How to Upgrade your Memory

length: ~25 minutes + 10 minute exercise

I recently finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein |Amazon| which opened my eyes wide to the world of memory. It showed me just how little of our cognitive capabilities a majority of us utilize, and gave a way to massively upgrade my brain software.

Here’s a challenge. Take a few minutes and try to memorize the following sequence:

604350blueapple-dozenroses072301blacksocks-pickledgarlic-swisscheese-horse0210605043

I’ll ask you again towards the end of this post and you can try to say it back to yourself.

Can you remember it by tomorrow? Or a week from now? How about backwards? By the end of this post, this short piece of information may seem trivial to remember.

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Nearly three thousand years ago a man (or several men) known as Homer committed to memory epics now known as The Iliad and The Odyssey. He (or they) went from town to town, retelling of a Beauty that Launched a Thousand Ships, of Achilles slaying Hector, of Odysseus being kept as a sex toy and crying for his wife and children each day, of him slaughtering all of the suitors trying to marry his wife in his absence (seriously that’s in there), and more.

These were properly called epic which actually just means “really, really long poem or story.” The plots and characters “epic“, but it’s the realization that someone managed to memorize it all that boggles my mind.

Memory was the primary mode of knowledge for the first few thousand years of human history. From the Sumerians, Egyptians, to Christian Europe, to the Chinese dynasties, memorization was common place. Even after writing was invented, for thousands of years a vast majority of people relied on memorization for every piece of knowledge they had about history, agriculture, science, and religion.

Fast-forward to today – I can’t even remember my best friend’s phone number. So what happened? Did our ancestors have bigger brains? Better memory functions? The good news is the answer to that is an unequivocal no.

The question remains then, “what happened?”

One year is of particular importance in Western history. Nearly 600 years after the Chinese first invented the movable type, the printing press was separately invented by Johannes Gutenberg. It began printing copies of the Bible for public consumption in 1454. This was, in many ways, a pivotal moment for civilization; and for the art of memory, it was the first death knell.

From that point onward, we have steadily been moving knowledge from our internal harddrive to external ones. Libraries, powered by the Dewey Decimal system was the next leap forward. More recently came Google PageRank, wireless broadband internet, and mobile phones and here we are today; as long as my battery has charge, I have more knowledge at my fingertips than all of humanity combined before the year 1990, making my internal memory obsolete.

But are memories really obsolete?

Why is it that world-class musicians can memorize scores of music so quickly? Or chess Grandmasters can play a half-dozen games while blindfolded using nothing but memory? How come the best quarterbacks in the NFL can stand on the field and in an instant realize that a defense formation is the same as one he saw once in a game, 5 years ago, and know how to dissect it with surgical precision?

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink essentially describes deeply entrenched memories being surfaced at precisely the right moment being the true differentiator between an exceptional expert and a knowledgeable novice.

Our ability to learn predicates on how much we already know. Knowledge forms lattices in our memory, and it is much easier to learn if you already have adjacent knowledge. Try explaining to someone who lives in a city where a new restaurant is, versus someone who has never been to that city and you can see this principle in action.

As someone trying hard to be extraordinary, there’s no way I can leave something that is separating knowledgeable novices from true maestros unexplored.

The Tyranny of Forgetfulness

When we first encounter new information to remember, we store it in short-term memory. From there, the information is available for our working memory to use in cognitive processes such as learning, interpreting, and reasoning. Through repeated use, some of this knowledge is moved to long-term memory.

In 1956, Harvard Psychologist George Miller posited the tyranny of integers for our memory – the most numbers a person can store in short-term memory is 7±2. Research since then shows evidence that in fact it might be even smaller on average – just 4±1. If you tried the challenge at the beginning of the post, you maybe have realized that you, too, live under the tyranny of forgetfulness.

Our long-term memory, on the other hand, thus far seems limitless: at the World Memory Championships each year, contestants memorize the order of decks of cards, names of hundreds of people, random strings of text, and much more. The current Guinness world record holder for memorizing pi recited the first 67,890th digits perfectly. And of course, Homer memorized dictionary-sized epics thousands of years ago so we still can know the name Achilles.

