Total recall

1st February 2013 at 00:00
The World Memory Championships recently swapped five-star hotel venues for a school hall in South London, hoping to inspire pupils. Can mental tricks help with revision?, asks Adi Bloom

Silence rules in the exam hall. Heads are down, arms curled around papers. Every so often, someone coughs or shuffles. One boy leans back in his seat and stretches, his arms behind his head.

But there are no questions on the papers in front of the candidates. There are only answers.

Specifically, there are only numbers. Row after row of ones and zeros: 30 randomly arranged digits per row. Across six pages. A total of 166 rows. And the exam candidates filling this hall have exactly one hour in which to memorise all of them. After that, they will have another half an hour in which to replicate the sequences from memory. All 166 of them.

These are the 21st annual World Memory Championships. Teenagers and adults from around the globe are competing for the title of memory champion of the year. In the recent past, the competition has been held at five-star hotels in China. Last December, however, the candidates gathered in the notably gilt-free, non-chandeliered sports hall of Lilian Baylis Technology School in South London.

The championship organisers decided to swap swimming pools and pillow menus for playground puddles and school dinners after it occurred to Raymond Keene that international memory experts might have something to offer pupils struggling with end-of-year revision.

"Schoolchildren are often told to remember stuff," says Keene, joint founder of the championships, and a well-known British chess grandmaster. "But no one ever tells them how to remember. It's just: `Come back and I'll test you tomorrow.'

"It's not just about drumming it into your brain. But no one ever tells them that there are colourful and imaginative ways of remembering things. It's a tremendous deficiency in our school system."

Keene is sitting in a staffroom behind the sports hall. Around him, administrators are marking papers from the previous round, which required candidates to match 300 faces to names. The names were randomly generated from a range of nationalities, to ensure fairness. A picture of a man in keffiyeh, for example, comes with the name Vidal Dong. Points are deducted for spelling errors: misplace a letter in Tejeshwar Yvemes' name and you are penalised by half a point.

"I'm not convinced about memorising long lists of binary numbers," says Gary Phillips, head of Lilian Baylis, sighing. "In what context will that be useful ever in your life? Never.

"But as well as being about remembering, it's also about how you organise your brain. It's encouraging children to store stuff in a logical way."

Secrets of the champions

Five Lilian Baylis teachers immediately volunteered to attend the training sessions devised by Keene and his fellow memory champions. Among them was humanities subject leader Sandra Fenech. "I would have said I have rather a bad memory," she says. "So it sounded interesting."

The sessions were run by Keene's colleague, Dominic O'Brien, eight times world memory champion. He began by drawing a grid of nine squares, and then placing digits in each of them. Looking away, he recited the digits from memory, vertically and horizontally across the grid. "At which point, we were all: `Haha, we can't do that'," Fenech says.

But then O'Brien explained the tricks and strategies he uses to help his brain retain information. For example, a geography teacher wanting to remember the position of the tropics should notice that they occur in alphabetical order: Cancer in the northern hemisphere, above Capricorn in the southern.

For more complicated pieces of information, O'Brien creates stories for himself, incorporating all the facts he wants to recall. By remembering the story, he remembers the facts, whether they are elements of the periodic table or member countries of the European Union.

"Little stories help cement what's in your mind," says Keene. "For example, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815: imagine eating something and having a bad attack of needing to go to the loo 15 times."

Alternatively, if one wanted to remember that Napoleon was exiled to St Helena after the Battle of Waterloo, one could think of a lion going to sleep ("Napping lion - Napoleon") and then being pensioned off after years in a zoo. "Then maybe being looked after by a beautiful lady. Helen of Troy - St Helena," Keene says. "It just encourages people to think more vibrantly, makes the whole academic attack much more interesting. It's giving teachers techniques, and they elaborate on it, get the children's brains working."

While humanities subjects are largely assessed through essay-writing, they do also require pupils to memorise and retain information. "There's no interesting way to do it," Fenech says. "You just have to learn it. But trying to remember things in order is quite difficult, and children start falling behind. That can be quite disheartening. Once they feel they're no good at something, they don't bother. They think they're just going to do badly, so there's no point."

