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Mainstream news sources love to take memory competition champions and try to extrapolate advice for the average person looking to remember stuff. They look into the study routines of these memory experts and try to find the strategies that make them successful. Then, they assume, a regular person using that memory strategy will show similar results.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Memory champions are not your average person. It’s not only that though. Memory challenges are not the daily challenges for an average person’s memory. Studying for class isn’t the same thing as taking memory challenge. Just because a strategy is efficient for memorizing a long list of cards or numbers, it doesn’t mean it’s efficient at remembering complex ideas for class.

There are some things to be learned from memory champions but after reading too many big news articles touting the wrong things to learn, I think it’s about time someone told the full story.

A Gifted Breed

Taking memory advice from a memory champion is kind of like taking basketball advice from a professional basketball player. Sure, it has some value. That being said, you need to be careful with it. Let’s say I asked the tallest person in professional basketball how to play good defense. I’d likely hear about how important it is to get rebounds and block your opponent’s shots. Considering I’m not even close to tall enough to compete in blocking shots and collecting rebounds, that advice is not only unproductive but counter-productive.

Memory champions are like the tall guy in basketball giving advice. They do not have to play with the same tools as you or I do. As you look into memory competitors you’ll find that they use a wide variety of different strategies to help remember things. That could mean any of a number of different things. That could mean there is no best strategy. It could mean there is a different best strategy for everyone.

Not all memory champions are particularly intelligent but I would hesitate to call any of the major competitors anything less than gifted in memory. Memory competitions are unbelievably challenging. While an average person may be able to try and compete, to win this competition requires more than raw skill (in the same way winning a basketball game versus pros requires more than just skills.) It’s why we don’t see 5 foot basketball pros.

Invested In Memory

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One of the most common pieces of advice I hear journalists extrapolate from memory champions is the Loci method. I’ve gone over my annoyance with the Loci method a number of times and this is one of its main causes.

The loci method, sometimes called the memory palace, is a strategy where you imagine you’re in a building going from room to room. In each room you imagine seeing weird things that represent the idea you’re trying to remember. Memory champions regularly use this strategy to win memory competitions. That does not mean it’s a smart strategy for the average person to use for studying.

The loci method is a pain in the ass for someone inexperienced with it. (Heck, it can be a pain in the ass for people with plenty of experience.) 99% of students that attempt to apply this strategy give up before they even come close to seeing results. That is understandable.

The loci method requires a ton of initial investment time. You need to practice it to get good at it. I would also argue that most of the memory champions use it because they’re gifted enough to use it effectively.

Perhaps there is a time and a place it would be efficient for students to use the loci method but I personally haven’t seen it. There are much easier and quicker methods for regular students to use on a daily basis.

Short Term Trickery

I can come up with a slew of good strategies designed to remember stuff for short periods of time. Most memory competitions focus on relatively short periods of time. That means the strategies used can end up being dramatically different.

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A student has weeks to study for tests. The information they study two weeks before the test needs to stick. The information they study a week before the test needs to stick. Heck, the information they study the night before the test needs to stick. A memory competitor generally only needs their information to stick for a short period of time. The day after a competition they can forget absolutely everything.

This is a fundamental difference between memory competition strategies and study strategies. While I recommend taking advantage of short term memory, most of studying comes down to getting information to stick in the long term memory. This focus on the long term memory changes the required steps.

This is more speculation than fact but from my experience there are a few specific differences.

The short term memory is better at remembering small amounts of information than the long term memory. That means, if you study 15 minutes before your test, you’ll remember more when it comes test time than if you studied the same stuff a week earlier. That being said, once you increase the amount of information you’re trying to remember dramatically (like memory champions do) you’re looking at a significantly harder task than trying to remember the information using a long term strategy.

Naturally, the distinction between short and long term memory is not as clear as I made it sound. The fundamental point to take away is that what they do isn’t what you need to do.

There are plenty of things to learn from memory champions. In fact, if you are highly disciplined and gifted then I’m willing to bet there are seriously powerful study strategies you can learn but these are not strategies that the average person should waste any of their time worrying about. You don’t need the fancy memory strategies of the latest memory champion to do well. In more cases than not, that strategy will be unnecessarily complex.

You have better things you can spend your time doing.

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2 thoughts on “What Memory Pros Can’t Teach You About Studying

  • March 1, 2016 at 7:16 am

    i didn’t think so? i think long term is something you’re apt to reemmber for at least a few months, right? this password i changed in nov i’m not sure what qualifies perhaps it’s short long term memory

  • December 15, 2015 at 6:15 am

    Thank you for explaining this. It’s easy to compare yourself to those people with amazing memory and feel depressed – even more after trying out their tricks and finding out that they don’t work for you at all. The loci method sounds amazing, but it’s extremely tricky to come up with a mental image that helps you memorize a particular information.


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