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How to Train Your Brain to Remember Everything (lifehacker.com)
216 points by daegloe on April 1, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments

Something has always bothered me about the type of memory technique mentioned in the article.

There's a sense, in which it is a 'junk' association, to associate 'zero' with Ozzy Ozbourne eating a bat's head. Do I really want to have many such associations in my mind?

Is there a cost? Our brains are bounded in volume, energy, complexity; there have to be limits and costs? I've always been wary about such mnemonic techniques, on these grounds - but I don't know if this caution makes any sense. Anyone?

I've used the techniques described here for as long as I can remember (over 30 years: man, how the years have passed!) and here's how I'd summarize my experience:

1) The techniques work well to impress your friends and family (you look like a genius weaving that magic) but better still, they work wonders for examinations that require lots of memorization (think history, biology, geography, chemistry, literature and so on.) In a world where we all agree memorization is not the best way to go, our education system can't seem to avoid it. These memory techniques help you to "tape" the facts and spit them out appropriately - no thinking, no stress. They've allowed me to get done with the memorization quickly, and move on to where logic and analysis is actually required. A double win.

2) The other great fear in life - public speaking - is also neatly handled. Among other things public speaking combines the recalling of the content of a story, and the presentation of that story. We fear we will forget on the one hand, and that we will screw up delivery on the other. These memorization techniques make the recalling a breeze, and allow you to focus on the presentation. Worth it's weight in gold.

3) Finally, on the questioning of the value of the "junk associations" connected with these techniques. As others have pointed out, the reality is our human mind creates mostly junk associations anyway. We remember what we remember only because those mostly junk associations are vivid. These memory techniques teach you how to make vivid whatever junk association you use via heightened or over exaggerated imagery.

What I've found is that while the short-term benefit is better short-term memory, in the long-term the exercise of such vivid imagery has made me much more creative in the way I see things. Sometimes crazy but mostly creative, and lots of non sequiturs that bring out a crazy sense of humor that keeps you chuckling along to better ideas.

To follow up with a bit more substance. Rather than sweat it out remembering something like this the hard way (and it would be hard using normal methods):

It's a piece of cake remembering this instead:

    A beautiful naked blond jumps up and down.
The imagery is easy to conjure, and before I get hammered for sexism of any kind, imagine a beautiful naked blond of either gender. ;)

The key linking the two is this:

    1 : t, d
    2 : n
    3 : m
    4 : r
    5 : l
    6 : j, sh, soft g
    7 : k, hard g, hard c
    8 : f
    9 : p, b
    0 : s, z, soft c
A little bit of time and effort memorizing the key has allowed me to handle tables of numbers and dates of amazing sizes and lengths. Thanks to a book by Harry Lorayne I picked up by chance in my 9th grade. :)

I concur. I too chanced across that Harry Lorayne book in high school and it made rote memorization much less of a chore during those years :) Even now I occasionally use it for phone numbers.

For the others, this is the book: http://www.amazon.com/How-Develop-Super-Power-Memory/dp/0811...

He has many other books describing his techniques but that was easily the best one. I remember being able to memorize the sequence of half a deck of cards, forward and back, on my first attempt. It's amazing what you're capable of if you put the effort in (unfortunately I stopped...).

Why this specific mapping?

It's the one Harry Lorayne came up with. It could be any other mapping you choose, as long as you stick with it. However, in this method the use of consonants for numbers and vowels as fill-ins is probably already optimal. The Life Hacker post describes some other methods which I'm not familiar with. I plan to try them out to see if they are any more efficient. Memorizing a deck of cards in just over a minute, as described there, is very compelling. I've always required a little bit more time than that to do the same.

Others have commented on the lack of proof for the "cramped attic" theory of memory. Additionally, if you're trying to remember information that you'll use regularly, in my experience the more absurd imagery merely serves as the means of getting the information into long-term memory.

For example, occasionally I'll visit a train stop known as "7774". To check on the train arrival schedule if I'm not there yet, the simplest route is to feed that number into an Android app. Initially I used the ancient Major System of equating digits and consonant sounds, so 7774 becomes k-k-k-r, or "kaka car". (Think of a clown car driving past the stop, except it's filled to overflowing with poop instead of clowns.)

