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This article was published on October 24, 2012

“Memory techniques are a technology of the imagination” Ed Cooke of Memrise on changing learning

“Memory techniques are a technology of the imagination” Ed Cooke of Memrise on changing learning
Jamillah Knowles
Story by

Jamillah Knowles

Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemi Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemimah_knight or drop a line to [email protected]

The Wired 2012 conference kicks off tomorrow and there will be the usual amazing mix of speakers and tech businesses at the event discussing the future and current trends.

One of the speakers at the event, Ed Cooke, runs an interesting new business that could help with recalling almost anything that might be useful in the future, whether that is technology or something completely different.

TNW called Cooke, CEO and founder of Memrise, to ask about what he plans to say at Wired 2012. “I was just in the middle of memorising all of the delegates phone numbers for the conference,” he says. “I got to the end of the G’s this morning, but there’s about 400 in total.”  Of course.

Memrise is a community-based site that encourages users to work together to provide visual stimulus to create sensory memories. It’s designed to be fun, so there’s testing, banter, advice and a leader board for a little competition. The aim is to provide fun ways to learn and remember information as well as helping out others along the way.

Cooke is described as the company’s “memory man”. He is a Grandmaster of Memory and  can learn a 1000 digit number in an hour or a pack of shuffled cards in 45 seconds. Possibly not immediately useful, but the skills required do have other applications.

Running the business has naturally changed what Cooke does with his time.  He’s returning to the memorisation skills for the conference, “It’s actually quite good fun. I used to do quite a lot of hard core memorisation but I haven’t done this kind of thing for a while. I’m enjoying getting back into it. There’s no time for this at all for this while I’m running a business,” he says. “It turns out that running a cool business takes up all hours of the day.”

So why would a man who could essentially be a performer for the rest of his life, decide to turn this into a business proposition?

“The possibilities are much more interesting than just the direct communication stuff,” he told TNW. “In many ways Memrise is doing a job I want for myself. It takes a huge amount of discipline and imagination to learn fast using memory techniques. All of those skills can be translated into a computer program. It can remind and test you and a community can find, curate and share vivid images to aid memory.”

The point of Memrise is not entirely about being able to pull off a spooky parlour trick (though that’s kinda cool too). There are many examples on the site of different things people hope to remember and language learning is a practical way in which memory is required to improve learning.

“Language learning is a good example of something where however much you pretend, you really can’t not know it,” says Cooke. “No matter how quick you are with an iPhone in conversation with a French person, not being able to understand what they’re saying or say any words yourself, make you quite an un-compelling person. You don’t have to know that much of a language, but if you know 2000 words you can speak quite fluently and that’s what Memrise aims to help to people do.”

The site already has some impressive language students on it membership list. One participant learned their entire GCSE foreign language vocabulary in three months at the beginning of a three-year course. That would certainly take the sting out of revision and exams.

Common memory methods

There have been many efforts to help people to learn and remember languages. From hypnotism and sounds people listen to in their sleep to audio lessons in the car on a daily commute. Cooke says that time is an important factor when it comes to learning and recalling information.

“My dad, as a student got paid to do research where he had bits of Italian played to him in his sleep. That’s obviously a fairly ludicrous way to learn. I’m quite supportive of the inventive ways in which people can fit learning into their day, whether it’s listening to audio on the train or five minutes here and there where they can fit it in. Time is one of the critical things. You’ve got to find an hour or so a week or at least five minutes a day,” he explains.

Forget it all to the cloud?

You’ll doubtless have read debates and arguments where people note the things they no longer need to or cannot remember from homework revision to mobile phone numbers and email addresses. Cooke acknowledges this but also points out that memory serves us in a number of ways rather than just straight recall.

“Although it’s a popular idea that there’s no point in knowing anything because computers can do our thinking for us, there’s an awful lot that people enjoy remembering,” he says. “Looking at the courses added to Memrise recently, there’s everything from hobo symbols to basic Icelandic language, information to do with plants and trees, chess openings, how to read a Chinese menu. We love the idea of Memrise as a centre for recreational learning.”

Cooke also notes that recalling information is something that can bring a lot more to people personally than just being able to repeat things. “There are some quite cool courses on Memrise now about art where you can learn the painting style of 200 painters,” he says. “That’s the sort of thing that enriches your perception. My key insight about memory is that it’s not just a cold dark storehouse that can be replaced by the Internet but rather its something that affects how you perceive the world and how interesting your conversations are – or not.”

Sharpening your mental state

The state of memory loss or mental acuity is often a topic relating to age. Most of us expect we may become a little forgetful as we grow older – but Memrise is doing a good job of shooting that idea right down.

“One thing that has always surprised us about our users is how many of them are in their 60s and 70s,” says Cooke. “At the top of the Memrise leader boards there’s a 65 year old lady who is a dominant force and she does it mainly to keep her brain sharp.”

Memory and education

Learning languages via Memrise is one thing, but general educational courses that are based on remembering facts could change if this type of activity was applied. If that is the case, then what we learn and how could completely change. Cooke says that learning is set to become something quite different to that which we are accustomed to.

“My cultural prediction is that the notion of learning is going to become increasingly detached from what is practical and increasingly linked to what is recreational and interesting. All we really try to do on the Internet is learn stuff, to understand what’s going on. Reading the Internet is an incredibly inefficient way of doing that – you can read Wikipedia for hours and end up with one anecdote. I think there will be some really interesting technology coming in the next few years to combine learning, reading and recreation.”

“As long as we continue to think of learning as a functional thing then we’ll soon have to confront very soon the fact that we’re redundant as a species,” he continues. “But if you think of learning in the way you think about having a conversation or going to see a film as a personal way to have fun and enrich yourself, then that’s a better to think about learning in the long term.”

Cooke will be speaking at the Wired Conference and showing off tricks like memorising the phone numbers of all of the delegates. What he will do with that knowledge will be revealed at the event. He’ll also discuss the science of memory and the cool things we might be able to do to improve our own recall. All we have to do is remember what he says on the stage.

Image Credit: Jeff Kubina