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November 4, 2014

Losing Track of Thyme

Ruth Hill

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Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; 
All mimsy were the borogoves, 
And the mome raths outgrabe. 
Lewis Caroll

Memory is a funny thing. I learned this rhyme when I was a school girl and I can still quote it at will, decades later. But do you think I can remember my computer password when I need it?

I’ve come to think of my memory now as being something like a sponge: there’s only so much it can absorb before reaching saturation point, and, sadly, I think my post-grad years pushed the poor thing way past that!

Interestingly, there may actually be some truth to this. The physical volume of the brain peaks during your early twenties and gradually declines forever more. If you think that's bad, wait till you hear what else is in store. As you enter your forties, the whole cortex starts to shrink, neurons atrophy and blood flow is reduced. So I think I can be forgiven if I struggle to remember the occasional name these days.

Right now, my mind feels like a crowded nightclub with an overly officious bouncer on the door. “One in, one out,” he says to the queue of information waiting to come in. There seem to be so many things I need to remember. If only I could figure out a way to get the important things onto the VIP Guest List.

Well, maybe there is. There are more mnemonics, or memory-boosting techniques, out there than I care to remember. So, bearing in mind how easily I remembered the Jabberwocky, I thought I’d try using another rhyme from my childhood in the “peg” system.

Here, you peg items onto an easily-remembered sequence. So, using “One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, knock on the door…”  I decided to try pegging my grocery shopping to this list:

1. Bun
2. Shoe
3. Tree
4. Door
5. Hive
6. Sticks
7. Heaven
8. Gate
9. Vine
10. Hen

The meals I planned to make over the next couple of days were a rustic simmered chicken casserole and smokey baked beans with chorizo, so from here, I made up a little rhyme. The peg method doesn't have to involve a poem, but here you are:

Parsley makes your bunions heal,
Take thyme to stuff it in your shoe.
Pick bananas from the trees,
And mix with outdoor leeks for flu.

Beware the mushrooms in the hive
and chickens walking with a stick.
Chorizo rings that come alive,
Quick, latch the gate - and slice them thick.

Seek out the vine with lima beans
And pick them quickly while you may.
Then feed them to the boozy hen
and steal her beer, then come to play.

The advantage of this method, I thought, was that I could remember my groceries in a logical order. But, as you can see, this made my poem so contrived, it would have been quicker and easier just to jot them down on a scrap of paper.

I like to think that, had the great Lewis Carroll ever written a shopping list, it might have turned out something like this - only better, of course. Comparing my own surreal ramblings to the work of a master like him has done little to bolster my confidence where my literary ambitions are concerned!

As for the efficacy of the method itself, I don't know. I'm not sure what would happen if I attempted to remember a new list of objects using the same pegs, or how many nonsense rhymes I could carry around in my head before they all started to get mixed up. So it's probably best suited to remembering lists of limited length and for limited periods, too. And anyway, even after inventing this ridiculous rhyme, I still forgot to buy the thyme!

Luckily, Mind Tools has lots of tips for improving your memory. Maybe next time I’ll try the Roman Room System, or draw a Mind Map. I’ll let you know how I get on with them another time… if I remember, that is.

I could probably use all the help I can get, so tell me - what's your favorite memory aid? Or better still, what childhood poem do you love the most?

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