How to remember everything... like an elephant!

Updated: 3 days ago

An elephant never forgets! Well, this isn't precisely true. Elephants do forget things from time to time, but they do have remarkable recall power. But what about humans?

In 2019, Ryu Sonyoung memorized 4,620 random numbers smashing the previous world record. This sensational memory accomplishment took place at the World Memory Championships. Keep this in mind.

Did you know that you have been using memory wrong since you stopped being a child?

My own research has focused largely on the psychology of superior memory, and I have achieved a "superpower" memory that has enabled me to encode and recall insane amounts of information. For instance; I'm a memory nerd, so I learned Pi to 100 digits, and the only reason I stopped at 100 is that I realized no one had the time to wait around for me to prove it, they just took my word for it. So, now I only memorize knowledge that benefits my learning.

Here are some examples; the monarchs of England and Great Britain, or the nerves of our nervous system (useful for budding psychologists), or the elements of the periodic table, and many more. I am currently working on Latin/Greek root words. I have created a library of cataloged information stored in my mental workshop that I can access anywhere at any time. But here's the secret; it's not a superpower, rather a technique that requires methodical and disciplined practice.

The World Memory Championships hosted over 500 memory athletes (including Ryu Sonyoung). If you want to know more about these curious competitions I recommend Moonwalking with Einstein. When I first learned about these memory athletes I thought "they have to have gifted cognitive abilities, or extraordinary brain structure, maybe they were born savants or prodigies, or maybe for a form of autism that gave them super cognition". I was wrong, they are considered non-gifted, neurotypical. They all rely on memory techniques that they have mastered.

Don't get me wrong, these people are sensational, and what they have achieved may as well be likened to savant-like ability because of the level of exceptional learning they have reached. The memory champions use various mnemonics strategies, some of which are ancient dating back to 106-43 BCE, and the best part is that anyone can learn them without any problem, providing you have access to your own mind's eye.

The internet is full of people claiming to have secret memory techniques, or selling you some pseudoscience strategy. At Upmanship, we are interested in the evidence, and there are plenty of psychology experts who are studying the phenomena of superior memory. At the end of this article, you will find 3 simple Actions you can take to build your own memory. Feel free to skip ahead and start enhancing your memory now. Otherwise, here's the research;

The Evidence

The key to superior memory is mental imagery, that is your ' mind's eye', your 'imagination', or your 'mental workspace'. The memory athletes rely on memory techniques and strategy (no superpowers just techniques) such as the method of loci, memory palace, major system, and some finely tuned methods personal to them.

You can learn these methods in no time at all, as the research shows. One experiment showed naive subjects (normal memories) learned to use mental imagery mnemonics and in 6 weeks their brain anatomy matched those of the memory athletes. Other research showed these memory strategies can be successfully learned in anywhere from 1 hour to 10 weeks 1, 2, 3, 4.

Also, numerous studies have shown mnemonic techniques benefit those with mild cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative diseases 5, 6, 7. This is likely because of the use of memory strategies that employ mental imagery, so patients with diseases such as Alzheimer's can activate different regions of their brain connectivity than their default memory systems and then encoding information by using rich imagination and creativity.

When you fail to remember, it is likely that the information was not registered or retained properly. This is often the case with abstract or mundane information, for instance, a complex scientific model, or what you had for breakfast two Tuesdays ago. Our brains just aren't wired to remember abstract information, but instead evolved to seek shelter, food, mates and avoid threat. So using mental imagery memory techniques, enables you to take unmemorable or mundane information and making it more memorable. Some consider it elaborative encoding, which is essentially giving the to-be-remembered information meaning and significance.

It's important to note that mental imagery is not just visual imagery (i.e, the movie you play in your mind), but a multi-sensory experience. To understand this more, I want you to imagine a memory of a seasonal family meal (i.e, Christmas, Eid ul-Adha, Thanksgiving, etc), this memory is often fused with smells, sounds, feelings as well as sights. And some of your most memorable experiences cross the sensory barrier, for instance, your first kiss or a traumatic event.

