As I am an avid reader and notorious for it, it’s not unusual for me to get books at Christmas, and last year I received a copy of Derren Brown “Tricks of the Mind“. This book, although not ever intended specifically for it, may actually become the most unususal law study aid I have thus far tried.
My reason for this conclusion – the title of Part 3 : “Memory”
A law student needs to remember a great deal for closed book exams and this is a common complaint – I’ve already written about the issue in the short time this blog has been established.
Now, in no way am I suggesting that reading Brown should supercede reading Gane & Stoddard but any law student, any student whatsoever, on reading him recount listing Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order of their being written by mentally walking a path through a theatre wishes to God that he’s giving a genuine tip that might help him to remember, for example, common law case lines. Teasingly, Derren Brown himself studied law while at university and applies his system to remembering a case name and year – very promising stuff. For those interested, it’s Pharmaceuticals Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists 1953.
For example, a very common problem seen before the court is that of parties making a mistake in their contract or their understanding of it and disputes arising from it. Obviously not all mistakes are equal so the law has created a series of tiers and definitions of these – one of which is Unilateral Error, the induced version being close to misrepresentation and ending with the contract becoming voidable and I learnt that the cases of Morrisson v Robertson and Shogun Finance Ltd v Hudson told me the common law principles that govern this form of error. However, should that unilateral error be uninduced then the issue is much more unclear and I have to remember that MacBryde has written authority on exactly this issue so it would be good to be able to quote it and I know that case wise it was decided in 1875 through the case of Steuart’s Trs v Hart that mala fides, knowledge and non-disclosure were relevant factors. This seems fine and reasonably memorable, however, as far as I understand it in 1890 Stewart v Kennedy pretty much denied the very existence of uninduced unilateral error, instead prefering “error plus” and declared that it had to be induced to be effective and that was upheld and followed several times as recently as 1990, that’s confusing but it sounds like the later cases have superceded the earlier one. However in 1992 Angus v Bryden went back to the 1875 case and decided that knowledge and bad faith were once again indeed remediable faults.
Thus, there were two lines of active case law operating in the same area of law and a lot of authoritative cases, which cruelly happen to have the same sounding name. This is the kind of situation where you need a visual alternative to a sound and it is the kind of thing that Brown teaches in his book – moving everything to images, even using rhyme to convert numbers to images. It’s a fantastic plan but I’ve always been concerned that it seems like more work than just learning the facts as they stand. I think if you managed to leverage the visual memory system that he advocates you would see a marked improvement in your ability to recall facts and their relationships with other facts and that would pay off very well.
Just as you need to be able to read quickly in law school, a good memory for what you have taken in is essential if you want to get the most out of your reading and note taking. There is nothing like struggling to remember if a case was anomalous because it was decided after a landmark authority or came before and represented the established way of thinking and remembering cases as, for example, things on plinths in alcoves of a hallway (my attempt at transferring this method to contract law) would help you remember if the case came before or after another. Physically remembering the year on the case report which you studied is my current method for exam preparation but I think it is too fleeting, I effectively bulk up on rapidly memorised facts and stomp into the exam hall and forget everything I ever knew in the stress (large blocks of higher maths are no longer clear memories to me).
However, I was watching one of his TV series, Trick or Treat, on channel 4 and spotted the mother-lode of research gifts. In that he apparently managed to get a regular human being, Glen, to record the contents of a library by dragging his fingers down each page in a book and sort of glancing at the page.
Let me tell you, I’m an authority on sort of glancing at the page while studying and I’m pretty certain it doesn’t work. If it did work though, that is an unbelievable system which seriously changes how schooling will happen around the world. Until then I will dream on that the speed reading + eidetic memory is as effective and as effortless as Derren has made out.
The fact that Glen, a man who by all accounts cited his poor memory as a failing when he applied to go on the show single handedly managed to beat off all but one team in the All England Pub Quiz just rubs my quiz loving nose in it. I literally had a daydream while watching the show of being able to do that with Stair, Hume, the dear Scots Law Times and basically the rest of the library too. It’s a dream of students on reading heavy courses to be able to speed it up, so improved retention and improved speed will both help and I realised I needed to make this a priority.
Derren, aside from his sometimes evil nature, is very entertaining and I make a point of watching the majority of his shows as they’re broadcast. I would never go to see him live because he’s a scary man but I’ll watch him on TV and cheer him on from a safe distance. This is a man who has rolled a human being -tied up in a sack- into a lake and not been particularly shook up about it.
In the words of Charlie Brooker, my favourite columnist for the Guardian, Derren Brown is:
“Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history – he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain.”
Amen to that.