How to Remember!

Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc

Human memory is a very strange thing. In some ways it is very efficient. Numerous psychologists have tried to assess the power of the human brain to retain information and innumerable mnemonists have been studied by experts who have tried to find out why some memories are better than others. Consequently, we do at least know a little about the human memory and about how it can be improved.

Some of the most illuminating research was done by Professor A.R. Luria, a Russian psychologist who spent years working with Solomon Veniaminoff, one of the most remarkable memory men of all time.

Luria has described how Veniaminoff used to put things that he wanted to remember in an imaginary street, giving each a special place that he would construct specifically. So, for example, one object would be in a doorway, another would be in the gutter, a third would be leaning against a fire hydrant. To remember the object, Veniaminoff would simply take an imaginary walk down his imaginary street.

To remember numbers or to perform calculations, Veniaminoff used to draw a blackboard in his mind. And to forget things he would rub them off the blackboard.

Since he was an exception, however, other researchers have tried to find out more about how the average memory works. In the process, they’ve observed all sorts of remarkable phenomena which we are sometimes prone to take for granted.

They have found, for example, that different people seem able to remember things in different ways. Wine tasters store the memory of the taste of scores of wines. Art historians store images. Musicians retain scores and arrangements in their minds. Tailors retain the ‘feel’ of types of cloth. Some people remember types of smell. We can all retain muscle movement memories (if you learned how to ride a bicycle when you were a child, you’ll still be able to ride a bicycle). In addition to verbal, visual and motor memories, we store emotions too. Certain things bring tears to our eyes because they bring back sad memories. And some things make us smile.

The research indicates that you’ll probably remember better if you don’t try too hard. You may be able to store a visual memory more effectively if you close your eyes as soon as the picture you want to retain begins to fade. By doing so you’ll keep the image on your retina and your imagination will then help. You’re also more likely to remember things if you return to the place where you learnt them.

It has been shown that when divers are debriefed much better information is obtained if they are debriefed under water. Could that explain why sports teams often do better when playing at home, where they have been trained? Could it be that schoolchildren who take examinations in rooms where they have studied have an inbuilt advantage?

There is evidence, too, to show that a slight amount of stress will improve the memory. A severe shock can produce total amnesia. A little pressure can help an individual retain a memory.

And, finally, sometimes it appears that our memories absorb information without our being aware of it. Patients who have been under total anaesthesia have been able to recall words and snatches of conversation between the surgeons.

Taken from the Sunday Times bestselling book `Bodypower’ by Vernon Coleman.

Bodypower is available as a paperback and an eBook.

Copyright Vernon Coleman February 2022