Several years ago I was approached with a proposal to write a book about memory. I’d already co-authored a short ‘brain boosting’ style book and recently produced a short DVD course about how to improve your memory. The DVD course was filmed at the University of Brighton here in the South of England (they had a nice lecture theatre that they rented out at weekends).
It was pretty fun to put together. We had 8-times world memory champion, Dominic O'Brien, who gave a talk and demonstration of his ability to do things like quickly memorize the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards, or be able to recite - forwards and backwards- a random list of numbers. He was very friendly and his presentation was entertaining as well as impressive.
He was also interviewed by my colleague, Dr David Lewis, who also gave a multi-part talk about the principles behind improving memory. Finally, in the afternoon, we had a kind of interactive workshop. We'd invited an audience of people along for the main morning presentations (by advertising on local radio, and in an email newsletter I ran at the time that had about 7000 subscribers globally) and then some of them stayed on in the afternoon as David did some practical, hands-on learning demos. Kind of more along the lines of how to revise, for students. The whole thing, morning and afternoon sessions, were filmed and made into a DVD.
Anyway, back to the memory book. The publisher had a model for a series of books that could become ebooks, where you would buy by the chapter. So you could essentially build your own book. Whatever your needs were you could select a range of chapters from different books that were most relevant to you, and then download a sort of personalized book. I don't think this particular concept ever took off, but the series itself went ahead. As the chapters from different books needed to be combinable, this meant that they needed to have a similar length and structure. So the whole book had to be structured around 52 fairly short chapters with a set structure. For example, each chapter had to have a relevant quotation, and a set of Q&As at the end of the chapter. It also had to be extremely practical. Each chapter needed to have examples of ways that the readers could actually apply what I was telling them.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to achieve two things with the book. Firstly, and helped by the fact that I had so many chapters to fill (!), I wanted it to be comprehensive, covering all areas of memory improvement. There's a lot of books on memory improvement, but most of them don't cover every aspect of it.
Secondly, I wanted it to be honest and to stand up scientifically. I didn't want to make any outrageous claims that weren't backed-up by the evidence. If someone bought the book, I wanted them to have the best and most accurate possible overview of the whole area of memory boosting.
One example of where I had to apply this strictness was in the area of smart drugs, or so-called nootropics. Currently the evidence for these in terms of boosting memory, is fairly weak. So I said so. I could have been more attention-grabbing and sensationalist by making more robust claims about them, but I felt a strong need to be honest with the readers.
I had to write the book relatively quickly, but this was made easier by the fact that it was a subject that I’d already read a lot about. Nevertheless, I went ahead and did more research, buying a load of memory books, and using the web to fill in specific questions I had. The first part of writing any non-fiction book (at least for me, although I suspect for most people), is getting the structure right. Indeed, it’s usually the first thing that the publisher wants to see. In this case it meant deciding on the subjects for the 52 chapters. I quite liked this structure: having lots of short chapters. However, one slight down-side was that every topic had to have a similar word-count. Major subjects had to be covered in exactly the same number of words as minor subjects. Not a huge problem, however, as I was able to elaborate more on certain subjects in other chapters.
Once I had decided upon my list of 52 topics, things were fairly straightforward and it was just a matter of rolling up my sleeves and getting on with it (as well as drinking way more coffee than I usually do, to help concentrate!).
I really enjoyed writing this book, and I hope that people find it useful.
Here is the list of the 52 topics that the book covers (chapter by chapter):
1. So how much can you remember?
2. Lets get up to date
3. Close your eyes and visualize
4. Spaces and places
5. When not to remember
6. Remember a list of eleven items
7. Faces and names
8. Healthy body, healthy memory
9. Work smart, not hard
10. Carroll’s curious language of numbers
12. How motivated are you… really?
13. Pay attention
14. The value of feedback
15. Train your digit span
16. Memory supplements
17. Creative concept mapping
18. Sleep on it
19. Smells familiar?
20. Think positive
21. State-dependent memory
22. Tip of the tongue
24. Using the 80/20 rule
25. A schedule for making memories stronger
26. Find the rhythm
27. Writing is not cheating
28. Personal restructuring
29. Don’t slip off the learning curve
30. The memory secrets of the parrot
31. Make it real: concrete not abstract
32. The mall of the mind
33. The major system
34. Learning languages
35. Keeping your memory in old age
36. Make a mental memory vault for passwords
37. Create a learning wheel
38. Cueing and implicit memory
39. The coins in the pocket trick
40. Remembering directions
41. Remembering speeches and presentations
42. How to become a date calculator
43. Using acronyms
44. How to remember a country’s capital
45. Dream memory projects
46. Remember your reading
47. Use your memory to become a genius
48. Learn foreign menus
49. How to find lost items
50. Create an historical peg system
51. Memory party tricks
52. How to pass exams