Superior memory ability is a matter of learnable technique, not natural ability.
At some point in life, most of us have wished that we had been blessed with a photographic memory (usually right after we forget our partner’s birthday, or turn up to work without pants on).
But don’t feel bad. It seems forgetting stuff is pretty common for most of us – so common in fact that 30% of Brits under thirty years old can’t remember their own home phone number.
According to a survey conducted in 2007 by a neuropsychologist at Trinity College Dublin, fully a third of Brits under the age of thirty can’t remember even their own home land line number without pulling it up on their handsets. The same survey found that 30 percent of adults can’t remember the birthdays of more than three immediate family members.
If that made you feel better about yourself, you can also relax about the photographic memory thing too – it doesn’t exist.
But this doesn’t mean people can’t achieve amazing feats of memory.
According to World Memory Championship website, to be conferred the title “International Master of Memory” you must be able to remember:
– 1000 digits in one hour.
– 10 decks of cards in one hour.
– One deck of cards in 2 minutes or less.
So if they don’t have photographic memories, how do the memory champs do it? They must have super awesome brains right?
In fact, a study pitting top memory performers against people with ordinary memory abilities found that “memory masters” brains are the same as those of “normal” people.
Ten of the world’s foremost memory performers, drawn from the World Memory Championships, were pitted against ten people with ordinary memories but equal intelligence and spatial abilities. As a first step, both the memory performers and the controls submitted to structural MRI images of their brains. No differences were found.
Okay, so maybe the memory masters have cameras hidden in their super-thick nerdy glasses?
In fact, the study found that superior memory ability comes from the way memory masters use their brains.
The memory experts used brain regions that engaged their spatial memory, whereas those with ordinary memories did not.
In the final part of the experiment everyone in the study underwent an fMRI while memorizing. One dramatic difference separated the two groups: those with superior memories engaged brain regions that are critical for spatial memory.
“In essence, we found that superior memory is not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or structural brain differences,” concludes Eleanor Maguire, the principal investigator in the study. “Rather, superior memorizers use a spatial learning strategy and engage brain regions that are critical for spatial memory.”
Why the spatial memory difference? What’s this “spatial learning strategy” that the superior memorizers were using?
all of the participants were quizzed about their memorization techniques. Nine of the memory performers but none of the controls used the mnemonic strategy of mentally placing the items to be memorized within an imagined place, such as within one’s living room.
So it wasn’t a case of natural ability.
The memory masters had better recall because they were using a specific memory strategy, known as a mnemonic, to help them memorize stuff.
A mnemonic (pronounced without the starting “m”) is any learning technique which helps us retain something in memory (the word mnemonic is from the Ancient Greek word mnēmonikos, meaning “of memory”).
Basically, what superior memorizers do is use memory techniques that take advantage of the kinds of memory the brain is naturally good at, to take hard-to-remember things and fit them into a format that is easy to remember.
What types of memory is the brain naturally good at?
As poor as we think our memory system’s are, the human brain is naturally pretty good at recalling visual and spatial memories.
This is probably an evolutionary thing, as memory champ Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art And Science Of Remembering Everything, points out in a piece for the New York Times:
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. Those are the sorts of vital memory skills that they depended on, which probably helps explain why we are comparatively good at remembering visually and spatially.
Okay. You’ve got the picture. Superior memory is made, not born. And making it relies on using memory techniques that involve the visual and spatial memory systems our brains are naturally good at.
So what was the technique that the memory champs were using?
They were using the method of Loci (pronounced LO si), also known as the Memory Palace or Journey Method.
The method of Loci isn’t new, it dates back to the 5th century B.C. and comes to us via Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium.
The staying power of the Loci system is testament to just how useful it is. In his book How to Develop a Brilliant Memory Week by Week, 11x World Memory Champ Dominic O’Brien calls the Memory Palace technique “the most powerful and complete technique for memorizing any list of information“.
How effective does science say the Loci system is?
Several studies have found the Loci system to be effective for remembering word lists under various conditions, including memory for abstract nouns as well as concrete nouns…
The use of the Loci system is not limited to word lists or lists of separate items. Freshmen in a college “Study Skills” course were taught to use the Loci system to remember the main ideas in a prose passage. They recalled 50 percent more ideas from a 2,200-word passage than did students who were taught traditional study skills.
