You’ve surely heard of startling feats of memory. Examples: memorizing a thousand random digits in only one hour; remembering the order of a shuffled deck of cards after looking at it for only two minutes; or learning by heart the order of 10 decks of cards in only 1 hour.
These are the feats you have to perform if you want the title of Grand Master of Memory.
Such feats are often associated with people who have challenges in living a normal life – such as Kim Peek, the original Rain Man. Although Kim had difficulty in ordinary everyday tasks, he could remember entire phone books, among many other feats unimaginable for ordinary folks.
There are also “acquired” savants, who get these powers as a result of illness or accident. An example is Orlando Serrell, whose mind-boggling memory came about as a result of being hit by a baseball.
Then there are people like Shakuntala Devi, who was normal in every way, except for her amazing memory and calculating abilities.
But there are also ordinary people with trained memories. Ed Cooke, a world championship memory grandmaster, says he has only an average memory. It is possible to train anybody’s memory. Josh Foer, a science writer was trained by Cooke and became US National Memory Champion.
What is Memory?
Memory has been studied by cognitive psychologists for several decades. There are two basic kinds of memory – short-term memory, and long-term memory.
Short-term memory is also often called “working memory”. It is the memory we use when we have to hold facts in our minds for short periods, kind of like the RAM memory in your computer. For example, someone tells you their phone number and you remember it while you enter it into your mobile phone. It has a limit of 5 to 7 units, and lasts only for about 30 seconds. The limit can be extended by chunking. Chunking is breaking up a large amount of data into smaller “chunks”. Taking the example of phone numbers again, you can break up a phone into country code, area code, exchange code, and subscriber number. In this way, data which is 14 or 15 items long is chunked into 4 items which can easily be held in short-term memory.
Short-term memory is transferred to long-term memory by the process of rehearsing. Rehearsing is repeating the information again and again. After enough repetitions, the information becomes a part of long-term memory.
Long-term memory is of several types: episodic (events) declarative (facts and figures), semantic (words and meanings), autobiographical (your own life), and procedural (driving, swimming, etc.). Long-term memory has almost infinite capacity, and it also lasts almost forever.
There are many ways of training memory. Some techniques:
Rehearsal, or reciting: this is the time-honoured, age-old way of committing to memory. You just say it out lound and keep doing it until you can say it from memory. A better way of doing this is called “distributed rehearsal”. In distributed rehearsal, you space out the periods of repetition. We learn better if we break up our practice into shorter sessions spread out over a longer period of time.
Then there are the the more specialized techniques:
The Method of Loci: This was thought up by the ancient Greeks. It was then taken to Rome where famous orators like Cicero used it to remember their long speeches (sometimes 7 or 8 hours long) in the face of some serious heckling by the opposition in the senate.
The way to do it is this: Choose a place you know well, such as your house. Think of a path throught the house: In through the front door, down the hallway, into the living room, through kitchen into a bedroom, and so on.
In each place, mentally place an image of the things you want to remember. When you need to remember your list, just walk through your house in your mind using the same route that you chose while placing the mental objects. As you pass each place, the items on your list will spring to mind. It works even better if you make the mental imagery as bizarre as possible. For example, if one of the items on your list is a burger, you could imagine a giant burger in your living room, calling out “don’t forget me!” as you pass.
Another method is to use acronyms. A well-known one is used to remember the notes on a treble clef musical stave: F A C E for the notes between the lines, and E G B D F (Every Good Boy Deserves Favours) for the notes on the lines. You can get pretty good at creating humorous acronyms, which make it even easier to remember them.
There are many other methods you can use: the Art of Memory, the Mnemonic Major System, Memory pegs, a combination of visualizing combining and associating.
Use It or Lose It!
Memory training has obvious benefits for us in our daily lives. Who wouldn’t find it great to remember shopping lists, telephone numbers, names and faces without having to write everything down? But there are mental health benefits too. Medical research has established that, for example, the risk of Alzheimer’s can be brought down by using our cognitive functions, including memory.
Think of it as a work-out for your brain. The more you work out, the fitter and mnore healthy you will be.