That’s a bold claim. And it is entirely true. Not semantically; not “technically.” But truly, quantifiably, actually 14,300% more powerful.
First I’m going to explain that number. Then, I’ll show you the technique. Then I’m going to explain why it works. (Yes, you can use this technique even if you don’t know why it works).
There is no shortage of studies on memory. And those studies show that the average person is able to hold only seven items in their short-term memory. If someone were to rattle off a list of 5 items, you’d repeat it to yourself a couple of times and be able to recall it very accurately within the next 20-30 minutes without writing it down. Bump that number up to 7, and 50 percent of people will begin missing items. Bump it up to 10, and retention actually gets worse.
If you could accurately recall 14 items… that would be a 100% improvement over the average person’s seven. What I’m about to show you will give you the ability to memorize and recall 1000 things instantly in your short-term memory AND cement them into long-term memory as well. Objects, facts, images… anything you see, hear or read. Oh, and the very process it is fun and entertaining to do.
Let’s say you are reading a book that has 20 chapters–something you will be tested on for school or work– and as you are reading you instantly commit the ten most important facts or concepts in each chapter to memory. You put the book down. That night, while taking a shower, you mentally review the ten essential bits of info from each chapter (while the book is safe and dry in another room). The entire review takes you three minutes.
If you can do that, I think it’s safe to say you have learned the material, wouldn’t you? 20 chapters times 10 memorized items is only 200 items. When you have the ability to memorize and instantly access 1000 items, that means you can do the same thing with four more books. If, after just one reading, someone could recite or write down on command the 1000 most important points from the 5 best books on a subject…you’d consider that person fairly knowledgeable, wouldn’t you?
By the end of this article, you will have the ability to do just that.
What if it wasn’t a book? What if it was a lecture, or a business meeting? Would the ability to listen, and then recall, the 25, or 100, or 500, or 1000 most important points covered come in handy? You don’t take a single note, and yet can easily talk about everything that was said… would that get you noticed? Would it make your job easier?
Here’s a warning:
If you are an adult who takes himself or herself too seriously, you’re going to feel kind of goofy. You won’t be doing anything that looks stupid to anyone outside your own head… to them, you’ll simply astound them with amazing feats of mental prowess. But a lot of people give the voices inside their head way too much import. Those people will find this uncomfortable.
If you’re NOT one of those people… if you have a sense of humor… if you actually like to have fun, and want to pick up a valuable skill, get ready… not only are you about to pick up a valuable skill, but you’re going to make life a lot more interesting.
PREPARATION: The Hook List
The first thing we need is a simple way to remember a list of items on command. A place to hold the things we want to remember. I like the numbers 1-10. Problem is, numbers are abstract concepts, and the brain finds abstract concepts difficult to hold on to. So, we need to take those abstract concepts and make them into something more concrete.
We’re going to create a clear, unique image in our mind to represent each of the numbers, based roughly on their shapes.
3. Mountains (turn the 3 on its side)
9. Golf Club
10. Bat and Ball
It is important here to envision a clear, distinct, unique realistic (as in, not cartoony) image. You can’t simply think to yourself “Okay, the number nine looks like a golf club.” You have to see a specific golf club in your mind.
For our purposes here, these images are now the numbers 1-10. These images will serve as hooks to “hang” the things we want to memorize on.
The Fundamental Technique #1: A,B.S.U.R.D. Associations.
Now, in order to memorize a list of (to keep it simple) ten objects, you have to create an absurd association between the image for your number, and the object you want to recall later. Absurdity is the key here. The absurd is memorable. If it is a normal, logical, expected relationship, it will be easily forgotten. It is the things that stand out that are memorable. So you have to make it stand out. You must make it A.B.S.U.R.D. Your link between the two words should be two or more of the following:
Big (No, I mean REALLY big)
Dumb or Dangerous.
Let’s say the first item on your list was to pick up balloons for a party. Your image representing the number 1 is an arrow. The simple association between the two would be popping a balloon with an arrow. Which isn’t a terrible choice… it’s active. You see and hear it pop, so it is sensory-rich. It’s something that is easy to envision concretely.
But I think we can do better. Maybe you shoot a single arrow and it zigzags through a room full of kids popping each child’s balloon. Or maybe you’re taking aim at a full-size balloon-animal deer. Or maybe you try to pop a balloon with an arrow, but it won’t pop… and it gets angry, sprouts arms and breaks the arrow.
Absurd. But memorable.
Now, the cool thing about this is you can create associations like this much faster than I can write about them or you can read about them. The brain thinks in images, and does so at nearly the speed of light. It doesn’t have to be beautiful or perfect or “right.” It just has to be absurd enough to be memorable. But if it happens to make you smile or laugh, it’s perfect.