The memory champions use it. Science says it works. Keen to try it?
Here’s 5 easy steps to create your own memory palace.
1) Choose Your Palace
Actually you don’t need to choose anything fancy. You just need to choose a location where you are familiar with the layout. Try starting with your childhood home.
Start by choosing a location that is familiar to you, such as your home, your place of work, your home town or a nearby park.
That was pretty painless. What’s next? Time for a trip down memory lane.
2) Create Your Journey
Just visualise yourself walking through your childhood home, in a logical sequence, and identify 10 stops on the journey.
Establish 10 stages around the house at which you could place items that you wish to remember: the mirror in the entrance hall, the sink in the kitchen, the bedside table, and so on. Visualize the stages in the order in which you come across them.
Now you’ve got your 10 stops in mind, it’s time for a little more imagination.
3) Construct Your Images
You need to create a memorable image in your mind for each of the items you want to remember (say, the items on your “to do” list).
What images are most memorable? Images that are vivid – usually because they are funny, dirty, or bizarre.
The Ad Herennium advises readers at length about creating the images for one’s memory palace: the funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvellous
Okay, so you’ve got your journey and a vivid image for each item you want to remember. Now it’s time to drop some things off.
4) Place The Images Along Your Journey
Using your 10 stop journey through your childhood home, “place” the vivid images in the order you need to remember them along your route.
Once you have prepared your journey and know all the stopping points effortlessly forward and backward, then you are ready to start placing items from the list along your route…Remember, at each stage: create a scene, visualize it and add vivid details to make it more memorable.
What might that look like? Let’s take that “to do” list:
- You open your front door and step right in a huge pile of smelly doggie doo that has a tiny but loudly ringing phone sitting in the middle (first “stop” is front door; first “to do” is ring the vet)
- You walk into the living room to see your coffee table with bags of groceries atop and grocery items exploding out of the bags and splattering the walls (second “stop” is living room coffee table; second “to do” is grocery shop)
Getting the picture? (mind that pun). So what do you do when you want to recall your to-do list?
5) Take A Stroll To Recall
When you want to recall your items, just mentally stroll along your journey through your memory palace. Simple.
The beauty of the Loci system is that it can be adapted for almost any memory activity, and can be expanded with the use of other mnemonics.
To remember multiple long lists of items, such as decks of cards in order, memory champs often have rehearsed multiple journeys in distinct locations, each with 100’s of stops.
I devised six journeys altogether, using them in rotation, so that by the time I came back to one I’d used before, the memory of the cards I’d memorized on it last time had faded.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans used the Loci system for speeches, placing the points they wanted to make as items in their memory palaces.
Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, by employing memoria rerum. In his De Oratore, he suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a vestige from the art of memory.)
So the key to superior memory ability, like most things in life, is a matter of technique and practice.
The technique is usually the easy part, it’s getting into the habit of practicing the technique that’s tough (here’s more on developing habits).
In terms of technique, because visual imagery plays a key part in most memory techniques and systems, it’s useful to know a bit more about what kinds of visual imagery research says are most effective.
As noted above, studies show that the key to memorable imagery is its vividness.
several different kinds of studies suggest that visual associations should be vivid to be remembered better. In one study of imagery in paired-associate learning, people rated the vividness of their images as they constructed them. For every person, the more vivid the images were rated, the better they were recalled. In another study, people who were instructed to make vivid visual images tended to remember a list of words better than people who were told only to make visual images; people instructed to make vivid, active visual images tended to perform even better.
So what helps make images more vivid? Research suggests the following:
- Interaction. Make you images interact with each other (the huge doggy pile with a ringing phone in it).
- Detail. The more imagery is seen like a picture, the better it’s remembered.
- Motion. See the picture in action (stepping in the doggy pile).
- Substitition. See one item in place of the other (the doggy doo as a replacement for the dog).
- Exaggeration. See one or both of the items exaggerated in size or number (a huge doggy doo, a tiny phone).
- Bizarreness. This is self explanatory.
Don’t forget that practice!
image sources: psychology today