Magazine

Can you learn how to be a quiz genius?

Eggheads

It's 10 years since the quiz show Eggheads was first broadcast. But does everybody have the potential to be a pub quiz genius?

What year was the Battle of Lepanto? Who was the first black footballer to play for England at any level? What is autarky? Who discovered the element polonium? Which actor was dubbed the Man of a Thousand Faces? Which tempo in music is slower - andante or adagio?

If what just came into your head was 1571, Benjamin Odeje, state of self-sufficiency, Pierre and Marie Curie, Lon Chaney and adagio, then it's entirely possible you are a bit of a monster at your local pub quiz.

Thankfully, Egghead and competitive quizzer Pat Gibson doesn't really bother with pub quizzes. Any non-quizzer encountering him might assume he was born with an innate sponge-like ability to hoover up information and regurgitate it in a competitive scenario.

Gibson was Brain of Britain 2006, winner of Mastermind in 2006, Mastermind Champion of Champions, and has just won his fourth quiz world championship. Oh, and he won £1m on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

So does he have the innate ability to ambiently build up a database of trivia? Or can we consciously cram our brain with information?

"I think you can," says Gibson. "It is a frame of mind. After years of carefully reading the papers it has become ingrained in me. I'm consciously looking out for interesting snippets."

Experienced quizzers like Gibson go through a constant process of second-guessing the people who set quizzes.

"I was watching this year's Tour de France when South African rider Daryl Impey took the yellow jersey," says Gibson. "The commentator said he was the first African to do this. I immediately said: 'That's a good quiz question'."

The question would be tempting for any quiz setter as many punters might answer Chris Froome (British but born in Kenya).

"I take notes from the newspapers," says Gibson. "I used to just take it as a snippet. I now save the note as a question. It gives you an appreciation for what makes a good question."

Fellow Egghead Dave Rainford has also gone through a conscious process of building up knowledge.

Image caption Dave Rainford (left) and Pat Gibson

"I was reasonably knowledgeable about sport. From that my interest grew into other things," he says.

Rainford has worked hard on what was his weakest subject - science. "I don't think that's a particularly strong point of mine. But through quizzing I've developed more of an interest in it than when I was at school."

Both Gibson and Rainford agree that the major ingredient for building up general knowledge is having a wide breadth of interests.

"Some people are happy to read through encyclopaedias and textbooks," says Rainford. "Other people can learn things in a different way. As long as it's fun for you - I don't think anyone has successfully done it as an obligation."

Quizzers admit to occasionally taking educated guesses, but usually access to the memory banks is both clear and rapid.

Gibson recalls one anecdote that sums up how a quizzer's brain can work.

"I was once asked: Which US spy ship was captured by North Korea in 1968? In an instant I remembered being a child in Donegal and flicking through an article in Reader's Digest. It was about the USS Pueblo. That journey took place in a quarter of a second. I was back in my childhood home."

But are the brains of the likes of Gibson different from the rest of us?

"There is definitely a biological basis to our abilities, but at the same time relying on your basic biology wouldn't make you good enough," says neuroscientist Prof Annalena Venneri, of the University of Sheffield.

Info

BBC quiz show Eggheads is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Here Egghead Dave Rainford offers seven of his favourite questions from the world of trivia.

Eggheads

1.) Multiple Choice Question

Cacareco, who won 100,000 votes in the 1958 Sao Paulo council elections, was what type of creature?

Sao Paulo circa 1955
  1. Snake
  2. Rhinoceros
  3. Crocodile
  4. Pig

2.) Multiple Choice Question

Up to 2012, who has not been Time Person of the Year?

  1. Wallis Simpson
    Wallis Simpson
  2. Queen Elizabeth II
    Elizabeth
  3. Jacqueline Kennedy
    Kennedy
  4. Cory Aquino
    Cory Aquino

3.) Multiple Choice Question

Which of these politicians did David Kidney defeat in the 1997 UK general election to become Member of Parliament for Stafford?

David Kidney
  1. David Cameron
  2. George Osborne
  3. Michael Gove
  4. Theresa May

4.) Multiple Choice Question

Which metallic chemical element is named after a village in Scotland?

