How to remember everything

What is memory, and how can you improve yours?
16 May 2023
Presented by Chris Smith
Production by Will Tingle.


Memory and recall cartoon


How do we remember things, why some people stuggle to remember their way around, and what does it take to be a memory world champion?

In this episode

Memory and recall cartoon

What is memory, and how does it work?
Catherine Loveday, University of Westminster

What exactly is memory? Catherine Loveday is a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster and author of several books exploring the brain and human memory.

Catherine - So that's a really interesting question because a lot of people, I think, think of memory as the last time I rode a bike, I remember what happened or the first time I rode a bike. So they can vividly picture what they were doing and re-experience it. And that is a really important part of memory, but memory is a lot more than that. So the knowledge of what a bicycle is, and how to spell it, that kind of knowledge is part of our memory system. Knowing how to ride a bike is also a different part of our memory system. And even being able to kind of follow a set of directions and hold those in our head for a temporary period of time, that is also using yet a different part of our memory system. And what people may be surprised about is that even planning a trip in the future or planning anything involves using our memory system because we have to think back. And then of course there's all the unconscious ways in which our memories impact us. You know, the way we are affected by advertising our kind of intuitive sense that somebody isn't feeling very happy. All of those things are the kind of unconscious part of our memory system. So I guess I would say that memory really is any way in which the past experiences we've had affect the way we are thinking or feeling or behaving in the present moment.

Chris - And it's all interconnected, isn't it? Because I know someone did a test on me once where they gave me a piece of paper and said, write out all the letters on a computer keyboard. And I said, well I've no idea where they all are. And they said type your name on your imaginary keyboard. And suddenly I realised I knew where all the letters were and I could write them down. And so it's, we use one form of memory to influence another in that respect, don't we? Are there different parts of the brain though that segregate with this sort of memory function tends to happen here?

Catherine - Yeah, so I think that's another thing that's really interesting about memory because it's distributed across a lot of the brain. So lots of different areas of the brain are involved in remembering, but there are some structures in the brain that are particularly important. So the hippocampus, which is a small seahorse shaped structure towards the middle of our brain, that's really important for kind of encoding the memories and consolidating them. But then the prefrontal cortex at the front, I think of that as being a little bit like a librarian who's sort of in charge of the memory system and then who've got the cerebellum at the back, which is more involved in those kind of procedural memories that you were talking about. Things like learning, knowing how to ride a bike or even just walking and talking. All of these things involve that area of the brain. And then there's the amygdala, which is really important for emotional content. So these structures are all connected, but they all contribute in different ways to each memory task that we're doing.

Chris - And do we know, when we physically make a memory, what that looks like in the network of brain cells we have, how do we actually remember stuff?

Catherine - Essentially imagine you're sitting in a nice park, for example, eating a nice piece of chocolate cake or something. And the experiences that you are having are, you are holding them in your consciousness and after, if you kind of pay attention to that for any length of time, the hippocampus starts to kind of combine these together into a connected trace so that really any one part of that will sort of trigger the rest of the trace so that the whole memory can come back to us. But also it starts to connect it with memories from the past. So whether you've been to this place before or whether you've eaten chocolate in the past and gradually it creates these sort of strong memory traces where it connects as a cellular network. It connects these different sensory experiences together into a combined trace. And then ultimately that kind of shifts out and is is kind of stored across the outside of the brain.

Chris - And when we forget something, we've made a memory like that but then we can't remember it. What happened there?

