Total recall

11th April 2008 at 01:00
If you can't remember what you must not forget, all is not lost. Steven Hastings meets a man who can help you improve your powers of recollection

Ed Cooke is a grand master of memory. He can learn a sequence of 280 digits in five minutes, or the order of a shuffled deck of cards in under 45 seconds. For those of us happy just to remember which class we're teaching after break, it's mind-boggling. But Ed says we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves.

"Your memory does incredible things all the time," he says. "If the desks in your classroom have been moved, or there's a new poster on the wall, you notice it straight away. That's because you have a perfect memory of how the room usually looks. We get cross because we can't remember where we left our keys - but really we're all virtuosos."

Even so, most of us would like to improve our powers of recall, and the first step is to learn a little about how the mind works. Memory is closely tied to the senses, which explains why certain smells or tastes can trigger clear recollections. It also explains why visual images are easier to recall than abstract words.

Memory experts rely on complex systems, where they "peg" the information they want to remember to a series of images. At a simpler level, you can use the same strategy. Perhaps you have three jobs to do at break: phone the dentist, grab a coffee and post a letter. Try imagining a man in a white coat pouring hot coffee through a letterbox. Remember that one picture, and you will remember your three tasks.

When we fail to recall things, it's often because we were not concentrating properly in the first place. It's that familiar "in one ear, out the other" feeling. "When I meet a new class, I always start by asking children their names," says Claire Jerath, a London supply teacher. "But as soon as they start telling me, I know I'm not really taking it in. It's a waste of time."

Ed says it's important to give our brains every chance to absorb the necessary information. "It's an exercise in perception. When someone tells you their name, spend at least 10 seconds thinking about it. You need that time. And while you're doing that, allow your eyes to look closely at their face, tracing a Z shape, from their left eye, to their right eye, then from the left side of their mouth, to the right side."

Many experts believe that if we take in information in the right way, it stays with us forever. The brain may stash old memories away in the attic, but it never throws anything out. And the more frequently we recall something, the easier it becomes to access it in the future. So to keep something fresh in your mind, whether it's a romantic first date or an A-level mark scheme, the best thing is simply to think of it regularly.

As for day-to-day forgetfulness, why worry? You can set an alarm on your mobile, a reminder on your personal organiser, or jot things down on a scrap of paper. Just don't let it get you down. You're a virtuoso, remember?


- Stress is an enemy. If it's on the tip of your tongue, relax and you'll remember.

- When someone tells you something important, repeat it back to them.

- Mnemonics really work. Devise your own, using rhymes, acronyms or alliteration.

- Have fun with memory games. One of the easiest is where each player recites a shopping list and adds a new item.

- Try a one-day memory improvement course. See

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