MEMORY "the mother of all wisdom"

How ancient techniques can allow you to unlock the full potential of your memory

4th March 2019

If you’re anything like me, information isn’t adhesive — it fleets from your memory as quickly as it enters. In an interconnected and online world, we are inundated with a constant flood of information that our untrained minds attempt to store with a frankly dismal success rate.

The temperamental, unpredictable quagmire that is your memory is quite capable of blanking on the name of somebody you know well, but equally capable of remembering verbatim some philosophical quote from a university lecture many moons ago — our memory seems to work enigmatically.

So, when contestants, named “memory athletes” enter the halls of the World Memory Championships they are faced with daunting memory tasks, such as The tapestry of Me, where competitors attempt to remember a 50-line unpublished poem in 15 minutes, or, Speed cards, in which they must memorise the order of one shuffled deck of playing cards as quickly as possible; the record for which, is an unfathomable 13.96 second(s). To the layman, it’s a struggle to pinpoint exactly how this is even possible.

The rationalisations for these mental accomplishments range wildly, from some kind of evolutionary leg-up — you’re a savant with an eidetic memory, or you’re the product of some cutting-edge scientific experiment carried out in a petri dish. Neither is true.

The fundamentals

Kevin Horsely, the author of Unlimited Memory, a Wall Street Journal Bestseller, explains the methodology behind memory training. “The fundamentals are the memory palace and the journey method,” he says. “Explore that, because it encompasses the key principles. You need a place for your memory. You can’t just throw it in and be mindless — that’s like throwing it into a library without a filing system. You need an image. Put the two together. If you can just grasp the fundamentals, you can learn pretty much any information and as much information as possible.”

Simonides of Ceos was a Greek lyric poet and recognised intellectual of the 6th century BC. After a fortunate escape from a collapsing building, Simonides realised he could visualise the room where the accident occurred and faultlessly recall the names of all attendees, giving birth to the idea that was later coined the memory palace.

Masters of mnemonic devices are often able to commit entire books to memory

Once a hallmark of intellectual sophistication, it has now faded into irrelevance. As the historical clock ticked over, the intellectual pursuit of practising mnemonics fell out of favour. The Gutenberg press revolution — as emancipating as it was — inadvertently pushed the kill-switch on the sanctity of memory practice, to such a degree that thinkers of that time were genuinely fearful of the impacts this may have on our memory.

Mind-boggling feats are chronicled in historical documents. Roman senators used mnemonic techniques to memorise whole speeches, the Athenian statesman Themistocles supposedly used the same technique to memorise the names of twenty thousand Athenians, and medieval scholars used it to memorise entire books. Now, the value placed on memory is less pronounced.

How it works

“You find something that is in your long-term memory, like a journey, like a room,” Horsely says. “Right now you can describe to me exactly what your room looks like. You can describe every single detail. Or if a robber came into your house and took everything out of your house, and the police found it, you would know exactly where to put each item once returned.

“It’s stored in your long-term memory, so now you can use this as a piece of paper in your mind and you then create imagery out of content that you want to learn, because every single word is really a picture drawn from letters. If you say the word ‘dog’, your brain doesn’t go ‘dog’, it sees a dog which you can picture, maybe a dog that’s personal to you. Then you take this information and place it in your long-term storage place, and you’re only placing information at one station at a time in your mind, so you’re not overwhelming your working memory because that’s only limited to 7% of your memory capacity.”

Untenable fallacy

Horsely explains: “[People] think that I and all the other memory guys are inherently super talented, but all we’re doing is using the memory palace all the time — with everything. It is super simple. The memory palace is simple but it’s not easy. This means that most people don’t take it to the level of mastery and they don’t realise just how effective it can be for all content they want to learn in life.”

Horsely wasn’t born with candescent intelligence but suffered from dyslexia. He struggled to read, and his conditions rendered him unable to remember short-term information with any assurance. The catalyst for change occurred post-official education, where Horsely took a keen interest in self-improvement and how the memory works, and actively trained his mind to overcome his biological shortcomings.  


The lack of prominence placed upon memory-based learning throughout education comes down to the damning reputation of memory. “Memory has a bad name because of reciting and parrot-fashion learning,” Horsely explains. “As soon as you say the word ‘memory’ to education they say, ‘Its not about memory. It’s about understanding,’ and so they immediately stop learning something because of the label and what they think it means — but it isn’t what they imagine it to be.”

There is an air of reluctance to adopt mnemonics across education. Basic mnemonics such as acronyms, acrostics and rhymes are used, but the full repertoire of mnemonics techniques are left largely untouched. The idea that gives life to the reluctance is that “they only encourage rote memorisation and do not help with higher-order skills, such as comprehension or the transfer of knowledge”.

“I would argue that any memorisation has limitations,” says Professor Jeffery Bakken. “At least with mnemonics, there is research to support that the information learned is maintained over time if the students actually learn the process and practice it for a short time.”

Prof Bakken is a proponent of mnemonics, having contributed to research assessing the effectiveness of the practice. “One study I was involved with taught inner-city students the states and capitals with and without mnemonics. A year later, the students could remember the states and capitals taught through mnemonics, but not the others. It works.”

He recalls an anecdote of how mnemonics accelerated his daughter’s learning. “When my daughter was in third grade she was required to learn the states and capitals, as were all of the third-graders. I had worked on developing mnemonics for the states and capitals as a graduate student. I used them with her, and she passed out of the test on the second week. Most of the other students took 10-14 weeks to learn them all.”

The difference in speed with which the states and capitals were learned with and without mnemonics is staggering. Little imagination is necessary to think of all the time and energy that could be saved in other areas, and the additional information that could be learned with that regained time.

The effectiveness of the use of these strategies is well documented

Prof Bakken wants to play on the strengths of mnemonics and introduce the practice not as an overarching panacea but as a useful aid that teachers can pick-and-choose when to apply. “Mnemonic strategies should not be used for everything. They should only be applied in certain scenarios learning certain content.”

He deduced in his paper, “The effectiveness of the use of these strategies is well documented. The use of mnemonic strategies by students, including secondary and college level, shows that the implementation of these strategies helps them remember [two] to [three] times more factual information, helps them recall information over delayed recall periods, and they report that they enjoy using them over more traditional approaches.”

Multi-sensory attachments

Memorising works best when there are multi-sensory attachments to the information you’re attempting to store. Allowing your imagination to take over is crucial. Personalising the information and making it interesting to you opens up emotional gateways, making the information harder to forget. Illustrating these images provides people with a source of entertainment as they unbind their  creative restraints, and allows their minds to become silly. 

“Sensory cues are very important,” Bakken explains. “For regular memorisation, there is no connection to what the person is remembering. In most cases, it is just a repetitive action of going over the word and term over and over again. After the test, for example, students forget the information. Visual and auditory cues help the person put a connection to the word and definition that makes it more meaningful and easier to remember.”

This de-emphasis on memory has conditioned society in such a way that a large percentage of the populace is now incapable of remembering basic things like where they have parked their car, with UK drivers spending 35 million hours a year in search for their vehicle. Although you may never break world memory records or compete in the burgeoning world of competitive memory, you can, with conscious practice, posses the ability to turn an unreliable memory into a proficient one — which in this day and age is an increasingly rare attribute to behold.

4th March 2019