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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The secret to a better memory

Do you consider yourself as someone with a poor or strong memory? Well, your answer is irrelevant because there are strategies you can use to drastically improve your memory no matter how strong or weak your memory is.  The key lesson to remember is that humans excel at visual and spatial memory and we work better when we have context. We are terrible at remembering isolated facts and abstract ideas.  To create strong memories, we need to infuse them with clearly visual and concrete characteristics.  We need to imagine directly interacting with the memory in some form through touch or smell or any other non-abstract method of interaction.  By doing this, we are connecting the memory to our powerful senses such as sight and smell.  An additional tool to use is to connect the memory to something unexpected or emotional or humorous.  Our brains are wired to filter out the ordinary and the banal so we aren't overloaded with information.  As a result, a lot of important information that your brain deems ordinary or mundane can get filtered out and we become forgetful.  On the other hand, if something is unexpected, humorous, or emotional, you are much more likely to remember it.

All of this should seem familiar to previous blog entries about aiming for concreteness, eliciting emotions and using unexpectedness.  The best way to drive the point home is through using these strategies on one thorough example.

Imagine you are going to give a presentation and there are a list of items that you need to go through.  Unfortunately, you are having a difficult time trying to keep the list together in your head.  Let's assume this is the list with the topics you need to discuss:
  • Profits are up due to a recent partnership with a firm in Japan.
  • The company computer systems have been updated and run 30% more efficiently.
  • A new competitor has risen and is providing similar products at cheaper prices.
  • Your technical employees are unhappy and morale is down.
  • There has been negative press coverage lately about the company's environmental track record.
As you can clearly see, these ideas are rather abstract and you might have a difficult time remembering all of them while you are giving the presentation.  Our brains aren't great at remembering the concepts in this list because they are abstract, they lack concreteness, they aren't visual, they aren't emotional, and they aren't unexpected or surprising or out of the ordinary.  The goal in this case is to take these kinds of memories and transform them into the types of memories that our brains excel at.

How can we convert these memories to something that is vivid, engaging, has spacial context, and is novel and marvelous? Your first step is to visualize a place in your mind where you can physically "store" these memories.  Think of a place that you know really well, like your childhood home.  For me, I am going to visualize my current home.

The first item on the list deals with profits due to a partnership with a firm in Japan.  To add a visual aspect to this image, I am going to imagine a Japanese man in a business suit standing in my driveway (I have physically "stored" him at a specific location now).  His suit is green and it has a giant dollar sign on it. He has his hand extended and is getting ready to shake mine.  I have taken this abstract idea and have made it concrete and placed him in a spacial context I am familiar with.

The next item deals with computer systems and efficiency.  I am now imagining walking into my house and into the living room.  There seems to be an enormous computer in the middle of the room with giant muscular arms coming out of its side.  It's flexing them and showing off about how quick it is.  I have now turned this boring and abstract item about computers and efficiency into this ridiculous and surreal visual image of a giant computer with big muscly arms.  This is an image I won't forget any time soon.

The next item of discussion is a new competitor.  For this, I am now walking into my kitchen and there seems to be a smooth-looking fellow in a black suit smoking a cigar.  He is arrogantly looking at me while he is surrounded with the products that he is selling at cheaper prices.  There is now an emotional attachment to this item on the list because this fellow's arrogance is making me angry.  I have turned the abstract idea of competition into a concrete and emotional image of an arrogant and annoying man in a black suit.

You continue with this strategy for the rest of the items on the list.  Once you are done with the list, you have created memories that are generally visual, concrete, emotional, humorous, and unexpected.  The next step is to mentally walk back through the scenario you have created. I am now once again approaching my home.  Why is there this Japanese fellow standing in my driveway with an obnoxious green suit?? OH! That's right, this is about the partnership with a firm in Japan.  

Upon entering my living room, I see this huge computer that resembles a muscular man.  Why is it flexing its giant arms and bragging? Was this something about computers and their speed? YES! The next item deals with computer efficiency.

I now enter the kitchen and this arrogant fellow with a cigar is staring at me and mockingly smirking.  He is surrounded by a bunch of products.  Why is he behaving like this? I hope by now you get the idea.  The goal during this whole exercise was to connect abstract and mundane concepts and memories to vivid images and examples that are much more easily remembered.  

I encourage you to try this method for yourself.  Try memorizing a list of ideas, items, or concepts without using the strategy outlined above. Now, try remembering a list by using the strategies discussed here. I can guarantee that the method discussed here will create much stronger memories that will be easier to recall and leave a lasting impression.


Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking With Einstein.

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