Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Memory Game

As you may have realised, I TOTALLY forgot it was my MiE blog today. (Bad writer, no biscuit!)

And forgetting something so important reminded me of something I read a few years ago, in a book by Derren Brown called TRICKS OF THE MIND, about dramatically improving your memory. Derren Brown, for those of you who are not aware of him, is part illusionist, part psychologist, and all showman. The Guardian newspaper described him as, “Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history—he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain.” His various TV series over here have dumbfounded and entertained in equal measure, and while the knowing style of his book has taken a bit of getting used to, the information contained in it is just fascinating.

And why is this relevant here? Because, if I understand him correctly and extrapolate accordingly, fiction writers should have the best memories ever. Elephants should be as fickle goldfish compared to us lot.

Why? Because we exercise our imaginations on a regular basis.

Ye-es, it foxed me to begin with, but stick with me on this one, OK? And do give this a whirl. I tried the example in the book and was amazed that it worked flawlessly.

You see, Brown claims that most people, given a list of twenty disparate, unconnected words, can recall about seven with any degree of accuracy. He gave such a list and suggested that you read it through, and then try and jot down as many as you can recall, in the same order. I took the liberty of substituting my own words. Or, rather, so I wasn’t subconsciously picking words that I might find easy to remember, I asked someone else to do provide the list for me. And here they are:


So, having read through them, try and write them down, in the same order they’re listed here. Please give this a try. How did you do? If you got past seven, you’re Marvo the Memory Man and you don’t need to read any further. Put it aside for a bit, and then try again, without re-reading the list, but in reverse order this time. It’s a stumper, isn’t it?

What you do, according to Brown’s book, is create a link from one word to the next by producing an image that connects the words. A vivid image, with smells and emotions attached to it. If the image is of something that stinks, sniff it. If it’s funny, find it so.

The elements need to interact in some way, and each little scene needs to be odd enough to be memorable. Some people, apparently, don’t like visualisation and claim not to be very good at it, but we’re writers, for heaven’s sake. We spend our days making stuff up—that’s what we do.

So, here’s my own list of connections between the above words:

A group of Edwardians in striped blazers and straw boater hats, riding along on their bicycles, very slow and stately, but in case of rain they all have cabriolet tops they can raise over their heads, with big curved hinges on the sides like an old-fashioned pram, and tassels along the front.

A nice little VW Cabriolet, gleaming in white, all colour-coded, and when you climb inside it’s still white like you’re sitting in your fridge, with wire racks and dairy products on the shelves and a light that comes on when you open the door. There’s a big bottle of milk strapped to the passenger seat. The air con keeps it frosty cold.

You open the door of your fridge and a rollercoaster track unfurls out of the salad drawer, complete with screaming passengers, and goes careering round the kitchen, making it impossible to sneak down for a midnight snack without waking the entire street.

The farmer next to the amusement park hates the people who ride the rollercoaster making all that racket, so he always drives his muckspreader along the hedge next to the bottom of the first drop, and sprays them all with cow manure as they hurtle past. Particularly nasty if you’ve got your mouth open as you go.

Someone’s come up with a new way of recycling cow manure, which instead of being scattered is reformed inside the muckspreader into neat round pincushions, the size of pillows, which it deposits in a neat orderly row as the farmer drives his tractor through the local ladies’ sewing circle.

The only trouble with the cowpat pincushions is when you stick a pin in them they let out a great cloud of stinking vapour and leak a nasty greeny fluid all over the place, which you have to soak up by putting a blotter under the pincushion wherever you go.

An ingenious murderess decides to soak the blotter on her husband’s desk in hemlock, so he will be gradually poisoned as the hemlock leaches out and into his hands whenever he works late into the night.

The entire cast of a Shakespeare play toast each other with hemlock-laced glasses of wine, thus dying tragically at the end of the first act, not realising that the leading man is a method actor who has genuinely dosed them all with real poison.

Will Shakespeare finds himself momentarily lost for words and invents a new one—thingamabob—which instantly becomes all the rage in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth instantly demands he produce one, by royal command, and he has to cobble something together or lose his head.

Nonagenarian little old ladies can be easily identified by the fact that they’re each followed about by a thingamabob, which is a little bouncy, squeaky thing, like a cross between a Space Hopper and a Tribble, which won’t leave them alone. There they all are in the park, swatting at these troublesome thingamabobs with their umbrellas.

