Article 3The importance of observationTo commit something to memory, you need to pay attention the next timeyou encounter something – or someone – newBy Ed CookeThe Guardian, Sunday 15 January 2012Never was the phrase "a job well begun, is a job half done" truer than in thecase of memory. All memories begin with what you perceive – with howyou see, hear and feel the world. And for that simple reason, the first wayto boost your memory is to make sure that you experience the world asvividly, clearly and meaningfully as possible.To understand how to do this, we need to appreciate that our senses are notdesigned to record the world, but instead to make sense of it. Wherecameras take instantaneous, detailed snapshots of our surroundings, humanperception takes time and is full of creativity and imagination. Toexperience the world in memorable ways, we need to treat perception as anactive process of recognising, probing, questioning, comparing, opiningand feeling.Remembering names and facesLets see how this works by examining the way we go about rememberingnames and faces at a party. Often in the bustle of this situation, people will
take a brief look at someones face, half listen to their name, continue tryingto follow the conversation, and then – within minutes – have no idea who itwas they were speaking to. In certain company, this is recommended; but itcan sometimes be nice to remember the person later.To do that, youll first want to put lots of life and imagination into the wayyou experience the persons face. Ask yourself playful questions as youlook at them:• Who do they remind me of?• What animal does this person most resemble?• What would their caricature look like?• If they were a genius, what would their talent be?• If they were on the run from the police, what crime would they havecommitted?• What would they look like if they were of the opposite sex?It doesnt really matter what the questions are, whats important is that youdig deep into the unique details of the face, discovering its distinctive andmemorable character – thats what questioning helps us do.The most vital thing to realise here is that your experience of the world ischanged and enriched by this kind of active, imaginative looking. It giveswhat you see more depth and character. Perhaps this is what Proust had inmind when he said that we should "leave pretty women to men devoid ofimagination". What the world looks like depends a lot on how we look at it.But if using our imagination is the way to pay deep attention to the detailsof a face, how does this work with names? Theyre much simpler thanfaces, which is good, but they also give us much less to work with. Theyare often short and meaningless, and although every face is different,names are repeated all the time. Were all going to meet lots of Kates andKevins in our lives.One way to tackle the challenge this poses is to behave as if you are reallyinterested in a persons name. This has the useful side-effect of actuallymaking it more interesting. Just as when we smile, we feel happy, so toowhen we behave like were fascinated by a name, we become a littlefascinated by it. Its an embarrassing but true fact about human beings …
The following behaviours are a great way to literally act out attentiveinterest in a name:• Say the name out loud just after learning it. "Hello Tom, nice to meet you.Tom."• Dont be embarrassed about forgetting (everyone does it). Ask again evenif youre not sure you have forgotten. "Was that Derek, you say? Oh no, Imsorry, Tom."• Ask for the spelling whenever confused about exactly what the name was:"Tom. Interesting. Is that T-H-O-M? No? With a silent P? No? Just T-O-M,like Tim but with an O. Short for Thomas? Good, great to meet you, Tom."• Dont rush. It takes at least 10 seconds of devoted brain-time to fullyabsorb a name.• Did I mention, dont be embarrassed if you forget?• Be kind and repeat your own name a couple of times – the person yourechatting with has probably forgotten your name too.How to keep focusThe art of memory is the art of making things meaningful – and that beginswith attention. One of the things well see again and again is that its verydifficult to pay attention to things, even if we want to remember them. Thetrouble is, were typically so busy bouncing around our own minds that wedevote only a meagre portion of our mental resources to the here and now.Its genuinely difficult in our busy, electronic world to pay sustainedattention. Half of your mind is always off checking your inbox, worryingabout your children, job or personality, or thinking about the thousands ofthings you intend to do in the future (learn Spanish, get fit, take the quicheout of the oven, and so on). This is, if you think about it, anotherembarrassing fact about humans: that we hardly notice when our minds arerunning all over the place.An excellent method for calming ones mind and bringing it under bettercontrol is simply to learn to notice the difference between good and poorattention. Heres a great technique for doing so, adapted from cognitivebehavioural therapy …While listening to a radio talk show, try deliberately turning your attentionon and off every other minute. Pay rapt attention to the conversation for
one minute, let your mind wander the next. Spend another minute makingsure you capture every word, before allowing your mind once again todrift. Carry on in this manner for five or 10 minutes.If you practise this scheme daily, youll begin to notice how much thepower of your attention can vary: how intense it can feel, and howdispersed. Gradually, youll become more adept at recognising thedistinction and, as a result, get better at deliberately controlling yourattention.Mind gamesMemory miraclesWe tend to think of perception as the input of a picture, and memory as thestorage of that picture, but its more complex than that. Its an imaginativeprocess where we actively discover meaning on the basis of priorknowledge. We only really perceive what we know how to perceive.You may notice this after you learn a new obscure word, and then suddenlystart noticing it everywhere, having seemingly never previously heard it.The truth is youve encountered the word before, but its only now youknow it that youre noticing it.If you completed the memory test, and memorised 20 species of tropicalfish, you may have a similar epiphany the next time you peer into a fishtank.The same thing happens when we learn a foreign language, or 16 differentspecies of pig. Suddenly the world seems a richer place. Your memory ispart of how you see the world: the more you learn of it, the more you see init.