I remember remembering everything. I remember winning Trivial Pursuit all the time. I remember remembering without trying. I remember just knowing things, reading books and newspapers and just retaining the most inconsequential detail as well as the central idea. I remember school being easy, reading coming naturally, numbers falling into line before my eyes. I remember remembering everything I wanted to.
Ah yes, I remember. But now I start to forget. My facts are getting mixed up, my Trivial Pursuit- games are not as easy, my facts fade and my head hurts from trying so much harder.
Many of my old friends and relatives say the same thing, lament about how they used to have a fantastic memory, and how that memory is getting steadily worse. How much more difficult it is to remember names at work than in school. How much more effort is needed to learn a language as you get older.
There must be ways of remembering better? Improving one’s memory?
Two years ago, or three, forget, I read a book about memory. It was an old book, from the 80s I think, and it was written in an annoyingly infantile manner. The authors had tried to informal, but failed miserably, and ended up writing a book in a language more suited for children. I never tried the memory techniques they outlined.
Some time after that, though, someone told me there exists a World Memory Championships, and that the contestants there actually use the same memory techniques as in that infantile book. I didn’t believe them at first. But it was true. And there also was a world ranking: the last one that ranking, a certain R.V. Rajeshwari, had managed to remember all of three playing cards in five minutes.
In other words, it wouldn’t be a problem to get my name on that ranking. And how cool would that be?
I started reading many other books. I challenged my brother. He read books. We made systems. I joined memocamp to train specifically in the world championship disciplines: names/faces, abstract, cards, numbers. I changed my system. My father joined us and made his own system. I tweaked my system. My brother set a new family record for memorizing a deck of cards, but I beat him. And still I was a novice in the art of memorizing.
My initial plan was to be a contestant in last year’s world championships. I mailed Ola Kåre Risa and half promised him to join so that there would be three Norwegians, enough for the team competition. But it didn’t happen. I didn’t train enough (in the abstract discipline I am really, really bad, for some reason), and my wife was pregnant and we have two other kids and it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.
I haven’t given up, though. There is always another competition around the corner, and one day, I’ll get my place in the world rankings.
But I don’t do it just to be a memory athlete. And although I also want to learn about these techniques to help others improve their memory, another reason is even more important. My main reason is the same as Nelson Dellis’: my grandmother had Alzheimer’s. The last years of her life, her mind was more or less gone. She seemed unable to remember new experiences, and she retained preciously little of her old ones. Even the faces of her family members seemed to be fading from her memory. All her wisdom, all her experiences, everything she could have told us or taught us — disappearing drop by drop until her memory dried out completely. I don’t want that to happen to me. And I don’t want that to happen to others.
So today’s task is: Compile an original and practical list of solutions or tips that will address common challenges faced by you and your peers — and the common challenge is memory loss.
First, consider what you remember and why you remember it. Humans are great at remembering space: where things are, how they are placed in relation to each other, how far it is from one place to another. It has always been, at least up untill modern times, an evolutionary advantage to be able to find your way in a forest, or to remember where the oranges are compared to the pineapples, or to be able to calculate how to jump in order to catch that rabbit. If you close your eyes now, you can easily visualise your home, your street, even where you went to school many years ago.
Likewise, you’re good at remembering people — especially faces, but also voices (I remember people by their voices easier than by their faces), or by recognizing people by the way they move or even smell. During our millions of years as hominids, it was of the out most importance to not only recognize but also interpret the emotions and intentions of others — of course we are better at recognizing and remembering emotional faces than let’s say different kinds of rock.
Memories are also closely connected to emotions and exceptionality. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory. It’s easier to remember the one time you got bit by a rabid Doberman than the one time a Chihuahua licked your nose. And the more exceptional, the stronger the memory: it’s easier to remember the goose which waddled into your kitchen than all the geese waddling past outside the kitchen window.
This also means that people are terrible at remembering abstract entities like numbers or letters. It has never been important for any human except the last 2000 years or so to remember many numbers in a row, and so evolutionary pressure hasn’t had time to make us good at it.
My grandmother could find her way around her home many years after she began forgetting names. She would reach out for a cup if she wanted a coffee long after she started mixing the word “coffee” with just about any other word which popped into her head. If there only could be a way to make her remember names and numbers with that part of the brain, in the same manner she remembered space?
How do you turn something abstract, like a number, into something (almost) tangible?
You need two things: a route with several “points” or “stops” and a translation of the abstract into something concrete.
Start creating a route by imagining you are in your living room, for instance. Your first stop could be on the couch. Then imagine yourself walking over to the table: that is the second stop. After that, you might stop by the TV: third point. These points could be anything and anywhere, but you must be able to visualise them and place something on or in or under them. Try to make let’s say 20 points from your couch to perhaps your bath room.
Now, if you were to remember a list of 20 random nouns, you will have a hard time remembering them as abstract words. But you don’t. First you visualise them as concrete objects, try to see the for your mind’s eye, smell them, feel them as if they were really there, and them place them one at each point. I promise you it will be a lot easier to remember them all in this way.
If the list started BANANA, CAR, WATER, HAMSTER, RAINBOW, you put the banana on the couch, squash it flat on the couch, feel the irritation over having to wash that gooey substance off your white designer couch; then you put a car on the table, a red Ferrari, you want one of those, but it’s smelly and noisy, etc.
It’s no good to tell your brain to remember stuff. It will decide by itself whether something is worth spending energy remembering, thank you very much. But it’s not too hard fooling it into believing that almost anything has reached the importance threshold.
With things like names and to an even greater degree numbers, you need translation. A name is just a random collection of sounds until you translate it to something meaningful to you: Amy means nothing to me, I don’t know anyone called Amy, but “aiming” with a pistol is both meaningful and somewhat emotional, and I’ll remember it easily. (Other examples and slightly different techniques here.)
With numbers, I first created a translation with sounds. I made all numbers 0-9 into a sound, and then I found a word beginning with that sound. O=S, hence 0 could be Ostrich; 1=T, hence 1 could be Tower. 10 would then be TS=TESS (I know a Tess). It could even go further, so 100 would be TSS, but it’s not easy to find suitable words for all numbers up to a thousand.
After a while, I changed my system to so-called Person-Action-Object. 10 was still TS, but now a person doing something with something: Tristram Shandy throwing a book, for instance. Another number, say 58, could be Dalai Lama pinching a robe. 67 could be Michael Jordan dunking a basketball.
My complete system had 99 people (00-99) doing 99 different things with 99 objects. To remember a number like 10 58 67, I would combine it like this: Tristram Shandy – pinching – basketball.
And then I would place my basketball-pinching Tristram Shandy at my first point, ie the couch in my living room.
In this way, I can translate 120 random numbers into 20 people doing memorable stuff on 20 points in space — much easier to remember.
And that’s more or less all there is to it. It takes years of practice, of course, to be able to compete at the highest level (501 numbers in five minutes, anyone?), and there are many opinions about what kind of system you should use, but the basic principle is the same: To remember stuff, you must make it memorable, ie vivid, emotionally charged and placed in space. To some (me), this is partly counterintuitive, as my first instinct is to remember stuff by their sound — I memorised the first page of Finnegans Wake before I understood most of it — but counterintuitive doesn’t mean much more than “I am not used to doing it like this”. And habit is seldom a good guide.
I don’t remember like I used to, it doesn’t come naturally like it did when I was a kid. But it’s like everything: you grow old, you cannot do things the same way, but you have experience, you have learned techniques, and the end result is that you do it better as an old man anyway.
And remember, no-one were as absent-minded as you when you were a kid. To remember something is always to forget something else.