Dominic Lawson: Are you worried about memory loss? Join the club

With the whole world of knowledge so readily available at the click of a mouse, we decreasingly need to make the effort to remember
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The Independent Online

The longest-running advertising campaign in newspaper history has the compelling catchline, "IQ of 145 and can't remember?" For half a century, the Cheshire mail order firm of R&W Heap has used this to sell its "memory improvement course". The remarkable longevity of this sales pitch is testament to the value we place on having a good memory – and the fear we have of losing it.

It's not surprising, therefore, that a new book called Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything has been rewarded with acres of news coverage over the past few weeks; not just reviews, but also numerous interviews with its author, the American journalist Joshua Foer. Admittedly, Foer's own sales pitch is much more impressive than mere explication: as part of his effort to understand and communicate the development of memory, Foer trains himself to such an extent that he wins the US National Memory Championships. This involved memorising the exact order of a newly-shuffled deck of cards in under two minutes, and that of 150 random digits in under five minutes.

These are, in one sense, no more than party tricks; but it's also obvious that the methods Foer used can be applied to items of information which are actually useful, and which might help all of us in our work, or even in our personal relationships. As Foer admits, the technique is hardly rocket science.

It was first set out, or so we are told, by the poet Simonides of Ceos, who devised the method known as the "memory palace". This is a system of remembering sequences of words by imagining them attached to objects dotted around a physical setting with which you are familiar, most obviously your home.

Much later, in the 19th century, psychologists discovered the extraordinary fact that our short-term memory is limited to seven bits of information. The trick, therefore, is to make each one of those seven "chunks" contain as much as possible, by a system of associative linking. London's licensed taxi drivers develop "the Knowledge" by this method, even if they aren't aware of it.

I imagine that the wives or partners of many of those taxi drivers might find it frustrating that although such men can recall any part of the immensely complicated map of London in an instant, they might still find it strangely difficult to remember some solitary and repeating item of domestic information, such as their children's birthdays.

Here, I must confess to being one of nature's taxi drivers. For a few years now, I have given a simultaneous chess display against the most enthusiastic players from my daughter's secondary school. After the event is over – it takes roughly a couple of hours – I can amuse the pupils (or perhaps irritate them) by recalling all the moves of each individual game. But I can never remember the names of the children, even though I am introduced to them at the outset – which seems rude, even though I have invariably enjoyed meeting them.

For a similar reason, I am nervous before attending parties: I fear that I will meet a number of people whom I've spoken to many times before, but whose names I cannot recall. If this becomes obvious, offence is inevitably taken.

My own explanation for this is that whereas there is an obvious logical thread in the moves of a chess game – in its own way as harmonious as a melody by Mozart or Bach which, once heard, can't be forgotten – there is no such link between a person's face and his name. This explanation, of course, will never mollify the person who feels socially slighted by someone who himself has been silently panicking throughout the conversation, and cursing his inability to remember something so apparently obvious and simple.

The late Margot Walmsley, who for many years ran a wonderful salon in London while being sublimely absent-minded, somehow got round this. I recall how she would grab me, propel me towards another of her guests whose name she had also forgotten, and say "Darling! Do you know darling?" We were all her darlings, and understood that this was much more important than whatever it was that we happened to be called.

Nevertheless, without a basic level of memory, all meaningful social intercourse would become impossible. As the neurobiologist Professor Colin Blakemore has observed: "Without memory, there could be no language, no art, no science, no culture. Civilisation itself is the distillation of human memory."

This is why some people have become alarmed by the power of modern computing and the internet as much as they are grateful for its benefits. With the whole world of knowledge so readily available at the click of a mouse, we decreasingly need to make the effort to remember, knowing that we can have any information recalled in front of our eyes in an instant. But what if the system crashes?

Modern teaching seems unbothered by this, arguing that memory is not the same as understanding, and rejecting the rote methods by which people of my generation were to a large extent trained to recall, whether it was Latin vocabulary, or times tables. It is true that one can remember while understanding nothing of what matters; but on the other hand, the act of memorising requires a high degree of concentration, and the ability to concentrate is itself an essential part of all learning.

Thus, although Peter Conrad in last weekend's Observer magisterially denounced Joshua Froer's book as "the work of a geek, for whom knowledge can be equated with a stock of useless data... after performing the tricks required of him, he is ushered off into oblivion", I have more time for those who want to test the limits of their mental storage capacity, if only for its own sake.

Conrad is right, however, about the impracticality of the memory freaks. The chess grandmaster Ray Keene, who inaugurated the World Memory Championship, told me of a dinner last week with Dominic O'Brien, who had won the title on no fewer than eight occasions, and is the author of How to Develop a Perfect Memory; O'Brien had to leave the table early to head off to the airport – and forgot his flight tickets. "I was rather surprised," Keene said. I'm not.