Memory is a strange place. Essentially memory is everything that we have. Without memory, we are literally unconscious, a living dead. The tragic incident of Clive Wearing shows us the role our memory plays in our daily lives. Due to a devastating virus attack, he lost the ability to form lasting new memories. His memory for events lasts between only seven and thirty seconds. Since the illness manifested, Wearing has been living in complete limbo. His consciousness has been confined within a time span of 30 seconds, after which it gets reset, and Mr. Wearing starts with a blank slate again. To many, it is the most painful of them all to have your conscience lasting for only 30 seconds. It is similar to living a 30-second life throughout the rest of your living days.
We are not that unfortunate like Mr. Wearing, but all of us whine about our fading memory from time to time. We can hardly find an adult human being who hasn’t come across the perennial question- what’s wrong with my memory? Surprisingly, countless works of literature show that we can form extraordinary memory by practicing and following certain techniques. But books don’t say the truth always, do they? How can someone like me who often forgets what he is doing in the kitchen or keep his keys after 5 minutes of getting into the home? Can someone with a jellyfish memory like me be elevated to a memory champion?
Joshua Foer says it can be done. As a journalist, he was always looking for a new challenge when he came across the USA memory championship. Out of curiosity, Joshua dedicated one year of his life to the practice of memory exercise. He did everything a memory challenger would do; he followed every technique, met many experts in the field, and even took firsthand lessons from some of the masters. He left no stones unturned, and the following year, he came out as the US memory champion.
Being a journalist, the cognitive abilities of Joshua has always been polished. But applying those abilities to be a world champion is a different ball game altogether. Yet, with diligence and with the help of some extraordinary specialists, Joshua managed to make the transition from a complete beginner to a record-breaking memory specialist.
Truth be told, I do not hold any remarkable cognitive capacity, nor would my achievements signify any. But as a master’s in Engineering, I do know that my cerebral prowess might not fall too short that off Joshua’s. Hence, I might be able to emulate some of the techniques he implemented to be the US memory champion.
The first thing I did was to arrange for a copy of Joshua’s book. Apart from being a phenomenal read, an important insight the book provided is about the inner world of the memory circle. It almost felt like the forbidden fruit that opened some doors for me which I did not even know existed. The resources were priceless in a true sense, and I didn’t spare much time before jumping into them. Obviously, I didn’t want to participate in any sort of championship, but there must be a memory project that I wanted to excel in. So, I finalized Vocabulary.
I’ve always dreamt of being a word aficionado. Vocabulary has excited me since childhood. But can these techniques be of any help to build a vocab to die for? Dr. Yip Swee Chooi says it can. The man was able to memorize a 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary, a herculean task in its own right. I followed his path and stumbled upon a memory technique that was so intriguing yet complex that it immediately hooked me in.
I love grandiose—no wonder the word “Palace” captured my attention at first glance. A system first demonstrated by the great Roman philosopher Cicero in 55 BC, Memory Palace is a method that uses our spatial memory and visualization skills to create a mental structure of things that we want to recall. Let’s see how the strategy works.
As mentioned, Memory Palace takes the help of our spatial memory skills. Navigating a location, finding a route to any place, or maneuvering around any space requires our spatial memory to work. Here, for the simplest demonstration, we can use a room. A room that is familiar to you, for example, your bedroom or the living room. Close your eyes and imagine the room. Take a mental walk, clockwise or anticlockwise, through the elements of the room. Normally you can see the entrance, the cupboard, the bed, the window, the sofa or the chair, the table, the clock hanging on the wall, the painting adjacent to the clock and so on. These elements will work like ‘pegs’ or hooks where you will place your memories.
Placing your memories
Yeah, I know. Placing Your Memory sounds so abstract. But let me describe what I mean by this. Our memory works with Association. Everything that we store inside our brain, we do it by connecting it to something that we are already familiar with. We would use this trait of our brain to trigger the memories that we want to recall. By this, I simply mean that we will visualize our bed or our sofa in such a way that it triggers the memory of something else, preferably what we would choose to recall.
Remembering the past
Let’s take a small tour of the prime ministers of Canada since the second world war. The list goes like this-
- Louis Saint Laurent (1948–57)
- John G. Diefenbaker (1957–63)
- Lester B. Pearson (1963–68)
- Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968–79; 1st time)
- Joe Clark (1979–80)
- Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1980–84; 2nd time)
- John N. Turner (1984)
- Brian Mulroney (1984–93)
- Kim Campbell (1993)
- Jean Chrétien (1993–2003)
- Paul Martin (2003–06)
- Stephen Harper (2006–15)
- Justin Trudeau (2015– Present)
Now let’s start from Louis Laurent. I took the first element of my room after the entrance: my coat hanger. I imagined a big board hanging there saying “low rent”. That reminded me how little the rent for this apartment is and an instant joy filled my heart. The next item is a small drawer, and I imagined John Watson (from Sherlock Holmes) baking a cake there, wearing a shiny apron that says ‘Die’ on it. The picture is more than capable of reminding me of John Diefenbaker, the next president. Moving on, I visualized a big airplane with a maple leaf painted on it resting on my bed, which is just beside the drawer. This one is easy, as this vividly reminds me of the Pearson airport in Toronto. From then, my mind can find its way to Lester Pearson, the next prime minister.
Following the idea, you can place the complete list of Prime Ministers inside the mental model of your room. All you have to do is model a picture, the more ridiculous and more vivid, the better that can trigger a specific name or Association. Rest assured, your mind will take the wheel from there.
Now that I have acquainted myself with the method, I decided to implement it for my project. My plan was massive, as I created a list of words that I wanted to memorize. I chose the words alphabetically, so there were 30 words starting with A, 23 words starting with B, and so on. Then I pictured a mental model of my house and some of the establishments on the street passing through. Starting with the ground floor (I was blessed to have a three-story house, but you can imagine a 100-story behemoth if you want), I visualized room by room, creating multiple pegs for each room. Soon I was able to fit 146 words in my house itself. Then I extended my imagination to the houses and shops adjacent to my house. I made sure the model was as accurate as possible so that whenever I would pass those houses in real life, those pegs would remind me of the memory I associated them with. Overall, I ended up building a model that accommodates close to 296 words. In total, to memorize those 442 words, it took me six weeks and a lot of funny imagination.
During the whole process, I noticed that more than the words, it is the imagination and visualization that excited me. The fun of turning a dull object into something preposterous and the thrill of finding the image triggering something totally different is a stimulating enjoyment. Of course, there are some moments of banality that I must acknowledge. One big part of this memorization technique deals with recall. The strategy for that is also simple- once you are done memorizing for the day, you have to regurgitate it mentally at a given space. This is known as Active Recall, and the studies recommend a systematic approach to achieve this. The duration goes like this- you have to recall immediately after 1 hour of memorization, followed by one day, three days, one week, one month, and three months respectively. If you are able to recall the process even after three months, congratulations, you have just turned the process into long-term memory that even you would struggle to forget.
I agree the practicalities of these techniques are limited to the study circles and some specialized professions. But ongoing studies are coming up with ways to accommodate these systems in our day-to-day lives, so we can remember those things happening around us all the time. My experience says that following this journey has not only rewarded me with a great vocabulary but also boosted my confidence in my memory. Now that I am aware my memory is not fading away, it only made me stronger mentally. Now I know that if I put in the effort, I can memorize where I have kept my keys and why I have come into the kitchen. And the sense of control over my attention is worth a million for me.