The human memory is a powerful information processor. Scientists reckon we each have a memory bank equivalent to a 10 billion-page encyclopedia. We store thousands of pieces of information in it: names, tasks, facts, figures and all manner of trivia. The problem is accessing the right piece of information at the time we need it.
So, can someone learn to use their memory better? Or is everyone stuck with what they have?
Jonathan Hancock, co-author of the Institute of Management book Effective Memory Techniques in a Week, is proof that you can improve with a little effort.
Hancock, a former world memory champion, explains that the brain has two sides. The left hemisphere deals with logic, analysis and numbers. The right side deals with language, music, colour and creativity. The theory is that some people favour one side of their brain more than others. "But you need to use both sides well in order to have a good memory," says Hancock.
It might sound obvious but one of the most important habits to develop is to actively remember to remember, says Mark Hillary, UK programme manager at equity trading house Sanford Bernstein. For example, it is all too easy to be introduced to someone at a work event or party, only to realise that you have immediately forgotten their name.
"In general, I try to remember names above all," says Hillary. "I don't have a magic formula for placing names to faces, but a good memory can be trained just through applying yourself. When I hear a person's name I try to get their business card and note on the back when and where we met.
"If I don't have a business card than I will often send an e-mail to myself, so I at least write it down and make some effort to retain that information."
Hillary's methods are fine for names, but what if you don't have a pen or cannot send an e-mail? Sebastian Bailey, product director at training company The Mind Gym takes Hillary's point a step further and offers a solution to this common problem.
"Make a conscious effort when you are introduced," he says. "Practice the name; use it in speech and comment on it. Spell it in your head or imagine writing the name on that person's forehead so it stays in your memory."
If neither of those approaches work for you, Bailey suggests testing the right-hand side of your brain with a more creative approach.
"Build connections so they can associate the person's name with something familiar or visualise it. Help people remember your own name by making a connection for them," he says. "For example, when I introduce myself I tell people my name is 'Bailey as in Old Bailey'. That way they have an immediate association or connection, which makes it more memorable."
Association is perhaps the simplest method to use when improving your memory, and it is a good place to start practising says Hancock. He does not claim to have any unusual gifts that make his memory better. Instead Hancock uses simple systems and techniques such as association to aid recall.
Combining the creative and visual with logic is the key to most systems. "It is about giving people sensible strategies based on the way their brain likes to work," says Hancock.
When it comes to remembering lists, technical terms or the key points to cover in a presentation, many of us might repeat them over and over, rather like learning times tables at school. But it is not much fun and you can make mistakes. Experts say visual memory aids can allow you to memorise key information faster and more effectively.
Lex McKee, who runs a course on enhanced memory and effective learning for the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, says it is easier to remember information that interests us. That is why some people can remember all sorts of useless facts about their favourite football team but they cannot remember where they left their keys.
The way to make seemingly dull information interesting is to draw a picture in your mind. "The average European person has 96% visual memory. The more sensually rich information is, the more 'sticky' it is," says McKee.
One of McKee's approaches is to exaggerate images that he associates with important information. If, on the other hand, you have several things to recall, putting them into a story or a journey gives you a context for remembering them.
For example, if you had to remember all the different functions that the F1 to F12 keys represent on your keyboard you might imagine playing 12 holes of a golf course, says McKee. Come up with a memorable image for each function - a red flag with F1 on it for a help key - and then imagine the different images as you "walk" the course.
This might sound longwinded, but if you make a habit of it you can build associations, images and stories much faster than memorising 12 pieces of terminology by rote. Unfortunately, as with most things, there is no secret formula. It just takes a little effort.
"These techniques have been around since ancient Greece. My memory has improved by using these systems and it has increased my confidence" says Hancock. "The memory 'muscle' gets fitter with practice."
Unforgettable memory tips
- Use "pegs" as memory joggers. For example, if you think of a brilliant idea while driving and cannot write it down, make a note of the pub or motorway junction you are passing at the time. If you can remember the peg it is easier to access the memory or idea you have hung on it
- For lists of terms, dream up a story featuring strong images relating to the words or numbers you have to remember. Tell yourself the story to remember the words
- To put names to faces, use the acronym Face:
F - focus on the person you are meeting
A - associate their name with something memorable
C - chorus the name: repeat it and use it in conversation
E - exaggerate something about them (eg, their bald head) to help you remember.