Maybe item two on your list is to pick up tickets for the basketball game. (Swan + Basketball) x Absurd = ? You dribble a swan down the basketball court (the swan, of course is not happy about it), shoot for three and nothing but net!
Now you’d call up the image of the next number (3), which is mountain, and link that to the next item to be remembered. And so on and so forth.
You move quickly down your list creating clear, concrete, absurd images that link each item you want to remember to a number on your list. Once you’ve created your absurd associations between the number-shape images and the things you want to remember, you want to review your list immediately to make sure your association for each item is absurd enough (hint: if you can’t remember an item, it’s not). This review shouldn’t take more than a couple of seconds.
Arrow = ?
Swan = ?
Mountains = ?
Now you’re not just trying to hold items in your short-term memory by brute force. You have linked them to items you can recall at will (the numbers 1-10). Your number-shape images serve as hooks for you to hang the new information on. And if your image is absurd or funny or unexpected enough, forgetting it quickly will actually be difficult.
“But wait,” you say. That is ten items. 10 is only 143% of 7, not 14,300% of 7.
And you’re right. You’re very astute. I like that.
Fundamental Technique #2: Link Chains
But your 10-item list is actually a 50-item list. Because once you have linked an item to your first number shape, you can link another image to that item. So you linked arrow to balloon. If the next item on your list were to go to the bank and deposit your paycheck… you would simply link Balloon and Bank. You walk up to the teller, open your wallet, and pull out a big bunch of inflated balloons, and hand them to the teller.
Again, it’s goofy. It’s kinda dumb. It doesn’t make sense (how in the heck are you pulling a big bunch of fully inflated balloons out of your wallet???). But it IS a memorable image.
Now, you’d associate bank with the next item on your list. As long as your associations are absurd, you can easily link 5 items on each “hook” of your number-shape list, making a chain of linked associations. When you think of Arrow, you’ll automatically think of balloons. Thinking of balloons with automatically remind you of bank, and so on.
“Fine,” you say. “But 50, as impressive as it might be, is still only 715%. We are still a bit short.”
True. But your 50 item list is actually a 500-item list.
Fundamental Technique #3: List Modifiers
Do you know the colors of the rainbow? Maybe you learned them with the acronym Roy G. Biv, or Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Many people don’t realize this, but “Indigo” was thrown in just to make the list 7 items long. So what we actually have are 6 distinct colors:
If you combine all of these colors of light, you end up with white. If you take them all away, you end up with black. And the way you split white light into these colors is with a prism, which is a clear triangular block of crystal or plastic.
So now we have nine “colors,” if you will.
Red Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, White, Black, Crystal (clear)
If you use each of these these colors to modify your number shape list, your 10 hooks become 100 hooks, like so:
1-10: normal number-shape images
11-20: The number-shape images, but completely RED
21-30: The same images again, but completely ORANGE
31-40: YELLOW number-shapes
41-50: GREEN number-shapes
51-60: BLUE number-shapes
61-70: PURPLE number-shapes
71-80: WHITE number-shapes
81-90: BLACK number-shapes
91-100: CRYSTAL number-shapes
So now you have 100 unique, distinct hooks, each ready to hold up to 5 items. That’s a 500-item holding area. So now we’re up to a 7,150% increase in your memory. How do we double it to get to 14,300%?
Fundamental Technique #4: Multiple Hook Lists
By creating another list for the numbers 1-10. Instead of using objects that look like the numbers, we can use objects that rhyme with the numbers:
Again, you want to create clear, specific, unique images to stand for each number. The “shoe” for two shouldn’t be a generic shoe… it should be a specific, unique shoe. One you can call to mind on command that will always stand for 2 on your number-rhyme list (HINT: a high heel generally has you halfway to a good absurd association right off the bat).
Once you have your images in place, everything else is already set up for you. You can modify them with the colors just as you did your shape list, and you can hang up to 5 items on each hook, associating the first item to the hook itself, and each subsequent item to the item before.
That’s two 500-item lists you can use to memorize 1000 things, almost instantly.
Fundamental Technique #5: Substitution
And if the thing you want to recall later is not concrete… if it’s abstract… all you have to do is the same thing we did for the numbers 1-10: come up with a concrete image to represent it. Love is an abstract concept. But a heart, cupid, and the romantic scene from a favorite movie are concrete images that represent the idea of love. The number 12 is an abstract concept, but a dozen eggs in the carton or a dozen doughnuts in a box are concrete images that can represent 12. Law is an abstract concept. A police officer and a judge are concrete images.
