Offered the ability to remember everything, who among us could turn it down? For that matter, who among us could turn down even a slight increase in our memory capacity? If we’re older, we complain of forgetfulness. If we’re younger, we complain that so little of what we’re supposed to learn for tests sticks. If we’re in the middle, we complain of being “bad with names” and having trouble properly organizing all the tasks we need to complete. Whatever our stage in life, we could all use the kind of memory-improving techniques explained in these four TED Talks, the most popular of which offers Swedish “memory athlete” Idriz Zogaj’s method of “How to Become a Memory Master.”
Framing his talk with the story of how he trained himself to compete in the World Memory Championships (yes, they exist), Zogaj recommends remembering by making “a fun, vivid, animated story,” using all your senses.” “And do it in 3D, even though you don’t have the 3D goggles. Your brain is amazing; it can do it anyway.” Telling yourself a story in such a way that connects seemingly unrelated images, words, numbers, or other pieces of information gives those connections strength in our brains.
In “How to Triple Your Memory by Using This Trick,” Ricardo Lieuw On recommends a similarly story-based method, but emphasizes the importance of constructing it with “bizarre images.” And “if you tie these bizarre images to a place you know well, like your body, suddenly memorizing things in order becomes a lot easier.”
In his TED Talk about daily practices to improve memory, Krishan Chahal divides “the art of memorizing” into two parts. The first entails “designing the information or modifying the information in such a way so that it can catch your attention,” making what you want to memorize more naturally palatable to “the taste of human mind” — stories and strong visual images being perhaps the human mind’s tastiest treat. The second involves creating what he calls a “self-meaning system,” the best-known variety of which is the memory palace. The Memory Techniques Wiki describes a memory palace as “an imaginary location in your mind where you can store mnemonic images,” typically modeled on “a place you know well, like a building or town.” When memorizing, you store pieces information in different “locations” within your memory palace; when recalling, you take that same mental journey through your palace and find everything where you left it.
The memory palace came up here on Open Culture earlier this year when we featured a video about how to memorize an entire chapter of Moby-Dick. Its creator drew on Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, and if you want a taste of what Foer has learned about memory, watch his TED Talk above. Foer, too, has spent time at the World Memory Championships, and his questions about how memory athletes do what they do led him to the concept psychologists call “elaborative encoding,” the practice of taking information “lacking in context, in significance, in meaning” and transforming it “so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.”
Elaborative encoding underlies the effectiveness of memorizing even the driest lists of facts in the form of stories full of striking and unusual sights. (Foer himself opens with a memory-aiding story starring “a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.”) No wonder so many of the greatest storytellers have had a thematic preoccupation with memory. Take Jorge Luis Borges, author of “Shakespeare’s Memory” (previously featured here on Open Culture) and the even more (dare I say) memorable “Funes the Memorious.” In the latter a horse-riding accident robs a rural teenager of the ability to forget, bestowing upon him an effectively infinite memory — a power that has him taking an entire day to remember an entire day and assigning a different name (“the train,” “Máximo Perez,” “the whale,” “Napoleon”) to each and every number in existence. As much as we all want to remember more things, surely none of us wants to remember everything.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.