Do you have a memory like a sieve? I know I do – it’s one of the reasons I save everything into Evernote to search for later, and have a desk covered with Post-it notes to myself.
People who can remember names, lists, and facts without all these aids always impress me. It got me wondering: should I resign myself to relying on scraps of paper forever? Or are there ways I can improve my memory naturally?
There are hundreds of tips and tricks for improving your memory, but what surprised me was the common thread that runs through them all: Humans are way better at remembering images than ideas.
Rather than trying to cram strings of words and abstract thoughts into your head, find a way to transform them into attention-grabbing images that will more easily stick in your brain.
These are my four favorite mnemonic devices that use this concept.
1. Map memories and reminders along a familiar route
The idea of creating a mind palace to aid your memory has been around since the Greeks. It’s a way of solidifying memories and facts into visual images, then creating a path to them that you can trace over and over again.
Along with filing away important things for later, you can also use a mind palace to store lists of things you need to remember now. Pick a place to “put” reminders, like the front porch of your mind palace. For example, if you need to remember to schedule a dentist appointment for next week, you may visualize a tooth fairy holding an alarm clock standing on the front porch. Then get in the habit of “glancing” at your front porch from time to time to see if any reminder images are waiting for you there.
Another way to do this is to replace the house with a route that’s familiar to you, like a walking trail or the path through your neighborhood.
2. Create story-based associations
We remember concepts better when we hear them in a story – that’s why the best speakers will engage their audiences with anecdotes, rather than piling on facts. When we create story anecdotes around a piece of knowledge, we’re much more likely to remember it. In this piece for Fast Company, Shiv Gaglani writes about how an anecdote about Lance Armstrong helped him remember side-effects of certain medicines when he was in med school.
In the article, Gaglani mentions a cognitive experiment known as the Baker-baker paradox. Basically, researchers showed two groups a picture of a man. One group was told the man’s last name was “Baker,” but the other group were told he was a baker. The second group was significantly more likely to remember “baker” than the first group.
“So why the difference?” writes Gaglani. “The answer: Associations are powerful memory hooks. When you are told someone is a baker you may begin thinking about the bakery nearby and your favorite baked goods, which then provides more mental links back to the original image-word memory. It’s like trying to catch a whale (I’m told): The bigger the schema of associations, the bigger the net.”
3. Use images to remember names and other info
When I worked as a waitress, I rarely wrote down my tables’ orders. Instead, I used a visual system to remember who wanted what: I would visualize plates of burgers, mahi mahi tacos, and curried schnitzel popping up above each person’s head as they ordered. It didn’t work on the busiest days, but on normal days I could easily remember three or four tables’ worth of orders at a time.
It worked because I wasn’t trying to remember a random string of words, I was remembering a vivid series of pre-defined pictures, each associated with a specific place (table 6, seat 2).
Like we saw in the Baker-baker paradox above, you can use images to help you remember people’s names. If you meet a Michael, an image of a basketball may pop up above his head. An Elizabeth might get a crown, Maria might get a blue shawl, and you might picture Ben with a pocket full of $100 bills.
Over time you can develop a shorthand of mnemonic images for many common names.
4. Remember lists with rhymes
The basic idea of the number-rhyme mnemonic is that if you want to remember a list of items, you link an image of that item to the image that matches a number.
The rhyming scheme recommended by MindTools.com is: 1=Bun, 2=Shoe, 3=Tree, 4=Paw, 5=Hive, 6=Bricks, 7=Heaven, 8=Gate, 9=Line, 10=Hen.
To remember a list of anything from your groceries to the Presidents of the United States in order, create an image that connects the thing you’re trying to remember with the image of the number. For example, if you’re trying to remember that you need to pick up carrots, coffee, and lentils, you might visualize:
1 – a bun with a carrot sticking out the top
2 – a shoe filled with steaming coffee
3 – a tree that rains down lentils every time the wind blows
Honestly, I’ll probably stick to Evernote for my grocery list – I just hate having to go back for forgotten items! But I’ve been trying some of the others out. Have you tried any of these mnemonic devices? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!