Has anyone ever given you a manual for using your memory?
Unless they linked you to this post, I suspect that they haven’t.
Memory can be an amazing tool in life. It can improve your grades. It can improve your confidence. It can gain you respect. Overall, memory is just plain old awesome. It even does all this for you without a user’s manual.
Most of memory is automatic. You may read something and remember it. You may just repeat something a couple times to get it to stick. Despite that, sometimes it doesn’t seem to be so automatic. Half way through your tests you may run into this realization the hard way.
Sometimes your memory can use a little help. This article is the ultimate guide to using your memory. It goes over all the strategies you should have been taught in school. It’s massive but it can change the way you think and study for the rest of your life.
It can make remembering stuff:
- Less stressful
- And a whole lot faster!
Are you interested in getting all the strategies? Well… buckle in because this is going to be a fun ride.
By the way, if you want to fully appreciate this article then you should probably also read Memory Investment Mastery. It’s an advanced concepts article that you can access in our members only area. So… do you want to improve your grades? Then take the next step and join the community.
The Picture Superiority Effect And How To Memorize Anything
People remember images better than words. This is hardly up for debate as of this point. There have been studies on this subject for over 50 years that point in this direction.
I should add that this doesn’t even come down to learning styles. Learning styles is a rather dubious science in itself (you know, kinesthetic, visual, and auditory stimuli, supposedly, get remembered differently for different people). While there may be some lessons to be learned from it, this is a concept that’s only somewhat related and more credible based on decades of results.
If you see an apple, you’re more likely to remember the apple than if you were to hear about it, or read it, or feel it.
The studies consistently show that images absolutely crush every other aspect of a person’s memory. Think about it from this perspective:
An Evolutionary Look
I know… I’m not a big fan of looking at evolutionary perspectives as a super scientific proof of a point because, quite frankly, a smooth sophist can make just about anything sound good with these arguments. Don’t take this as proof because it’s not. It’s just to help illustrate the idea better.
Imagine a cavewoman (because… why not) trying to remember something. She wouldn’t have words to hold onto her memories. She wouldn’t even understand the idea of words. For thousands of years, humans lived in this state of not understanding words. The brain became well-adapted to survival using images alone.
People could imagine images. People could interpret visual stimuli (like that tiger chasing them.) They could catch onto visual patterns. They just couldn’t encode it into the same kind of standardized words as we could today.
If our cavewoman saw a berry on a tree, she would be forced to search through her visual memory for previous occasions when she chowed down on them. Did they make her sick? Did they taste nasty? Did they kill someone she gave them too? The brain had to be good at understanding information in this way.
Have you ever had a dream where you were trying to read something? Everything in your dream may visually fool you. It can all make some sense to you. Sure, you might be flying but it looks almost exactly how you’d expect it to look if you were flying. When you, on the other hand, do something as mundane as reading, you might be surprised.
When most people end up reading in a dream they end up with letters changing erratically. Maybe words you saw before will disappear in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. In fact, this is one of the ways lucid dreamers (people that are able to realize they’re dreaming in their dream) are taught to distinguish a dream from reality. This may have something to do with the brain’s limited adaptation to reading in relation to most visual stimuli.
Of course, thinking about how a cavewoman lived may help make the point but, let’s face it, 95% of the average person’s day still has nothing to do with reading. The brain has no good reason to adapt to reading as well as it needs to see.
Then Why Don’t I Remember….
At this point in the conversation, it would make sense for you to be wondering why your visual memory has seemed to have been on the fritz for all these years.
If visual memory is so great, how come you can’t remember all these random images that you see through the day. Maybe you leave your textbook somewhere that you can’t find it. Why don’t you just see the image of you dropping off your textbook to instantly know where it is?
Sometimes you may be able to do this but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work.
When your visual memory isn’t working, it’s probably because it was never turned on in the first place. When you’re going through your daily life, your memory is normally not of any importance. You don’t need to remember what you had for breakfast 3 weeks ago anymore. There is no reason to waste any brainspace trying to store the memory.
The average person doesn’t remember because they don’t stop to actually try and get themselves to remember. They just go about their day through their usual routines and hope that where they leave their textbook (or their phone or their wallet) will just happen to be the right place. When it’s not, they end up struggling to remember. They never stop to look and realize the importance of these things.
