Sandi Toksvig on the human brain, one-size-fits-all education, and why we really shouldn’t judge people instantly

As Can I Improve My Memory? returns to Channel 4 for a new series, Danielle de Wolfe learns more about the presenter.

“The number one killer of men worldwide aged 15 to 45 is stupidity,” jokes Sandi Toksvig, a sentence accompanied by a mischievous grin.

A brief, comical respite from our fact-driven conversation about the human brain, the former Great British Bake Off and QI presenter, comedian and writer has been waxing lyrical about grey matter for more than a quarter of an hour.

Delving into the stark differences between genders when it comes to decision-making and risk-seeking behaviour, Toksvig references a number of “very interesting studies done by Nasa” on the subject of women’s intuition.

Stating that women come into their own during “a moment of emergency in space”, the broadcaster recreates an action similar to turning a steering wheel, declaring, “I don’t know how you drive a spacecraft remotely”.

 Sandi Toksvig
Sandi Toksvig on Can I Improve My Memory? (PA Photo/Channel 4)

The human brain is a subject Toksvig, 63, has always found “fascinating”, explaining that curiosity is what really underpins her thirst for knowledge.

“I find the world endlessly interesting,” says Toksvig with a smile. “It’s impossible to get bored. There are books I haven’t read and music I haven’t heard and people I haven’t met.

“The one recommendation I’d make for everybody in the world is to be curious – always be curious, because then you’ll never ever run out of things for your brain to go, ‘Oh, how about that, that’s interesting!’

Between conversational tangents that see the British-Danish presenter offload countless factual titbits and share an ever-growing list of must-watch documentaries – including Dr Chris van Tulleken’s What Are We Feeding Our Kids? – Toksvig’s thirst for knowledge is infectious.

“I grew up speaking Danish and English at exactly the same time – my mother spoke to me in English and my dad spoke to me in Danish – and I don’t remember it being remotely complicated,” she says, illustrating the brain’s ability to adapt and absorb information during childhood.

“I speak Danish when I’m in Denmark and English when I’m here, and I don’t distinguish between the two, because it was just a natural thing from the moment I was born.

“It’s a shame that we don’t capitalise on that a little bit more.”

It is, in part, what makes her the ideal presenter for Channel 4’s Can I Improve My Memory?

Sandi Toksvig, Anna Richardson, Amber Gill, Chris Eubank, Len Goodman, Nina Wadia.
Sandi Toksvig, Anna Richardson, Amber Gill, Chris Eubank, Len Goodman and Nina Wadia on Can I Improve My Memory? (PA Photo/Channel 4)

A show that sees five celebrities compete to win memory challenges over the course of a series, the show also features tips and memory tricks that viewers can try to benefit from at home.

Describing her own memory as “pretty good”, the presenter says: “It’s a bit like playing the piano… if you do it every day, then I think that probably helps. Don’t you think?”

Featuring Strictly Come Dancing legend Len Goodman, boxing heavyweight Chris Eubank, TV presenter Anna Richardson, EastEnders star Nina Wadia and ex-Love Island Winner Amber Gill, the contestants on this year’s Can I Improve My Memory? span the generations.

“It worked out as a really lovely team of people, all of whom supported each other,” says Toksvig of the line-up.

“There was a genuine atmosphere of co-operation, delight and celebration, which I’m thrilled about. And we did really enjoy hanging out as much as we were able to. It was one of the nicest shows I’ve done in a long time.”

The Can I Improve My Memory? gang (PA Photo/Channel 4)

Aside from noting Eubank’s “excellent sartorial taste”, Toksvig says the experience has led her to reflect on society’s preconceived ideas surrounding intelligence.

“Everybody’s got surprising, hidden depths if you just give them a minute,” she notes with a smile.

Speaking fervently, Toksvig says that educational achievement should no longer be based on “pieces of paper” handed out by “various academic institutions”.

“One of the problems with that is that the person, if they didn’t get a lot of qualifications, feels inclined to suggest to others that they’re not very bright.

“And in fact, that’s often not the case. It’s to do with opportunity. It’s to do with the chances you’ve had in life. It’s to do with your circumstances – poverty or whatever. And I think it was yet another lesson – as if I needed one – to not judge people instantly, but to take my time.”

Dont Judge Me John Lydon GIF by Team Coco - Find & Share on class=

It’s a realisation that initiates a trip down memory lane for the broadcaster, who reflects upon her own school days at an institution “that shall remain nameless”.

“The headmistress suggested to my father that I wasn’t keeping up and that I should maybe think about going into agricultural school,” she says with a wry smile.

“My father laughed so much, he was crying in the office. And then when I got my first from Cambridge, he made me write to her to say that the agricultural college hadn’t really worked out for me.”

The anecdote goes to illustrate how flawed the one-size-fits-all educational model can be when it comes to schooling and perceived intelligence.

“One of the problems with education is that we tend to think there’s only one way to teach everybody, and everybody ought to learn in exactly the same way. And that’s not the case,” says Toksvig.

“I think we tend to value things that are learnt in a written form.

“And one of the things we do know, is that kind of academic learning – on the whole, and it’s a big generalisation – rewards the male brain better than the female brain.”

Can I Improve My Memory? airs from Thursday, July 15 on Channel 4.