If you could go on your dream vacation but afterward had to take a pill that made you lose all your memories, would you still go?
Almost every student I have asked this question, including me, has said no. And the reason is profound.
Our memories of an experience matter just as much, if not more, than the experience itself.
The vacation experience, whether for a few days or a week, is essential. But even more important is the decades for which you can reflect and share that memory with others. You experience an event once.
But you can remember it potentially thousands of times.
Clearly, our memories are an integral part of what makes life worth living. Which is why in this essay, we're going to take a deep dive into memory. We will be discussing each of these topics:
- Why should you improve your memory?
- How does memory work?
- The history of memory
- Three techniques to train your brain to remember anything
- So, should we try to remember everything?
Why Should You Improve Your Memory?
Fostering a greater memory can help you:
- Study more effectively in less time
- Learn more effectively by establishing a knowledge foundation of a topic
- Increase creativity
- Slow time down
- Memorize vocabulary for a language
- Memorize sentences
- Memorize speech topics for giving a speech
There are three things I want to hone in on from the benefits stated up above.
Firstly, memory in a field facilitates new learning.
The more embedded knowledge we have for a given topic, the more associations new knowledge has to stick to.
As a result, it's easier to educate ourselves when we have an initial network of facts to connect new information.
Secondly, fostering a better memory can make us more creative.
Creativity is an act of assemblage. Often times, insight comes from taking ideas from one industry, discipline, or area and transferring them to another. It comes from the mish-mash of tons of ideas together.
The assemblage of interconnected but disparate ideas.
With this in mind, creativity is enhanced, not hurt, by having a fantastic memory.
The more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you will be at coming up with new ideas; fantastic memory enhances creativity.
Thirdly, creating new memories stretches out psychological time and lengthens our perception of our lives.
Contrary to the popular adage, time passes by more quickly when you are bored and more slowly when you are having fun. This is because we remember events in relation to other events. The more memories we lay down, the denser our network of associations becomes to recall that memory and the longer the event feels like it took reflecting on it.
This is why the older you get, the faster time seems to pass.
If that sounds dreary, you're in good luck. The memory techniques we will discuss later are some of the most fun things you can do.
They will decrease the speeding up of time.
Why Am I The One To Tell You This?
I have read and integrated books such as Make It Stick, Moonwalking With Einstein, consumed tens of hundreds of articles related to memory and taken courses like the Magnetic Memory Methods Class, and multiple studying masterclasses on Skillshare.
These insights have allowed me to cut my studying time in half at college and quarter the time it takes me to memorize a speech for my speech team. And I also have learned these things recently. So I know what it feels like to be a beginner in the memory rabbit hole.
And the best part is there's nothing special about me.
Anyone can improve their memory drastically in as little as one day.
We tend to talk about good memory as if it's a gift. That couldn't be further from the truth. Some of the best memories in the world exist in the memory champions of today.
Memory champions compete in the World Memory Championships--yep, you heard that right--there's a sport for remembering. They memorize things using ancient techniques used by the Australian Aboriginals for tens of thousands of years and more recently The Ancient Greeks.
These techniques include:
- The Memory Palace Network (For memorizing things in space)
- The Major System (For memorizing numbers)
- The Celebrity List (For memorizing words and names)
Using these techniques, memory champions can perform fantastical memory feats like remembering an entire deck of cards in around 30 seconds, memorizing tens of thousands of digits of Pie, and memorizing pages worth of poetry word for word.
Now you're going to learn their secret.
How Does Memory Work?
To understand how the memory champions remember things so well, we must first learn how memory works through two main scopes:
- How our brain retrieves and memorizes information
- The types of memory
How Our Brain Retrieves And Memorizes Information
Memory at the most fundamental physiological level is a pattern of associations between neurons.
As a drastic simplification, retrieving a memory is as simple as a cue prompting the most closely associated memory to come up. For example, one of your classmates asks you about the worst professor you have ever had. This cue prompts a whole bunch of different memories to come up. These memories weren't lost to you. Instead they were only brought up when your brain deemed it important.
