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The average person can hold seven distinct items in their short-term memory, and keep them there for around 20 seconds. So how do competitors in memory sports manage to hold hundreds of items in their memory? Are they just gifted? The answer is no — researchers have found that memory experts do not possess special brains. Instead, they use techniques and principles that allow them to anchor information into their long-term memory more easily. Here’s why they are better than you.
1) You don’t encode memories in meaningful ways.
Memory works through association. Try to process the information – what is it similar to, different from, and why? For example, if you’re trying to memorize a certain philosophical theory, compare it to another one. If you’re trying to remember someone’s name, think of other people with that name, and picture them all having a “Brian Party.”
For memorization of things like lists and digits, you’ll need to use a system like the link system or the memory palace. These involve making ridiculous mental images out of the list items, hence making them more memorable.
2) You only have one path to the memory
Say you receive a new four-digit PIN in the mail: 1429. You look at the slip, repeat it a few times in your head then throw it away. The mistake is you were only exposed to the memory in one context. Memory experts create multiple cues by which to recall information. They make their cues meaningful, novel, or ridiculous to make them easier to remember. For example:
• Create two mental images based on those four digits. Maybe the 14 is a local bus in your area, and you know a sports player who wears 29 on his jersey. Imagine that player in his full sports gear driving the 14 bus in whatever area it goes.
• Visualize a bright light moving across a keypad, from the eight to the four, to the two, and to the nine.
• Imagine you wake up in the morning and your partner (or imagined partner) is holding a lottery ticket shouting “We one! We one!”. You open your bedroom door and there is Tiger Woods shouting “Four!” as he drives off. William Shakespeare is at the top of your staircase saying “Two be, or not two be!”. You go downstairs and try to get into your kitchen but Hitler blocks your way, shouting “Nine! Nine!”.
3) You don’t practice recall
If you want to memorize something, you must practice recalling the information. Even if you create several meaningful paths to the information, you need to test these paths and make sure they work.
You can use one of the many flashcard apps available like Anki or Mnemosyne, or you can go low-tech and use actual, physical flashcards. If you get the question wrong, go over your mental cues, make them more interesting and ridiculous, and try again.
It’s a good idea to test yourself every few hours at first, but you can reduce this to every day, every week, every month etc., as you improve. Try to focus on speed, and being able to recall the information more quickly.
Memory champions have proven that good memory isn’t something you have, it’s something you do. If you practice these skills regularly, you’ll have no problem remembering phone numbers, shopping lists, people’s names, and even complex, abstract ideas.
What was that PIN again?