If, every time you put something down in an unusual place you spent a fraction of a second looking at where you were putting it down, you would remember it without a hitch. If you found some way to convince their brain that the place you were dropping your stuff was novel or vital for survival, your brain would remember it.
Why This Matters To You
If you know that you can more easily remember images then you can improve your memory by turning word stimuli into images.
If you’re required to remember an apple, you don’t want to just remember the word apple. You don’t want to just think of that word and end it there. Instead, you want to see an apple. If you can’t literally look at the apple then you want to get your mind to imagine that apple as vividly as possible.
Studies suggest that the human brain can’t even distinguish the difference between something that is vividly imagined and something that is seen. If you can imagine something vividly enough, your brain will give that image the same priority as it gives every other image in your life. You will probably remember it. No… not after the 30th time you’ve heard it. Usually, after the first couple times you vividly see it. In fact, you could probably remember it days later with no review.
To help sink in that point: when someone first taught me this strategy (and one more in particularly) I memorized a list of 10 items in about 5 minutes. To this day, I still remember that initial list of ten items. I’ll be teaching that strategy in the next part of this article.
Learning to habitually create images with the words you read is one of the most powerful ways to improve (or better yet, utilize) your memory.
It’s not only about memorizing everything though. Make sure you read our free advanced article over here.
How To Remember Words Better Than Pictures
In a previous section, I discussed one of the most important observations when it comes to your memory and how to study.
The average person is dramatically better at remembering images than they are at remembering words. This doesn’t depend on learning styles or anything like that. It’s one of the more consistent observations scientists have made.
There may be cases for learning through other methods and there is value to learning through multiple stimuli but images are easier to remember.
In the late 1800’s an extraordinary chess player named “Harry Pillsbury” was given a challenge that 95% of the population couldn’t complete in its least challenging form. He completed it in one of the most extraordinary ways possible. He was well known for his memory and had a reputation for showing it off. In his chess career he was known to play from memory alone. He could track each and every piece on the chessboard in his mind while still playing a top notch game of chess.
This challenge that Harry Pillsbury completed was related to his memory. He was challenged to remember a list of 30 different words after being told the words only a single time. Not only did he do that but he was able to repeat that list backwards and forwards. He even remembered the list the following day.
Now, imagine I asked you to remember a list of words after being told them only a single time.
If I said to remember, cucumber, bicycle, dog, rainbow, training, pool, foolish, whips, rags, flag and that’s only 10 words. Having read those words a single time, could you look away and recite all of them? Almost anyone that’s practiced improving their memory to any extent would look at that like a good challenge. That isn’t the kind of list that Harry Pillsbury remembered, though.
He was challenged to remember a list of words like plasmodium, freiheit, oomisillecootsi, and Manyinzama. Yes… those were all directly off the list of words he was asked to remember after hearing them only a single time.
If you’re not used to practicing with your memory then you might as well consider this an impossible feat. Statistically speaking, it might as well be. It’s an insanely difficult challenge. Once you know a little about how to use images in your memory and learn how to remember those words better than traditional images, you might start to see how it’s possible. (It’s still quite insane but it starts to make a little more sense when you dig in.)
The First List
Before delving into how to turn that second impossible list into a memorable list of words, let’s start with a slightly easier task. I’m going to go over how to remember those first 5 words I used as an example (in the list of 10.) This is going to utilize another important method I’ll go over in more detail through a later article. For now, focus on creating strong images in your mind.
You’re going to want to imagine the images I describe in as much detail as you can for a few seconds. In the future, you’ll be able to remember these images in virtually an instant of focus but for now, focus on creating a good image in your brain. (I used to struggle with visualizing good images in my head. I found focusing on colors and practicing helped immensely.)
Feel free to read this multiple times if you think it will help but if you’re curious, try only reading through it a single time to see if you got the information to stick quickly. (I’m going to work under the assumption you already forgot the first 5 words I mentioned earlier because, odds are, you did.)
Imagine a massive cucumber with a face sitting right next to you right now. But don’t worry because you can see a big cucumber smile on its face.
Make sure you’re really forcing yourself to picture it. If you truly focus on the image then you’ll probably remember it.
Here’s the list for reference: cucumber, bicycle, dog, rainbow, training.
