Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Creating Your Own Memorization Tricks

Better memory is something almost everybody wants. How much time have you spent recovering passwords to websites? Trying to remember what you were supposed to buy at the supermarket? Trying to remember phone numbers? Trying to remember where you put the damn keys? Trying to remember where you stashed the access code to your wireless connection?

If you do a survey of memorization tricks, you quickly find that they all rely on the same few sorts of strategies. One common strategy is to connect a picture with whatever you're trying to remember. Another is to connect an emotion. When you're trying to memorize more than one thing at the same time (such as a name plus a face, or several numbers in a sequence), combine multiple "lookup techniques" to make a story.

All of these strategies involve making connections between disparate object-types (e.g., associating an image with a number), in hopes of enlisting more than one part of your brain in memorizing whatever it is you're trying to memorize. Once you know that, it's fairly easy to make up your own memorization tricks.

The key is to take advantage of the fact that your brain stores information in different ways. One part of your brain is devoted to face recognition (and facial memory). Another part is devoted to emotional memory. We also have distinct ways of remembering shapes and imagery; sounds; vocabulary and language-based meanings; letters, numbers, or glyphs; mathematical relationships; kinesthetic experiences ("muscle memory"); and a bunch of other stuff I can't remember right now. (Bwa-ha-ha.)

The key is to tie two or more of these memory modalities together.

How many times have you been in a phone conversation where someone suddenly gives you a phone number when you're not ready to copy it down? I made up my own memory technique for that. I take the first portion of the phone number and memorize the visual image of it (the picture of it, as if it's a photo of the number projected on a wall). Then I recite the last portion of the phone number (either silently or out loud) repeatedly, like a mantra, until it's part of my mouth's muscle memory. I don't just "recite" the number in a monotone voice, I actually make it a sing-songy, semi-musical ditty, the way you often hear phone numbers sung in radio commercials.

I find that it's easy to hold a "photographic image" of a number in one part of my brain and a singy-songy spoken (or sung) number in another part of my brain, at the same time. Many math savants (people who can tell if a large number is prime, or who can multiply any two numbers in their head, etc.) report that they rely on techniques involving seeing the shapes of numbers. This is often useful when trying to memorize the "photo image" of a number. E.g., 413 is sharp and pointy on the left (it has the shape of the prow of a ship) but round like two buttocks on the right.

Sometimes I use a different technique for phone numbers. (This is going to sound ridiculous.) Suppose the number I want to memorize is 326-5918. This is a fairly difficult number to remember because no two digits are the same. First, quickly memorize the 326 part by rote. (If I suspect I'll forget the '326' part, I'll go a step further and try to find a mathematical crutch that will help me. In this case: 3 times 2 is 6.) For the 5918 part, I tell myself "I feel like I'm 59 years old, but I want to feel like I'm 18." Or I make up a fantastical little story: "When I'm 59 years old I'll meet someone who's 18." (Yeah, right.) If I'm on the phone with a customer service representative: "Holy crap, she must think I'm 59 years old, but she sounds like she's 18!"

I'm still bad with faces and names. The experts say to transform a facial feature into an object, then create a bizarre story about the object that's easy to remember. So for example, suppose you meet someone named Cory Zimmerman. You might make the (absurd) realization that the person's neck reminds you of an apple core (it looks Core-y). Then you might imagine that his zipper is down (Zipperman). A person with an apple core for a neck, with his zipper down, is laughable enough to remember. Arguably.

At any rate, now you know how to invent your own memory techniques. Take any two modalities of learning (muscle memory, image memory, math-relationships memory, etc.) and connect them together, then overlay with a story. The more absurd the story, the better. Remember that.