How To Train Your Memory Like A Champ

It's Easier Than You Think

Could you use a photographic memory? I know I could and would love to have one.  The question is whether such a thing as a “photographic” memory even exists. While the phenomenon of eidetic imagery exists, what most people think of as a photographic memory has never been proven.

In 1993 I began preparing to become board certified in two physical therapy specialties and frankly, I wanted to become more effective in general. To me that meant I need to get a better grip on being able to retain facts and content. In other words, I needed to improve my memory.

Around that same time there were a number of educational and self-help programs being advertised on radio and TV. You know, the “….for just $19.95, you too can..…” kind and Kevin Trudeau’s “Mega Memory” program was one of them.  It look pretty good so I decided to give it a try. After all, the internet was still somewhat novel back then so I couldn’t just Google for something better.

The Ancient Art of Memory

The Mega Memory program turned out to be really, really good. And unlike his dubious weight loss cures (he ended up being sentenced to jail in 2014 for fraud), Trudeau didn’t invent the techniques and exercises included in his memory program

In fact, to this day I still use the memorization approach and techniques I learned in that course to memorize both short-term lists and more detailed content. Other names for it include “memory palace”, “journey method” and “method of loci”.  While it’s been around at least for over 2200 years,  Tony Buzan is commonly credited with bringing this ancient approach to the art and training of memory back into the limelight in modern times (along with Mind Mapping).

Modern day “mental athletes” are proof that this approach to maximizing memory and mental fitness really works.  Their competition includes 5 events, one of which is having to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 5 minutes; the others events may be even more difficult.  What’s revealing is that most mental athletes deny being any kind of savant. In fact most consider themselves to be of average memory and some deplore the notion of “photographic memory”, calling it a myth. So what’s their secret?

5 Key Elements

At the risk of oversimplification, there are 5 basic elements of this ancient art that appear to be key:

  1. Peg- This is something already familiar to you, like parts of your body (i.e. shoulders, ankles, knees and toes, etc.) or the rooms of your house.
  2. Anchor- This is the process used to associate what your trying to memorize with a peg that’s already familiar to you.
  3. Vivid- Visualizing what you’re trying to memorize even more vividly than real-life, which makes it “sticky” and easier to recall.
  4. Imagination- Another part of making something “sticky” and easy to recall; the more outlandish the better.
  5. Action- This is the “glue”  that makes what your trying to memorize actually “hold” and provides the energy for easy recall.

The process? For short-term things like grocery and to do lists, your own body usually provides a sufficient number of pegs to anchor the items your trying to memorize. Simply use your vivid imagination to turn them into something crazy, supply a little more imagination to make it stickier, and lot of motion to make ‘em hold and ready for recall.

For more detailed information and concepts you want to retain long-term, you need a bigger set of pegs that make up a coherent whole (hence the term “memory palace”) and add an additional element: string them into a story. The recall then becomes much easier as you push “play” and re-run the mental film that contains the motion picture you wrote, directed and produced.

As mentioned in an earlier post, focusing on memory and memorization has gotten a bad rap in modern education. The bad rap along with the fact that most people only know how to use a boring, rote repetition approach when memorizing content is probably why most people don’t do more if it. The good news is that  there is counter perspective as well as proven system that can help you improve your memory exponentially.

If you interested in learning more,  Moon Walking with Einstein by Joshua Foer is a great read.  It’s also inspirational: the author started out to simply do a news story and a year later ended up competing as a finalist the World Memory Championships!

As for me, I now have chapter 1 of the book of Hebrews memorized, am well into chapter 2 and I’m looking forward to having the entire book memorized by the end of the year.  And I’m getting it done by spending just 10 minutes in the morning and actually enjoying it.

If you’ve always wanted to build a better memory or memorize something big, the “memory palace” approach is one tool I know will help.  Regardless, even if you were able to simply double your current ability to memorize content with the same amount of effort (and have more fun while doing it), what would it do for you?

Leave a comment about what’s on your mind with this topic, I’d love to know.