How to make your memory better

How does 8 time world memory champion remember things?
16 May 2023

Interview with 

Dominic O'Brien


Cartoon of the brain.


Whilst we’re examining memory it’s worth asking whether we can do anything to improve it. One person who knows how to memorise information more than almost anyone is the British mnemonist, Dominic O’Brien. He is an eight time World Memory Champion, and author of “How to Develop A Brilliant Memory – Week by Week”.

Dominic - Well these days it's a three day competition. You have 10 disciplines, and the first one is you are faced with a thousand abstract images generated by a computer. You've got to memorise the lot there presented in groups of five. You then have longer sorts of marathons. You have an hour to memorise thousands of numbers. I normally go for about two and a half thousand decimals in an hour. You've got a couple of hours. Then to reproduce it on a piece of paper you've got to memorise up to 11,000 binary digits, the language of computers, you've got to get the exact order right in half an hour. Names and faces, which I'm not particularly good at, you're given 300 of those in 15 minutes. It goes on and on. You have fictional dates to remember words. And the final one, which is probably the most exciting, is a deck of cards. It's the person who can memorise it the fastest. And you're given up to five minutes to memorise the sequence of a deck of playing cards.

Chris - How did you realise you could do this?

Dominic - Well, back in 1987, I was in between jobs and I was with my mother at the time. She said, have a look at this guy on it was the old 'Record Breakers', Roy Castle and Norris Mcwhirter. And I saw this guy memorising a deck of cards and they presented it to him one at a time, and he memorised it in just under three minutes. And I was pretty good in those days of trying to work out card tricks. But this was the ultimate trick, and I hadn't got a clue how he did it. And I sat down with a deck of cards and I couldn't remember more than about half a dozen. And I thought, there's got to be a way around this. So I started to use my imagination and I came up with a method. It took a couple of weeks to do it, but I got very good at it. And I found I could memorise not just one deck of cards, but several decks of cars. And it went from there. And then in 1991, Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind mapping and Raymond Keene, Chess GrandMaster, co-founded the World Memory Championships. There were just seven of us in 1991. And I managed to win it, much to the surprise of my friends and family.

Chris - So you would say that there's perhaps some latent ability there to do this anyway, but in your case, there was technique that needed to be learned and rehearsed in order to get good at doing this. It's not just that some people stare at something and they'll immediately recognise that's the sequence of a deck of cards.

Dominic - No, I noticed when I was young, I used to play the game where I'm going down to the beach and I'm going to take a surfboard with me, and then the next person says, 'surfboard, sandwiches'. Then you say, 'surfboard sandwiches, sunglasses'. And you go on. And I was getting up to sort of 10, 15, 20. I didn't really know how I was doing it, but I must have had some way, maybe unconscious way, of organising the information. But I have to tell you that it was not represented when I was at school. I was absolutely hopeless academically. And in fact, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I believe I had attention deficit disorder. So it was the imagination that was getting in the way, but that's exactly what you need to organise the information. So it's a bit of nature, bit of nurture, but it's really to do with your imagination and coding. That's what it's all about. It's coding information, making associations and putting those images, which is what we end up with, somewhere. You've probably heard of memory palaces as favored by Sherlock Holmes. So that's what I use. I use familiar locations.

Chris - Talk us through it then, because I've heard people say, I assemble a kind of story, or I have a street I walk down and I put different things in different houses. And all that for me was changing from one problem into another. I had to remember a stack of stuff and, and then I had to remember a stack of stuff organised slightly differently. I still had to remember a stack of stuff. So how do you make sure that it remains memorable when you, when you put things into your different addresses or your post boxes that you are categorising it by?

Dominic - This is one of the criticisms. People say, well, I've got all this stuff to memorise and now you are asking me to memorise more stuff to store that information. But this is, you know, we live in a 3D world. We live in locations and we tend to remember, if you want to think about or remember everything you did yesterday, you've got to think back to where you were and the locations that you visited will release that information. So this is kind of reverse technology engineering, if you like. So yeah, I have got about 70 routes, I should think, of 50 stages. So these are predetermined routes. These are places that, when I was a kid, locations around school parks, old houses, friends houses, holiday destinations, and I divide them up and I usually have about 50 interesting stops along the way. So I know these routes very, very well. I don't have to think about them. I know what stage leads to the next. Then I imagine whatever it is I need to memorise, I animate them. I bring them to life and I associate them. I connect them to their particular place. Now, that's easy when, well easier when you're trying to memorise words like ball, lake, boat, telescope. But when you've got unintelligible information like numbers, binary digits, even names and faces, then you need to code them. So that's when mnemonists come up with their own systems. And I've got a system where I can look at four decimals at a time. I've got an image straight away, a complex image, which I would post at my front door and the next four digits in the landing, next four digits in the sitting room and so on. So there's quite a bit of preparation. It doesn't just happen. You don't just sit down and hope that goes into your head. There's a lot of preparation, getting those memory palaces organised.

Chris - Catherine Loveday at the start of the program, and I said to her that I was going to be talking to you, and she said one of the key questions to ask someone like you is, are you good across the board or are there some things you're really good at remembering? And other things where you find you are less good? She feels it would be the latter.

Dominic - <laugh>. I think it's to do with what you're interested in, what's significant. You know, if you're trying to memorise decimals or binary digits, you've got to try and make it interesting, otherwise you're never going to remember it. So VAT returns, I'm not terribly good at remembering to do, but I managed to do it. <laugh>

Chris - I wish I had that same problem, but we've got to leave it there. But thank you very much indeed for joining us.


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