Now my point is that these days I only use the car association on those rare occasions when I momentarily block on the stop number. Normal usage brings up the stop number automatically -- without the poop car image. So it's not like my thinking is somehow cluttered with thousands of random images.

BTW, working on generating your own memory prompt images is effectively the same as practicing your creativity and lateral thinking skills. And that's a good thing, no?

Totally clueless about the science but assuming that "Ozzy Ozbourne" takes up more memory space inside our brain than 00 is a fallacy (mixing computers with brains). Imagery can be more efficient in some cases. Like the Chinese language where one character can express a complex object makes for faster reading since they are unique and translate instantly to images. It's more of a compression technique.

Pretend your memory is a hash table. You forget stuff because too much crap gets stored under the same few keys. So all the stuff that's mostly the same gets blended together in your memory. If you want to remember, the memory has to be unique. And those techniques are supposed to make things stand out.

That's why things people told me yesterday get blended together, but I'll probably be stuck remembering the "purple monkey dishwasher" thing for the rest of my life, even though I haven't seen that show in a decade or so.

All of these invented system carry their own pros and cons, but the aversion to "junk associations" is an extremely common misconception in my opinion (one that I held for quite a while as well). Many will argue that relative to your total cognitive power the cost is virtually zero but I don't think the discussion needs to go that way, and here's why: like anything, the beginner has to force everything. You put in the effort consciously because you recognize it as a step in some process. If the technique remains a novelty, then that's where you'll stay. Your associations may get ever more clever, simpler, faster, etc. But when you start to apply it constantly in your work and in everything else that you do, soon the technique simply fades into the background until at some point it might as well have disappeared. It's like math or spelling as a child, where you have to learn step by step what is and what isn't until it clicks, and then the why no longer matters. You add two numbers because that's the way it works– you don't have to convince yourself. As your memory progresses you the junk associations will fade out and stronger associations predominate, because they're relevant and you want to remember relevant things.

Edit: this is especially relevant to the "read me a list and I'll repeat it forwards, backwards, or in any order you call out" party trick.

I feel like it's worth it to remember people's names. I also don't think there's any evidence that indicates being better at remembering one thing makes you worse at remembering others. In fact it might even make you better, as you're sharpening your brain, so to speak. (If there's evidence to the contrary please feel free to share.)

There is some evidence that great memory comes at the cost of other functions like creativity. However, that may simply be because people with poor memory spend more time grasping at straws.

The cost is negligible with respect to the total carrying capacity of your brain. I don't have a source, but I've seen this stated in a few books.

It is often mentioned that there is a cost in that an additional association seems like more work. (To disclose my bias, I find visual memory techniques to be a boon to my apparently concept-driven mind.) Consider, however, that work must be done both when constructing the memory and also when repeating it. Visual memory, mnemonics, and the like, all work, I believe, because they increases the strength of the encoding, decreasing the need for repetition later. So, there may be more work upfront, but there is much less over the lifetime of the memory.

I am not sure, but I do know that your brain is making associations with everything you experience, whether you like it or not. Might as well use those associations for something useful.

I thought of a simpler technique the other day that uses triggers like fear or pleasure. Fearful incidents people tend to remember very clearly. Imagine you have a big test and need to do a lot of memorization you could turn it into a fearful experience that will really burn it into your memory but without making dozens of crazy associations. Take a hammer, spread your fingers open wide on a table. Start saying out loud the things you need to memorize while hitting between your fingers with the hammer. I have not tried this myself but I am guessing that the information will be written to the brain as part of the fearful experience making the information easy to pull up for a test.

This technique does have a cost. Every time you activate your amygdala (which, in turn, activates your sympathetic nervous system, which primes your body for fight or flight mode), it becomes more sensitive both in the moment and the future. You don't want to be in fight or flight mode. It's enormously unhealthy and hard on your body. Moreover, it inhibits your medial prefrontal cortex, which is your "head" in coloquial terms, the region of your brain that houses rational, abstract thought, making it harder to think straight. Fear is the mind killer.

