

By adding colour, emotion and movement to spatial navigation, they had increased their ability to store and retrieve information.

Phil Chambers, who organises the championships, believes that the competitors have found a way to convert “semantic memory” (data and numbers) into “episodic memory” (memory associated with our experiences). The neuroscientists say it is less clear-cut.

“What is clear is that there is nothing special about these people. It is a remarkable ability but it is not beyond anyone. These people have trained their neural system to work very efficiently,” says Dr Ramnani, reader in cognitive neuroscience at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Apparently, any of us could do the same. Last summer a study in the journal Science revealed that our visual memory is more flexible than previously thought.

However, motivation is key, Dr Ramnani says, and when it comes to committing more than 1,000 numbers to memory, not many of us have the patience or inclination.

Boosting Your Memory

Recalling Sequences

Tony Buzan, the mind guru, uses vivid stories.

To remember the order of the planets, he pictures a thermometer next to the Sun; the Sun gets so hot that the thermometer bursts, leaking mercury -Mercury; a beautiful goddess comes to see what has happened - Venus; she picks up a globule of mercury and hurls it into the ground - Earth, and so on.

This memory-link system uses both hemispheres of the brain: the left for order, logic and reasoning and the right for imagination, colour and emotion.

Eventually the neural pathways associated with this type of memorising become strengthened, making recall easier.

Recalling Numbers

Remember this sequence: 2, 1, 9, 0, 4, 1, 10, 99, 72, 31, 22, 0, 2, 5, 7.

How many numbers could you recall? Probably no more than seven.

Now try this technique devised by Dominic O'Brien: Think of the 2 as a swan, 1 a telephone pole, 9 a balloon on a string, 0 a football, 4 a sailboat.
For 10 think of the Prime Minister, for 99 think of Mr Whippy. When you get to 72, break the number down into letters corresponding to their place in the alphabet. 72 is G and B, the initials of George Bush.

Do the same for the rest of the numbers, then invent a story in sequence: a swan bumps into a telephone pole, at the top of the pole is a balloon on a string, it has a picture of a football on it, and so on.

Recalling Lists

Use the Method of Loci: imagining a familiar journey, place or building and creating a story around it. Mentally position the things you want to remember at points along the journey, then link them together in your mind.

You could use rooms in your house. If you need to remember milk, bread and sausages, visualise the milk spilling out over your doormat, soaking an enormous loaf of bread in the hallway. Haul yourself up the stairs using a string of sausages and so on.

Retrace your steps to recall each item.

Recalling Faces

Use visual associations.

If the person is called Taylor, picture them with a tape measure around their neck. If the first name is Carol, imagine them singing Away in a Manger.

How do you keep your brain refreshed? Do you have any secrets to share?

If so, let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with other readers in the 50connect forums.

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