For every tyrant there is a rebellion.

Understanding our Own Minds

When we hear about people memorizing the exact order of a half-dozen deck of cards in an hour or hundreds of random words in five minutes, we assume they are prodigies of immense talent or freaks of nature. But according to their own self-professions, all these mnemonists are ordinary people with ordinary memories.

Indeed, they posit that our memory is an instrument and remembering is an artform. Just like the piano or violin, through practice, anyone can learn how to remember; and just like a musician, how good we are at remembering simply comes down to how much we are willing to practice.

So how do we get started?

There are three well-studied principles about our memory to know:

1) We remember things better in chunks.

When a normal person is asked to memorize a chessboard, he will likely look at every piece and square and imprint that onto his memory by brute force. A Grandmaster, in contrast, looks at the board in pieces and is much better, and exponentially faster, at memorizing the location of each piece.
This is also why phone numbers are written with spaces or hyphens because a long time ago, people actually had to remember those things, and chunking helped.

2) Our memories work better visually.

Once we see an image of something, it sticks much better in our memories. A famous example is the Face Memory Test (try it). You’ll find that the tyranny of integers does not apply. The same with a painting, a building, a bridge, and so forth.

3) Our memories work spatially.

Picture your drive from home to work, or your walk from school to your favorite lunch spot. Most people find this surprisingly easy. In fact, spend 30 seconds picturing your childhood home – from the driveway, to the front door, the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. You will see that you can do this quite easily.

Building a New Memory System

Prior to college, I played the violin for 10 years. 95% of my improvement came in my final year when I got a new instructor and she forced me to practice much more, and much more intelligently. To build a memory system is the same – if we are serious about it, it requires practice. But unlike the violin, 10-20 minutes a day is enough to be a pretty good mnemonist.

I’m still struggling to figure out if instrumentalizing my memory will give me a tangible software advantage; regardless, I’ll share with you the method I learned.

Memory is a competitive sport and competitors are constantly coming up with new systems based on the three principles above. What I’m sharing with you is what most mid-tier competitors use; what the winners do is a trade secret. Still, if anyone can master even the most basic system, they will be easily in the 99th-percentile for remembering.

Visualization

Converting word/number strings into a visual image is essential to storing information directly to long-term memory. This is where memory becomes like an instrument: because the quality of your imagination affects how quickly and deeply you can remember something.

When you conjure an image, it sticks around better if it is absurd and sticks out from the ordinary. For example, instead of a blue apple, picture an apple that grows from a tiny one to a gigantic one, and radiates an angry blue glow rather than just being plain blue.

Our brains are a product of evolution during hunter/gatherer days. Thus, images that are sexual, lewd, violent, or visceral in nature are impressed more deeply. Similarly, animated images are more memorable than static ones.

Person-Action-Object

The human brain has a lot of trouble remember numbers, so this system was designed to solve that problem. Many of the world’s best mnemonists use this system, adding their own details to gain an edge.

It works pretty much exactly how it sounds. Every number from 0 to 99 gets assigned a vivid image of a person performing an action onto an object. The difficult part is the time and creativity required to come up with your full list, and then committing it through rote memorization to long-term memory. There are no tricks here.

Each person, action, and object from the base group represent the same 2-digit number, but you can mix person, action, and object to create chunks of six digits at a time.

Here are a few of my images. Take a minute to imagine the person-action-object (P-A-O) interaction described and try to store the number association. The connection between the number and the P-A-O is where practice is required. It may take days, even weeks of practice to permanently associate a number to its P-A-O because a full list would include 99 P-A-Os. For now, I’ll just list a few:

01 – Einstein scribbling furiously on a blackboard.

Try to see his face, his concentration, his hand a blur of motion as he writes with chalk dust flying off of the surface of the blackboard.

02 – Newton stomping an apple.

See Newton angrily jumping up and stomping the apple that just hit him in the head. The apple is crushed and pieces fly everywhere. You can almost see the air vibrate from the force of the stomps.

07 – James Bond sipping a martini.

He’s 07 because he’s 007. His olive is way too big for his glass, and instead of sipping, it’s almost like he’s slurping his martini in a rude, disgusting way.

