How to Improve Your Memory: Four TED Talks Explain the Techniques to Remember Anything

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.

Relat­ed Com­ment:

How to Mem­o­rize an Entire Chap­ter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Sci­ence of Remem­ber­ing Every­thing

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Con­cen­tra­tion

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

This Is Your Brain on Exer­cise: Why Phys­i­cal Exer­cise (Not Men­tal Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Play Mark Twain’s “Mem­o­ry-Builder,” His Game for Remem­ber­ing His­tor­i­cal Facts & Dates

Hear “Shakespeare’s Mem­o­ry” by Jorge Luis Borges

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 Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Muhammad Faisal says:

    Great things dis­cussed by all the four speak­ers. I am hap­py, that I was able to find this blog on inter­net

    Muham­mad Faisal

  • Mini Taylor says:


    Thanks for shar­ing these TedX talks to improve mem­o­ry. For stu­dents, it is impor­tant to take study breaks. If you sit for long hours, then you can strain your body and it becomes dif­fi­cult to retain infor­ma­tion for a longer dura­tion. There­fore, one should take appro­pri­ate breaks between stud­ies. I some­times take short breaks to do stretch­ing or wash my face.

    Thanks & regards,

    Mini Tay­lor

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