TAMMET: As I have already mentioned, numbers to me have their own shapes, colors and textures. Various studies have long demonstrated that being able to visualize information makes it easier to remember. In addition, my number shapes are semantically meaningful, which is to say that I am able to visualize their relationship to other numbers. A simple example would be the number 37, which is lumpy like oatmeal, and 111 which is similarly lumpy but also round like the number three (being 37 x 3). Where you might see an endless string of random digits when looking at the decimals of Pi, my mind is able to “chunk” groups of these numbers spontaneously into meaningful visual images that constitute their own hierarchy of associations.
Using your imagination is one very good way to improve your own memory. For example, actors who have to remember hundreds or even thousands of lines of a script do so by actively analysing them and imagining the motivations and goals of their characters. Many also imagine having to explain the meaning of their lines to another person, which has been shown to significantly improve their subsequent recall.
Here is another tip from my book. Researchers have found that you are more likely to remember something if the place or situation in which you are trying to recall the information bears some resemblance—color or smell, for example—to where you originally learned it. A greater awareness therefore of the context in which we acquire a particular piece of information can help improve our ability to remember it later on.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His next book, How We Decide, will be available in February 2009.