10 – Lionel Messi gluing a soccer ball to his shoes.

His number is 10, and the only way a human being can be that good at dribbling the ball is if he glued it to his shoes ahead of the game. He smirks mischievously as he puts globs of glue onto this shoes and the soccer ball.

23 – Jordan turnaround fadeaway and the ball swishes through the net.

Well his number is 23, and he’s known for the fadeaway. Sweat drips down his brow in slow motion as he jumps back, releases the ball, producing the swish sound as the ball snaps through the bottom of gleaming-white basketball net.

43 – Dick Cheney shooting a man through the face.

Cheney is the Vice President to the 43rd president of the United States and he did in fact shoot a man in the face. Luckily he’s alive because the the bullet went through his mouth. Spit, blood, and bits of flesh fly off in gruesome slow motion as the bullet passes through.

50 – Michael Jackson moonwalking on a tightrope.

Passed away at age 50, the King of Pop best remembered for a buttery smooth moonwalk and in this case, it’s even more impressive as it’s along a tightly strung rope high above the cityscape.

60 – Kate Beckinsale shivering naked in a cryochamber.

This actually happened (fine, it was in a movie). Her piercing blue eyes open as she shivers violently in a frosted, flashing cryochamber which is venting its gas with a sharp hiss.

The Memory Palace

A memory palace is a place which can have a certain deterministic path which you can visualize yourself travelling through. It could be a large place, a small space, indoors, outdoors, and it doesn’t have to be a physical place. It can be a place in the real world, or constructed entirely by imagination. What it must be is never-changing, with a well-defined path to journey through.

For now, we can use your childhood home; for most, that is one place difficult to mess up. So decide – from the street up to your room – which path you will take. You will find that it is easy to recall that space with some level of detail, and the path is pretty much unforgettable.

One moment! Remember we had a challenge? After what should now be about 10 – 15 minutes of reading, do you still remember? Give it a try.

If you couldn’t, don’t worry; just like a vast majority of people including myself, you’ve just once again proven the tyranny of 7±2. For the exceedingly small number of you who do remember, try it backwards. Still got it? Then you are dismissed and free to feel smug for the rest of the day and I apologize for wasting your time.

For the rest of us, let’s give this new system a whirl.

Take a moment with each of the few images listed below and visualize them as clearly and crisply as possible. Images can be emphasized by making them absurd.

  1. Kate Beckinsale stands on the sidewalk, firing a shot at a tightrope as Mr. Jackson is trying to moonwalk his way across the rope 50 stories above.
  2. A tiny apple flashes neon blue as it balloons into the size of a watermelon.
  3. A dozen red roses with big, spiky thorns. You’re sure you saw blood dripping down on them from when someone cut their hand.
  4. James Bond dressed in a tuxedo turns and flings a turnaround jump shot which bounces off of a blackboard with all sorts of strange physics equations on it.
  5. Some smelly, sweat-drenched black socks on the floor.
  6. An enormous clove of pickled garlic, so old that it’s growing mold and sprouting shoots. Repulsive.
  7. A single slice of swiss cheese as big as a blanket makes you feel hungry as you imagine it being melted over a rare beef patty.
  8. An impossibly tiny horse prances around in a small square, neighing loudly.
  9. An angry Newton accidentally gluing his frizzy hair to a hissing, frosted cryochamber.
  10. Michael Jackson fires a rifle, no object as target.

As you create, animate, emphasize these images in your head, place them somewhere in your memory palace in chronological order. Take a moment to walk by it and examine it before moving on to the next one.

The first time I did something like this, it took me about 5 minutes, but then I had to go back and walked through a second time, which took me an additional 5 minutes.

So how about trying the challenge again? The most difficult part is likely associating the P-A-O to its numbers. This is the part that requires a lot of practice. That said, I’m sure most of you managed to be able to remember the above 10 images in the correct order. In fact, if you start at the end of your memory palace journey, you should be able to see the images in reverse order.


Memory does not have to a mystery, and we do not have to ruled by the ironfist of forgetfulness. 

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Moonwalking with Einstein is a must-read if you want to know more.

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