I think if you did that enough it would go the way of the crazed runner chasing dog technique that I used a few times.

It goes like this.

You are running and a dog chases you. So you run toward the dog acting like a lunatic. I've tried this and the dog does run away. But only the first time. The second time (that I tried) the dog was on to it and continued the confrontation.

What works for me is being very annoyed about something because I forgot it in a test. It's the best way to remember things so far - just do them wrong once when it counts.

I lost a spelling bee on "tawny" when I was a child. I had never noticed seeing or hearing the word before, but I sure noticed it when I saw it five years later.

I still vividly remember the moment a week later when I dislodged the lost and then found spelling bee study guide that was jammed behind the drawer of my nighttable.

Good memory is both a curse and a gift. I hate remebering every single shitty moment in my life but I love being able to recap meeting minutes without notes at work.

How many times can you use the walk-through-your-house technique without reducing the strength of the associations ? I can see how useful it would be to use it once - milk on your front doorstep, steaks attacking you in the foyer, it makes sense, but what about the next time you want to remember something? Perhaps, the next time I want to remember a sequence of numbers starting with zero and I will have Ozzy Ozborne on my front door step. After that maybe I want to remember something else and I might have something random on my front doorstep like a mental image of Jack Bauer with a gun .. After a few goes at doing this how will I remember what is supposed to go on my front doorstep at all ?? Does anyone have experience of this ?

2007 USA Memory Champ from the high school division here-

Yes, it's very difficult to become a national champion (or be competitive at that level). However, these skills really do help in real life at a much less intense level - grocery lists, names and faces, cough card counting... lots of practical applications.

Can you apply it to mathematical formulae et al. as well?

I'd also like to know this, though I imagine it's possible. I've been thinking about what sort of things I'd like to remember with these methods, and I feel that the Periodic Table would be a good, fun place to start.

Absolutely. I used a rhythm mnemonic in middle school to remember pi to 106 digits in middle school, and that was the day of the quiz (it was extra credit in... geometry for some reason). Actually the more you practice these techniques on completely ordinary and mundane things, the easier it becomes when attempting formulae, tables, and graphs. Saving your memory for "important things" will only deprive you of essentially free practice. The periodic table is actually a good place to start as long as you don't overwhelm yourself, so for example start with the names of the elements in order, then the numbers will associate, and you can keep building with recursion. OR you could begin with smaller blocks if you're more comfortable absorbing a lot of different information at once, which can sometimes work much better.

Have you ever counted cards properly, and if so did memory tricks actually help? I can only imagine it complicating what are frankly easy-to-remember tasks.

Card counting in the blackjack sense, not really. That's just reading the cards and adjusting.

That being said, in other games it can be very helpful - remembering poker hands, etc...

Thanks for sharing! I'd be interested to know how it carriers over to other parts of your professional life if you program as well.

Not as much as I'd like, really. The events at the memory championship are geared towards short-term (not short-term memory, but < 1 hours between memory and recall). Additionally, some events occur twice (random cards, for example) back-to-back; you have to compete, then forget that set and build another memory palace with the new deck.

Great to remember groceries, not so good to remember the parameters for that function you created yesterday.

@mashmac2 is the memory of large volumes of information, plastic?

There is a cool startup that does a lot of the boring legwork of making up memorable images to help with language learning: http://www.memrise.com/

Wow, I see so many startups doing things with language-learning... I don't think I've seen one better executed than the one you've just linked.

Wonderful in many ways, I hope they keep creating content. Thanks for the link!

There was a fantastic site for learning Chinese that had you draw the word shapes and compared them to the correct form, but I didn't bookmark it, and never managed to track it down again. Anyone?

It could be Skritter.

Memrise is really an implementation of the Heisig et al approach to memorizing Chinese characters - imagine their components to be images/shapes of things which they mean, and use those mnemonic images to recall the characters' meanings. Which is, unsurprisingly, the original basis of most Chinese characters anyway, although they've undergone a lot of evolution in the intervening millennia.