Evolution tends to minimize waste, which is why you don't hold every one of your memories in constant awareness at all times; that would make it impossible to respond to your environment proficiently, and it would cost way too much energy.
To save space in memory our brain memorizes things with a few tricks, tricks we need to be aware of to improve our memories: We remember surprising, vivid, vulgar, We remember connected things We remember spatial things We remember things in snapshots rather than through continuous videos
Firstly, we remember surprising, vivid, and vulgar things.
This is mostly because uncertain situations are generally more likely to be dangerous and our brain prioritizes them in memory. You can't die as easily from good things (especially if its peanut butter) compared to bad things like getting mauled by a hidden lion. And because uncertain things are generally more likely to be vulgar, vivid, and surprising, they are more memorable.
Secondly we remember connected things.
To speed up recall, your brain associates information together. If a cue for one memory comes up, you are more likely to remember things related to that memory. For example, suppose you focus on remembering the equation for photosynthesis. In that case, you are more likely to recall associated memories like the equation for cellular respiration, images of plants, or that quiz you failed in sixth-grade Biology (okay maybe that was just me).
Our brain is an associative network.
Thirdly, we are incredibly good at remembering things in space.
Humans evolved to have great spatial navigation. When we were surviving in the African Savanah we had to differentiate in space where food, shelter, and other things were. These spatial memorization capacities have stayed with us to this day. Sitting reading this post, I invite you to close your eyes and think about how good your imagination of your childhood home is right now. You can likely walk through it as if you were there.
That's the power of spatial navigation.
Fourthly, the brain remembers things in snapshots, usually during the peaks and end of an experience. The experience becomes a summary phrase such as ("Playing Minecraft was fun") or a small set of key features (Physics defying lava castle, diamond find, pig slaughtering). In effect our memories of the past are at best broad fallible summaries of the actual experience.
When remembering these broad fallible summaries, we recall the snapshots our brain stored and fabricate a narrative to fill in the sections between.
For example, our memory of going to the zoo becomes a summary: it was hot, and the pandas were cool. Remembering this event years later, we might falsely believe the sun created heat waves, and we got ice cream while watching the pandas. These are reasonable assumptions because we remember it was hot.
In essence, our brain weaves together our memory snapshots to create a narrative when remembering.
We don't remember everything about our lives.
Unless you are one of the most famous psychological patients ever, S.
According to the New Yorker of 2017, S showed up at Moscow's Academy of Communist Education one April afternoon in 1929. It was soon discovered he had a condition called Synesthesia, a rare perceptual disorder that causes the senses to bizarrely intertwine. When S hears a number he also see colors and sounds associated. For example, he sees a mustached man for the number seven alongside the color blue and a Russian accent.
S serves as a perfect example to how memory works.
He remembers virtually everything that has happened to him because everything creates a surprising, vivid, vulgar image connected through a sticky web of associations.
Types Of Memory
Next, we need to understand the broad types of memory so we can discuss what we mean by improving our memories.
The two main types of memory are procedural and declarative memory. Procedural memory is recall of how to do subconscious motor skill related things such as swimming or driving a car and nonmotor skills like skill learning and implicit associations like in classical conditioning. Declarative memory deals with the memory of facts, episodes, and concepts. It's further divided into episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory is our memory of events in episodes. Your memory of your birthday for example. Semantic memory is our memory of words, numbers, and facts.
For the rest of this essay, I will mainly focus on how we can improve our declarative memory because that is most relevant to school, but your procedural memory can be improved using these techniques as well.
Now we can start diving into the fascinating history of memory.
The reason we are traveling back in time is because all of the memory techniques and tricks I will be elaborating on have been used by the Ancients for tens of thousands of years.
They have simply been lost today.
The History Of Memory
To understand the history of memory we will look at it through two lenses:
- Our Relationship With Memory In The Past
- Our Relationship With Memory Now
Our Relationship With Memory In The Past
Before the invention of writing we communicated entirely orally.