Or let’s say you needed an image for “the War of 1812 was fought between The U.S. and Great Brittain. There is a technique for memorizing strings of numbers that makes it really simple, but that technique is a little more advanced than we can fit in this article. But that’s okay, because substitution works here, too.
We need to find an image for 18, and an image for 12, and combine them. For 18, I like using an 18-wheeler– the big semi truck. And for 12, we’ve already discussed a dozen eggs. So, we just imaging an 18-wheeler, but instead of the normal tractor trailer, the rig is pulling a giant egg carton on wheels. 1812. Put Uncle Sam and Queen Elizabeth II on top engaged in a matrix-style kung fu fight, and there’s your image for War of 1812 was fought between the U.S. and Great Britain. Have it driving off of a pier and crashing violently into a bright orange sailboat with a bright orange sail, and exploding… and “The War of 1812” is now number 24 on your modified number-shape list.
Absurd, but memorable. And try not to smile when that image pops in your head during the test.
The simple act of choosing a substitute image represent a concept is typically enough for you to recall what the image was supposed to stand for later.
Fundamental Technique #6: Transition to Long-Term Memory.
So that takes care of your short-term memory… and for lots of things, just holding something in short term memory is enough: a grocery list, a phone number you’ll only call once, a part you need to buy to repair something, etc. But, some things you will want to hold on to; how do we cement it in your long-term memory? Two ways: first is repetition– but not like the repetition you’re used to. You don’t have to repeat it over and over and over dozens and dozens of times. Review it right after you form the associations– a handful of items will take just seconds to review (again, the speed of thought), a couple hundred would take less than ten minutes.. Then review it again after an hour or so. Then again before bed. And so on, putting progressively more time between the reviews.
The second (and most critical) way is to DO SOMETHING with the information. Write about it. Draw a picture or diagram of it. Explore what it means, or what makes it up. Build a model. Combine it with something else and see what you can make. You can even DO SOMETHING while you are reviewing it, killing two birds with one stone.
Best of all, because you’ve got the information attached to your hook lists and can recall them on command… you don’t need the book or notes or lists or other source material to review or use it. It’s there, easy to access. You can review or think about the material in the shower, on the drive to school or work, while you’re eating lunch or dinner. (NOTE: Don’t draw a picture or build a model if you’re driving. That’s just stupid and dangerous).
So there’s your 14,300% improvement in your memory: 1000 items versus the average person’s 7. Now, I’m going to turn that 14,300% improvement into infinite improvement in a single sentence:
ANY sort of list you can call to mind on command can be used as a hook-list.
The planets of the solar system. The rooms in your house, or your grandparents’ house, or your neighbor’s house. The route you drive to school or work. Your school or office. The grocery store. Walt Disney World. The parts of your body. The alphabet. Once you create the clear, specific, unique images to serve as memory hooks, anything you know becomes an anchor for a new set of facts to be learned.
AN ASIDE ON EDUCATION
The three root concepts here: association (linking something you want to remember with something you can recall on command), substitution (creating a concrete image to stand for an abstract or undefined idea) and structured repetition, are the fundamental building blocks of rich memory systems used for millennia.
The intentional (yes, it was intentional) loss of working knowledge of these systems during the protestant reformation and industrial revolution has done a huge disservice to students. The initial stages of the learning process, which could (and should) be fast, fun and exciting has been made tedious, boring and time consuming. And the stage where the actual learning takes place– actually using the information– not only is robbed of time and attention that could be spent on it, but is hamstrung by the fact that kids are already numb, totally devoid of interest and excitement, when they finally get to it.
It would only take a matter of two to four weeks for most middle and high school students to become proficient with these systems, which would allow them to read a text passage, hear a lecture or watch a video once, and commit it to memory. Allow them to quickly and easily commit mathematical formulae and strings of digits to memory. Allow them to structure and compose complete essays and poems in their head before ever putting pen to paper or turning on the computer.
What could teachers do in classrooms if students could acquire and memorize the material that quickly? The entire class almost could be devoted fully to fostering understanding and transforming the information into something new.
In the 1600’s and then again in the early 1900s education was intentionally dumbed down and made more complicated. The world has since moved on, but education has yet to recover.
It’s tragic. But it could actually be a good thing for any students who learned these systems. Every test is an open book, open note test when you’ve almost instantly memorized the text and lectures. Study time isn’t spent memorizing, but trying to better understand what you’ve memorized. You have more time for extracurriculars and a social life when your don’t need your books or notes to study, and can review material in the shower or on the bus or during the commercials.
Schools won’t change easily, or any time soon. But students can. And those who do will win.
The next installment I will show you how to combine the review process with techniques for understanding and using the material you just memorized, in a way that is still quick, easy and fun.