When I was a child I was always proud of my memory. I would be excellent at Pexeso (Memory game) I would never forget my homework or anything else that I was supposed to bring to school to the extent that I from time to time pretended to forget just to be more like the other kids. Then I grew up and something happened. Today I rely so much on modern technology that I’m lazy to remember anything. I’m sure if I made the effort I could revive my ability to remember but I never make the effort as it is not necessary. And it would be so handy, so many new names and faces to remember so many birthdays and passwords. It could be really handy.
My inability to remember names led me to do a bit of research on how our memory works and what can be done about it. When searching on materials on this topic I came across a great book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” written by Joshua Foer. This is not a scientific work but it well researched and written in a style that will keep you interested till the end. And most importantly it will answer all your questions you ever had about memory that you were afraid to ask.
The ancient art
In the ancient Rome and Greece, before the invention of printing press the scholars had one ability we can only envy them today. They were able to remember lots of stuff simply because they didn’t have a choice. The science and popular stories may not be written down and they were handed over from one orator to another one. The great philosophers, artist and scientists of these times had to rely on their memories and they were exceptional good at it. For example, Cicero would not try to memorize his speech word by word but rather topic by topic and associate a vivid image to each of the topics he wanted to cover in his speech and place it in some memorable place (more of this technique below). That was essentially an agenda written in his mind. Something you can try yourself. In fact, I have tried this approach in couple of my speeches and I was satisfied with the results, even though these speeches were only 10-15 minutes long.
The humanity needs
Thousands of years ago our ancestors didn’t have the need to remember much. Essentially they just needed to recognize couple of individuals from their tribe, learn and remember what around them is edible, dangerous and orient themselves in space. From these times our brain evolved a great capacity to remember visual and spatial information.
Our memories don’t follow any sort of logical structure where you would have a linear index that would allow you to access information you have once learned. The information is there somewhere but you don’t have the means to access it. Unless you map the information when storing it in such a way that your brain is able to retrieve it when needed. This is where the visual and spatial memory comes to play. And luckily for you due to human’s brain ability to reorganize itself (neuroplasticity) you can train your brain to remember things you would have never thought possible if you just give it a try and lots of effort.
The memory palace
Memory palace is a 2,500 years old technique (also known as a journey method or a method of loci) that is being used by memory enthusiasts even today and lets them remember incredible amount of data. For example the latest winner of the World Memory Championship was able to memorize 124 random words in five minutes.
How does it work? First you need a place you are really familiar with. For example the street in your neighborhood or your house. Then you create a vivid, colorful picture of the item you want to remember and put it in a distinct place in your house. The more silly the picture the more memorable it will be. For example you want to remember forever what you had for breakfast today (coffee, eggs, bread, and cheese). You can take cup of coffee and make it a pond on your yard and just add some pink ducks swimming in it for fun. Now imagine couple of eggs that are hatching and small dragons coming out of them and put them on your door steps. Let’s hang a loaf of bread, tasty, still warm, and smelling really nice on your door knob and then imagine a loaf of cheese with Mickey Mouse sitting on top of it behind the open door. Everything should be as colorful and memorable as possible. Close your eyes and really imagine you walking to your home and seeing all these things around. The next time you want to remember this menu you just imagine opening the door to your yard and walk home…
I have tried this technique on memorizing twenty completely random and nonsensical data (took me about five minutes to create the memory palace), then I repeated it from memory in an hour, then in the evening and then the day after. At that time I made a note in my calendar to try to remember in a month and forgot about the task. In a month my calendar reminded me to try and remember these twenty things and guess what? I got them all right! Now I’m a believer and I know that if I ever wanted to dedicate my free time to remembering things I could do it.
How to remember a name
Obviously, there are different approaches but one you can try is to associate the sound of person’s name with a visually interesting image. You need a clear, vivid image that you will associate with person’s face and with visual representation of his name. The more weird and silly the image the better as it will just pop into your mind when needed. For example let’s assume you want to remember John Skywalker. As it turns out John is your best friend name and walking in the sky doesn’t take much imagination. So the picture you will try to remember may be John Skywalker holding hands with your best friend walking between stars on the night sky and waving back to you. Sounds silly enough for you to remember. Next time you see his face this picture will pop up in your mind and you will quickly decode what it means.
At least that is the theory. I’ve been trying to use this technique with mixed success so far but as everything in life you need practice. Part of my problem with meeting new people is not related to memory but to paying attention. As most people even I when meeting a new person think ahead what to say instead of paying attention to his name. The practice described above will push you to focus on what the person is saying and give it couple of seconds for remembering his name. There might be an awkward silence for a bit but you can rectify it by explaining of what you just did.
Twitter type summary: “Modern technology makes us forget the ancient art of remembering. It is up to you to change that!”
How is your memory? Have you ever wondered what can you do to improve it? Are there information that you really don’t want to forget? How do you do it?
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