I’ve always been interested in memory, even before I had an interest in magic and psychology. I actually learned to memorise a deck of cards before I learned any magic effects. When I perform, I usually get as many questions about memory and memory techniques than anything else. Years ago, I remember watching a TV documentary featuring Dominic O’Brien who is the 8 times world memory champion (yes, there is such a thing!) and an author of many books on the subject. In the documentary, Dominic had travelled to Las Vegas equipped with money supplied by friends, in an attempt to make a profit for them. He used a card counting system in blackjack and managed to be very successful.
Now card counting is a much misunderstood skill. A common misconception is that you have to remember every card that is dealt. This is not the case. When card counting while playing blackjack, it is a case of assigning each card a value, for example number cards would be one value and picture cards would be another. Then it is a question of keeping a mental running total of the cards that have been dealt. That then gives an indication of how many picture cards are left in the deck to be dealt. In blackjack, the more picture cards that are left in the deck, the more there is an advantage to the player. Therefore, it is usual at these times to increase your stake. It used to be a lot easier, but now casinos tend to use 6 decks at a time which makes it very difficult, allied to the fact that casinos are constantly on the lookout for card counters and if suspected, you will kindly be asked to leave the casino! So basically card counting is a lot of effort for usually little reward.
However, improving your memory isn’t just useful when it comes to gambling. Having an above average memory can help a lot of areas of your life. Many people think they have a “bad” memory. This isn’t usually the case, I think a more accurate description would be an “untrained” memory. I see memory as just like any other muscle in the body, it needs regular exercise to improve and maintain it. There are many different techniques for memorising large amounts of information, the link system, the peg system, mnemonics, the journey method which leads on to the loci system, otherwise known as the memory palace system. This latter method tends to be the preferred choice of many memory experts as it enables you to store huge amounts of information.
How to Improve Your Memory
The most important thing when trying to improve your memory is to use visualisation. The brain much prefers vivid colours and images as opposed to written words. For example, using a link system to memorise a shopping list with the following items:- Bread, eggs, milk, sugar, bacon, chicken, apples, bottled water, fish, shampoo.
To memorise a simple list such as this, i would use a link system. The idea is to link each item to the next one using a large, colourful and preferrably ridiculous amusing image as possible. Imagine a huge loaf of bread with legs, walking along the street when all of a sudden, thousands of eggs come rolling down the street towards it. As the bread tramples the eggs underfoot, the sludge becomes a river of milk that continues to flow down the street until it hits a damn which happens to be a monstrous bag of sugar. The milk continues to crash against the sugar damn and waves of it start to flow over the top of the sugar bag where there is a bunch of pigs (bacon) grazing on a piece of grassland on top of the sugar. This scares the pigs and the start running away and rampage into a chicken coup where there is deafening clucks and flying feathers. All of a sudden, huge apples start falling from the sky, squashing the pigs and the chickens. The milk waves continue to flow through the pigs, chickens and giant apples and reaches the other side of the sugar packet where it becomes a huge cascading waterfall of pure spring water. At the bottom of the waterfall is a huge fish that is showering under the waterfall while washing its hair (shampoo). Now that ridiculous and ludicrous story would actually help you to remember those items. All you would need to do would be to visualise it as clear as you can. make the colours bright, the sounds loud and even the smells. Now that was a very simple example, just using ten items, but it is very easy to remember much longer lists using the same method. The more you practice, the better you get.
The most fascinating memory method is the memory palace. I won’t go into this in too much detail as there are far better and more detailed explanations online and in print. However, it usually starts from taking a room that you know very well, (living room, bedroom or kitchen for example). You can then have objects that you wish to remember scattered around this room, using the vivid visualisations previously mentioned, making them as big, colourful, noisy and as silly as possible. Once you have one room memorised, you can add other rooms on, thus creating your own memory palace.
For anyone interested in developing or learning more about memory, i would recommend Use Your Memory by Tony Buzan which is a brilliant starting point. Also, anything by the aforementioned Dominic O’Brien, particularly How to Develop a Brilliant Memory Week by Week. I firmly believe that memory techniques should be taught in schools, starting as young as possible. It has surely got to be more useful in later life than algebra and tangents!