20 Dec Memory Upgrade: How to remember large quantities of information in a fun way
A level subjects, such as Psychology, Politics and History, all require students to memorise large quantities of information. As a general trend, many students try to cram dates, names, events, references just before the exam. While attempting to overwhelm the short-term memory may have some benefits for a smaller school test (Vacha & McBride, 1993), achieving top-mark at the A level exams lays in committing these pieces of information into the long-term memory (Kornell, 2009). Unfortunately, this process is for most of us a daunting and tedious task.
However, it does not have to be! The techniques that I am about to share can not only unlock parts of your brain but can make learning the dry bits surprisingly fun.
Let’s take the American Bill of Rights as an example. As any student of A-level Politics would know, the Bill of Rights contains the first ten amendments to the American Constitution. However, for A level Politics, we are mainly interested in six of them (the bold ones):
- Freedom of expression
- Right to bear arm
- No quartering of soldiers
- Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures
- Protection against double jeopardy and self-incrimination
- Rights of accused persons (e.g., right to a speedy and public trial)
- Right of trial by jury in civil cases
- Right to provide freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
- Other rights of the people
- Reserved powers to states
While most student would know some of the essential characteristics of the American Bill of Rights, many would struggle to recall the amendments accurately.
How would a typical student go about memorising them if the goal was to remember them well in the long run? The most common strategy is going over it several times, hoping that the amendments will stick in the memory at the end. More sophisticated students may create flashcards, putting the number of the amendment on one side, and the definition on the other. While these strategies are widespread and popular, their effectiveness is at best moderate.
Let’s see a way more superior technique to solve this simple memorisation problem. In brief, we will transform these pieces of information into images in space.
Sounds quirky? It is indeed quirky, but surprisingly effective. We will combine two potent aspects of our brain: use our imagination to create memorable images, and commit them to the part of our memory that is responsible for spatial cognition.
1) Imagination is the first principal component of developing a perfect memory. The simple fact of life is that we are exposed to an abundance of information on a daily basis. However, we only tend to remember the things in the long run that are out of the ordinary or have an intense emotional pulse associated with it. The grey details tend to slip away, making it impossible to recall. Still, the significant events of life, like a surprise birthday party, graduation, or a break up tend to stay with us for decades to come. As such, based on this idea, we want to use our imagination to portray seemingly uninteresting information in an exciting and unusual way.
2) The part of our brain that is responsible for spatial cognition, enabling us to navigate through the physical world is the second key component of unlocking superior memory. There is a compelling evolutionary reason for that. Our ancestors living thousands of years ago, had to be exceptionally skilful in developing mental representations of the dangerous world around them. They had to internalise the detailed spacial layout of the places they inhabited, so they could better defend themselves in case of an attack, or use it to trap pry. In such a hostile world, only those survived who mastered this skill. In other words, our ancestors. The ancient Greeks were the first to discover that they were able to memorise large quantities of information, by mentally locating them into familiar places (O’Brien, 2015)
Let’s see a quick example of how these two insights can help us to memorise ten random words: elephant, rocket, thee, moon, ice, telescope, boots, earrings, rope, monkeys.
After a minute or so, a typical person could recite most of them back; however, if I asked them in a week, they could only remember one or two. However, if you create a colourful image, locating it into a place you know well, you will be able to recall all of the words even in two weeks correctly.
First and foremost, it is of crucial importance to choose a place that you are familiar with and visualise the items there. I decided to choose my garden, and I do the following: I imagine an elephant wearing boots (this is unusual enough, it will stay in your memory). Furthermore, I picture that the elephant is standing on ice, and even though it wears boots, it is slipping around. Keeping its balance is made further difficult since our elephant also carries a tree on its back. So far, so good? Let’s even imagine that the elephant is wearing two huge earrings that pulls its ears down to the ground. Also, the left eye of the elephant has an attached telescope to it, fixated at the moon. However, it is difficult for the elephant to stay focused on the moon because it is slipping around on the ice. Seven of them are done, three more to go! Imagine that the elephant is not only aiming at the moon with its telescope-eye but also with its trunk. His trunk suddenly starts shooting rockets at the moon. However, given the ice and the wood it carries, it is not able to hit the moon, and the missiles explode just next to it. It is enough, however, to scare the (space-)monkeys living on the moon, they appear from their moon hideouts and throw a rope back to the earth and start climbing. Now, spend another 30 seconds visualising this picture, observe the scared faces of the monkey, hear the exploding rockets, try to imagine how it would it feel to carry a tree and to slip on ice. You can even smell the smoke of the explosions. The more sense you can use, seeing, hearing, feeling, and so on, the stronger your mental image becomes. Done? Now, good luck forgetting the ten words. I challenge you that you will remember in a week or even in two weeks time.