Mental imagery mnemonics work in a similar way, you take an abstract piece of information and you make it memorable by using your mental workspace to conjure up multi-sensory images. And here's a little advice, add a little spice to enhance the memory. We are much more likely to remember violent, emotional, sexual, funny, scary, and exciting imagery. So why not add your celeb crush in there, with minimal clothing! Here are 3 actions to get you started employing your mental imagery for memory.

The Actions

Action 1: Choose something simple

Get someone to write a random shopping list and then break each word down into something meaningful or memorable. Remember the more interesting the item is, the more robust the encoding will be.

For example, here's the first shopping list I ever memorized (years ago and still not faded).

  1. Frozen peas - Picture bags of frozen peas with faces, arms, and legs, who are shivering and huddling together to stay warm. (Tip: feel the cold)

  2. 5% minced beef - Picture a cow climbing in a meat grinder with 5 taps that have minced beef flowing out (The 5 taps helps you remember 5%. (Tip: add some gore)

  3. White wine - Picture the minced beef flowing into white wine bottles. Give those wine bottles faces, arms, and legs and imagine them drinking glasses of wine.

  4. Eggs - Now picture the wine bottles having an egg fight. Imagine they are throwing rotten eggs at each other. (Smell the rotten eggs)

  5. Socks - That smell if coming from your feet. Imagine your looking down at your feet and you are wearing smelly socks... you get the idea.

It's useful to create an association to the following item (i.e, wine bottles having an egg fight) but not always necessary. To some, this may seem like a foolish method, but in reality its just tapping into the things we find interesting. It's the same reason we can remember our favorite T.V and books because they activate our imaginative and creative fantasy.

Action 2: What have you always wanted to memorize?

Now you have woken up your mental imagery, its time to get serious. Start by choosing something you seriously intend to remember. Something that will always be useful to you, or something that you wish you knew more about. Here a few examples:

  • The chemicals of the periodic table

  • The presidents of the USA

  • Countries and their capitals

  • Parts of the solar system

  • Rivers

  • Mountains

  • Prime-ministers

  • Monarchs and the list goes on

Pick something that you will enjoy knowing because it's likely you will never forget it. Create a table with 4 columns in a program like word or excel, and list your newly chosen to-be-remembered items in column 1. In column 2, write a description of your image. In column 3 write the action if necessary, this is especially useful if it's interacting with the following item. In column 4, list the extra-memorable information such as smells, sounds, and feelings. Here's an example below;

The credit for these images must be given to the Memorize Academy who helped me learn the periodic table. I used this example because it worked for me, and many others. Once you have gone through this process, you will need to test your self a few times or even better, get someone else to test you. You will be amazed at how easily you remember this new information.

Action 3: Now build on this with advanced techniques.

Just by simply changing the boring information to memorable imagery and using different senses to fuse the encoding, you will have greatly enhanced the encoding and retrieval process. You have also introduced the brain to working in a very different way. In fact, it's likely that you haven't activated this connectivity pattern in your brain since you were a child. This is extremely beneficial for the health of our brains because it promotes neuroplasticity (the nervous systems ability to adapt and change itself over a lifetime).

Use it or lose it

By using novel functional regions and anatomical links, the brain produces progenitor cells resulting in neurogenesis. In other words, learning new ways to use the brain gives birth to new neurons. But this is only the start, just using imagery alone is limited on how much information you can effectively retain. Next, you can learn to use the methods that the memory athletes employ such as the Method of Loci and the Major System. (See below)

Advanced Techniques

Method of Loci

Take it further by using the ancient mnemonic technique; the Method of Loci. Check out this article: 'Master the Art of Visual and Spatial Memory'

Major System

You might be wondering how this works for numbers, the answer is the Major System, but it requires you to start by getting comfortable using your mental imagery. I am currently working on a step-by-step walkthrough of the Major System, so subscribe to Upmanship, and get notified when it's ready.

Now you are armed with a serious memory toolkit, its time to start showing off. Remember, it's great for your brain to use these methods, so try not to rely on technology all the time. Use it or lose it!

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