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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

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Improve your memory

If you like trivia, you know that, sooner or later, it comes down to memory instead of knowledge. Sure, you might know all the animals for which the Chinese New Years are named. But can you remember them when it comes up in a trivia game?

Before offering our tips, we need to tell you how memory works.

To keep ourselves from going insane, our brain has two types of memory. We don't need to remember most things we experience past about five minutes, so we store them in our short-term memory (aka the working memory). But after an hour, two thirds of our short-term memory is gone and 90 percent of it is gone in 24 hours. So the trick is to move things from the short-term in-basket to long-term filing cabinets.

Nobody really knows where your memories are stored, but they could be stored as neural pathways. In other words, a memory hooks up synapses to neurons in certain ways, and the more practiced you are at that particular memory hookup, the better you remember.

Moreover, you have different types of long-term memory: episodic memories are the photo album of your mind, recalling your own experiences; procedural memory is your memory of how you do things, like tying a shoelace; and semantic memory is, basically, your knowledge of trivia.

On this page, we show you how to turn short-term memories into semantic memories.

Use the information

One of the best ways to remember information is to use it as much as you can. That's why you had to do homework. It forced you to put your newly acquired knowledge to practical use. It's also why you forgot all that stuff after you left high school. You stopped using it and no longer needed it.

Want to expand your vocabulary? Write down a new word every day, write it several times, and then find excuses to use that word as often as possible.

Related to this is reinforcement. Marathon cram sessions before an exam don't work very well, but studying the same information over and over again in smaller bits does work. Try to repeat new information two or three times before moving on to the next item. Then review the information at those drop-off points when short-term memory would fade out: at five minutes, at one hour, at three hours (if you can) and again before you go to bed. Then reinforce that information by reviewing it three times a day for the next two days.

Understand the information

In a sense, this is the same tip as the above. Before you can understand information, you must use it analytically. Put new facts into a context of larger patterns, or organize them into meaningful groups. Being able to put a fact in some kind of context gives you more hooks into that fact and makes it easier to remember.

This is why teaching history as a collection of dates or as a column of presidents and kings never works. Even if you find a trick to remember them all (and we provide some below) you will have a much harder time retaining the info. Also, if you remember information because you understand it in a context, you can recall it more quickly than if you need a trick to facilitate recall.

Use sensory cues

Some studies have suggested that certain scents can contribute to memory. In 2002, psychologists at England's Northumbria University found that rosemary increases long-term memory by about 15 percent, while lavender suppresses it. Surprisingly, those same scientists also found that chewing gum, that bane of teachers everywhere, improves short- and long-term memory by as much as 35 percent, perhaps because it pumps oxygen to the brain.

Use as many of your senses as you can. If you're trying to remember the medical names for your bones, tap them and recite the name aloud. This gives you a visual, auditory and tactile memory hook.

Here's another trick that seems to work. Douse yourself with a cologne or perfume you don't usually wear. As you study something, sniff the odour. When you take the test, wear the same fragrance. Sniff it when you're stuck.

Try the clumping technique

Interestingly, you remember the beginnings and ends of lists better than things in the middle, which psychologists called the serial position effect. In a 1966 experiment, subjects saw a series of 15 words, which they tried to remember either immediately or after 30 seconds. When tested immediately, subjects could remember the beginning and end of the list. But after 30 seconds, the end of the list also faded from memory, suggesting that in immediate testing, you remember the last items because they are freshest in your memory.

If you get a list of random elements, most of us can remember about seven at a time. That's why phone numbers are seven digits long.

The trick is to clump elements into groups and associate these clumps with things you already know. Area codes, for example, are often three-digit numbers that you've seen before and recognize. I know that my parents live in Newfoundland, so that's 709. I remember that as one element (709) rather than three (7, 0 and 9). Alternatively, associate numbers with those you know: 555-1969 is 555-Moon Landing Year.

This is how mnemonics works: My very excellent memory just sent up nine planets. The first letters of each word in that sentence also happen to be the first letter of each of the nine planets, in order. Instead of memorizing a list of nine, I memorize one clump.

Visualize what you want to remember

A variation on clumping is visualization, in which you create stories to remember things.

For example, to remember the recent Oscar winners, I imagine that I'm doing errands in my neighbourhood. Russell Crowe is doing math on my front lawn, and his clone is in Gladiator gear. Kevin Spacey from American Beauty is having a pint at the pub, and next door I'll imagine Shakespeare at the corner store looking at magazines. The Titanic is sailing down the street, toward my friend's house, where the English Patient is all bandaged up and recovering. Braveheart, finally, is waiting for the bus, along with Forrest Gump.

Another good visualization technique is to associate items with parts of your body: you never forget what your body parts are. So, for example, if I want to remember the last few presidents, I imagine my feet in the "Bush," I imagine Clinton checking out my legs, I imagine the elder Bush with his hands on his hips (which rhymes with "read my lips"), I think of Reagan getting fat on the excess of the 1980s, I think of Carter working with his arms on those houses of his, and I wonder how the world would be different if only Nixon has used his head.

Get engaged, relax and concentrate

As Samuel Johnson once said, "The true art of memory is the art of attention." Focus your attention on the subject at hand. The fewer emotional and sensory distractions, the better. I used to study better in a library because I wouldn't find my attention wandering.

Using various relaxation techniques as you study can help as well. Take slow deep breaths and think of a soothing, pleasant experience. As much as 20 to 25 percent of the air you breathe circulates in the blood that nourishes the brain. Some people, particularly older ones, tend to breathe too shallowly. Along similar lines, you can also pump air to the brain through exercise, which also reduces stress and produces endorphins, which will put you in a better mood.

Oddly, sometimes trying to hard to remember something can prevent you from doing so, so if you find yourself with a "brain cramp," use your relaxation techniques to "reboot" and clear your mind. The factoid you're searching for may come unblocked and pop into your mind right away.

Finally, the sad fact is that the less interest you have in something, the harder it is to study it. Finds ways to liven things up. I could never keep straight all those Bible people whose names start with J, or all the A-people in Greek myth. Doing my weekly trivia game, however, gave me an incentive to learn things that bore me to tears. Perhaps you could give yourself rewards for meeting certain memorization milestones. Find your motivation and ride it.

Sleep properly

Many studies have linked sleep to memory, so much so that some people believe the main function of sleep is to sort out short-term and long-term memory. Sleep deprivation also affects alertness, which in turns affects your ability to retain information.

For you, this means being well rested when you absorb the information. And before you go to bed, look the info over one last time. Some impressive evidence suggests that anything you memorize just before falling asleep will stick with you. And while you're drifting off, instead of counting sheep, why not go over your visualization stories? It's better than counting sheep!

Eat right

There is a lot of talk about what is or is not brain food. A Canadian study suggested that saturated fat impairs memory, spatial ability and rule-learning. Likewise, sugar and caffeine may buy short-term alertness, but usually come at medium-term cost. Instead, try fish, flaxseed oil, green leafy vegetables and walnuts. All of these are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can enhance brain function.

Some people believe vitamin E, found in almonds, corn oil, sunflower oil, walnuts and whole-grain flour, can improve memory, while others swear by choline supplements, which are converted into acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that aids in memory and learning. Ginseng and ginkgo biloba are credited with improving memory, but herbal "medicines" are generally effective only at lining the pockets of those who sell them.

We'd suggest instead that you simply eat a balanced diet, rich in nutrition.