Is this you?
Have you ever been driving along and tried to memorise a website or business name, to no, frustrating, avail?
Have you ever spell-checked a word online so many times that Google voluntarily and independently shows you memory loss ads, abandoning its algorithm in order to salvage yours?
Have you ever been introduced to someone, instantly forgetting their name while secretly grasping for your own?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you may find this article memorable, for all the right reasons.
To be clear, I’m no expert in memory. Heck, if I remember my age, it’s a good day. But an event happened recently that prompted me to take a hard look at why I should attempt to improve my memory skills.
I should have remembered this
I had been struggling to remember the last three digits of my son’s mobile phone number for ages, which became an issue one day when my phone battery died and I had to call him using someone else’s phone.
But I couldn’t remember his full number, only the first seven digits. I couldn’t call him. Yikes!
Thankfully everything worked out, but it so easily may not have. The incident pushed me to learn more about my memory, or lack thereof, as well as the best techniques to help me remember stuff.
This is what I found out.
Baker versus baker
I watched an excellent Ted Talk by Joshua Foer on memory. In it, Foer explains that all memory techniques come down to ‘elaborate encoding’, which involves trying to remember abstract information (such as the numbers 417) by making them relatable and meaningful, therefore memorable. Elaborate encoding is illustrated perfectly by the Baker/baker Paradox.
The paradox goes like this.
If I said to you, “Remember that there’s a guy who is a baker”, and I said to your friend, “Remember that there’s a guy by the name of Baker”, YOU are more likely to remember the word ‘baker’ than your friend.
The reason? The name Baker probably doesn’t actually mean anything to your friend. As Foer explains, the word Baker is ‘untethered to all the other memories floating around’ in his skull. But a baker, on the other hand, triggers visual images of people in white hats with floury hands. So when you hear about a baker, your brain starts sinking ‘associational hooks’ into the word, making it easier to fish out later.
When it comes down to it, Foer says that the art of trying to remember information well, is about figuring out how to change capital case Bakers into lower case bakers. In other words, turning all abstract information into interesting, relatable, memorable information.
Foer also describes our minds as being a palace: “As bad as we are at remembering names and numbers and word-for-word instructions from our colleagues, we have really exceptional visual and spatial memories… The idea behind the memory palace is to create this imagined edifice in your mind’s eye and populate it with images that you want to remember. The crazier, weirder, more bizarre, funnier, raunchier, stinkier the image is, the more unforgettable it’s likely to be.”
I put it into practice
Straight after watching the Ted Talk, I created the below image in my head of the last three digits of my son’s phone number. I turned the abstract, impersonal numbers into a visual, memorable cartoon.
I imagined that the number four was climbing up a long rope that looked like the number one, and the number seven was a platform, just above the rope.
These numbers became seared into my memory within minutes, and now, I literally can’t forget them. Yet, I had been struggling to memorise them for months.
You’ve probably been doing this all your life
Like me, you’ve probably been using Mnemonics for ages. (Oh yeah, now’s a good time to explain this funny word. Mnemonics is pronounced ‘ne-monics’, we have to remember that the ‘m’ is silent – cruel! Mnemonics are creative memory techniques that help us retain and retrieve information; techniques such as songs, rhymes, poems, acronyms, images and more.)
What Foer’s Ted Talk did, was jog my memory and remind me to continue using these mnemonics, rather than falling into the nasty habit of wrongly assuming I can’t remember stuff.
This is what I mean.
Yesterday when I automatically Googled whether to use ‘bare’ instead of ‘bear’ (in relation to ‘bearing’ a burden), as I’ve done several times before; I stopped and took the time to create a memory hook instead, so I’d never have to look up the word again. I imagined a bear carrying a cumbersome cross, which now reminds me that a bear must bear the heavy burdens. And as for ‘bare’ meaning naked, I now imagine that the letters ‘b’ and ‘a’ look like breasts. (I’ll spare you the cartoon of that visual image!)
Time and practise
I think a lot of this memory work comes down to time, inclination, practise and habit.
Am I willing to invest the time to remember something, even if it takes just a few seconds? Am I actually interested in retaining a piece of information? Will I make it a habit? Am I going to regularly practise until I get better at it? (I recently tried to remember a lovely lady’s name using a memory hook, and I stuffed it up remarkably. The lady’s unusual and beautiful name was Kofee, and I said, “Bye Cocoa”. I felt terrible!)
To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll get into the daily memory-practicing habit, though Kofee probably thinks I should! At least I know there are techniques out there for all ‘417’ situations.
There’s no such thing as a brilliant memory
The good news is, there’s no such thing as a God-given brilliant memory, just brilliant ways to remember information. And the great news is that these memory techniques are accessible to all of us. Now, that’s good to remember!