What it’s like to be memory coach to Amber Gill, Len Goodman and Chris Eubank?

One of the fun things about filming “Can I improve my Memory?” for Channel 4, was getting to work as memory coach for three very interesting people with very different personalities. With the release of tonight’s first episode it’s fun to reflect on the different learning styles of my three memory pupils!

When you’re teaching anything, you have to bear this in mind: everyone’s different and everyone’s memory is different. To be successful, you have to adapt to three things. First, people differ in what they’re interested in – and interests are key to memory; second, they have different associations in their brains, so they make different connections; third, of course, is personality, which influences more or less everything!

So here are some reflections on Amber, Chris and Len.

Amber Gill

Amber Gill is very intelligent – but her biggest memory superpower is her understanding of her own mind

Love-Island winner Amber is incredible fun to work with. She’s fun, imaginative and high paced. And she has very strong opinions! So when you’re learning with Amber, you’ve got to be on your toes. One of her great strengths is that Amber is very intuitive and in touch with her emotions, which is a great asset for any learner, as she’s quick to realise what makes her interested, and what bores her- and not afraid to tell you. Because she understands this, it’s easy for Amber to use her imagination to change the way she looks at things till they become more memorable. That’s a huge strength.

Memory superpower: imagination!

Chris Eubank

Chris’ champion’s mentality was put to use on the memory challenges.

Chris was a champion boxer, so he knows what it takes to win. And he knows that the eventual performance is 99% perspiration, 1 % inspiration. He’s also though a very deep thinker, someone who likes to understand and inhabit concepts before putting them into practice. He’s eager to learn, quite philosophical, and has a fascinating life story. All of these are great strengths to adapt to and work with. But it’s his champion’s mentality and hard work ethic that stand out! Knowing how to win makes a heck of a difference when it comes to high level performance.

Memory superpower: a champion’s mentality

Len Goodman

Len Goodman is above all fun, and that sense of humour is dynamite for memory!

It was great also to work with an older person in Len Goodman from Strictly, as so often people think that just because you’re old, you can’t learn. That’s nonsense, and I was excited to work with Len to prove the point. And so was he! At least most of the time.

Len is an extremely funny man, and a great character actor, which means he’s very able to finding amusing ways of learning things. Humour is like a magic wand in memory- as soon as you find something funny, it’ll stick into your brain. And that’s one of the most potent tools a learner can have. So while teaching Len, it was all about the jokes- which extended to him taking a tremendous ironic interest in early 1990’s rap!

Len’s superpower: humour

The golden rule: make it interesting

The golden rule of memory is to make what you’re learning interesting. All three of my pupils here had a gift for that- but in very different ways.

You can find out how they went about their learning in episode 1 of “Can I improve my Memory” here.

Some memories hold you back. Here’s how to refresh.

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We often assume we see the world just it is; but many examples suggest that we’re highly constrained by our own memories in what we experience. It’s a bit like the world is rehearsed. 

By confusing your memory, however, you can counteract this tendency, and perceive the world anew. It comes down to breaking from the comforts of routine. Here are four suggested ways you might upset invisible routine, and thus memory, to so see the world clearer.  

1) Sleep with your head at the wrong end of the bed: on waking up, your memory will be lost for words and give you a half-second or so of pure perception- where you may notice, for instance, that your curtains are ugly and need replacing. 

2) Eat dinner at breakfast time: it’ll be uncomfortable, but interesting: you’ll perhaps notice that your sense of the difference between morning and evening is based mainly on the distinction between corn flakes and macaroni cheese. 

3) Re-arrange your furniture: when a room is reconfigured, the very objects themselves can be seen anew.

4) Go nocturnal, and check out commuters in your new (7 a.m.) evenings. You’ll perhaps notice new things.

Once you’ve felt the power of a simple refresh like this, you can have spectacular fun finding tiny ways to incorporate a change of perspective into your routines and habits so that they never become an immovable constraint and you remain free to transcend them when necessary.

On the connection between imagination and memory

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Here’s a sweet little link between the nature of imagination and memory as evidenced in the brain of a rat considering which way to go next in a maze, the activity of whose cortex is being measured live by in-vivo recordings. It’s from some seminal work done by Adam Johnson and A David Redish more than a decade ago.

The gif here shows the position of the rat in a maze that is described by the ‘place cells’ in its own cortex, which were themselves previously mapped as it had made its way through the space. Place cells light up when you’re at a particular point in space, firing independently of anything you’re looking at. The map, in somewhat meta fashion, is derived from measuring directly from the rat’s brain: its memory for the space has come to map the space.

The gif illustrates the moment the creature reaches a T-junction and considers what to do next. The shite circle marks the actual position of the rat. You can see its ‘memory’ for places to right and left lighting up as it considers which path to go down. It’s actively exploring its memory, in an imaginative fashion. It’s a very relatable graphic, extremely thought provoking to consider.

It reminds me of a quote from an engaging article about the recent Carlsen / Caruana world championship Chess bout in which it was said that “Caruana’s brain scurried back and forth through innumerable tunnels of calculation looking for ways to fight back”. This is intuitively phenomenologically what we do when we consider different possibilities, and it’s (as ever) nice to have that conviction that the fresh boots of a easily referenced information gives one.

Some interesting things to wonder about, that I haven’t quite grokked:

  • What happens the first time the creature is in a space and is wondering which way to go next? The memory’s not quite there yet, so how would the explorations work? (perhaps, because experience runs deep into perception, there isn’t a case that isn’t undergirded by some degree of memory, however novel).
  • What is the purpose of the exploration of memory/imagination? Presumably, to fish out some extra information (presumably connected to or part of the memory) to marry with current goals. Cf the Caruana quote. This would make this somehow similar to attention.
  • But if we don’t allow ourselves to talk about “fishing out” (which is lazy and dualistic) then what causal effect on the system as a whole is the
  • And of course, are there a hundred analogues of this in other forms of decision making, in other areas of the brain, with related dynamics and logic?

The research, btw, to derive this result was quite remarkable: requiring disambiguating where the rat was looking from what it was thinking. The places it is exploring in its imagination/memory are distinct from the places it is looking. This is a live read from its memory/imagination as it explores what should happen next.

Adam Johnson, the driving force behind the research sadly died shortly afterwards and much too young of cancer. This is a moving document put together by his colleagues in his lifetime that captures something of his intellect and character and the high regard in which he was held by his colleagues.