Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Truth about Memory

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Truth about Memory

Article excerpt

If you want to optimise learning, forget what you think you know about how the brain recalls information and discover how to apply the science of memory in your classroom. Joseph Lee reports

When you ask Alex Mullen, the 23-year-old winner of the World Memory Championships 2015, how victory felt, he laughs at himself a bit. Because nobody's memory is perfect, right? Mullen had only started to train his memory three years earlier, after seeing a TED talk by the author Joshua Foer that discussed groups of enthusiasts known as "memory athletes" who performed amazing feats, such as memorising thousands of random numbers or hundreds of names in just a few minutes.

What Foer discovered, to his surprise, was that these people weren't savants, nor were they freaks. They all swore that they'd had perfectly ordinary memories until they had started to train them.

That was an appealing message to Mullen, a medical student at the University of Mississippi, who was looking for ways to get a better handle on the huge volume of information he needed to recall. And when he began training, he got hooked on the rapid improvement in his memory and focus.

That training led him to the final day of the three-day World Memory competition last December, where competitors test their minds by memorising numbers, names and faces, historic dates, words and cards in marathon hour-long sessions and quick sprints. Mullen was in second place. He had set a new world record for memorising 3,029 numbers in order over an hour.

One high-pressure round was left: a race to memorise the order of a deck of cards. "It's the fastest and riskiest and scariest event," Mullen says. A decade ago, beating 30 seconds was dubbed the "four-minute mile of memory". Mullen needed 23 seconds or less to win. He made it in 21.5 seconds.

So, how did he feel? "You know," he says, speaking from his home in Mississippi. "It's kind of ironic, but I sort of forget."

Vivid detail

As anyone who has sat an exam will know, the puzzle of memory is that on different occasions it can either restore the past to us in vivid detail or draw an embarrassing blank. In recent years, scientists have made great strides in understanding why this is and how memory works and why it sometimes fails, but outside of that world there remains widespread misunderstanding and disagreement about memory. And what we do know has struggled to find its way into schools.

The "arts of memory" similar to those that Mullen uses were commonplace from the time of the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance - until they were displaced by a machine, the printing press, which propelled the Reformation in Europe and left memory arts seeming like a relic of the medieval past. Now, in the midst of a second information revolution, the perception that memory can be "replaced" by a recording device has grown more pronounced. However, scientists are increasingly discovering that memory's power lies in processes that don't resemble a machine at all - it's much more complex and interesting than a simple record of what has passed.

"The most common misunderstanding is the idea that memory works like a video recorder or a photograph - maybe not an entirely accurate one, but that memory is basically a recording of what's out there and a reproduction of that experience," says Daniel Schacter, professor of psychology at Harvard University.

But he and many other researchers have found that remembering is a much more active process of construction. The difficulty is not so much in storing information - getting knowledge into memory - but getting it out again when we need it.

Schacter calls failures of memory, such as when something's on the tip of your tongue, "blocking". It's a familiar feeling for those of us who have ever forgotten a name. Schacter says that when this happens to you, it's likely that it is someone you don't deal with very often. …

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