Er, thingy - you know, whatsit, whojamaflip...

Do you have trouble remembering PIN numbers, birthdays and appointments? Philip Schofield read a book that might help
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The Independent Online
There are people who can memorise and recite pi to over 42,000 places, or the sequence of a pack of shuffled cards in less than a minute, or 16,000 pages of religious text. The potential of the human memory is formidable. But most of us use only a tiny fraction of that potential. We occasionally forget family anniversaries, can't put names to faces, omit key facts when making business presentations, and suffer from other embarrassing lapses of memory.

In the work context we can't afford poor memories. Meeting clients unexpectedly and calling them by the wrong name can sour a relationship. Forgetting to call your boss at an agreed time does you no good. Leaving your laptop in a train can lose you valuable data. And muffing a presentation because you forget a key figure can lose you the business.

For those think they have a poor memory, a recent book commissioned by the Institute of Management Foundation on Effective Memory Techniques in a Week suggests that there is no reason why they can't develop a good one. The authors, Jonathan Hancock and Cheryl Buggy, say that we already have the necessary "hardware" - a brain with more than ten billion cells - "that can make more interconnections and create more new patterns of thought than there are atoms in the universe". They add that we use less than five per cent of its capacity in our lifetime and say that we just have to learn how to make our memory work for everything we need to remember.

The book begins by getting us into the right frame of mind. We are the product of our experience, and most of us have received more negative messages than positive. An inevitable outcome of this negative mindset is that we set ourselves for failure before we start. We also acquire habits in the way we think which cut us off from alternatives which could dramatically improve our success. We are encouraged to develop a positive mental attitude by trusting in our abilities and to stop limiting ourselves or expecting failure.

A doctor who forgets his wife's birthday every year may have a mental database of hundreds of thousands of medical facts. Why? We are told one of the most important steps in memory improvement is realising that some things are easier to remember than others. Quite simply we find some things more interesting than others.

To make the things we want to remember "memorable" we need to use our imagination. For instance, we should take the words we want to remember and try to imagine them as clearly and in as much detail as possible. Try to visualise them in three dimensions, how they feel, their odour and so on. Then make them unusual - imagine them in strange places, doing odd things, exaggerate the images to make them bizarre and memorable. Invent emotional reactions to the information. Once you have done all this you can start linking the items in a memorable pattern.

Another technique is to use picture clues which remind you of the original information. This does not need to be related to actual word. It may be based on word sound, what it looks like, or an image it conjures up.

Similarly with numbers, create a memorable image for each digit from nought to nine. These might be based on appearance - say the sun for zero, a pencil for one, a swan for two, or on sound (a bee for three, a door for four). Alternatively you can use images already linked with numbers in your mind, such as a cake for your birthday on the 6th.

The authors, who provide many exercises and tests, offer other techniques to aid the memory. These include a powerful technique used in ancient Greece and Rome. This is a memory system based on structural layouts. You recall information by locating images around a mental layout of a building or place you know well.

You divide the building into 10 separate areas and decide on a logical route through each area in turn. Memorise this route because you will always take the same mental path. To use the structure, you simply locate a different piece of imagery in each area. These are exactly the same sorts of images used above, but there is no need to create a linking story. Your route through the structure provides the links. You can use this structure to recall more than 10 items. You will be familiar with the furniture in each room, and you can attach a different image to each piece. Cicero, the Roman orator, is believed to have used this technique when addressing the senate for days on end from memory.

`Effective Memory Techniques in a Week' by Jonathan Hancock and Cheryl Buggy, Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 6.99.