Secrets of a Mistake Proof Memory

A couple of thousand years ago Greek orators faced a major memory challenge. To make faultless speeches lasting several hours, and lacking such modern memory aides as cue cards or TV autocue machines to guide them, they were obliged to develop powerful and practical ways of remembering and recalling vast amounts of information.

Not surprisingly this led some entrepreneurs to develop and market a number of mnemonic devices for aiding a flagging memory. Named after Mnemosyne, the personification of memory in Greek mythology, they create in the mind an artificial structure that allows disassociated ideas to be brought to mind more easily.

First off the mark which such a system was a fifth century BC Greek lyric poet named Simonides of Ceos. He developed a mnemonic technique known as loci et res, from locus meaning a familiar structure and res the thing to be remembered. It was a simple yet powerful device that allowed the lengthiest of speeches to be remembered with relative ease.

How he came to devise this approach is an intriguing story that well illustrates some of the key aspects of Sensualisations.

Simonides – The World’s Commercial Memory Man

While attending a banquet in a luxurious marble hall, Simonides was unexpectedly called outside to meet two messengers. No sooner had he left the building than an earthquake caused its collapse and everyone remaining inside was killed. So crushed were their bodies by the gigantic falling pillars that even their next of kin were unable to recognise them. In despair they begged the sole survivor of the catastrophe to help identify their loved ones. So many of his friends and neighbours had attended the banquet that, at first, Simonades felt unable to help. He simply could not remember where each of his friends had been sitting.

Then he realised that by recreating an image of the banqueting hall in his mind’s eye he could place each of the guests in his seat and so recall their names.

Sitting quietly he focused on picturing the banqueting hall at the moment he was called away. “Walking” through this imaginary chamber he was able accurately to name each of the victims so that grieving relatives could remove the crushed remains of their loved ones.

Later it struck him that this same approach could prove of great value to orators – and so one of the world’s first ever memory enhancement courses was created.

Even today, more than 2,500 years after the event, the method of loci remains a staple technique in many of the memory training courses you see advertised in newspapers and magazines.

The Method of Loci

Simonides instructed his students to imagine themselves strolling around a familiar building, such as their own homes, mentally locating each key idea or fact in a specific location. One, for example, might be mentally fixed just inside the front entrance, the second on a table, a third by an ornamental fountain in the courtyard and so on.

To recall those ideas or facts the speaker had merely to retrace his footsteps around the same location – in his mind’s eye of course – and, as it were ‘pick up’ the information where he had previously positioned it.

The same approach works just as well today. To remember a shopping list, for example, try visualising each item at a specific place in your own home. You might put a bag of sugar on the hall table, a half kilo of apples on the TV in the drawing room, potatoes on the dining room table and so on. To recall the list simply retrace your steps around the house.

For more than a decade I have been studying memory and learning in both ‘ordinary’ people and working with those possessing exceptional memories, such as eight times world memory champion Dominic O’Brien. Among his many accomplishments is recalling a 1,780 digit number and memorising 20 decks of cards!

So, is Dominic – and those relatively few other men and women capable of achieving similar extraordinary feats of memory – some sort of freak?

Is his brain somehow different and special?

My research, as well as the brain scans which Dominic has undergone in the name of science, suggests virtually everyone has the potential to attain the same level of ability – provided they are prepared to master some fairly basic techniques for enhancing retention and recall.

From these findings I have developed an approach to mastering memory.

Named IMPACT it involves three key elements – Imagery, Mental Preparation and Active Concentration.

As the name suggests, IMPACT involves a combination of vivid mental imagery, a specific breathing sequence and developing the ability to concentrate intently on what you need to store in long-term memory.

Our studies suggest that this way of using your memory can boost the retention and recall by as much as 85%.

So how does the method work?
Let’s start by looking at Imagery.
Vision is the most powerful of all our five senses with more areas of the brain dedicated to this activity than for hearing, tasting, smelling or touching combined. By developing your powers of visual imagery you will also significantly enhance your memory. You can prove this for yourself by reading through the list of 20 nouns below just once, then – without peeping – see how many you are able to recall.