This meant entire cultural practices had to be passed from generation to generation solely through memory.
In effect, people needed incredible methods for fostering memory, and they did.
According to researcher Lynne Kelly in her book the Memory Code, many of our ancestors like the Australian Aboriginals, tens of thousands of years ago, used the landscape itself as a memory palace, a technique which involves using visualizations of real or fake locations with images that associate to what you want to remember inside to assist in retrieving memories (We will talk about this extensively later). For example, according to Kelly, the Australian Aboriginals would construct song lines as long as 800 kilometers to make their memories have visual, spatial, and audible associations inside their memory palaces.
Memory was incredibly prized in the days before writing, and the techniques they had to memorize emphasize this.
Even with the invention of writing, the Ancient Greeks and many other cultures continued to prize memory.
In fact, to the Ancient Greeks intelligence was synonymous with memory.
This was because their relationship with information was much different than it is now. Information in text was much scarcer than it is today. If you took a book out, you were encouraged to memorize it, so you wouldn't have to take it out again.
Because information in texts was so scarce, they wrote the texts themselves completely differently.
According to Joshua Foer from Moonwalking With Einstein "In the time of Socrates, Greek texts were written on long, continuous scrolls—some stretching up to sixty feet—pasted together from sheets of pressed papyrus reeds imported from the Nile Delta. These texts were cumbersome to read, and even more cumbersome to write." They weren't written like books are today, with indexes, tables of content, or even spaces. They read like this:
ASYOUCANSEEITSNOTVERYEASYTOREADTE XTWRITTENWITHOUTSPACESORPUNCTUATI ONOFANYKINDOREVENHELPFULLYPOSITIO NEDLINEBREAKSANDYETTHISWASEXACTLY THEFORMOFINSCRIPTIONUSEDINANCIENTGREECE.
Scrolls weren't meant to be scanned. They existed not to hold content externally, but rather help its reader navigate it internally. The assumption was you had memorized the text and, therefore, only needed it to bolster your recall.
In effect, the quality of one's reading was seen as vastly more important than the quantity.
This prizing of memory showed itself not only in the Ancient Greeks texts but in their speeches as well.
The phrase topic sentence comes from the Greek word Topos which means place. It's meant to signify how Greeks would use images in their memory palace to remember topics for speeches. In addition, the phrase in the first place, in the second place, etc. all came from the use of memory palaces to remember speech topics.
Clearly, memory has been prized throughout history.
It was essential to pass down knowledge from generation to generation when everything was oral. Even when writing was introduced to the world, the Ancient Greeks and many other not mentioned cultures continued to see a good memory as a marker of character.
Unfortunately, nowadays memory is seen more as something that some people naturally have better of, not as something that can or should be cultivated over time.
The question is, why?
Our Relationship With Memory Now
The art of memory as died over recent years.
The first major knock in the coffin for memory came with the invention of writing.
Writing allows us to externalize our thoughts, effectively offloading the need for our need to store that information in our first brain.
Socrates himself warned writing was an "invention that will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them."
If Socrates was ambivalent about notetaking in the 400s and 300s BCE, he would be shocked at the state of notetaking today. It's all because of one word.
For most of history, notetaking and reading was hard. Stone and wood were obnoxiously slow and difficult to carve notes in. In addition, many people weren't literate, meaning scribes—professions whose sole job was to take notes and read—were required. And as shown earlier, books weren't in abundance and the books that were weren't easy to read.
This created lots of friction in taking notes and reading.
Today the friction for taking notes and reading is practically nonexistent.
First, reading is much easier.
Indexes became more common, like with the Bible in the thirteenth century, page numbers and table of contents became commonplace. Finally, the Gutenberg's Printing Press exploded the proliferation of written work in 1440. The notion of what it meant to be erudite evolved from possessing information to knowing where to find information.
Quantity of reading is now prized over quality.
Secondly, memorization isn't prioritized as it once was.