Catherine - The main reason that we forget something is that we didn't rehearse it. So you can think of this a little bit like revising for an exam and if you go to the lesson and then you never look at the stuff again, you kind of forget it. But if you go back and you go over it again, then you are more likely to remember it and basically we do this with pretty much everything in life. So if you've had that nice sort of sitting in the park, chocolate ice cream or chocolate cake kind of moment, then if you reflect back on that later in the day or you have a conversation with someone, you are rehearsing it, you are activating those cells again. And what we know from memory is the more often you activate that memory trace, the stronger it becomes and the easier it is to remember. But if we don't activate it, we essentially forget about it. So we forget things either because we haven't thought about them again, maybe because they weren't important enough or sometimes because we haven't had the time, we haven't had any relaxation space or any rest or whatever and we are just not practicing and rehearsing and reactivating those memory traces. And sometimes there's a memory trace that we can't activate because I mentioned earlier on the prefrontal cortex, this kind of librarian part, we can't sort of quite reach it. So I think of it as the librarian not being able to quite be able to find that book. But given time often it will, it will come back to us. Sometimes we forget something because we didn't actually pay attention in the first place, of course.

A brain sparking with electricity.

06:09 - Trying out the 'super memorisers' test

A Cambridge study has devised a test to find those with exceptional memory

Trying out the 'super memorisers' test
Jon Simons, University of Cambridge

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have recently launched a search to find people who have exceptional memory, as they attempt to understand why some people are much better at remembering than others. Jon Simons is the man behind the project - which involves a series of online tests. Our own Will Tingle took the plunge on behalf of the Naked Scientists.

Will - Okay, we have been sent very kindly a memory test by John Simons and his team looking out for super memorisers. I don't think he's going to find one today. So let's start this challenge. What we have is several boxes appearing on the screen. They're going to give me symbols jumping out of each of these boxes individually and then I've got to tell them which symbol belongs in which box. That should be fairly straightforward, no? <Laugh>. Oh good. There are three lifelines. Good, good, good, good, good.

<Dinging noises followed by a buzzer>

Will - Interesting. Okay, got an eight on that. That was not awful. Now we've got a four by four grid of tiles and they're going to have flash and I've got to remember the sequence. Kinda like Bop It. I played Bop It. I can smash this.

<Ticking noises>

Will - My god, we're flying.

<Buzzer Noise>

Will - Okay. Another eight. Another eight. Hmm. That didn't feel great. I feel like I've let bop it down. What else have we got? A sequence of numbers, appearing one at a time. We've got to recall them. This should be, this should be my bag here.

<Several dings>

Will - This is going well. This is going well.

<Buzzer noise>

Will -  I spoke too soon. Oh, we've tapped out there at 10. That was good though. That felt better. And that's, thanks for playing. I honestly don't know how to feel about that, but I do know one person who might, so I'm going to take my scores over to Jon Simons, one of the leaders on this study and find out how I did.

Jon - So I think that puts you, I mean, we'll obviously have to look at the data in more detail, but I would think that that probably puts you at quite a high level of performance for many of these sorts of tests. You know, there's a great deal of variability just in the normal population most people get around sort of seven or so plus or minus, you know, two or three. So I think, you know, that the level of performance that you've, you've achieved there is probably putting you sort of in the top half I would say.

Will - But that pales insignificance to the sorts of levels of people that you are hoping to find.

Jon - Yes. So the people that we're hoping to work with, who really do have exceptional levels of memory, some of them will be getting 15 to 20. But we have had some people take part in the test so far who've scored above 25 and someone I think approaching 30, that's people who, if you can imagine a sort of distribution of performance in the normal population, they are way up towards one side of that scale.

Will - When I was doing it, it felt like it was exercising perhaps more my short-term memory. Is that the case? Is that the part of the brain that you are hoping to have a look at?

Jon - Well, there are different aspects to memory that we're interested in. So one aspect is short-term memory, we're also interested in long-term memory. And one of the things we want to find with this big new study is to try to find out how specific some of these abilities are. So for example, one of the tasks that you will done would've been remembering digits for example. So if someone can remember lots of those digits, does it generalise to remembering words or remembering faces for example. Over that relatively short term period, does that then generalised to longer term memory? So memory that might last months or even years perhaps. And also does it generalise to people's everyday lives? So it may be that people have some sort of a strategy that enables them to do well at remembering a set of digits, for example. Does that generalise to their ability to remember their experiences that they've had in their lives better? Does it generalise to their ability to remember a shopping list or to remember to perform a particular task to at a particular time, for example, that kind of more everyday life types of memory. And, what's underlying them? So are there particular strategies perhaps, that these super memorisers use to boost their memory abilities? Perhaps they're using strategies that they've developed themselves, perhaps unconsciously, or perhaps they have learned about some strategies that can be useful and perhaps have been practicing those and, and utilising those to enable them to boost their memory abilities to these exceptional levels.

