TYPE: Narrative non-fiction (mixed), theoretical.
NOTE: Almost all of us are born with exactly the same memory machinery. And memory used to be an essential part of all of our lives. But we have increasingly replaced systems for remembering with systems for reminding. And so many of us have forgotten how to use the machinery inside us
Studies of super-memory, brain-damaged and normal people have shed light on how memory works. But they basically confirm what has been known by memory experts for thousands of years:
- We can all learn anything with enough repetition (via chunking);
- We can all learn to learn anything quickly with enough practice (via encoding); and
- We find it easiest to memorise things that are novel and visual.
In short, exceptional memories are made, not born. This has been confused by the romantic and fanciful myth of “Photographic Memory”. Such accounts have always been explained by rare phenomena like synesthesia, eidetic memory or exaggeration.
And even extremely rare “prodigious” savants always also exhibit an equally debilitating and profound disability. Why? Because forgetting is vital in separating the vital from the trivial. Memory is a delicate balance of retaining and recycling.
The key to unlocking exceptional memory is learning to master our powerful visuospatial memory. Techniques like the Method of Loci are simple (though not easy to master) and have been described and used for millennia. (Curious how? When you’re done here, read this ultimate guide to how to memorise a monologue.)
The Method of Loci relies on visualising information as objects. Where information is not immediately visualisable (e.g., numbers, abstract words) it must first be replaced (encoded) with a stand-in, visualisable object. These objects are then linked to places within mental maps of well-known locations using a vivid (and surprising) mental imagery. Revisiting the locations, recalling and decoding an image at a specific location allows retrieval of the original information.
Developing an exceptional memory means perfecting three skills:
- Internalising and mentally navigating detailed spatial maps of well-known locations;
- Imagining memorable and vivid images that link information to places in those locations; and
- Encoding abstract information into visualisable objects for use in the previous skill.
Of the three, developing the third (systems for encoding) requires the most upfront work and practice. Systems like the Major System (to convert digits into words via sounds) or the Peg System (to convert numbers directly to objects) have existed for centuries. A common variant in use today is the Person-Action-Object (PAO) System which encodes e.g., playing cards or numbers as images of specific people acting on objects.
All such encoding systems rely on the same basic principles but precise details and mental images vary between individuals. These take effort to create and internalise but make it easy to quickly learn almost any kind of information.
Meanwhile, high quality, purposeful practice is vital to improving any skill – including memory. To make practice purposeful:
- Design your environment and practice routines to keep you alert and focused;
- Control speed and volume to push yourself constantly beyond your comfort zone;
- Consciously study and try to replicate the performance of more competent masters; and
- Design immediate feedback mechanisms that tell you what’s wrong, how wrong and what you can do about it.
And remember, “There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” – Bruce Lee
As Josh’s year-long journey from memory-virgin to 2006 USA memory champion shows, it’s possible for almost anyone to use the ideas above to develop an exceptional memory.
But why improve it at all? Because understanding, creativity and no small part of intelligence are rooted in knowledge that is grounded in memory. Because “the more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember it.” Because “how we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember.”
N.B., Moonwalking With Einstein an enjoyable and accessible read but, for me, a quick three hour skim was enough. If this is your first ever book on memory, or you’re reading for entertainment, then pick up a copy (great adds would be Ericsson’s Peak and Duhigg’s Power of Habit). If you want to improve your memory, read e.g., Lorrayne’s Memory Book or Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium. Then turn to Google.