Another devastating nail in the coffin for memory came in the late 19th and early 20th century when John Dewey, an educational reformist, stepped in and began making a case for a new kind of education that prized experiential learning methods over rote memorization. This movement is based on good intentions but was taken too far in some areas leading some to see rote memorization as a relic of the past.
Over a hundred years of progressive education, memorization in education has become discredited as oppressive and stultifying, a waste of time.
Thirdly, notetaking is easier than ever before.
"We've gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years." - Moonwalking With Einstein
When I wake up, I can get to exercise and writing, confident nothing I need to do later in the day will fall through the cracks because it's on my to-do list in Habitica and Google Calendar. When I drive, bike, or walk somewhere new I stick the location into Google maps. I have photographs to store the images I want to remember, books to store knowledge, and now, thanks to large search engines and ChatGPT, pretty much every easy-to-memorize fact is at my fingertips with a five-second search. Much of this is incredible as it gives me room in consciousness to think about other things, but it does leave me with a surprisingly lacking memory in some key areas. And it's not just me.
There is little friction for everyone in notetaking.
As a result, modern society is losing the art of memory formation we have known for so long.
It's imperative that we rediscover the wisdom of the Ancients because when we lose our memories, we lose ourselves.
Three Techniques to Train Your Brain to Remember Anything
Here are the three foundational memory techniques used by the Ancients to improve memory:
- The Memory Palace Network (For memorizing things in position)
- The Major System or PAO System (For memorizing numbers)
- The Celebrity List (For memorizing words and names)
I will briefly go over what each of these is, an example of how they work, and give some outside resources on where you can learn more about each one.
The Memory Palace
The foundation of all the other memorization techniques is the memory palace.
Memory palaces involve visualizing real or fake locations with images inside to assist in retrieving memories.
The general idea is to take a place that you know quite well, like the candy store in town--you know you frequented that place a lot, admit it--and place vivid images inside of them representing the things you want to remember. Then remembering becomes a simple act of walking through your memory palace in your mind's eye and recalling whatever you want to remember from the images throughout.
For example, recently, I have been doing lots of Impromptu Speaking in Speech and Debate.
It requires tons memorizing short anecdotes to exemplify points you want to make in speeches.
So I have made my childhood home into a memory palace by placing incredibly memorable images throughout that serve as cue reminders for the Impromptu stories I want to tell.
Take this impromptu story.
During the three kingdoms period, the general Ma Su was tasked with defending Jieting from an invading army led by the famous clever and intelligent general, Zhuge Liang. Despite being warned by his advisers about the strength of the enemy forces and the risks of deploying an untested strategy, Ma Su insisted on deploying an "invisible army" with unmanned tents and fake soldiers to confuse the enemy. The plan backfired miserably because Zhuge Liang himself had used the invisible army strategy before. In effect, he was able to get a surprise attack on Ma Su's army destroying them. This story shows the danger of ignoring outside feedback.
This would take quite a long time to remember rotely, and even if I did, I likely wouldn't remember it years later if prompted.
Instead, I encapsulate this entire story in one image inside a closet on the third floor of my childhood home.
The image has Goku with a chinese beard--meant to remind me of Ma Su, get it Goku, Ma Su--being whispered to by two Chinese advisors. They are hiding behind a fake tent with fake soldiers, which reminds me of the fake army strategy. Finally, Zhuge Liang sounds like "Huge Long" so I have an image of a super huge long Chinese general on a horse attacking Ma Su's encampment.
I have done this for every one of my anecdotes for IMP.
All the images are located spatially throughout my home in recognizable places, so remembering them is simply an act of "walking" through the home in my head and seeing the images pop up.
But you don't just have to have one memory palace.
The true beauty of this technique comes with creating an interconnected network of memory palaces to allow for memorizing vast amounts of things.
If you want to learn more about how to build your first memory palace, I strongly recommend you check out this article from memory expert Anthony Metivlier.
It get's even cooler.
Using your memory palace network and the following two memory technique methods, you can memorize anecdotes, numbers, names, poetry, speech topics, and even entire books if you want.
First, let's explore the major system that allows you to remember numbers.
