Memory Training Crash Course, Part I

A book I picked up on a whim, way back in high school, was Harry Lorayne's How to Develop a Superpower Memory. As you can see, I still own my original battered, faded, shriveled copy. Harry Lorayne is a stage performer who performs feats of memory--for example, a standard trick is to introduce himself to every member of an audience before a show and then be able to call each of them by name. Lorayne's book promises to vastly expand your ability to memorize names, dates, numbers, etc. This is one case where the extravagant claims are made good on. I have used these methods for decades--routinely now when I need to memorize a phone number or a shopping list (although, to be honest, I'm still a little weak on learning people's names).

The caveat is that you need to do some groundwork and practice, practice, practice, although you will see improvements from the very beginning. Here I want to show you just enough to whet your appetite. If you want to learn it for real, you should get the book and read it for yourself (although this particular book is out of print, Lorayne and Lucas's The Memory Book is still available).

In this post I will introduce the method of mental linking. This method will help you remember a list of items in forward or reverse order. It is easy to learn, and is also the foundation for some more sophisticated methods.

The method of mental linking is quite simple, but sometimes mildly undignified in practice. Fortunately the loss of dignity is all internal to your own mind. Get over it.

For demonstration purposes, we will memorize the following list of items:

paper, pencil, helicopter, shaving cream, screwdriver

The first two items on the list are "paper" and "pencil". We want to link these mentally by visualizing an illogical, absurd image combining both elements. You must resist the tendency to look for logical connection--it won't work for this purpose. For example, you could imagine yourself writing on paper with a pencil--this is far too prosaic to be useful.

Instead, visualize yourself trying to write with an oversized pencil that is made of cut and pasted paper. Perhaps it crumples in your hand as you try to write.

Visualize it. See it. The more vivid the image, the better. You have just linked "paper" and "pencil" together.

Next is "helicopter." Visualize an enormous pencil hovering overhead with rotors like a helicopter. See it vividly. Hear the sound effect: thwopthwopthwopthwop.... This links together "pencil" and "helicopter."

Next is "shaving cream." Visualize a helicopter with shaving cream spread over it as if it is prepared to be shaved. A giant razor approaches.... You may hesitate to imagine anything quite so ridiculous. This is where willingness to sacrifice your dignity is key.

This links together "helicopter" and "shaving cream."

Finally is "screwdriver." Imagine yourself attempting to drive a large screw, but using a can of shaving cream instead of a screwdriver. It is not going well--shaving cream keeps squirting out over your hands.

And there we have it. You have created a mental chain of links from each item on the list. Can you recall the list? Try it, starting with "paper."

Try it backwards, starting with "screwdriver."

To keep this post short, I limited the list to five items, but I hope you are convinced that you can now remember ten or fifty items in sequence if you want to. With practice, you can compose a suitable ridiculous mental image in less than a second. It helps that you don't need a logical connection.

To further impress yourself, try recalling the list again an hour from now, and then again tomorrow.

I use this method, for example, to memorize shopping lists. I remember the first item on the list by linking it to the front door of the supermarket.

Drawback to the mental linking method: it only works with things you can visualize concretely. In a future post, I will describe how to handle abstract objects--in particular, numbers and numerical sequences.

(N.B. While I learned this and other techniques from Lorayne's book, he did not invent all of them. See, for example, Wikipedia on the Method of loci.)

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