Armchair philosopher

Memory, association, and the link system

A menomic device for memorising lists

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

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

  • How To Develop A Super-Power Memory
  • Memory, Association, and The Link System Of Mnemonics
  • The Peg System Of Mnemonics
  • How To Memorise Pi To 30 Decimal Places
  • How To Memorise A Deck Of Cards
  • How To (Quickly) Learn A New Language

In the early twentieth century a Russian journalist named Solomon Shereshevskii (sometimes referred to as ‘S’) was sitting in an editorial meeting. Shereshevskii was challenged by his superior who had noticed he wasn’t taking any notes and was apparently daydreaming. Shereshevskii was confused. He didn’t see why anybody needed to take notes and, when pressed, he proceeded to quote every word spoken at the meeting, verbatim.

For the next thirty years, scientists studied Shereshevskii and his apparently perfect memory. Shereshevskii was found to have a serious form of synaesthesia, a condition in which one’s senses react with each other when they are stimulated. When one of his senses was stimulated, the others would be too. When hearing a sound, he could also taste that sound, see it and smell it. This caused Shereshevskii to create strong associations in his mind for almost everything he experienced and was able to recall them as a result.

Every object in our memory is linked to the others in some way and each is a gateway to a world of information stored in our brains.

Think of a word like ‘fish’ for example. By thinking of fish you’ll also think of other, related words like: sea, water, scales, slimy, smelly, food, oily etc. You might think of the last time you saw or ate fish or the pet fish you had when you were a kid.

Our brains are designed to recall information based on associations. When we think of one object we can also recall several other pieces of information that we have, at some point, associated with that object. This was an essential part of evolution. If encountered by a lion, it’s important to think “dangerous” as opposed to “ticklish”. Just one word, can bring a thousand other words to mind and so on. Based on this knowledge, we can use words or groups of words to help us recall vast quantities of information. We call these words, Mnemonics (from the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne).

Look at this list of letters for a few seconds: O, T, T, F, F, S, S, E, N, T, E, T, T, F, F, S, S, E, N, T.

Now, without looking again, try to recite them back in the correct order.

If you hadn’t realised that these letters represent the first letter of the numbers one to twenty this is pretty difficult to do. But once you know what they represent, and you think of the numbers in order, it’s easy. You could recall this list any time you like. Since childhood most of us have used mnemonics like this to memorise things like the planets of the solar-system (Many, Very, Educated, Men, Jump, Suicidally, Under, Nervous, Pressure), points of a compass (Never, Engage, Sexy, Women) or letters of a musical stave (Every Good Boy Deserves Food) and as a result, these are things we don’t forget easily, even years later.

The Link System

What’s the eighteenth letter of the alphabet? Unless you’ve memorised the letters of the alphabet and their positions, you’ll have to count through them all until you reach the answer, R. When reciting the alphabet from A to Z you don’t need to know which place each letter comes in (M is thirteen, N is fourteen, O is fifteen...). Instead, you only have to think about the letter you’re on at the moment and the letter that follows it. You learn that B follows A, C follows B and so on. That’s why most of us find it effortless to quote the alphabet forwards, but difficult backwards.

The Link System works in the same way. You take a list of any items, of any length, and you associate the first to the second, the second to the third, and so on. When you need to recall them, you simply have to think of the first item, which will remind you of the second, which will remind you of the third and so on. How to associate each item is the clever part.

Forming associations quickly

When forming associations we should consider three laws: the Law of Frequency, the Law of Recency and the Law of Vividness.

The first two are pretty obvious; the more frequently you associate one item with another, the stronger the association will become. The more recently you made an association, the easier it is to recall. The more recent an association is, the less likely you are to forget it. The third law, the Law of Vividness, is less obvious.

As an experiment, a group of people were shown a thousand different photographs at a rate of about one photo per second. After they had been shown each of the photos once, a hundred extra photos were mixed in and the individuals were asked to identify the ones they hadn’t seen before. Everyone tested, regardless of how they rated their memories, was able to identify which photos they had and hadn’t seen before almost perfectly. Images are powerful stimuli for memory and as a result, most of the advanced memory techniques I’ve come across involve forming quick mental images.

To make an association vivid, we must create a vivid image in our head of the items we wish to associate. It should be of no surprise to you that the images that stand out most prominently in our minds are sexual, funny or ridiculous, or violent images. Colour, size and dimension are also important factors in controlling the vividness of mental images.

Take a simple list of a few random nouns: tree, pie, missile, duck, pen, eggplant, car, giraffe, ear and wind. As mentioned before, we only need to think about how each word associates with the next. Starting with tree, imagine in your mind a tree. It doesn’t have to be any particular tree, just your idea of a tree. Take the first image that pops into your head because this is probably the first image that will pop into your head the next time you think of tree.

Now we need to associate tree with pie. Using what we know about vividness, think of the most ridiculous picture you can involving a tree and a pie. It could be a tree bursting out of a pie, or a pie-tree. Whatever comes to you most naturally is what you should go with. Try to make the image as brightly coloured as possible and as large as possible. The bigger and brighter an image is in your mind the stronger your emotional response to it is. If you can, try to picture the image in 3D too. Making an image 3D, viewing it from different perspectives also helps to make it stick. For this association I’d picture a giant pink and green tree growing out of a pie and then spin it quickly in my head before moving on to the next pair, pie and missile.

For pie and missile I’d picture a missile hitting a giant pie and violently blowing bight orange goo everyplace (remember, these images don’t have to make any sense, the more ridiculous the better).

Try the rest of the items yourself and then go through them one by one and see how easy it is to recall them. Create bigger lists of twenty, thirty of forty words and you’ll find it’s still just as easy. Try recalling the list backwards too. It should be a breeze.

Using the link system, you can remember countless numbers of items for any length of time. If you feel the associations starting to slip from your memory, go over them a couple of times and strengthen those memories again.

This system has its flaws however. Just like the example with the alphabet, if someone were to ask you what the fifteenth item on a list was, you’d have to count through each until you reached fifteen. Also, if you find yourself stuck at one item, the whole thing can fall apart. If only there was a system that allowed us to remember items and their corresponding position.

Luckily there is - the Peg System

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