But notice… that the cucumber isn’t sitting on a chair, it’s sitting on a big bicycle. You might naturally be wondering how a cucumber ever learned to ride a bike. A cucumber doesn’t even have legs to reach the pedals.
Then you notice the cucumber starts to grow a couple hairy dog legs. Slowly the cucumber completely turns into a dog. Now the dog is pointing out the window barking at you to look out it.
That’s when you look out the window and see an upside down rainbow (like a U.) How does a rainbow get upside down? It doesn’t make sense to you until you see the ends of the rainbow going slowly towards the ground.
In each of the rainbows ends it’s holding a massive bar and on the sides you see huge weights. Of course… the rainbow is training to get stronger. Being a rainbow isn’t easy when you’re always in the pushup position. You need strong arms.
Notice how that last one is a particularly tricky one. It’s easy to picture a noun like dog. It’s not quite as easy to picture training.
Do you remember the list? If you really focused on seeing the images as you read through the list, odds are, you do. This is a relatively short example but continue this story and see if you can remember the whole list (cucumber, bicycle, dog, rainbow, training, pool, foolish, whips, rags, flag.)
By creating silly and memorable images you make it easier to remember than if you’d actually seen the images. You may have seen hundreds of dogs in your life but you probably haven’t seen too many dogs evolving from massive cucumbers or riding a bicycle. That makes them notable references.
It’s Not Always That Easy
Now imagine I asked you to remember the word “Manyinzama.”
Now try picturing one of whatever the heck that might be… having any luck. If so then consider yourself among the lucky few.
When you don’t know what something you need to remember looks like, you need to get creative and turn the word into something that you can remember. This can turn hard to imagine concepts into relatively easy ideas to remember. For the word “manyinzama,” you might imagine “many” with “insomnia.” Perhaps you could think “many” “in(z)” spanish word for “he/she loves” (ama.)
These ideas look like stretches but the funny thing is, even with that, they’re still super effective at remembering what you need to remember. Most of what people need in finding memories isn’t a full memory. Memory naturally does that pretty darn well. What most people need is a trigger for remembering it. Once the trigger is pulled, you don’t need to know the exact mechanism that’s happening, it just sort of happens.
Since this is such as strange and silly process it actually becomes more memorable. If you were to just imagine a dog and a bicycle riding by the dog, you couldn’t remember it as easily as a dog riding the bicycle. If you were to imagine many people with insomnia while you were trying to remember “insomnia epidemic” or something, it would be less effective. The distance from the final goal only helps you find it when you need it.
Your logic can actually get in the way when you’re trying to make stronger memories. I’m going to explain that more in the next section.
Why Your Logic Gets In The Way
In the previous two parts of this article, I went over two important things to understand before this point.
First of all, people remember images dramatically better than they remember words. This doesn’t have to do with learning styles and has been shown consistently in the experiments.
There is one thing that you hopefully noticed in the example I gave. I discussed it briefly but it’s one of the most powerful strategies you have to make your images almost completely unforgettable. The images used in the example were downright silly. They weren’t realistic. In fact, they were hardly at all related to the subject matter being discussed. (Cucumbers aren’t massive and can’t ride bicycles.)
This is important.
When you’re trying to remember something, it’s usually best to put the logic of the situation to the side. Remembering the logical procedure of what happens is good but it’s dramatically easier to remember a completely ridiculous story describing that same information.
Too Many References
Cucumbers are not memorable.
Dogs are not memorable.
They’re not memorable because they’re so damn common.
If you’re anything like me you’ve probably seen thousands of dogs in your life. You’ve probably eaten a few cucumbers in your time too. If I asked you to remember a cucumber then you’d be hard pressed to remember the distinct qualities of any particular cucumber. You’d probably only end up remember some strange average of cucumbers you’ve eaten over your entire life. You have too many cucumber references to remember any single distinctive cucumber (unless, of course, you happened to eat a really bad cucumber. Then you’d be able to describe it in sickening detail.)
When you’re trying to remember something common, you need to find a way to distinguish that common and boring thing into something that’s actually unique and worth remembering. This isn’t a problem when you’re actually trying to remember something unique. You won’t accidentally mix up an Ichthyosaur with something else. You probably have too few reference points to make that mistake.
