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Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 15:14 GMT
How to outwit the cocky cabbies
Scan of a human brain
The brain benefits from mind exercises
Next time you are trapped by the stream-of-consciousness ranting of a cocky cabbie, remember that when it comes to intelligence, he may have the upper hand.

Scientists have found that among London taxi drivers, the discipline of having to memorise the names of the capital's streets enlarges a section of the brain called the hippocampus.

Chess board
Mind Games: Tony Buzan enjoys a game of chess
But while the findings offer another salvo of verbal ammunition to those at the wheel, how can the rest of us compete?

Studying each grid of the A-Z is one solution, but for those who wish to preserve their eyesight, as well as their sanity, there are other solutions.

Tony Buzan, author of two BBC books on how to improve your brain power, breaks the process down to three steps:

  • Imagination
  • Association
  • Location
"Consider the story of a man who goes to Heathrow airport and parks his car in the long-term car park but when he returns cannot find his car," says Mr Buzan.

"When he got out of the car he did not look at it parked in the space, he did not associate it with the environment in which it was parked and he did not locate that environment in his mind."

Mushy mind

The three checks only take a second, says Mr Buzan, but it is training yourself to do them in the first place that's important. Too many people allow their brain to turn to mush because they don't exercise mentally, he says.

Rodin's think
Improving memory demands some thought
"It's a fallacy that the memory naturally gets worse as you get older. On average the memory does get worse with age because it's treated so badly. It has a diet of junk food such as TV and misinformation. But the memory should actually get better."

One example of "misinformation" is the practice of writing notes in just one colour of ink.

"The brain remembers well by colour so if you write everything in blue ink that is monochrome. Monochrome is a visual representation of monotone, from which derives monotonous, or boring. Boredom makes the brain go to sleep."

Mr Buzan, a supporter of the annual Mind Sports Olympiad which, this year, runs for nine days at London's Alexandra Palace, says memory champions tend to rely on simple techniques based around the three rules

Sporting chance

Other tips are to keep physically fit and practise "mind sports".

"If a person is aerobically fit there is more oxygen flowing to the brain and oxygen is the lifeblood of the mind. Games such as chess, draughts, crosswords, memory puzzles get you into a discipline of thinking and they are not a chore."

Dr Judy Blendis, a chartered psychologist who teaches memory courses, builds on Mr Buzan's techniques with some specific examples.

  • Visualisation - Because the visual memory is very strong it makes sense to try and visualise as much as possible.

    Cab on Westminster Bridge
    A cab driver exercises his mind while crossing Westminster Bridge
    "People frequently say to me they forget names very easily. The trick is to try to visualise that name and associate it with the person," she says. Thus, the name "Jerry Crisp" could be visualised as a jerry can with a potato crisp on top. "It sounds crazy and it can be highly cryptic, but it works."

  • Pegs - On the basis that your body never leaves you, a trick is to associate different parts of you anatomy with things you need to remember.

  • Linking - Remember a complex sequence is made easier by linking each piece of information to a person or object and building a narrative which sticks easier in the mind.

  • Build an interest - "The more interested you are in something, the better you will remember it. Cabbies aren't just learning the street names by rote, they have an interest because they are very involved in what they're doing."

    And for those still in awe of a cabbie's amazing powers of memory, bear in mind something they consistently fail to recall - the passenger can be right.
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