Memory - what's the big deal?

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Could you memorise the order of 100 decks of cards? Andi Bell can - and he reckons, with a bit of practice, most other people could too. Gerald Haigh reports

Try this in the pub. Take a standard deck of 52 playing cards. Go through it quickly, turning the cards over. As you look at each card, remember where it comes in the pack. Now recite back the cards in the right order while your aghast friends check them. Can you do it?

Of course you can't. But 36-year-old Andi Bell can. In fact he can go through the pack and memorise it in under one minute - comfortably. (Best time so far: 32 seconds.) Mr Bell, you see, is three times world memory champion, appearing in the Guinness Book of Records a couple of years ago for his high-speed memorisation of a pack of cards. Among the other fantastic feats he can do - such as remembering huge strings of random numbers, or words, against the clock - is his celebrated "100 decks of cards" trick. The decks are shuffled by croupiers, he then goes through and memorises them. This takes about five hours. He is then asked 100 random questions - for example, "What is the 42nd card in pack 79?"

The last time he did this in public, at the British Museum last year, he got 89 of the 100 questions right - "not my greatest performance but it was fairly successful", he says.

His real mission, though, is to demystify a process that's been unnecessarily cloaked in mystery for thousands of years. According to Mr Bell, renowned memory experts - from Simonides of Athens, who knew a lot of poems, all the way to modern-day stage performers (Leslie Welch, the 1950s "Memory Man", for example) - typically want to promote themselves as personalities. He aims, by contrast, to convince people that the feats depend on a generally accessible and learned technique. "This little idea has been used to turn people into amazing celebrities," he says. "But why aren't we all using it and teaching it in schools? It's not a magic trick, or the preserve of a religious order."

The "little idea", is the method called "locations" or sometimes "loci" - described by Mr Bell as "using a sense of location as a mental backdrop for what you're trying to remember - slotting images into a series of locations you know. That idea is everything," he says. "It's really what I'm all about."

So if, for example, you want to memorise a list of 10 random words (tap, balloon, pencil and so on) you start by taking a mental walk through 10 familiar locations at home or the office. Ideally they're in a sequence - the car park, the front entrance, the reception area, the staircase and so on. You do this until the walk is quite clear. Then you place each of the words in one of the locations - the tap is on the car park, the balloon in the front entrance. Even as you read this you can see that it's relatively easy and that it's going to work. And, you can use the same locations - and other familiar sequences of places - to locate other things you want to remember.

Is it all just a performance art? Martin Skelton, an educational consultant specialising in learning styles and intelligence, applauds Mr Bell's mission of demystification. He acknowledges that what he's doing would probably have been more important in the days when children learned lists of rivers and dates. "But you can see how it will work in areas such as revision, where you can learn key words and phrases."

In the background, though, there's always the "N" word. Isn't it all a bit, well, nerdy?

"I'm not anti-social, or an autistic savant, if that's what you mean," says Mr Bell, without any hint of the defensiveness that might make you wonder - and he has made himself into a globetrotting professional memoriser after all. His own schooling was a success only as far as primary: he disliked secondary school, was bored and left at 16 to work in a warehouse. He turned to memorising about 10 years ago, when he read an article about Dominic O'Brien, then world champion and now his closest rival.

"There was a bit in the article about the technique," says Mr Bell, "And I decided I could do it." He likens his decision to seeing a sport on television and deciding to have a go.

This August, apparently dissatisfied with some aspects of the championship, he is organising a rival Memory World Cup in Germany. (The internal politics of competitive memorisation seem as labyrinthine as those of professional boxing.)

Mr Bell has several other projects in the pipeline - more, and quicker "100 deck" feats around the world. And with the arrival of chip and pin credit and debit cards, he plans a high profile "remember your pin" campaign (details coming on his website). He has visions of queues of people at supermarket check-outs, all unable to remember their PINs, and he wants to help. Most of all, though, he wants lots of people - including teachers - to make use of what to him is an eminently learnable technique. Of his 100 decks, feat, he says: "A few years ago I'd have been surprised that it was possible at all. It's quite easy now. I have a lot of memory locations, and all the cards in a picture code. The rest is pretty simple."

www.andibell.net has lots of information on the World Cup tests, advice about Andi Bell's memory techniques, and specimen tasks.www.rememberyourpin.com tells you how to do just that

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