When anybody reaches the ripe old age of 90, their nonagenarian status is celebrated by awarding them a Rolex watch. The only trouble is, it’s a big garish one, plastered with diamonds, and the streets are filled with old folk dressed up in flashy watches and gold chains like gangster rappers.

All Nissan Skyline sports cars comes with a Rolex attached to the front of the bonnet so the driver can time themselves as they lap the Nürburgring in Germany. It’s also used as a means of handicapping the faster ones. The quicker you drive, the bigger watch you have to have, thus not only increasing drag, but also preventing the driver from seeing where they’re going, and slowing them down. At least they know exactly what time they crashed.

As a party trick, someone drives their Skyline around the inside of their filter coffee machine, like a wall of death. Round and round they go, until they’re almost vertical up the sides, kicking up great rooster tails of coffee grounds and leaving tyre tracks in the paper filter.

After heavy rain sluices cauliflowers into the drains, you have to insert big filters to stop them clogging everything up, otherwise they create the most awful stench of rotting vegetation.

When your grandfather gets on a bit and loses his teeth, the only thing he can eat is mulched up very well-pureed cauliflower, which you have to cook for him in giant vats until it goes grey, and then put through a blender, at which point he packs it into his cheeks like a hamster. Grandfathers only have to be fed once a week using this method.

Grandfathers are not acquired in the usual way, but introduced into the family nest like cuckoos, in the hopes that they’ll be cared for like the other family members. Of course, grandfathers can be bigger and more aggressive than other relatives, and often push them out of the nest using their Zimmer frames.

Swiss cuckoo clocks are using tortoises instead of the more traditional birds to call the time. At the top of the hour the doors open and a tortoise emerges, very, very slowly, on the end of a spring. It can take these clocks several days to strike noon and midnight.

To keep your tortoise warm in winter, you cover his shell in carpet, preferably shag pile, so there’s all these tortoises ambling about with multicoloured carpet stuck to their backs.

Brings a whole new meaning to carpet bombing. There’s the archetypal RAF squadron leader with handlebar moustache and flying helmet, piloting his bomber through flak-ridden skies over war-torn Europe, waiting for his bombardier to give the word that he can release his load of Axminster and Wilton. Once away, these rolls of carpet plummet through the clouds in a lightning attack on the terrified populace.

I have to say that Derren Brown’s own list—and the explanation of the links between the words—was probably much better and far more amusing than my own. But you get the idea. If anyone can come up with sillier or more vivid connections, please feel free. But let me know how you get on. Isn’t it nice to know that this fertile imagination we have can be put to other uses, isn’t it?

Oh, and before I forget, this week’s Word of the Week is zeroable, which is a word that is able to be omitted from a sentence without any loss of meaning. I try to eliminate all zeroable words at the copy-editing stage. Doesn’t always work, though … 


  1. I ran across this trick to memorizing a list in a book on memory tricks back in one of my hay-days (early/mid 1970s). I remember (hah!) trying it out then, and can STILL remember several of the words in the list. It's VERY effective when done right, and I imagine that the more you do it, the quicker and easier it becomes to come up with the necessary images/links. I've just been too busy and distracted by other pursuits to focus on remembering to remember...

    1. I think one of the other things Derren Brown mentioned was forming your own Memory Palace, and walking through a building attaching items to rooms. I still go upstairs and can't remember why I went there, though ...

  2. This a type of mnemonic - memory tricks that help recall. Another is to try visually place each of the words in a physical place you know, such as your house. So you could put the bicycle at the kitchen door, the cabriolet on the kitchen table, the fridge on the fridge, etc. Then all you have to do is walk through the house to remember the list. It's a bit like the ditties "Real old yokels guzzle beer in volumes" or "Richard of York gained battles in vain" as mnemonics for the colours of the rainbow. I'm sure there would be one for the kings of England or Scotland, or the presidents of the USA. There is a lot of research in the field of psychology on the effectiveness of mnemonics on recall.

    1. I've never been sure if I focus too much on the mnemonic and less on the reasoning behind the answer. Like remembering your multiplication tables by heart without being able to work out the totals logically instead. I can recite the fates of Henry VIII's six wives by chanting, "Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived." But it was learning their stories that makes me be able to recall their names.

  3. Mary's violet eyes make John stay up nights planning.

    1. It's the mnemonic for the planets in their order from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. It was a common one here in the States back in those heady days when the physicists allowed our sun to have nine planets.

  4. Thanks to Stan I recall Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet, but I'm too tired to remember why.

    1. Of course, now we have to find a mnemonic that has something to do with Richard Of York being found in a Leicester car park ...