Ever got home from the shops and realised you'd forgotten the bread? Or had your cashcard swallowed after three failed attempts at your PIN? Following last week's article on the nature of memory, Nicki Household looks at ways to boost our powers of recall
Since learning "Fat Cats Get Drowned At Ealing Baths" at the age of 10, I have never forgotten the order of sharps in music - FCGDAEB. This, say memory experts, is thanks to the power of association. You remember things better when you link them to other things. Another well-known example is "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain", which gives the colours of the visible spectrum in order (Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet), and the 14-line poem beginning "Willy, Willy Harry Ste, Harry, Dick, John Harry three", which lists in order every English monarch from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II. Such catchy rhymes and phrases are a simple form of mnemonics or memory aid, and once learned, become a permanent fixture in your brain.
But acronyms and verses are obviously not the answer when it comes to memorising more complex information, which is why so many "miracle" memory systems have been invented and, in some cases, promoted with evangelical zeal.
The publishing company R amp; W Heap has been advertising "Why Does Your Memory Fail You?" on the front of national newspapers for 35 years with astonishing success. What the company is selling is a pound;200 home study course, based on a memory system invented by the late Dr Bruno Furst. It consists of a straightforward code that translates numbers into words and vice versa and which, once learned, gives you mental "hooks" on which to hang "unlimited" amounts of information.
While R amp; W Heap is secretive about the nuts and bolts of the course, the same cannot be said of Tony Buzan, media brain guru and author of Use Your Memory and Master Your Memory. His techniques range from the sublimely simple to the fiendishly complicated. The more complex systems can, in theory, be used to memorise anything from the names, dates and best-known works of every famous artist, writer and composer to the order of a newly-shuffled pack of cards. But mastering them requires time and commitment, and they must be practised constantly.
"Such systems can be useful in the short term - to help people get through exams, for instance," says Bristol psychology professor (and author of Your Memory: a user's guide) Alan Baddeley. "But studies show that however impressive people's memories are when they've just done a mnemonics course, they don't use the techniques much afterwards because of the considerable effort involved."
But some of the simpler methods are highly effective for learning lists. In one, you allocate each number from 1 to 10 a lookalike image - the number 1 could be a pencil and 2 could be a swan. Then, when you've got a list of items to remember, you link the image of the number to the item to be remembered. So if your shopping lists begins: 1) moisturiser; 2) bananas, you might imagine stirring a jar of face cream with a pencil and a swan swimming about with a banana skin hanging from its beak.
Another system permanently links each number to a word that rhymes with it - for example one might be bun and two a shoe. So your shopping list becomes, say, a bun smeared with moisturiser and a shoe stepping on a banana skin. It sounds complicated but it's surprisingly easy and it works.
Story-telling is another well-known technique. To memorise a collection of objects that includes, say, a fish, a knife, a lemon, a set of keys and a football, you could imagine a fish swimming around in your kitchen sink. The fish says it is thirsty, so you cut up a lemon with the knife to make it some lemonade. Then the fish wants to go and play football, so you give it a set of keys to get back into the house, and so on. Apparently, the more fantastical your images, the more easily you'll remember them.
According to Tony Buzan, the best way to memorise a name is to repeat it as often as possible while you are talking to the person. He also recommends asking a person about their name - how it is spelled or what it is derived from - though, to some, this might smack of desperation. Another method is to link the person's name and appearance. For example, if Ms Knight has long hair, you could imagine her draping it over the ramparts of a castle for a gallant knight to clamber up.
But when you really can't remember a name, Tony Buzan's advice is to avoid focusing directly on it, but to think "around" it - when did you last see the person, what do you associate him or her with? These "hooks" should bring the name swimming into your mind.
There is no such thing as a "miracle" memory booster, although claims have been made for all sorts of substances, from ginseng to red wine. What is important, according to Steven Rose, director of the Open University's brain and behaviour research group, is maintaining a healthy blood supply to the brain.
Evidence suggests that anything containing vitamin E or anti-oxidants, such as ordinary tea, aspirin and cherry tomatoes, can help to do this. There is also some evi-dence that ginkgo (contained in herbal preparations such as Three Treasures Tea) has a beneficial effect.
Claims are also made for ginseng, oil of rosemary, sage, balm, the brahmi plant (contained in health food products such as Memory Plus) and folic acid, although none of these has a scientific basis.
Even further out on a limb is "brain gym", a system that claims to connect one side of the brain to the other through special exercises, and "memory" music cassettes. Both are dismissed as laughable by the experts, but become slightly less so if you focus on what they get you to do.
A cassette such as Muscle Memory from Sunlife Health, which claims to "match brainwave patterns", has no special properties except that, when played quietly in the background, it can, like any calm, monotonous music, cut out extraneous sounds and thus aid concentration. Similarly, any sort of exercise is good for the brain.
"To function well, a brain needs imagination, information, love and affection and a good supply of nutrients and oxygen," says Tony Buzan, who recommends regular aero-bic exercise as a way of maintaining a good memory.
Although there is some evidence to suggest that the speed of mental processing slows down slightly after the age of 50 (this has nothing to do with Alzheimer's disease), Professor Rose says this is less likely to happen to someone with an active mind. "There seems to be some correlation between a person's intellect and the health of their brain in later life," he explains, "so it makes sense to keep doing the crosswords."
Studies also show that while young people have better "prospective" memories, older people are actually more reliable about appointments and remembering to ring people or switch off the oven, because they use external memory props such as diaries, notes and timers.
"I tie knots in my handkerchief - and later wonder 'What was that for?'" confesses Your Memory author Alan Baddeley. "But my infallible technique for not leaving my house or office without some important item is to put it so near the door that I fall over it on my way out." He also has a foolproof system for remembering PIN numbers - you just allocate each digit a word with that number of letters, so 1482 could become "I must remember it". "It's simple and reassuring", he says.
* 'Your Memory: a user's guide' by Alan Baddeley, Prion Press pound;8.99 l 'Use Your Memory' and 'Master Your Memory' by Tony Buzan, published by BBC Worldwide, pound;7.99l Muscle Memory cassette from Sunlife Health (tel: 0181 938 3331) pound;14.97 l Memorya Three Treasures Tea from Sunlife Health (see above) pound;19.97 for 2fl oz (about 60 servings)l Memory Plus food supplement from Life Essence (tel: 0181 297 7888) pound;19.99 for 60 capsules (one month's supply)l R amp; W Heap Publishing, Bowden Hall, Marple, Stockport, Cheshire SK6 6NE. Tel: 0161 427 3513