Get Smart

Failure interviews brain and memory authority Tony Buzan.

In the classic 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow wonders what he might accomplish if he only had a brain. Tony Buzan ponders how he can get individuals to maximize the mental capacity they already possess. For the past 30 years, Buzan's mission has been to raise public awareness about the potential of the human brain—writing, lecturing and teaching individuals how to improve their memory, creativity and problem solving ability. In the process, he's created his own cottage industry, demonstrating what's possible if you only “Use Your Head”—the title of one of his best-selling books. Among his other achievements, Buzan is the founder of the World Memory Championships and inventor of Mind Maps®, a paper-and-pencil system of planning and note taking designed to promote creativity and imagination. On March 1—in the midst of a month-long U.S. tour to promote his new book “How To Mind Map” (Thorsons)—Buzan attended the 2003 U.S. Memory Championship (Memoriad) in New York City, where Failure presented him with a handful of questions on the subject of memory.

What's the difference between the competitors at the Memoriad and the average person?

The difference is that they are here. In other words, their brains are the same. The people who compete in memory competitions include students, musicians, journalists, computer technicians, writers, teachers, laborers, psychiatric workers, nurses, lawyers, gardeners—you name the profession. They are interested because the fundamental glue that joins everybody together is memory. Whatever your profession or your hobby, you've got to remember information about it. Whatever your situation, memory is a prime—if not the prime—survival tool.

Perhaps the closest metaphor is when you go into a health club or gym you see a whole bunch of people working out the muscles of their body. The people at the Memoriad are working out the muscles of their mind. Some people say, “What's the point of memorizing a bunch of numbers?” Now, I could use just the same argument. Go into a gym and look at somebody who's been on a bike for 41 minutes and say, “Look, you stupid idiot, you've been cycling like a maniac for 41 minutes and you haven't gone anywhere. What's the matter with you?” In the same way as cycling in the gym or lifting weights builds your body, memorization trains your mind. The nice thing is when you train the muscle of memory you are simultaneously training the muscles of creativity, general thinking, survival and problem solving.

The contestants here all seem to be using memory techniques. What are some of the most common techniques? 

They are all using their own personalized approach. But the technique that every single one uses is the same. It's always an image that is linked to something else. For instance, when they are memorizing a number, in their own head they have a special picture. For the number one, they might have a picture of a paintbrush because it looks like a “1.” For the number two they might have a picture of a swan in their head. When they get down to number 12 they see a picture of a paintbrush painting a swan, which is much easier to remember than a “1” and a “2.” So all of them are using imagination and association, which are the prime memory techniques. 

What's the most memorable performance you've seen by a competitor at the World Memory Championship? 

Three years ago Dominic O’Brien recalled 100 of 100 digits [in the spoken number event]. Having done that he went for 200 and did about 118. He won the championship and he felt good. He hadn't been drinking [alcohol] for three months, and he'd been doing athletic activity, so he was the total mental athlete. After he won the trophy he celebrated by having a glass of champagne and then at the annual celebration dinner he continued to celebrate. He had another champagne and another champagne and then wine with the meal. After he'd had about seven or eight glasses of wine—well into the late evening—one of the other competitors said, “Dominic? Could you remember it [the 100 digit number] again?” Dominic said, “I'll try.” And after all that time and all that wine and celebration he started off, [mumbling slowly] “1, 0, 9, 5, 3, 5 [then faster and more clearly] 1, 8, 7, 5, 6,” etc. He recalled it perfectly. Then the other competitor said, “Could you memorize another one in your current state?” It was really mean because Dominic is a great game player and again he said, “I'll try.” So we had him memorize and he actually did better than in the tournament.

What can a person do to improve his or her memory?

The keys are to improve your imagination and to improve your ability to associate and locate things. When you do that you are automatically training your creativity and memory, enabling yourself to focus and concentrate more. It's simply a matter of sticking to that task, as any athlete would, so that you become fit in that area.

Tell me about what you've described as your "failure book.”

I wrote a book called “Head Strong.” As you know, I coach Olympic athletes [Britain's Olympic Rowing Team]. One of the main problems that athletes and people around the world have is the fear of failure. The reason why they have a fear of failure is that they've been told not to make mistakes. So the entire body goes into a state of very negative stress—exactly the opposite of what it needs to be. In terms of learning there is no such thing as failure, other than perhaps the idea that you've stopped trying to learn. But what happens is that athletes “fail”—they drop the ball, the golf ball goes into the water, they double-fault, whatever it is. Then they start to associate—which is a key mental power—and imagine a key mental power in a negative spiral. They beat themselves up because they think that failure is bad and should never be done. The amazing thing is when they think that, they automatically increase the probability that they will make another mistake. We are now adjusting the way we have historically thought about failure, and any time you make a mistake you analyze it, check it out and move on. So I'm sad to inform you that failure doesn't exist [laughs].