The lost art of total recall

The ability to memorise things seems to be a vanishing skill. So what can we do to jog our brain cells back into action?

Robin McKie

human brain Memorising used to be a key function of the human brain but increasingly we rely on electronic storage of facts. Photograph: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Alamy

A few middle-aged couples are chatting at a dinner party when one husband, Harry, starts talking enthusiastically about a new restaurant he has just visited with his wife. What’s its name, demands a friend. Harry looks blank. There is an awkward pause. "What are those good-smelling flowers with thorns called again?" he eventually asks. A rose, he is told. "Yes that’s it," Harry announces before turning to his wife. "Rose, what’s that restaurant we went to the other night?"

It’s a vintage joke but it makes a telling point, one that forms the core of a newly published book on memory, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by American journalist Joshua Foer. The book, for which Foer received more than $1m in advance royalties in the US, is an analysis of the importance of memorising events and stories in human history; the decline of its role in modern life; and the techniques that we need to adopt to restore the art of remembering.

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