When you’re turning complex things into more simple concepts this problem becomes a big one. If you were looking to remember the dogmatic nature of Hitler’s regime you could imagine Hitler petting a dog. That would hint your brain towards dogmatic and Hitler’s regime. It would probably work. But it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as you imagining a dog on a podium with a hitler-stache giving a speech.
Given the choice between remembering something logical or illogical and kind of quacky, you want to go for the illogical and quacky one.
Logic has references. Illogical has significantly fewer.
Is Your Logic Getting In The Way?
One of the most common problems people suffer from while trying to implement an image based memory strategy is the natural tendency to turn everything into something logical.
When you’re trying to quickly create landmark images for your memory, your brain is going to automatically push towards the logical. Your brain is going to want the story to make sense. It’s going to push for logical because logical is easier. The easier it is for you to imagine your image, the less likely you’re going to be able to remember that image when you need to find it in the future.
I know it’s tempting to rush through the image creation process. This is particularly true at first. It’s not easy to consistently come up with original crazy images to help you remember something. When you only have so long to study, this becomes an even more difficult challenge. Since you’re looking to move fast, you’re going to always have to be fighting to make less sense to yourself.
Remembering a cucumber getting eaten by a dog while a bicycle rides by underneath a rainbow with a guy training underneath it is a logical scenario. Sure… it may be coincidental and that would help but it’s relatively possible. Your brain is going to want to tell that kind of a story. Seeing massive cucumbers transform into bike riding dogs is impossible. Odds are, you have very few references of this happening. This is the kind of story that requires actual focus to produce.
Do not let your logic become an excuse for you to become lazy.
Think about it this way. Logic isn’t what you understand. It’s what you derive.
People Are Not Logical
People are really bad at being logical. Sure… your brain makes an effort at it but it’s sometimes not very good at it. There are plenty of very controversial conclusions reached by science. I suspect this is one of the least controversial.
If people hear a loud noise, they jump. If people see something different they become cautious. If people have had bad experiences with something, they get particularly hesitant around similar experiences. People like not losing more than they like gaining. There are all kinds of these heuristics that the human brain uses to solve problems. Illogical is natural. Logic is the unnatural way of looking at things.
Don’t worry so much about logic while you’re storing more information. It helps to be illogical when you’re trying to store the information. Once you have that information stored you can start to worry about deriving the logic out of it. It’s dramatically easier to understand once you’ve been exposed to all the facts anyway.
Don’t fight this nature. Learn to embrace it where it can help you. By thinking absurd things you can make your brain remember better. By thinking typically you’ll end up just remembering typically.
This can be a challenge. That’s part of the benefit of this process. The more you practice these processes, the more natural they become. As you get better and better at it, you’ll notice your brain automatically pushing towards creative thinking on subjects you don’t quite understand yet. This leads to more questions and a deeper understanding faster.
There is one more part of this that’s worth considering. The final part of this article is all about how to lock information in your memory for the long term.
How To Lock Information In Your Memory
So you want to know how to lock information in your memory?
Well… it’s actually pretty simple. Just chain it up!
Okay… I know that sounds silly but it actually makes a lot of sense.
The basic strategy behind this concept has been around for decades. It’s a way to take information that you’re trying to remember and make it nearly impossible to forget. This strategy is designed to make it so absolutely every memory that you’re trying to keep gets intricately linked to other information you’re trying to remember. This strategy makes it so, if you can remember only a single piece of information, it becomes almost impossible to forget the later things you’re trying to remember.
This is the kind of strategy that can turn a student with a mediocre memory into a student that virtually never misses an answer that they should have got. Haven’t you ever known that you knew something but just couldn’t find it during the test? That’s what this strategy is so good at preventing.
Memory experts have been discussing this memory linking method for decades now. It’s been something done in some way or another for thousands of years. It’s a strategy that’s not too hard to learn but it can dramatically change the way you study. Tired of the suspense?
The Linking Method
Using the linking method is like chaining all of the information you’re studying together.
The hard part of studying for most students isn’t getting some of the information to stick in their memory. The hard part is trying to find the memories after you’re all finished with your studying. If you link the information you’re studying together then you don’t need to remember separate pieces of information. All you need to remember is the first piece. Then you can follow the chain right along to the next thing you’re trying to remember.
The first thing you remember makes you remember the second thing you want to remember. The second thing makes you remember the third. It can go on and on until it becomes nearly impossible to forget any particular link.
So… how do you use the linking method?