Will - Wow. We might just find out a little bit about that later on in the show. <laugh>, that's a little teaser for you there, but another facet of the study is you're looking for a link between exceptional memory and neurodivergent conditions such as autism. What do you think the link is there?

Jon - There's certainly quite a bit of evidence that some autistic people have. What has been termed savant-like abilities. There is some particular cognitive function, whatever it might be, that seems to be at an exceptional level and in some of those people that can include memory. So that's one aspect of what we're trying to look at. But we are really interested in anyone who thinks they might be a super memoriser, someone with an exceptional memory, to try out our memory tests and then we can try to understand is this something that is seen throughout the population in autistic people and in others, or is it something that perhaps is disproportionately evident in autistic people or whatever.

Will - Where do you plan on going with this sort of information once you've got this and, and perhaps you get a good idea of what you think provides us with a good short or long-term memory? What's the next step after that?

Jon - Well, as part of the study as well as trying to understand the strategies and the sort of cognitive aspects if you like, of what people are doing, we're also going to be asking people to take part in a brain scan. And one of the things we're looking at there is whether the brains of people who have exceptional memory, whether they show differences perhaps in the structure of the brain, certain areas of the brain that might be structured differently or connected differently, or perhaps just that these areas might just function in a slightly different way. Perhaps they function more efficiently or show greater activity or something. And so that's something that can then be incredibly informative to trying to understand the cognitive neuroscience, if you like, of memory. What's the link between the brain and memory function? And this can help us to understand how memory works and if there are strategies that can boost memory or if there are certain brain regions that are really important here, then that can potentially help us to design targeted therapies and interventions perhaps that can then help the people who we tend to work with more often, actually, of course, which is people with memory impairments. So this is people whose memories unfortunately are not exceptional you know, in terms of high levels of performance. People who maybe have memory deficits due to dementia or brain injury for example. Those are the people we spend a lot of time working with and trying to help. And I think by looking at people sort of at the other end of the scale, the very high level of, of the scale and understanding how their memories perform so well, that can help us to help those people hopefully who suffer with impairments to their memories.

A confused brain

13:33 - Getting lost in familiar places

How people with a certain brain condition are unable to build mental maps of familiar places or buildings

Getting lost in familiar places
Hugo Spiers, University College London

Developmental Topographical Disorientation, or DTD, is the inability to orient yourself in familiar locations; people with it cannot remember their way around buildings that they live and work in every day. And whilst these symptoms are not uncommon in those with brain damage or neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, DTD appears to affect those with no form of cognitive defect. Hugo Spiers spoke to Will Tingle about what we know already about DTD, and how he hopes to find out more.

Hugo - There are many bits of your brain involved in navigation, and that's partly because navigation is one of those skills that varies what you're doing. So if I'm going to the shops <laugh> at my house, I'll be navigating, I don't want to make the wrong choices of streets to get to the shops. It's a very different bit of my brain. It's a bit of the brain, like they're called the striatum that I'll be using for that. But there are other bits of the brain if I've gone somewhere new and I'm trying to figure my way back or my road to the shops is closed and I need to figure out. where we think we might use a mental map inside our head. And then are other bits of the brain in particular, a bit called the hippocampus, which are known to be important for that type of navigation. So which bits of the brain do we use for navigation? Depends very much on what type of navigating you're doing.

Will - I'd like to think that I'm somewhat good at navigating, but I know there are people out there that aren't. What's the difference, do you think, in people's brains that causes this disparity?