Periodic table
  1. Strontium
  2. Hafnium
  3. Barium
  4. Vanadium

5.) Multiple Choice Question

Pectoralz and Starfish are former names of which band?

Composition
  1. Blur
  2. Coldplay
  3. Oasis
  4. Pulp

6.) Multiple Choice Question

What is the nickname of Football League Two side Fleetwood Town?

Fish
  1. The Haddock Army
  2. The Plaice Army
  3. The Cod Army
  4. The Hake Army

7.) Multiple Choice Question

What is the middle name of actress and singer Rain Phoenix?

Rain Phoenix
  1. Helen of Troy
  2. Anne of Cleves
  3. Katharine of Aragon
  4. Joan of Arc

Answers

  1. It's rhinoceros. The resident of Sao Paulo zoo had been put forward as a candidate as a protest against political corruption.
  2. It's Jacqueline Kennedy. Simpson was chosen in 1937, The Queen in 1952 and Aquino in 1986.
  3. It's David Cameron. In 2010, the then energy minister lost his Labour seat to the Conservative candidate.
  4. It's Strontium, after the village of Strontian. It was discovered by Adair Crawford at 1790 near Strontian.
  5. It's Coldplay. In the 1990s, University College London students Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland and Guy Berryman performed together as Pectoralz and Starfish.
  6. It's the Cod Army. The name comes from the town's association with deep-sea fishing.
  7. It's Joan of Arc. Rain has said she feels "honoured" that the name was given to her and has described it as a "source of solace".

Your Score

0 - 3 : Emptyhead

4 - 6 : Level-headed

7 - 7 : Egghead

"If you use strategies, you can make associations and increase the amount of knowledge you can retain. There are studies that show that when people are given a context or some sort of strategy they will be able to recall much more."

Venneri says if she scanned the brain of a hardcore quizzer and a non-quizzer she would not expect to find a massive overdeveloped "quizzing" part of the brain.

"What I would expect to find is differences in the way the brains of these people are connected."

Neuroscientists call this "functional and structural connectivity".

There are areas of the brain associated with general knowledge, says Christopher Butler, consultant neurologist and senior clinical research fellow at the University of Oxford.

Image caption MRI scan of brain, with temporal lobe highlighted

The anterior temporal lobe is one such area. Its role is suggested by how dementia affects knowledge.

Most types of dementia do not destroy general knowledge in the early part of the disease. Early Alzheimer's sufferers can retain detailed technical knowledge built up during their careers while being unable to remember what they had for breakfast, notes Butler.

But there are also forms of dementia - semantic dementia - that attack the anterior temporal lobe and therefore do affect general knowledge.

Still, by understanding the way intelligence is structured, we can get better at learning the useless facts deployed in pub quizzes.

Intelligence is often split into two main streams - fluid and crystallised, explains Butler. "Fluid is an ability to think flexibly, to make links between different pieces of information, to solve puzzles."

The memory involved with this side of intelligence is "working memory" - the ability to hold a little bit of information in your mind while you process it. Our fluid intelligence declines from the early 20s onwards.

Then there is "crystallised intelligence". This area is more to do with our acquisition of facts and increases potentially up until we are in our 70s.

"The way we gain new knowledge is through using things we come across and relating them to things we already know," says Butler. "Our knowledge of the world is a lot like a web. The more links that one fact has with things you already know, the more likely you are to retain it."

In short, if we have a wide knowledge base, it's probably going to be easier to retain new bits of knowledge. And there's a further way we can use linking, Butler suggests.

"If you can have some sort of personal link, if you have a broader social network of people interested in things, you can tag information as 'the sort of thing my mate John knows about'."

And if all else fails, it's important to remember that even hardened quizzers get it wrong sometimes.

Gibson was once asked in a tournament: Which band was formed in 1972 by musicians Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn, and Anni-Frid? Perhaps sensing a trick, Gibson answered: Bjorn Again.

It was, of course, Abba.

Image caption What is this group's name? (clue - it's not Bjorn Again)

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