This week’s challenge involves an aspect of personal improvement: mental ability. Bear with me a while; this blog is about to get academic.
Memory is both an inherent ability and a learnable skill. Most of us grasp how memory improves with adulthood and fades with age. We understand that memory qualifies as a ‘use it or lose it’ talent. Not many people use their memory for anything beyond necessity (phone numbers, addresses, etc.) and simple maintenance. Fewer still actively exercise their memory with the intent of strengthening its span. Even fewer – maybe only ‘savants’, Mensa show-offs, and cognitive scientists – deliberately study and train new techniques in order to become badass memory masters.
The formal arts of memory-do are called ‘mnemonics’. Each mnemonic is a deliberate method used to exploit and expand the natural strengths of long-term memory storage. One of the oldest and best known mnemonics is the method of loci: associating each item to be remembered with a location (like the rooms of a house) and using a mental walk-through of those locations as an aid to recalling each item in order. Other formal techniques include associating each list item with a word rhyming with its number in order (one -> nun; imagine a nun holding the first item), associating all items in a list in a single image (loaf of bread, carton of eggs, jug of milk = French toast), acronyms (ROY G. BIV = Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet) or separating a string of items into smaller, more easily remembered ‘chunks’ (the first few digits of pi are three, point fourteen, fifteen, ninety-two, sixty-five, thirty-five… or 3.14 15 92 65 35).
Beyond these intentional strategies are a host of simpler tricks we all use (to some extent) to aid memory and subsequent recall: repetition, associations between related items, comparison to previous memories, and use of multiple modalities (writing, speech, song, pictures, etc.). Each approach creates more ‘hooks’ to link memories together. Those hooks help us more quickly find and pull out the element we want to remember.
Whether memory improves through simple repetitive use – like physical strength – or only through the introduction and practice of specific mnemonic techniques – like physical skills – is an ongoing research question. Either way, the necessity of practice to maintain and improve memory function has been well established. Holding more information, holding it longer, recalling it faster, and catching the connections between items in memory are all trainable skills.
As with several previous challenges, this one is about practice. It also has a practical short-term benefit: putting something specific solidly into memory.
Memorize something important to you. Choose a sequence of numbers and letters, a string of words, a song, an image, or a text passage. It doesn’t necessarily have to be complex, although this challenge has a more obvious benefit if used to memorize more difficult material. The subject should be something useful to have available in memory when needed. My wife’s social security number, for example, is something I don’t often need, but when I do need it, it’s handy to have without digging.
The exact method you use for memorization could vary depending on the subject being memorized. Chunking is handy for sequences of items with low intrinsic relationship or meaning, like a phone or social security number. The method of loci or method of number rhymes are great for lists of concrete words or concepts, but not as good for less imageable elements. Images or texts benefit from chunking to divide the whole into parts, followed by conceptual analysis and deeper understanding.
Subject-specific knowledge often helps augment memory by helping suggest missing elements and the likely relationships between them. For example, a passage from Shakespeare is easier to remember if you’re familiar with iambic pentameter, Middle English, historical references from the appropriate period, and the plot of a particular play. Describing a painting is easier if you are familiar with the artist and style. Unfortunately, subject knowledge can also introduce false memories; reconstruction can only help to a limited degree. Repeated exposure and practice are always necessary to maintain familiarity with a specific passage (or picture).
This challenge is more difficult than it seems at first. Being able to recite your target material correctly, once, does not indicate true memorization. Several instances of short-term recall are good practice, but not the extent of ‘memorization’ I’m asking for. Even testing long-term recall after only an hour or a day might be insufficient. The idea is to stick information so deeply and widely into your memory that it will never fade. At the least, you should be able to recall your target correctly after a full week. Practice recall at least once a day, checking your memory against the original. Rehearse again, using appropriate mnemonic techniques, and correct any errors.
Beyond learning that specific target, you’ll become more familiar with the process of memorization. Not only memory itself, but its supporting processes also, grow stronger with practice. These processes become faster, too, meaning that good memorization steadily becomes less of a chore. Actors and public speakers already incorporate this training as part of their work. Scholars, too, learn how to learn, although they may or may not explicitly realize what they are doing or how.
Despite one common misconception, it is not possible to overfill your memory. Nobody stops learning. Adding new information will not push older knowledge out. New information can interact and sometimes interfere with older information, particularly when these structures are closely related (like a new and an old phone number), but careful memorization can even help reduce these problems.
So, there is no drawback to practicing memorization regularly. If you feel like your ‘mental time’ is limited, then do focus on important facts and figures, but I’m sure there are plenty enough things you could benefit from remembering better. We make a special effort to remember work-related information, for example, but we also use that information regularly. Practicing memory for items we don’t use as often is also important.
We frequently trust too much in our native memory abilities. We overestimate our untrained recall, literally forgetting how often we forget. Unpracticed memory can manage quite a lot, but it has limits. Everyone can gain from practice and technique.
Worse, the limits of memory inevitably shrink. Old age brings reduced short-term memory and corresponding difficulty remembering new information. Building up techniques to augment that waning capacity is clearly a good idea.
I realize that this challenge involves a certain amount of frustration. If memorization were easy, we wouldn’t need help or training. Mistakes are inevitable. Think of it this way: the more aggravating this challenge is, the more useful its lessons are. Stay with it.