Hugo - There would be a number of factors that will relate to that. The very likely strongest one is just how your brain got built and developed when you were small. We all inherit things from our parents and some of that can be an aptitude for navigating well. But as you grow up, there'll be different things that expose you to different challenges that can help make you a better navigator. Things like learning to drive lots of time spent out traveling around different professions you might pick up. All sorts of things that could harness those bits of your brain for navigation. So there's a whole lot of different experiences.

Will - But whilst there's a fair amount of people that perhaps struggle slightly with navigation, there's a huge difference between them and the group of people that you are starting to look into. And that's people with developmental topographical disorientation or DTD. What does that mean?

Hugo - We all talk about how some people are good at navigating some not so good. But there's clearly a very distinct group of people who really struggle to find their way. And the key defining feature of that is really kind of being lost in buildings they've worked in for years. They just become more easily disoriented. Go into the toilet, come out. Which way is it? It's hard to know and all of us can struggle with other times, but these people would really explain this as a problem for them. It's not a medical condition, it's just something you're born with. You're not good at this particular skill. And it affects people's lives. And we'd like to understand our experiences more because then we can try and understand what is difficult for them. And the value in that is helping improve these kinds of tests that are useful for clinicians, but also to help people who make buildings, hospitals, transport hubs, cheap stations to account for these people who are struggling. What is it we can do? Where does it go wrong? What is it that could help them to navigate better? So that's our new research and as scientists, the best people who come in are the ones who struggle <laugh>. If someone turns up and does their test perfectly, it's not very useful for us. People that make mistakes are extremely helpful. Even a few to many. They really teach us things that we need to know about the brain.

Will - We actually recently heard from Alix Popham, the former rugby player who was diagnosed with early onset dementia. And he said that he lost his way home on a really familiar route and that was a sign that he had this dementia. But you can say with confidence that there's no sign of brain injury or neurodegenerative disease in people with DTD.

Hugo - That's absolutely right. So there's a big difference that these people who have developmental topographical disorientation, they may well not realise they've got it just all their lives been a little bit more challenged at navigating. And, if they were to go and read up on developmental topographical disorientation, they may realise, oh, that describes me. But you're right, it's not a condition that's linked to dementia at all. So it's a separate process. It appears to be something you're kind of born with and develop this inability to orient in space. But for those people who have early onset Alzheimer's dementia, it's really like a profound loss of 'where am I?' So the distinction here is that someone with DTD wouldn't feel confused in the same way or it's not like a change in their experience, but more something they've always had to adapt to. So really extremely helpful to understand what it's like for people with DTD, but to also relate that and distinguish it from people who have the early onset Alzheimer's dementia. So if anyone is able to help us with this research, we really are looking to try and help address experiences for a range of people who have issues with navigation, not just those with dementia, not just those with, DTD, but across the board.

Will - Because presumably if you can help one form of memory loss, you might be able to help them all.

Hugo - Absolutely. We can try and distinguish. So, my assumption is that someone with DTD would likely make good decisions and make very clear choices and understand what they're doing, but they just find orientation hard. And so I think we will see some really interesting choices they make that distinguish their problems from people who are really struggling with the early stages of dementia.

Will - So aside from being unfamiliar with familiar locations, is there anything else people who think they might have this could look out for?

Hugo - The other symptoms for DTD are really being suddenly kind of confused if you've turned around, gone between rooms and you're not sure which direction you're facing. So being suddenly disoriented in space can be one of the key symptoms. And yeah, struggling to find your way in familiar spaces. So lots of people will have a hard time navigating new places. If I go to a new city, I'll struggle, but someone with a DTD would struggle in a place they've been for some time. They just have a hard time making a mental model in their head of the environment.

Cartoon of the brain.

20:08 - How to make your memory better

How does 8 time world memory champion remember things?

How to make your memory better
Dominic O'Brien

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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