The Major System
The major system is a method for converting numbers into sounds which you can then turn into memorable images you can place inside a memory palace.
Essentially, the system works by converting numbers into consonants, as shown below, and then turning those consonants into words by adding vowels. Because none of the numbers are associated with a vowel noise, you can decode your images through analyzing which consonant sounds the word makes when speaking it out loud.
For example, let's say you wanted to remember the number 12.
1 stands for the consonant d or t and 2 for n. What word has a t or a d first and ends with an n? Dino! And what's a recognizable image for the word dino? Trex!
So to remember 12, you would place a Trex inside your memory palace.
Now if you want to remember a long set of numbers like from your credit card, say 1127-5678-4945-3145 (don't worry, this isn't as actually my credit card number lol), all you have to do is convert each number couplet into an image and then place them in a memory palace in the order you want to remember them in. In this case, the Trex would be first, followed by more images.
Isn't that so cool!
Imagine remembering equations for STEM classes, your credit card number, or, if you want to impress your friends 100 digits of PI.
If you want to learn more about the major system, I recommend you look into this article by memory expert Anthony Metivier.
But it gets even better.
The Celebrity List
The celebrity list is a list of prominent people in your life you create to use inside of the images in your memory palaces.
It works off the idea that celebrities are incredibly memorable, so using them in your image associations makes sense.
This is especially useful for memorizing names.
Say you meet someone new named Dwayne Shunk. Normally, you would hear the name, forget it in the next five seconds, and then die in embarrassment when you don't know the guy's name three days later. However, with a celebrity list, you can create an image of Dwayne the Rock Johnson (Dwayne) dunking (Shunk) on a 500-foot tall basketball hoop while skydiving to make it more memorable.
Then the next time you see that person, your image of them comes back up, and you can decode it to remember his name.
How Should You Get Started Using These Techniques?
You now know three of the most powerful memory techniques used by the Ancients to remember things.
You may be feeling overwhelmed.
I was, too, at first.
But I found the greatest piece of advice I ever got for learning the methods was to just get started. The only way to learn to use the methods is to, well, use the methods. Perfectionism is the enemy of the good. Find a learning project associated with what you want to remember more deeply. Than try out creating one memory palace with a couple of different images.
Make your way from there.
So, Should We Try To Remember Everything?
The simple answer is no.
These memory techniques are incredible for improving your memory for what you set your mind. However, despite their simplicity, they are mentally taxing to do. The use case for these memory techniques is not to remember everything you put your eyes on; it's to change your relationship with memory in the first place.
Stop seeing memory as a relic of the past.
Your memories make up who you are.
So don't remember everything that you come across. But consider improving your memory in the first principles of whatever areas you are interested in, like the history of writing, what a force is, etc. Because not only will it help your learning and creativity, but you will also be able to come across as an arrogant prick when you recite a line from Shakespeare from memory.
If you want to have a good life, be the kind of person who remembers to remember.
- The 5-step guide to creating a memory palace
- How to create a memory palace network and personal association list
- My best tips and beginner mistakes for creating memory palaces
- Advanced memory palace techniques
Here's what I would like to share this week.
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📖Book - Drive by Daniel H. Pink : Reward someone and they will do more of a behavior, punish them and they will do less. This is the intuitive behavior model we have had for hundreds of years, and yet as Daniel Pink argues, it's outdated. Nowadays with the amount of creative jobs we have, intrinsic motivation is much more important. Reading this book will help you understand not only the terrible things that happen with overreliance on extrinsic motivation but also how you can build more intrinsic motivation in your own life as well.
🎙️Podcast - How to Stop Overthinking The Memory Palace Technique : This video gives some great fantastic advice regarding how to start getting into developing a memory palace network without falling for perfectionism.
📺YouTube Video - How to Memorize a Textbook: A 10 Step Memory Palace Tutorial : While I don't think you will have to memorize any textbook for your classes verbatim, this video gives great insight into how you can go about memorizing the main ideas of a book for years to come.
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