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15 Minutes With…Memory Expert Dave Farrow

This Guinness Book of World Records holder will teach you how to remember where you left your keys during a course at Colorado Free University this weekend. 

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When Dave Farrow was a kid, he had trouble even remembering what was said in recent conversations. Now, he’s a Guinness Book of World Records holder who memorized the random order of 59 packs of playing cards after just one look at the sequence. Farrow comes to Denver this weekend to teach a three-hour course on memory improvement techniques at Colorado Free University, which offers a variety of classes for adults looking to gain new skills. We talked with him in advance of his workshop to find out how he became such a walking memory bank.

5280: Why did you decide to create the Farrow Method?

Farrow: When I was 14 years old, I was officially diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD. I had difficulty having a conversation with somebody in a restaurant; if the TV had a sports game on in the background, even though I have no interest in sports, my brain would hijack me, and I would miss part of the sentence, and they’d get annoyed. In school, I’d be asking teachers to repeat sentences several times so they think you’re a goof-off. You tend to live up to people’s standards—if people think you’re impaired in some way, you’ll live up to that impairment. But there was one teacher who I really disliked, who told me I wouldn’t amount to much because of my symptoms, and I wanted so badly to prove this guy wrong. I have him to thank for so much, really.

How do these techniques work?

Memory techniques work by taking advantage of a natural mechanism in the brain that we all have that allows us to memorize information without any repetition. It’s a hunter-gatherer fight or flight mechanism—if you needed repetition to remember where you saw that predator, you would not be alive anymore. What I do and what I teach people how to do is trick the brain into triggering that mechanism at will.

What can attendees expect from your workshop this weekend?

I’ll summarize the first exercise for you. We give the audience a list of about 17 items and ask them, ‘How much repetition would it take to memorize this? What if we could go through it once and you could remember it?’ They’re random objects: a tree, a bunny rabbit, a bottle of ketchup, a water tower, a UFO. Then I take them through it in less than five minutes, maybe three minutes, and essentially make a story out of it. So I’ll show them a picture of a water tower in the shape of a ketchup bottle or a tree covered in ice. Before you just have ‘tree’ and ‘ice’ on the list, but when you make it visual and connected to each other and also very weird, people remember it. At the end, I do a short slideshow, and everybody remembers every single item, which means they would score triple the average on a memory test.

What’s unique about your method?

These are classic memory techniques, so I can’t take credit for them. But if memory techniques have not worked for you in the past, we can solve that. The main innovation I was able to do is I might imagine a water tower in the shape of a bottle of ketchup; somebody else might remember a water tower full of ketchup. We have a quick test to show people which category they fall into, and then you can figure out how to customize it for your own self. That’s the thing that was really missing.

Why does this work?

There are a few terms that are commonly tossed around. The first is cognitive reserve. The more you exercise your memory by memorizing and recalling information, you build up a reserve—so even if you have damaged areas of the brain, the brain will rewire itself around that and give you an extra gas tank. Another is one of the principles of neuroscience I wish people talked about more: the principle of transference. People want to think that doing Sudoku will help them with their memory—it doesn’t any more than working out your legs will make your biceps bigger. If you want to make your butt bigger, you do squats. The key is the right exercise—learning a strategy to trick the brain into actually memorizing.

Who is this best designed for?

The people who tend to enjoy it the most are the ones who have trouble with traditional education—that kid who you know is really bright and smart, but doesn’t seem to be academically inclined. They’re more creative and right-brained, things that the education system doesn’t do as well with. If you’re in that boat, this can be life-changing. On a more general level, the people who like this the most are in some sort of business or they have to deal with the public and want to remember people’s names.

Could these techniques help reverse some of the effects of aging on the brain?

We’ve seen a preventative effect for Alzheimer’s and dementia. We can’t quite say yet whether it will reverse anything, but we’re doing a study this year with dementia to test that.

For the folks who can’t make it to the workshop this weekend, what’s one simple tip to improve memory?

If you’re ever caught in a situation where you’re blanking out, there’s a simple solution: Look up, immediately look up to the ceiling. It sounds weird, but if you ask yourself when’s the last time somebody asked you for directions, your natural instinct was to look up. (Behind the eyeball is a large bundle of nerves called the optic nerve; by literally directing your eyes in a different direction, it redirects the energy in your brain.) Or try asking yourself questions or describing the object. If I lost my keys, instead of saying, ‘Where’s my keys?,’ I’d ask myself how many keys are on the chain or what color is the keychain. I’m asking myself questions I know the answer to, to get myself past the mental block. By question number three, I’ll usually remember that information I forgot.

To register online for Farrow’s class, The Keys to a Powerful Memory: The Farrow Method of Memory Improvement & Speed Learning, check out freeu.comIf you go: Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at Colorado Free University, 7653 E. 1st Pl., 303-399-0093. 

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