For the longest time, I’ve been fascinated by people who can store vast amounts of information and accurately recall it. For example, some people can remember the order a deck of cards was shuffled in, or many of pi’s decimal values. To my surprise, incredible memory is something that can be learned over time.
First, we have to recognize that the human brain works entirely differently than a computer. Computers store things in bits order agnostically locked into a medium, whereas the brain seems to care how we store things. Unlike a computer, we’re not so great when it comes to remembering ordered sequences, such as:
9 5 3 2 5 5 6 3 1 8 3 4 5 6 3 2 3 4 5 2
Most people would have a hard time remembering that. The reason is not the information itself, but how its serialized in the brain. Normally, the standard approach is to repetitively read over the digits until enough (or all) of them is retained. This may work for the above 20 digits, but for 52 cards, it gets troublesome. So how is it done?
It turns out, the brain is incredibly efficient at storing related/linked data. For example, I can probably recall most of Eminem’s Lose Yourself song. The reason is that the lyrics are tied to a beat, and the more relations we add, the easier it is for our brain to hold connections (maybe the lyrics appeal to your past memories). Therefore, if you want to remember something, you have to remember it in relation to something else (or in relation to many things). It helps if such relations are things you know intimately.
Enter the Memory Palace and the Method of Loci. Picture something you know extremely well, such as your home or workplace. The idea is to take the information and store it visually in such a place. You want to be able to navigate it like a story, not just remember it. Additionally, it helps if the story you make up is crazy. It turns out the brain remembers oddities much better than normalities.
Let’s unravel this with an example. Here are 6 unrelated items:
- Visa Card
Now, you can memorize these by reading them over and over again – but you’ll likely forget them in an hour or so (and you’ll definitely forget them tomorrow). However, we can strengthen our brains ability to remember them by using the above methods.
Imagine you walk into your home, and there is a giant snake there to greet you! It lunges at you, hissing, and just before it bites you, you dodge it! Exhausted from your ‘Neo-like’ escape and in need of energy, you smell the scent of coffee. Amazingly, you find a cup of it sitting on the floor by your shoes. Relieved, you pick it up and drink it. As you’re drinking the coffee, you hear a loud car engine – only to be throw back as a red Ferrari crashes through your wall! You can see oil leaking from the car all over the floor. Shocked by this, grab a pencil and put it between your fingers to write down what had happened. You can hear the graphite across the paper. As you walk up to your room afterwards, you find a gorilla there, buying something from Amazon using your credit card! He’s buying tons of bananas, and you’re paying for it! So your take it from him really quickly and run out of the room in terror!
Now then, after reading that once of twice – try to recall the 6 items in the list. You’ll find it is much, much easier. The more descriptive you are (with sights, and scents, and feelings), the more easily your brain will remember the information. A snake hisses, which is something you’re already familiar with. The scent of coffee is also something you’re already familiar with, along with what a car crashing into a wall looks like! It sounds silly, but this is exactly how people remember enormous amounts of data. They practice this relational construction to the point of being exceptionally well at it. Of course, there are shortcuts as well.
This sentence contains 32 characters.
32 values is hard to remember! Serialize them into words however, and all of a sudden becomes very easy. So remember, it’s not about the information, it’s how we decide to store it. I found this shocking, and a true insight into how brains function.
Wait, what was I talking about again?
Oh right… a giant snake, a coffee, a pencil, a Ferrari, a gorilla and a credit card.
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