Now, let’s see how these insights can help us with the American Bill of Rights. While now we have the tools to commit the amendments into the memory, let me offer a supplementary technique that is especially effective when we have to remember numbered items. The method is called the number-shape system.
The idea is that we have to find an image resembling the shape of each number. This new vocabulary will help us create colourful mental pictures. These are my pictures:
0 – ring
1 – pencil
2 – snake
3 – handcuffs
4 – flag
5 – seahorse
6 – golf club
7 – boomerang
8 – snowman
9 – a balloon on a string
Now, let’s combine the highlighted amendments with the pictures:
1 (pencil) – Freedom of expression
2 (snake) – Right to bear arm
4 (flag) – Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizure
5 (seahorse) – Protection against double jeopardy and self-incrimination
8 (snowman) – Right to provide freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
10 (pencil + ring) – Reserved powers to states
Let’s combine everything that we have covered so far and save these images in the mental representation of a specific space we know well. Since I am writing this blog in my kitchen, I will locate these images here.
1) How to connect a pencil and freedom of expression? I imagine that a giant flying angry pencil, writes a list of demands on the white wall, expressing its opinion of the mistreatment of pencils. It writes: “Better treatment for pencils”; “Compulsory weekly sharpening for pencils” and so on. While writing, the pencil makes an annoying scratching noise.
2) How to connect a snake and a gun? Imagine that there is a giant snake just in front of the fridge, having two arms (everything can happen when you imagine it) and it holds a giant shotgun. You can also visualise that the refrigerator is filled with mice, the favourite snack of the snake, so it guards it with its life.
Let me give another example:
8) How to connect the snowman and the right to provide freedom from cruel and unusual punishment? Well, snowmen are known from melting when the temperature increases. Let’s thus put it in the oven. So imagine that a snowman is halfway in the hot oven melting away. That is cruel enough for a snowman.
So, now close your eyes and imagine these three events taking place in your own kitchen. For maximum effect, make it as vivid as possible, make the snake talk, telling you “Stay away from my snack!”.
Done? Congratulations, now you will remember these amendments for weeks to come. But what if you forget the number shape system? Do not worry, once you decided on them it is almost impossible to forget about them. Once you used them in making images, in this case using 1, 2 and 8, they will embed into your memory for good. Worst-case scenario, even if you forget you will be able to guess what number they mean. For example, what number may a snowman or a pencil represent? It is easy to see that they represent 8 and 1 as their shape resembles the shape of the numbers.
Now, it is your turn! I challenge you to create similar representations for the other three amendments.
The above-discussed techniques are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a myriad of exercises and further methods that may skyrocket your ability to memorise anything at all (O’Brien, 2015). There is a whole echo-chamber of memory athletes, with contests and even an annual world championship: https://www.worldmemorychampionships.com/
Throughout my university career in London, these techniques turned out to be incredibly helpful, complementing my learning and also enabling me to get a distinction for my MSc. The more I used them, the better I became. At my best, I was able to memorise a deck of card in less than 5 minutes and memorise 40 historical dates in less than 10 minutes — both with excellent recall even a week after.
Since I began tutoring, I have been using a number of these techniques to make my classes more fun and to empower my tutees to reach their full academic potential.
Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 1297–1317.
O’Brien, D. (2015). How to develop a brilliant memory week by week. US: Watkins.
Vacha, E. F., & McBride, M. J. (1993). Cramming: A barrier to student success, a way to beat the system or an effective learning strategy? College Student Journal, 27(1), 2–11.
Daniel is a politics and study skills tutor with Newman Tuition. To book a lesson with him, or one of our other excellent tutors, please call us on 020 3198 8006, email us at [email protected], or complete the form on the ‘Contact Us’ page.