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Armchair philosopher

How to develop a super-power memory

Simple mnemonic devices to remember virtually anything

God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.
—J.M. Barrie

Today I saw this talk on TED about remarkable feats of memory, and how easy they are to learn...

This talk reminded me of a post I wrote here on Thinker's Playground a few years ago, before I relaunched the site:

The original post was very long, so I've broken it up into separate posts:

Harry Lorayne, renowned brainiac, is most famous for his memory shows in which he stuns audiences with his astounding memory. His stunts include: memorising the names of an entire audience (up to one thousand five hundred people) after meeting them just once before the show, memorising entire decks of cards in order and reciting magazines and phone directories, cover to cover with 100% accurate recall.

A couple of years ago I bought a copy of Lorayne’s How to Develop a Super-Power Memory after seeing it advertised in another of his books. Before reading it I wasn’t sure whether the book would be a complete rip-off or a guide to transforming my brain into some sort of super-powered memory machine just like his. It was neither. Instead, Lorayne explains that we each already have a memory just like his, and he can prove it. By implementing a few tried and tested methods (some of which date back to the ancient Greeks) anyone can tap into the almost unlimited potential of their memory.

In this article, I’ll cover a few of Lorayne’s methods and some from learning-guru Tony Buzan to get you started. By the end of it you should know how to quickly pick up a foreign language, remember a list of over a hundred items, quote Pi to thirty decimal places and memorise the order of a shuffled deck of cards.

You already have a pimped-out memory

If you think back to your childhood, to when you were six or seven years old, what was your best friend’s name? If you can remember that then you’ve just proved to yourself that you can remember things from several years ago. Things you probably haven’t thought about in over a decade.

We remember nursery rhymes and stories from our childhood. We can recognise faces we haven’t seen in decades despite how much they have changed. We remember directions to different places all over the country and we remember thousands of words from the English language and probably one or two others.

Despite what many people tell themselves, we all have fantastic memories capable of storing an almost infinite amount of information. Thoughts, images, sounds, smells, even tastes and physical sensations from several years before can be called back instantly. Psychologist and neurophysiologist Mark Rosenweig, after studying the capabilities for storage in an individual brain cell, stated that if we fed ten new pieces of information into a normal human brain every second, after a lifetime that brain would be considerably less than half full.

Our brains remember several billion things every day and yet we berate ourselves if we cannot recall two or three things. Evidence suggests that our brains remember everything we ever experience [Buzan, 1986]! Unless you suffer from dementia or some other form of illness that affects the mind, you do have a fantastic memory. You simply need to learn to use it.

Interest

Ask a high school kid to name Henry the Eighth’s six wives and they will probably struggle to recall one. In fact, ask them to name people from any group of historical figures and they’ll struggle. But ask that same kid to name the line-up in their favourite football team or band and they will recall them easily. The names of sporting heroes are no easier than historical figures to remember (especially not names like Sven-Göran Eriksson). Instead, people remember them more easily because they are interested in doing so.

The first lesson in developing a pimped-out memory is: If you want to learn to recall something easily, you must be interested in remembering it.

This example was pretty obvious. It’s easy to see that people remember things they are interested in and forget things they are not. But this same principal can be seen in more subtle, real life examples.

Consider this example: Jim wears a blue jacket. Tom wears a red jacket. Sally and Paul wear green jackets but Paul also wears a pink waistcoat. Tegan wears brown sandals and not a lot else. Perry wears a red sweater. Michael and Imran wear yellow t-shirts and Jessica is wearing a turquoise blouse. Kate likes to wear a denim skirt. Michelle likes denim but prefers leather trousers.

Without looking back, try to recall how many people are mentioned in the above paragraph? How many different colours or types of clothing are mentioned? Unless you were very attentive, you can’t. Despite understanding the paragraph, you didn’t really commit to remembering it. Read it through again, this time paying attention to the number of people and answering these questions should be effortless.

The second time you read the paragraph, you were interested in making note of how many people etc. You’ll probably still remember these numbers a few hours from now but you’ll eventually forget them because you have no interest in or reason to remember them.

If you want to commit something to memory, you must take an active interest in doing so. The next lesson in developing a pimped-out memory is: memory works by association.

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