Memory Training Series #1: The Fundamentals

Photo: Mike Behnken
Dull Field
Photo: Mike Behnken - edited

If you had seen each of the above two photos separately amongst a collection of pictures, which one would you remember more clearly?

The obvious answer is the one on the left. Why? Because it is more vivid. The colors are popping out of the page. You can almost imagine running barefoot through those verdant fields, feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, the soft soil beneath your feet, and the light kiss of a breeze rustling through your hair.

I am now willing to bet that you will remember that picture for a long time after reading this article.

The Key to Making Memories Last

Simply put: utilize your senses. The more the better.

There was a study conducted a while back where participants were shown a series of pictures, each paired with a completely unrelated smell. They were then told to try and form a mental link between the picture and the smell. So, for example, if a picture of a dog was presented with the smell of chocolate, they would try to imagine a dog swimming in a river of chocolate.

Later, when shown a random sequence of images, whenever a linked picture came up the participants were shown to have brain activity in the regions of the hippocampus related to the sense of smell. This activity was not present for brand new pictures.

This study demonstrates a fact that I am sure everyone has realized on some level: the way the brain stores memories is intrinsically linked to our five (or six) senses.

I bet that at some point or other you have tried to memorize something via rote. Be it a name, a phone number, an address, or a useless factoid for a history class, you ended up repeating it over and over again to yourself until you reached a point where (you hoped) it would stick.

Yes, this can work. I myself memorized the first 100 digits of pi like that while bored one time in high school. This is, however, one of the slowest, least effective, and shortest lasting methods for remembering anything.

The Technique

The essence of the technique I am about to describe is to take whatever piece of information you want to remember and build around it a vivid sensory scene in your mind.

Lets say that you just met your brother’s fiancĂ©, were told that her name was Joy Greenspan, and that it would be very embarrassing if you didn’t remember this fact at the family dinner later that night.

Step 1: Ask yourself what this name instantly brings to mind.

When I heard the name Joy Greenspan my first thought was of happiness and laughter for the first name and a wide green expanse for the last.

Step 2: Use these associations to build a scene in your mind that includes the subject.

Imagine Joy skipping across a green meadow, a broad smile on her face, periodically breaking out into laughter or song.

Step 3: Make it interesting

The stranger, funnier, more exotic the scene the more likely you are to remember it. Try and doctor each scene to stand out as much as possible. In this case, I changed “Joy skipping and laughing through a meadow” to “Joy skipping and laughing through a meadow until suddenly she trips and falls, slamming her stomach on a rock, then turning green and vomiting all over the hillside.”

Yes, this may seem a bit harsh, but it’s actually one of my tamer memory scenes. Remember, nobody has to know about this but yourself, so feel free to make it as offensive, shocking, or crude as you like. In fact, the more so the better.

It also helps if you can somehow link it back to what you are trying to remember. In this case, I built it the way I did by imagining her joy getting cut off and turning green. This forms yet another link between the first and last names.

Step 4: Add in as much sensory data as possible

Go over each part of your scene and try to add in sensory depth. For our example, imagine how her hair looks blowing in the wind, the sun on her face. Hear the crystalline notes of her laughter on the wind and smell the freshly cut grass. Imagine the sudden change when she trips: the sound of her retching across the grass and the rancid stench of her bile. Then contrast this in your mind to the joy of moments prior.

With practice, this whole process should only take you a couple of seconds, and can be applied to almost every aspect of life.

Even if you are not building a completely separate scene, whenever you want to remember something try linking it in with as many senses as you can. You many be surprised by the results.

Doing this can get a bit cumbersome for large strings of information, but there are some very simple techniques that will make those quite manageable as well (to be covered in a future post).

The Easy First Step to an Amazing Memory

Nature vs Nurture is a question that has been debated for as long as man has been having debates. In the vast majority of cases that the argument can be applied to, the correct answer is usually at least a little of both. The same holds true for the case of human memory. Yes, some people may be born with innately better memories than others, but it is very rare that the proper training can’t easily make up for this difference.

When you go grocery shopping, if you need more than five or so items, you probably write down a grocery list for yourself. Were I to ask you why, no doubt you would answer along the lines of “because I wouldn’t remember all 20 things I need.” This may be true, but it is not because you are incapable of remembering that many items,just that you are not properly trained to easily do so.

In the Middle Ages, most commoners were completely illiterate. In a given community the only ones who could read or write were the priests and the scribes. Yet people still went shopping. Successfully.

When a message needed to be delivered somewhere, it was rarely done through letters. Instead, a courier would memorize the message and then at the destination would repeat it back verbatim. These couriers were not geniuses. They just trained their memories.

How many times have you met someone, exchanged names, and had them say “I probably won’t remember- I’m really bad with names”? Or have you used this excuse yourself? Because that’s all it is: and excuse. And this excuse becomes a crutch.

When I was entering 9th grade, it was at a new school where I barely knew anyone. When someone came up to me and said “Hi, my name’s Sam,” I didn’t really think about it much, figuring that would be happening so often during the day that it wasn’t worth really trying to remember. Later, when I was talking to Sam and couldn’t remember his name, I actually almost said “Sorry, I’m really bad with names.” But I stopped myself. At that point I asked myself “Am I really bad with names, or am I just too lazy to remember them?”

Freshman year of college I had a 30-person honors seminar where on the first day of class we played an icebreaker. The professor had us go in a circle, say our names and something interesting about ourselves. I ended up going last, and the interesting thing about myself that I gave was that I could go around the room and list everyone else’s names and something interesting about them. And I proved it.

I don’t believe that my memory is naturally better than average. I have, however, spent the past 8 years training it so that now I know it is. And yours could be too.

The first step to improving your memory is really very simple: just acknowledge that you can improve. And make an attempt to remember things instead of just assuming you will forget.