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Flame, Fuse, Fire!

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

Flame, Fuse Fire! is a memory prompt technique to help you and your child remember to do things in the future. The technical term for this is prospective memory. Like everything else Got-A-Head®? does, it is not intended as a miracle cure but as a method that will, with practice, substantially improve your/their performance in this area.

It is a three-part system:

1. The Flame is an event, time or location when you need to remember to do the thing.

2. The Fire! is what you need to do, normally one or more tasks.

3. The Fuse is the connection between them, where you visualise yourself at the Flame location, event or moment and imagine yourself seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, tasting or actively doing something that brings to mind the Fire! task(s) you need to accomplish. The more vivid the Fuse, the more successful the technique is likely to be.

We see Flame, Fuse, Fire! being used in two main ways:

1. To prompt people to do one-off tasks, as and when required.

2. To help people develop long-term habits.

The technique works best when the task that you want done and the situation where you want to remember to do it are as specific as possible. For instance, it works much better if you want to remember something well delimited such as 'hand in your maths homework', 'buy a cake', or 'return a library book' than looser tasks such as 'sort your room' or 'study'. Equally, be precise about the situation when the action should take place: 'entering the classroom' or 'at break time' will work better than 'tonight' or 'this week'. We'll look at this in more detail in our blog Explode into Action.

All three parts of Flame, Fuse, Fire! have to be designed to co-operate with each other to make the system work efficiently. However, the best place to start with this technique is actually at the end, by considering the action you want to achieve: Fire!

Fire! works best if there is only one thing to remember. If you have several things to do, then you should combine it with another technique, such as a mnemonic acrostic, or a memory palace, that combines them into one. In such a case, it is even better if you can represent the memory list with a concrete noun. For example, we wanted our daughter to remember each day to bring home her clarinet, homework, anything unusual from a teacher (e.g. a letter about a forthcoming school event or a certificate from that day's assembly) and her music bag so we came up with the acronym CHUM to remember this list. It was CHUM that became our Fire!

Obviously, for Fire! to work well, it's important that you make the Learner realise the relevance of the task or give them good motivation or encouragement for them to want to put the Fire! into action. No matter how good the Flame or Fuse are, if they don't actually want to do the Fire! then it won't happen - not from a failure in the memory technique but through lack of commitment on the part of the Learner.

Next, you want to consider what Flame to use. It is worth taking some time to think this through carefully. You want something specific that is almost guaranteed to happen, rather than a vague possibility. After all, if the Flame doesn't happen, then neither will the Fuse or the Fire! The memory task won't be triggered as there is no Flame to set the Fuse alight.

There are three kinds of prompts that might remind you that action is necessary:

1. Time

2. Event

3. Location

Specific times can be problematic when used as a memory prompt. Consider a situation where you were supposed to do something at 8 am. It's now 8:05. Is it too late or would the prompt still work? Well, that rather depends on the task. If it was make a doctor's appointment then, if you belonged to our surgery, it is already too late at 8:01. On the other hand, if it was simply a reminder to give your daughter some money for a Charity Day at school, then any time up to dropping her off at school would still work. Rather than a specific clock time, it might be better to select an event such as 'breakfast time' as your prompt, which would allow quite naturally for variation rather than a fixed time. If the fixed time is crucial, then a physical alarm (e.g. on your watch or phone) would probably work better than relying on memory anyway.

Location prompts are useful, but as with the 'time versus event' comparison above it is a good idea to consider what type of location you choose, based on the type of task. If all you want is a reminder to buy a loaf of bread then you could just as easily buy it at the supermarket as a bakery. Being too specific, in this case, could stop you remembering the bread as you haven't walked past the bakery this time, but taken the alternative route past the library (which does take you past a supermarket). Not being specific enough, though, could mean that you never get the Flame to ignite.

Here are some things to bear in mind when choosing a good Flame:

1. Make sure it’s a situation that will almost certainly happen.

2. Make sure the situation you pick occurs as close as possible to when you need the Fire! actions to occur. If there is a delay, then there's a good chance that the Flame will have gone out by the time you get to what should have been the crucial moment.

3. Try and select a time/event when there are minimal distractions, where the Learner is not deep in concentration, working on another task, or distracted by a noisy situation.

4. If possible, make sure that an event involves the Learner doing a small automatic task, not one they have to think about. Working memory has a finite capacity - the less 'onerous' a memory task, the more likely it is to succeed.

5. Try and choose a situation that will give the Learner scope for a good mental image for the Fuse visualisation.

6. Try and isolate the context in which the Flame will occur, for example a peg at school rather than just 'when you hang up your coat'.

7. If the Flame situation bears some relation to the Fuse action, better still.

We'll give some specific examples of these in Explode into Action, if you want to know more.

The Fuse is an imaginative link, where your child should picture him or herself at the point the Flame’s event occurs, so s/he can picture themselves doing the Fire! task.

The idea behind the Fuse is very similar to the way we ‘hang’ something we want to remember from a peg or hook in a memory peg system. Consequently, you want to bear in mind the following points:

1. The child’s mental image should have them actively doing something that links the Flame’s event or location to the Fire!’s action. They should try and make themselves the focus of their image.

2. They should make the mental image as vivid as possible, so they should try imagining themselves touching, carrying, lifting, or pulling. They should be fully involved in the 'doing' of the action rather than just a witness to it.

3. They should try and make the image as sensory as possible. Encourage them to fill their mental image with sensory details: colours, shapes or patterns; sounds; textures; scents or odours; tastes.

4. If your child likes the absurd or the silly, make the image absurd or silly. On the other hand, if they like sensible, keep it down to earth.

Note: there are no absolutely right or wrong answers when it comes to visualisation - it's what works for the individual. However, using the tips above will make success more likely.

Like all memory techniques, this Fuse process improves with practice. At first, it takes a few minutes to create the image and embellish it with action and texture. As you do it again and again, however, you start to be able to create a workable image much more quickly. Don’t worry if it seems a slow process first time round. You and your child will be able to create the images much more quickly with a little practice.

You should now have a clear idea of the three parts of the technique.

1. Flame: the time/event or location that prompts you to remember.

2. Fuse: the visualisation technique that links the prompt to remember with the task you need to do.

3. Fire!: The requisite action.

Remember, like most Got-A-Head®? techniques, success comes from regular practice. The more you use it, the easier it will become.

Check out Explode into Action for some specific examples of the three parts of the technique including where and how they work best and Damp Squibs for some of the limitations of Flame, Fuse, Fire!

Triggering memories is a phrase in common parlance and can be found in many books on remembering to remember. From our own work with children, and from 35 years spent writing software, we believe that a two-part system involving a trigger and a memory doesn’t really explain what is going on, which is why we have broken up the trigger stage into two parts, the Flame and the Fuse. We think this gives a much better understanding of how to use these types of memory system.

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