Creating narrative prompts

Instead, Fenech now tells pupils a story. To help remember the order of events during the Norman Conquest, for example, pupils imagine walking into their bedrooms and seeing the King of England praying next to the bed. "Then William the Conqueror - what did I make him?" she says. "Oh, what was it? A man at the door, who was trying to get money from them, I think. It's fallen out of my head - I haven't done it for a while now. After the first time you do a story, you need to revisit it, or it falls out of your head. We've moved on to countries now."

Fenech has also learned to vary her voice during lessons, changing it when she wants to emphasise the most important part of a memory story. "At first I thought it was a bit of fun, a novelty. But once you get used to using it in the classroom, it becomes part of the repertoire of things you use on a regular basis. Something you can pull out whenever it's useful."

The aim of these strategies is not merely to recall lists of names or dates. Instead, there are also techniques that allow pupils to link together a series of interconnected facts. "You remember stuff by walking through a place, a house," says Phillips. "And you think about the first four things you see in the room. And those are the first things you need to remember in an essay about Japan, or whatever. Then you go into the next room for the next theme. So when you have to dredge it all up for a humanities assignment, you can organise it into a web of knowledge. It falls into distinct themes that can each become a paragraph in an essay." He pauses. "I forget the name of the strategy - it'll come to me in a minute."

After working with the teachers, O'Brien held a session for Year 8 pupils. Once again, he began with a party trick, memorising a lengthy sequence of numbers. "I thought he wasn't important at first," says 12-year-old Tayo Dosunmi. "I thought he was just going to be there for no reason. But, as he memorised all those numbers, my mind just changed."

"I was, like, shocked and amazed," agrees his classmate, Lilie Nguyen. "He said he'd show us how to do it and I didn't believe him. At first, I was in complete denial. I thought he was trying to trick us - that he'd written it somewhere first, like a magic trick."

"Yeah, that maybe his colleagues were in front, showing him numbers that we couldn't see," says Tayo.

"Then I saw that it was possible and that it worked," says Lilie.

Tayo nods. "So we could do it, but you have to train a lot. Like, training your mind into knowing stuff. Knowing a lot of stuff."

The power of recall

O'Brien also suggested that pupils listen to a specific piece of music as they learned a particular piece of information. So 13-year-old Lilie now revises science to one piece of classical music, maths to another. "I didn't really have a good memory before," she says. "I used to just read from exercise books. But I never used to take in what they said. Now I'm doing better at science tests. Yeah, because before I used to be not very proud of my grades. But now I'm confident that I can do it and my grades have improved."

Tayo has also noticed an improvement. "I found it hard to memorise that kind of stuff before - spelling tests, keyword tests. I was getting four out of 10, five out of 10. Now I'm getting seven out of 10, nine out of 10. I figure it's going to help GCSEs a lot. All that information is in your brain, and you will use that for advantage over other people. It'll lead you to success," he says.

Back in the Lilian Baylis sports hall, the hour is up and papers are being collected in. The announcer tells candidates that they now have a brief break. "Let us know if you want to be taken to the break-out space," she says. "But it is raining at the moment."

As candidates stretch their legs and their frontal cortices, Keene leans back in his chair. "We want to achieve an improvement in exam results, based on the fluid intelligence that's encouraged by increased memory power," he says. "But I certainly wouldn't expect our schoolkids to do anything like the binary numbers test. That's a very, very, very hard test. It's such tedious information, and so repetitive. It really sorts the adults from the babies."

"These are people who take it to the extreme: take the Pepsi Max Challenge, really," agrees Phillips. He adopts a tone of mock-awe: "My goodness, he can remember long lists of words or numbers" - the tone drops - "big deal".

Nonetheless, the show-stopping nature of memory strategies has undoubted appeal. "If I could remember 100 numbers in a row, that would be amazing," says Tayo. "I would shock everyone. I do sometimes show off to my family."

And Fenech no longer needs to suggest memory techniques during lessons: pupils have already begun asking her to turn certain topics into a story. "At first, they just wanted something they could show off to other kids in the year," she says. "They want to go round to other classes and prove they knew more than them, which I think is just in their nature, really. But now they're becoming more used to it, they're less concerned with it as a party trick. They just want to know it for themselves."


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today