Unfortunately I'm past the stage that I need to use mnemonics to remember characters, but it's certainly a useful tool for those starting out or at intermediate levels.

That's the one - thank you!

wow this is a tremendous resource

> In my memory palace, I walked through my house, starting at my front door, and placed these familiar people or numbers on my furniture.

> So for a grocery list, the example goes, imagine a container of milk overflowing on your doorstep, and when you get inside, perhaps two giant steaks attacking you in your foyer. Continue to your living room to find pretzels dancing on your rug.

To people for whom this works: how vivid exactly are you imagining these things? I think I'm like this guy[1]; basically, I can't close my eyes and "see" anything, much less "imagine walking through my house."

I think the memory palace technique is supposed to help you remember things like this: you "walk" (via imagination) into a room and see a crazy scene full of memory prompts. Right? But... how automatic is seeing that scene? I can memorize "a wet lion on my bed" or something, but then I'm just memorizing it, so why shouldn't I just memorize the original thing? And if you can walk into that room and see the lion, and then go, "oh yeah, a wet lion, that means an Ace of Spades" can't you just imagine a poster on the wall with an Ace of Spades on it?

I guess, basically, the memory palace technique seems so far from useful it makes me question how my brain works vs. other people's.

[1] http://dfan.org/visual.html

Sometime last year, I read "Moonwalking with Einstein" which, despite not having been as educational as I would have liked (there are other books for that though,) was a great read, and did have some instruction in it.

One of the lessons in the book is was to memorize the memory champion's grocery list which contained some items I'd never remember on my own (pickled garlic, for example, I've never had or heard of).

My daughter and I walked through the list, doing as instructed in the text, and instructing my daughter to do the same. I never performed an image replacement (e.g., the ace of spades actually equals something else,) but did try to abstract the items. For example, for pickled garlic, I imagined a car-sized jar of pickles, but the pickles were garlic shaped. Instead of cottage cheese, I imagined (as instructed) Charisma Carpenter bathing in a large cottage cheese tub.

To this day, both I and my daughter can remember the list perfectly, by walking through the house and looking how we should.

I haven't gone much farther with it to the degree that I would have had to encode a lion into an ace of spades, but just exaggerating the image itself into a more memorable form works for me. I also have the same lack of visual imagination, but following the instructions in the book exactly as offered worked perfectly.

One of the catches though, is that numerous memory champions will tell you that becoming really good at mnemonic memory is really a game of who can be more imaginative.

Some routines (like memorizing a deck of cards) can become rote, as you already have the cyphers in your head, you just have to encode them. The more advanced mnemonists have partial encoding techniques such that one mnemonic image can encode a 3 or 4 card sequence. That doesn't take imagination, just discipline... but encoding things, on the fly, that you haven't predetermined the pattern to, is a game of imagination.

That said, you might suck at it, as I sort of expect to suck at it myself. Regardless, there are other, less imaginative techniques that may work well for you, and allow you to permanently remember things you would wish to.

Thanks for your response, very interesting! I should clarify, it's not really the imagination to create weird scenes that I lack so much as the ability to actually visualize them. So I'm really curious now, when you say:

"I imagined a car-sized jar of pickles, but the pickles were garlic shaped."

did that involve you creating a mental image of this? How clearly can you see it? Can you close your eyes and visualize just an ordinary pickle, for that matter? I wonder how integral that is in order for this technique to be useful, since I have trouble visualizing even a simple colored shape.

That said, it occurs to me now that I can imagine the feel of things very well, as well as the sound of things. So maybe I could prompt myself with a slippery trumpet or something, rather than an odd visual picture.

Thanks for the book recommendation.

To be honest, I think I'm kind of in the same boat as you.

I don't really 'see' it, as I would a scene I was actually looking at. I don't see items in the periphery of it to the extent that I could describe non-essential items in the scene, but I know what I pictured, and I know it's there.

For comparison's sake, I know that my guitar is brown, and I know that it has chrome hardware, and I know it's got that classic Les Paul shape, but I don't really 'see' it in my mind's eye very well. When I look over at it now, I realize several details that I didn't envision in my head, but I generally know what it looks like.

