The Art of Memory

Felicity Nelson looks at ways to improve your memory, starting with how to remember people’s names

Stephen Wiltshire drawing the NY Skyline
Stephen Wiltshire drawing the NY Skyline

When IBM’s Deep Blue famously beat grand chess master, Garry Kasparov, in 1997 by processing over 200 million moves per second it seemed computing power had trumped human memory once and for all.

What we didn’t hear at the time was that the computer only won two out of the six games played (three were draws). The human brain is such an incredible piece of organic hardware that it can out-manoeuvre even the world’s most powerful computer in a game of chess.

Our minds have a tremendous
capacity to absorb, learn and adapt.
Like any other organ the brain can be trained to achieve incredible feats of memory. To see this in action we need only to take a look at the records set by champions around the world.
For instance:

  • In 2004 Daniel Tammet recited pi at 4500 digits per hour for five hours. That’s 22 541 digits of pi.
  • World champion, Ramon Campayo, can memorise 48 binary numbers in a single second.
  • Kim Peek has memorised twelve thousand books and can recite from any page you choose with an accuracy of 98 per cent.
  • Stephen Wiltshire MBE created a ten-foot long painting of Tokyo within one week of taking a brief helicopter ride over the city. He has done paintings of many cities.

Understandably, it’s hard to get excited about mnemonic triumphs when most of us have truly terrible memories. Fixing all those examinable facts in our minds is such a strain that many of us just delete everything we’ve learnt once it loses the ability to bump up our credit average. Even people fortunate enough to be intelligent and highly educated can find simple memory tasks difficult. My favourite example is the ichthyologist turned Vice Chancellor, Jordan Star, who once complained that every time he learnt the name of a student, he forgot the name of a fish.

A big problem is that we are never taught how to improve our memory skills. A fair amount of scientific research has never found its way into the

Over thirty years ago Piotr Wozniak invented Supermemo – a computer program that enhances memory. It operates on the basis that there is a definable
moment when it is the perfect time to repeat something you’ve already learnt.

Repeat it too early and it makes no difference, repeat too late and you are learning it again for the first time. You need to get the timing just right. This exact timing is a measurable statistic and Wozniak spent many years on memory experiments working it out. His program drastically reduces the time it takes to send information into your long-term memory but hardly anybody has ever heard of it!

Rote learning may not be the key to a great education but memorisation is still a crucial skill. How can you become fluent in Spanish without memorising verb tables? What use is a doctor who can’t remember diseases and symptoms? Alas, the tricks of association that memory wizards find so useful are hardly ever applied in the classroom.

What’s crazy is that memory training goes as far back as Ancient Rome. Aristotelian ‘Arts of Memory’ were considered an integral part of a classic education. How is it that after millennia of progress most of us still endure the everyday embarrassment of not remembering people’s names?

I think it’s time to combine science and wisdom to tackle the problem of weak memories and inefficient learning. It is clear that the human mind has a boundless capacity to hold information and as students, we really should be unleashing that potential.

Closeup sketch from Stephen Wiltshire