The Science of Memory: 4 Award-Winning Tricks for Remembering Everything
Before historians touched a typewriter or monks scribbled on scrolls, narrative and news moved through the world orally. This meant that even longer works—Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey,for example—debuted as one very, very long spoken story.
All right. So, if the human mind is capable of storing a vast amount of information like an epic poem, then why can’t most of us remember our 2 o’clock meetings, that sales contact’s last name, or what we learned at the conference we attended last month? Research suggests that modern gadgetry makes it so simple to offload our memories to external storage that we’ve un-trained ourselves from the act of remembering.
The good news? You can fix it.
You’ve studied hard, learned throughout your career, and worked to grow your professional skills, so forgetting them would be a tragedy (not to mention it can make you look pretty silly in the middle of a meeting). In Moonwalking with Einstein, journalist and USA Memory Champ, Joshua Foer, explores the art and science of memory and offers up the tricks he used to remember more and take the title. Here, we’ll help you get to the top of your game with Foer’s 4 winning techniques for remembering everything.
1. Build context
Imagine this: researchers sit you and a friend down in separate rooms where you’re given the same pictures of a man’s face. You’re told the man works as a baker, but your friend’s told that his last name is Baker. A week later, the researchers show both of you the man’s picture again and ask you to recall the information provided with it. Who remembers what they were told? Surprise! It’s you.
So, why’d you win? Simply put, we remember things in context thanks to the process by which our brain builds strong associations between new abstract information and vivid images we already know. Being told that someone’s occupation is a baker triggers a whole network of associations: he wears a big white hat, he kneads dough, he probably smells nice; you might even feel the heat coming out of the oven where he works. Pretty neat, huh?
2. Try an alphabet of images
As we’ve already discussed, our brains do a much better job of recalling abstract principles when they’re tethered to context and visual images. So creating a system of images by which you can recall concepts helps a lot—particularly with remembering long stretches of writing or poems.
For example, German memory artist Gunther Karsten remembers entire passages of text by creating a unique “alphabet” of images. For example, as a stand-in for the word “and,” he uses a circle, because “und” sounds similar to “rund” in German. For “the” he uses the image of a man crawling on his knees (auf Deutsch, one of the forms of “the” is “die” which rhymes with the German word for knee – “Knie”). And when the text has a period, Karsten makes it nice and final by hammering a mental nail into the stopping point. For those whose sense of humor never progressed past their inner 13-year-old boy, this technique will work especially well for you. Images or puns that are either sexual or funny are what our brains remember best.
3. Find the feeling
Another method of remembering complex poems or prose is to assign emotions to them. Fifteen-year-old Austrian mental athlete Corinna Draschl breaks poems into small chunks and assigns a series of emotions to each short segment.
For Draschl, feelings make the words less abstract and link distinct parts of the poem together into a continuous stream of emotion, which is easier to remember than abstract words. To memorize a passage about springtime, she’d associate it with feelings of falling in love, while she could simply assign verses with a feeling of intense anger to winter.
4. Construct a memory palace
Now that you’ve got some tactics for converting abstract ideas into memorable forms, it’s time to learn how best to store them. No filing cabinet or ramshackle sheds, either—your memories deserve the best.
They deserve a palace.
The memory palace, or the method of loci, was developed by the Greek poet, Simonides, 2,500 years ago. It assigns every image a certain place along a well-known route or location that you can easily recall.
Because our brains are particularly deft at remembering locations, this technique is very effective—plus, it’s approved by famous sleuths! In the BBC television series, Sherlock, Holmes uses his mind palace to track down and piece together associations from his memory that will help him crack the case.
You can also use specific places in one room to store information that is connected or from a particular field of expertise. If you’re studying for multiple courses, for example, you can use one room for biology and one room for history and so forth. Of course you can also use many different memory palaces, such as the route to work or your favorite walk around the lake as long as you know the route or place well enough to remember it in detail.
With kindles, iPads, and good old fashioned books, there’s no real need to memorize The Principles of Multivariate Testing in its entirety, even if it might be pretty useful at work. You’re probably also a complete person without knowing the complete works of Robert Frost by heart. An improved memory will, however, help you get a little more done, a little bit better – or at least remember to pick up milk on your way home from the office!
Moonwalking with Einstein
- 16 min reading time duration 16 min
- 30.5k reads
- audio version available
In Moonwalking with Einstein, journalist Joshua Foer (who was the USA’s 2006 Memory Championship winner) delves into the history of memory, how memory works, and techniques he learned on his way to winning. Pick up the book or read the key insight summary on Blinkist. You’ll also learn:
- how your memory works,
- why the art of memory has declined since ancient times, and
- how you can store your memories in your childhood home.
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