In summary, it sounds like we might be similarly minded, and I can say that mnemonics have definitely helped me to learn certain things very well. I feel like it would be a bad all-around memorization technique for me though, because the act of creating the memory takes quite a bit longer to 'encode' than it does to just remember. While I realize that encoding is more reliable, it isn't practical for every day memories, and there are certain types of things I think I would be very bad at encoding.

Your mileage may vary.

Ah, ok. Very helpful. Your description of thinking about your guitar is exactly how I would think about it, so I think you're right that we might be similarly minded. I'll definitely have to check out Moonwalking with Einstein, then, if it worked for you.

"Moonwalking" is a good book, and I encourage you to get it, however, it won't train you on much more than how to remember that one thing. The book isn't about "how to train your memory", rather, it is about how one guy trained his. A subtle, but important distinction.

For something more instructional, I was recommended Higbee's, "Your Memory, How it Works and How to Improve It[1]".

I also noticed somebody else in this topic post a link to Memrise.com[2], which is a startup actually created by one the guy who actually taught the one bit of instruction in Moonwalking.

[1] - http://www.amazon.com/Your-Memory-How-Works-Improve/dp/15692...

[2] - http://www.memrise.com/

The number one reason for 'poor' memory is actually lack of concentration.

The reason you start forgeting the name of the person just introduced to you is that you are thinking of a 100% other things, like what to say, do I know him, what to do.

All the excercises in the article will help you 'pause' and really concentrate on what you want to remember.

Even the first tip: Once you hear a new name, immediatelly try to think of someone you know with the same name. Will improve your 'name memory' greatly. (Not because you know someone else, but because you took a second to concentrate on the name)

The argument I find most compelling for learning the memory palace technique is that building a memory palace is a creative act (Yes, like Picasso). One must be creative to construct a memorable palace for something as mundane as a grocery list, and what's vivid works. (Joshua Foer argues just this, persuasively too, in his book "Moonwalking with Einstein").

(begin sort of random tangent) I've tried using the memory palace technique to memorize poetry, and I found the clashing images somewhat disconcerting. On the one hand, there was the imagery of the poem, and on the other, there was the image I had created. Often times, I had to create completely new images, totally unrelated to the substance of the poem, in order to remember it. And well, somehow the images I created always involved a lot of...boob.

> somehow the images I created always involved a lot of...boob.

yet another advantage of these systems, I suppose.

A "perk", if you will.

Forgetting is Key to a Healthy Mind


Just sayin.. :P

These things are all good but I have found it ruins your ability to perceive signal versus noise.

Everything seems to be a trade-off - the mind included.

Could you elaborate on this a bit? I'm curious.

I understand how some of these techniques work like creating a story for remembering the order of a stack of cards but surely it depends on how you think as in some people are good at remembering language, others pictures or feelings..

I still have no clue about how to remember 500 random numbers.

Associate the thing to be remembered with a bizarre visual, then imagine going through some place familiar (say, your house) and putting these bizarre visuals in order along a tour.

For stuff like decks of cards and long numbers this is very difficult and requires practice. But there are easy examples you can do to show you the power of this method. For example, I tried memorizing the basic layout of the electromagnetic spectrum about two years ago. This was accomplished in about five minutes and I can still recall everything with clarity at this very moment.

For things like decks of cards, long numbers and really, anything perceived to be difficult, you just have to have an intermediate step that converts the abstract aspects into something you can visualize.

For numbers, I've partly described the "peg" system in a comment above where you assign sounds to the numbers 0 to 9, then make words that reflect the number sequence with the matching sounds, using vowels to fill in.

For cards, it's a similar approach: For example, for the diamonds suit you begin each member with the letter d and join it with the appropriate number ( 2 : n, 3 : m etc) so that two of diamonds becomes DeN, the three of diamonds DaM etc. Using this kind of mnemonic to represent the cards it becomes very easy to visualize and remember them.