Happen to remember the list from a few minutes ago? If you don’t then you probably never imagined it too clearly because after the linking method I used on it, it would be difficult to forget. If you still can’t quite remember it start with the first word and see if you can remember the rest.
Don’t read below this until you try and remember:
I didn’t look back to review those words. Having gone through the memory exercise, they’ve just happened to stick with me. Part of the reason they stuck with me so well is because I used this linking strategy in my example.
I linked cucumber to the bicycle by imagining a giant cucumber riding a bicycle. (You probably will regret if you don’t go back and read that section now!) I linked the bicycle to the dog by having the cucumber turn into a dog. (Notice that I also linked the dog to the cucumber with that step.) By remembering cucumber I could almost instantly recall the bike and the dog.
Do you remember how the next links came out?
This is how you use the linking method.
You find different ways to create images including link after link of what you’re trying to remember. If you’re remembering words then you just create images that can remind you of those words. You can use this to connect abstract concepts that aren’t easy to imagine.
If you’re trying to link Newton to Gravity in your mind, you mind think of a giant Godzilla sized “newt on” the city streets. The newt might notice a t shirt for sale and pick it up with it’s massive fingers. You know, it just “grabs a tee.” Is this absolutely ridiculous? That’s exactly why you’ll have trouble forgetting it.
You can even use this with more obscure concepts that you don’t understand.
Imagine you need to remember “Deep Limbic System” and “Basal Ganglia.” You don’t even have to know what these are to remember them. You could imagine your “limb” reaching “deep” into the “stem” of a flower (trying not to break it, of course.) Maybe then you’re able to carefully pluck the flower from the ground with your arm still in the stem and the stem unbroken. You look up and see the gang of men with flower tattoos hollering all excitedly because you’re their new “big ol’ gang leada’.”
Does that sound ridiculous again? That’s the point. As long as the images are personally memorable for you, they will help you remember the words. The links between those images and the words make are just adding more and more connections between what you know and what you want to remember. That makes them nearly impossible to forget.
This strategy can be taken a step farther when you start to get good at it.
This strategy alone can get you most of the way. Now might be a good time to pop into the members only area to verify you understand everything you need to know. You can read Memory Investment Mastery to optimize your results.
As you’re trying to get all your information linked to previous and future information, you can keep the story consistent and add multiple links to every single piece of information you use to remember. If you’re able to link a single piece of information to multiple other pieces of information, you add more links to that first piece of information. This turns this linking strategy into more of a web.
A web is how most information is naturally remembered.
By exposing yourself to the hundreds of different links a piece of information has to the real world, your brain naturally starts to remember it. Using this webbing strategy is kind of like creating an artificial version of a typical memory.
When you remember the bicycle in your list you’ll instantly be able to remember the dog and the cucumber. That’s the two natural links you’d expect with any chain of information you create. If you then took that dog riding a bicycle and had him ride in the upside down rainbow like a half pipe (and, of course, creating a vivid image of this in your mind,) you’d end up webbing a huge chunk of the information together.
If you can remember the halfpipe rainbow you’d remember it’s two natural links from the example used in the previous section. Those links are the squeezing of the upside down rainbows arms down as they lowered a weight like a bench press, and you’d remember the dog pointing the rainbow out to you. Then, with the dog going outside and riding the bike up and down the halfpipe rainbow you’d be linking the bike to the rainbow and the training and reinforcing the link between the dog and the rainbow. In short, it tangles all of those linking memories into more of a web. Imagine the dog turning into a cucumber on the halfpipe and you’ll virtually never forget that image.
The consequences of learning this can make virtually anything you want to remember nearly completely impossible to forget.
Using this you can get A’s in a huge percentage of your classes with relatively little effort. If you choose to invest your time in this, memory is never going to be your weak link while studying (even in the most memory focused classes.)
Do you have any strategies for improving your memory? Be sure to share your ideas in the comments below.
Oh… and don’t tell me you didn’t read Memory Investment Mastery yet? Really… You care about optimizing your grades, right? Well… get over there!
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Aaron Richardson took his grades from fighting F’s to Easy A’s. In the process, he read over 300 books on personal development. Today he’s founded 2 blogs on studying including Smart Student Secrets. He’s written 3 books on the subject. His work has been featured on some of the biggest news, psychology, and student sites on the internet.