Superpowers Are Real: How Mnemonics Can Improve Everyday Memory
Why should you bother to memorise anything?
Appointments, people's phone numbers, birthdays, anniversaries and passwords. Theses are just a few of the things we used to have to remember. Now, computers and software have the capability to learn our shopping lists and more. I'm concerned about how the internet provides this external environment for storing knowledge. The fact is: we simply don't memorise a lot of information anymore. In this article, I explain why memorising is good for you, and share some great memorising techniques that can be applied for everyday use. Here are a few reasons why memorisation is helpful:
- Memory training slows down cognitive decline in the elderly by 7 to 14 years.
- Memorising provides exercise for the brain and gears the mind to focus and to pay attention.
- Learning and developing new concepts (schemas) becomes easier.
- On average, students who use mnemonics score significantly higher on tests than students who do not.
You can learn strategies and read more on memory techniques and approaches after this article, but it’s your mindset about what you’re learning that comes first. If you have a bad attitude towards a subject, then the strategies you use will not be effective. If you are trying to memorise information, I’ve found that asking questions, engaging with the material and exploring different perspectives can allow one to really excel. Also, the more optimistic you are, the more likely you are to succeed.
"Memory is a great artist. For every man and every woman, it makes the recollection of his or her life a work of art and an unfaithful record."— Andre Maurois
How to Remember Names
Here are the basics:
- Tell yourself you want to remember a person's name.
If we aren't initially motivated or interested in somebody, you won't remember anything about them, including their name. You need to take a positive approach when it comes to memorising anything.
- Link the name to a person with the same name that you already know.
For example, if I meet someone called Bob, for me the Bob the Builder cartoon comes to mind, so I would imagine this person wearing a builder's hat and holding a hammer. If I imagine Bob moving his hat to look cool and hammering an object in my mind's eye, the name will stay in my memory.
Another example: If I already have a friend called Bob, I imagine my friend Bob and this new person fighting over a name tag with "Bob" on it. Please note, if images are moving or interacting for instance (fighting, moving, slipping, dragging, etc.), the images are more likely to stay in your mind.
- Take notice and use distinct features.
For the purpose of memorising, big noses, beauty marks, hair styles, distinct shoes, tattoos or clothing can all be linked to a person's name. For example, if someone has an afro or tattoo which is visible, this will aid in learning their name, "Josh? Oh yeah, the guy with the afro who likes to wear tight pants". Exaggerating features can help too, as the imagery will be more prominent in your memory.
The Linking Method
Linking two objects you want to memorise will make them stick in your memory. For example, if I wanted to remember the parts of a cooking pan and a female ice skater, I could imagine a giant pan with an ice rink inside, and imagine the ice skater wearing pink, doing tricks, and skating about inside of it. That mental image will stick. Here are some pointers when it comes to using the linking method:
- Think in visually vivid ways to memorise. Include the senses, such as smell, taste and touch.
If I said to you, "Imagine a man running down the street naked, covered in melted chocolate, and holding a giant flag shouting, 'Chocolate fountain for everyone'"! You probably wouldn't forget that image any time soon. This is how you should be making mental images, because unusual images stick. When you want to memorise trivial and sometimes boring information, this is the way to go. In memory championships, contestants are required to memorise long strings of binary digits like, "000101111101010," and thinking in vivid and imaginary ways allows them to remember the numbers perfectly.
- The two objects needs to interact in your mental image.
If two objects are fighting, dancing with, slapping, eating, riding, or using an object together, it will be easier to remember both of the objects.
- The more unusual the better.
For example, if you wanted to memorise Sherlock Holmes and a hot dog, you would not imagine Sherlock eating a hot dog. You would imagine Sherlock using a giant hot dog as a stripper pole or driving around in a hot dog car.
Implementation and Uses
Let me give you an example in relation to names and faces:
You happen to meet a person called Frankie who has two cats which he loves. He is also divorced and his wife has just left him. He also loves to go on hot air balloon rides. Let us use the linking system to learn about Frankie and come up with a little story to memorise this information.
Imagine Frankie in an empty tub of ice cream (Frankie and Benny's) the size of a boat. He is currently floating and paddling away in his ice cream boat with his two cats on board, which he loves like his family. On land, a woman in a white wedding dress (Frankie's wife) is waving him off (she doesn't want to go with him), as he is divorced now. As Frankie is paddling, a hot air balloon comes down to save him and the cats, taking them away from the stormy rainy sea. This big, red hot air balloon then goes over the storm into the clear blue sky, and Frankie and his cats look out at the sunset.
Now, that may have sounded like a lot of hard work, but it's much easier to visualise such a story than it is to write it down. This is because we have areas in the brain dedicated to spatial awareness, so locations make sense to us. We developed these specialized areas of the brain over hundreds of years of evolution. In the past, they served heighten our awareness of dangerous predators lurking around the corner. These brain regions are still used to keep us safe, so we might as well use them to our advantage.
Method of Loci: Memory Palace Technique
Humans have this fantastic ability to visualise locations, and we can use this to our advantage to remember what we would like to. Memory champions use what's called the method of loci, as in location. This dates back to ancient Greek times when Simonides, a poet who was entertaining guests at a banquet hall, briefly left the hall when it collapsed and killed everyone inside. He was able to remember where everybody sat as he walked around the tables.
To give this a try, walk into your living room and take notice of the table, the TV, and other pieces of furniture around the room. You know which order they go in from left to right, so if I told you to place a famous person on each piece of furniture, you would be able to do so. You have just memorised three characters with no effort. The more familiar you become with the furniture and the order in which it is placed, the more familiar you will become with the characters.
To make things more interesting, once you know the order of 10 objects in your room and can walk into that room and look at each of them sequentially, you are ready to really embrace this method.
Now you can memorise any 10 objects or people in order and for your own convenience. This could be the order of presidents, vivid objects for a list you need to remember, famous singers of the 60s or well-known TV characters. For me, the loci method has helped me learn key points for a presentation, learn lines for performances in college, and remember pieces evidence for an essay exam (Bandura, 1977).
More on the Loci Method
Giovanni's massive memory palace is a technique that enhances the loci method. For example, if Harry Potter was sitting on the TV casting spells with his wand, as soon as I touch his wand this can mentally transport me to Hogwarts. Mentally, you are now standing in the great hall looking around at all the magical characters and objects.
You can now create a new room with new loci by using the character as a hyperlink to that new room. If there are five rooms in your house each with 10 objects (or loci), you can expand your memory palace by 10 times using this method.
Confused? Let me explain further. In the video below, a Youtuber memorised an entire chapter of Moby Dick by assigning each line of text to a vivid mental image which he places along his journey in his memory palace. With 38 images he is able to memorise the chapter. How Stuff Works has an article that further explains this technique, and there is a forum where you can explore and become more familiar with it.
Dominic O'Brien, who has won the world memory championships eight times, once went through 54 packs of randomly ordered playing cards over a period of 12 hours. By studying each card once he was able to recall 2,800 of the 2,808 cards in the correct order, which is an amazing feat. He has published books on improving memory and has been featured in numerous memory articles.
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- Williams, K. and Kemper, S. (2010). Interventions to Reduce Cognitive Decline in Aging. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 48(5), pp.42-51.
- Wolinsky FD, Unverzagt FW, Smith DM, Jones R, Wright E, Tennstedt SL. The Effects of the ACTIVE Cognitive Training Trial on Clinically Relevant Declines in Health-Related Quality of Life. Journals of Gerontolog: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences. 2006;61(5):S281–287. [PubMed]
© 2017 Timothy Hayward