12 Memory Tricks
By Tamim Ansary
Indisputably, we moderns can't match the memory feats of bygone times,
those days when people could do things like memorize the "Iliad" in Greek
without even knowing Greek. And maybe it's true, as some have speculated
(me, for instance), that we've lost this capacity because we now tend to
outsource our memory tasks to an exo-brain of technological gadgets. We no
longer have to remember Mom's birthday because our cell phone will remind
us about it when the time comes.
But it struck me recently what this doesn't mean. It doesn't mean we
depend on (organic) memory less than people of the past. A good memory is
still a power tool in this world. It's just that our culture imposes different
demands on our memories.
Those ancestors of ours who could memorize the "Iliad" and so forth lived in
quieter times. They could sit under a tree and devote themselves without
distraction to a single, sustained memorization project for days on end. Who
has that luxury now?
New ball game
Today, most of us have to cope with an unremitting swarm of info-bits
coming at us like wasps. At this moment I have at least a dozen things I
should be thinking about, but since a guy can do only one thing at a time,
I'm holding all those thoughts in abeyance -- keeping them in memory, that
is -- while I write this column.
But even as I write, some of those items will become irrelevant, some will
change, others will rise to urgency, new concerns will intrude, e-mails will
come in, phone calls -- it's the same for everyone I know. We're constantly
revising the map of information we're "holding in memory," just to stay
functional. It's like memorizing the "Iliad" while it's still being edited: Every
time we look, it's a different "Iliad." No, we can't match what the memory
virtuosos of the past achieved, but I bet they couldn't match what we
moderns do either.
This is why I take an intense interest in ways to buff up my admittedly
shabby memory. I remember that right out of college I worked at the post
office for six months and spent three of them in a mnemonics class; can't
remember what I learned, though. Since then, I keep asking people to tell
me their tricks for remembering, especially if their job requires instant
access to tons of data. Unfortunately, few of them are into metacognition:
They don't remember their tricks. Once you've solved the problem, I guess
you throw away the scratch paper.
Knowledge is Power
So I decided to look into it myself and talk to the experts -- people who
teach memory skills professionally. At the end of this column I'm going to
list 12 tips I distilled from their recommendations, but first, to put those tips
in context, let me just review how memory works.
Biologically speaking, we actually have two kinds of memory: short-term
memory and long-term memory. Think of them as the front room and the
The front room is what we're actively dealing with at any given moment. Call
it consciousness. This room is small: Only seven or eight items fit in there at
a given time, and nothing can stay in there for more than a few seconds.
The back room is a warehouse. For all practical purposes, it's infinitely large.
Incredibly enough, everything we ever learn or experience gets stored in
long-term memory, and once it's there, it's there for life.
The question is, once a piece of information goes into that dusty back room
where trillions of items are already stored, how do you find it again when
you need it? The answer lies in that front room. What happens there is the
key, because nothing gets into the back room without passing through the
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All memories are recovered memories, and we recover them through
associations: We remember a past event because something currently in our
awareness -- something we're looking at, hearing, tasting, thinking about,
whatever -- reminds us of something, which reminds us of something else,
which reminds us of something else and so on back. That's why recent
events are easy to remember: The environment is still loaded with cues and
the chain of links is short.
Good memory, then, is all about processing information properly as it goes
into storage. Psychologist William James summarized the fundamental
principle in a single phrase: "The secret is … forming diverse and multiple
associations with every fact we care to retain."
Here, then, are 12 concrete steps you can take to remember particular facts
and improve your general capacity to retain what you learn. Note that only
the last step is one you can take when you're actually trying to remember.
All the rest have to do with how you absorb information and how you
convert it into memory.
1. Pay attention. You can't remember what you never knew, so don't be
multitasking when you're trying to learn or memorize something: Give it the
spotlight of your full attention at least once.
2. Understand. The more completely you get it, the less likely you are to
forget it. (If you don't understand football, you're not likely to remember the
3. Repeat and apply. Directly after learning something, repeat it,
preferably out loud. Even better, use it in your own way. If you want to
remember a joke, for example, tell it to someone and try to make them
4. Chunk. Although short-term memory can deal with only about seven
items at a time, you can finesse this limit by grouping items together and
thinking of each group as a unit. Later, you can unpack those units.
Remembering the numbers 5, 4, 6, 1, 9, 8, 6, 5 and 8 is harder than
remembering the numbers 546, 198 and 658.
5. Make meaning. Nonsense is hard to remember. Compare this:
disease reported control Chicago mumps the for of center an in outbreak
The Centers for Disease Control reported an outbreak of mumps in Chicago.
To make meaning where none inherently exists, the experts recommend
embedding the information in an invented narrative. The license plate
3PLY981 thus becomes: Three carpenters cut a piece of plywood into nine
pieces and ate one. Yes, I know, no one eats plywood; but that's actually a
strength of the narrative in this case. (See step 7.)
6. Look for patterns. Stanford researchers have found that forgetting is a
key aspect of good remembering, but not because you have to clear out
space; rather, it's because forgetting the less relevant details reveals the
more meaningful underlying structure.
7. Visualize. Search the information for some element you can turn into an
image. If you've just met a Bridget Brooks and want to remember her name,
you might picture the Brooklyn Bridge spanning her face from ear to ear.
The more striking or ridiculous the image, the more likely it is to stick in
8. Hook it to something funny. Stalagmites or stalactites -- which ones go
up? Well, it's like ants in your pants: The 'mites go up, the 'tites come down.
9. Hook it to a melody, chant, rhyme or rhythmic motion. Remember
singing A-B-C-D-E-F-G to the tune of "Baa Baa Black Sheep"? How about:
"In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue"? Or
try pacing rhythmically while memorizing a table of data.
10. Associate new with old. Greek and Roman orators had a trick for
remembering a speech. They would create a striking image for each topic
they meant to cover (see step 7), mentally put these images in the rooms of
their home, and then, while giving the speech, picture strolling through their
home. Each next room would remind them of their next topic, and in the
proper order. Note that they didn't have to remember the order of their
rooms, because this knowledge was already imprinted in their brains.
11. Link learning to environment. The memory tends to associate
information with the environment in which one learns it. If you're going to
be tested on something and you know where the test will occur, study the
material in the same sort of place. If you don't know anything about the test
site, study in a variety of locations so the memories won't get locked into
cues from one environment.
12. Let 'er drift. If a memory is staying out of reach, stop fishing for it, the
experts say. Instead, let your mind drift to the general area: to friends you
knew then, to the school you went to, the car you drove ... with luck, you'll
happen into the end piece of a chain of links leading to the memory you're