  1. APPLE
  9. GATE
  10. ATLAS
  13. KITTEN
  14. JELLY
  15. CASTLE
  17. WIZARD
  18. TRAIN

How did you get on?

If you are like most people you probably remember most easily the words you read first, such as APPLE, TELESOPE and MONKEY and those you read last, for example TRAIN, LOBSTER, and PUMPKIN. These are known as the ‘primacy and recency’ effects.

Instead of trying to remember the words, create a mental image of each noun and then link it to the next in some way to create a mind movie. For example you might imagine a giant APPLE floating in the sky like a moon and picture it being viewed through a big, brass TELESCOPE by a MONKEY who is excitedly describing what he is seeing by MOBILE PHONE to someone in an AEROPLANE circling about…and so on. Make each image as vivid as possible. Really try to ‘see’ them in your mind’s eye. When you reach the final word PUMPKIN link this back to the first APPLE in some way, perhaps by picturing it as a second ‘moon’ orbiting the first fruit. At first this approach may slow you down slightly, but with only a little practice you should be able to form a powerful mental picture of each in no more time than it takes to read the word.

Look away from the screen now and try to recall the list.

This time you should have had no difficulty at all in recalling every one of the 20 nouns. Not only that, but by running your ‘mind movie’ backwards it will be just as easy to bring the list to mind in reverse order. You can even start anywhere you wish on the list and recall the words either forwards of backwards from that point.

To bring to mind every card in a well-shuffled pile of 20 packs, Dominic O’Brien will imagine each card as an individual and then go on a mental ‘walk’ through some familiar location, using his powerful and highly trained visual imagination to place one of these ‘characters’ at a particular location along the way. To recall them he merely retraces his journey in the imagination, ‘observing’ which character he has ‘placed’ at each location. The technique, which combines images and well-known surroundings, is known as the ‘method of loci’.

Try it for yourself by using the same 20 nouns learned earlier. This time take a mental trip around your own home and ‘deposit’ each word on the list at a different location.

You might, for instance, imagine placing an APPLE on the hall table, a TELESCOPE at the foot of the stairs, a MONKEY by the television in the living room and a MOBILE PHONE on your favourite armchair. To recall the list simply retrace your footsteps around your home.

Apart from training your visual imagination, the IMPACT approach involves breathing in a special way that causes the brain to enter a state of relaxed alertness in which it is especially receptive to retaining new information. (Full details of this breathing sequence can be obtained from our web site listed below).

The final stage of the IMPACT approach involves Active Concentration, the ability to focus intently on whatever it is you need to remember.

Failure to pay attention at this, the first step in remembering, is the main reason why, for example, many have such difficulty remembering someone’s name after being introduced for the first time. The problem is they failed to concentrate at the critical moment and so failed to take the name into their memory in the first place!

Here’s how to avoid making this embarrassing faux pas. The next time you are introduced to someone:

1. Say the name when you say “hello”. Ask for it to be repeated if you fail to hear it properly.
2. Try to spell the name aloud if it is in the least bit unusual. It doesn’t matter if you spell it incorrectly since the other person will correct you and be flattered that you care enough to check.
3. Comment on the name. For example, you might say you have never heard the name before or remark that it’s the same as a friend’s name.
4. Use the name during your initial conversation. Don’t overdo this. Just use it a few times where and when it fits.
5. Use the name when you leave. (Always say “Goodbye….+ their name” rather than simply “Goodbye”.

The final tip is to never, ever, undermine confidence in your powers of retention and recall by telling yourself, or others, that you have a ‘terrible memory.’ While completely untrue, since for the fast majority of us a so-called bad memory is merely a badly trained memory, this type of remark can all too easily create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Such negative comments are, paradoxically, the ones you are least likely to ever forget!