I've done this and astounded people by calling out the order of a deck of cards in sequence - forwards and backwards, the card in any random position in the deck, and the position of any random card. A lot of fun, and a lot more useful in practical applications that call for a good memory.

Seems like I read an article recently that covered this in more detail. Very recently...

I have read the original article and found it deeply lacking. Not in the sense that it misrepresents the facts, but more like it fails to acknowledge the underlying assumptions and motivations that give those fact a meaning.

//----- In theory

First of all, what is being described seems a lot like the "Art of Memory". It is a technique whose modern incarnation was developed mostly during the Renaissance, based on older techniques of the ancient roman schools of rhetoric.[1] If that is the case, we need to put the Art of Memory into a context and remember that it pre-dates Gutenberg and his printing press (let alone any sort digital media).

So, the way I see it, its a little bit like running. We have all this professional and olympic athletes, who we admire and subsidize so they can devote full time to their art, who represent the maximum levels of human physical achievement. Now, to expect those athletes to run longer and faster than a car would be obviously ridiculous, and to expect that the whole society ditch their cars and begin running everywhere is beyond impractical. However, most people would agree that it's a very sad state of human existence to be unable to move oneself without motorized assistance for a few hundred, or even a few dozen, meters.

With memory, it is the same thing. These memory athletes may do amazing things but it'd be foolish to expect them to store and recall as much information as a computer. Still, having a good memory is a very human thing that everybody can do, and we are reaching to a point where cloud computing and hand-held devices are not empowering us to remember and handle even more information, but to be complacent and not to bother with it.

//----- In practice

Now, when we are talking about the particulars of how this things are remembered... There are some points... first, some people here has commented that it is harder to remember all this crazy imagery that then payload data in the first place. As others have pointed out, the crazy imagery works because it is loaded with strong emotions that trigger responses in our brains that simple digits cannot. This is part of the answer, the other part is that imagery is meant to be reused over and over again.

As it is described in [2], you have to pay the cost upfront. You build what is essentially a sort of ideographic alphabet with which to encode new information in the future. I assume you could go the other way around and load our native alphabet and guarisms with a bunch of strong emotions... but it i not how the method evolved historically.

Other important flaw that I find in the original article is that it fails to stress the fact that these new symbols are (or should be) a personal fabrication. It is not like everybody has to cramp their heads with imagery of Ozzie Osbourne chewing off bat heads. If there's a number of competitors doing that, it must be a (very recent) defect in the teaching of the technique. Its like the students are literally blindly copying their teacher's symbol table; instead of developing a personal, and more effective, one of their own.

By example, the author of [2] is a sorts of fan of Tolkien, and his mental imagery is filled up in characters from LOTR. I have very recently started to use this technique, but its very clear that I shouldn't pick the same work of fiction to base my own symbol table. Instead, I am using Eliezer Yudkowsky's "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality".

So it is not that we clutter our heads with useless stuff. We ought to "recycle" the stuff that has already found its way in. To continue with the example, may mind has attached emotions to "Theodore Nott, Chaotic Lt." (as depicted by Dinosaurusgede [3], nonetheless) in a way that "Theoden of Rohan" will never reach. So, I use that when trying to pinpoint the phoneme "Th" instead.

//--- Links

[1] Art of Memory I. Introduction and historic development. http://hermetic.com/caduceus/articles/1/1/ars-memorativa.htm...

[2] Art of Memory II. Description of one technique. http://hermetic.com/caduceus/articles/1/2/ars-memorativa.htm...

[3] http://dinosaurusgede.deviantart.com/art/Potter-s-Chaos-Legi...

I really like Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O'Brien: http://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Memory-Power-Improve-Champion/...

I listened to it while working out over the course of several weeks and, despite not putting much effort into it, was able to improve my ability to remember short lists (e.g. groceries) and names. With more focused practice, I'm sure it would lead to excellent results.

The only flaw in it is that some of his social references are a bit dated. In the imagery exercises, you'll probably want to substitute your own, updated names and faces. :-)

The other flaw is that, without even clicking the link I already know it has nothing to do with "quantum" except for being a cool scientific-sounding technical buzzword.

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