How to Memorize 10X Faster

 
 

Your Memory is Like Owning a Ferrari You Don't Know How to Drive

What’s more ridiculous – most people don’t even know they own a Ferrari-like memory!

When I was still a student, I hated studying with an almost physical passion. It was extremely hard just to sit down and open a text book.
 
Why?

Because it seemed so pointless. I knew no matter how many times I read the text book, I'd remember virtually nothing.
 
And re-reading over and over and over again in the hope something will stick is just … painful.

It wasn’t until years later I discovered what an incredible memory I (and you) have. The problem wasn’t that I had a ‘bad’ memory – I’d just never been taught how to use what I had.

Like I said, I had a Ferrari all along, but I didn’t know how to drive it!
 

The #1 Mistake of Memorization

As a professional memory coach, people say to me all the time - "I have a terrible memory." 

And that’s their biggest mistake, right there.

It’s the belief that memory is a thing, or a part of their brain a doctor could look at and say...

“Oh dear, that’s a small and weak looking memory – no wonder you’re forgetful”.

But memory is not a physical part of your brain.

It’s a mental function or a skill that can be learned and improved.

Think about this...

If you’ve never learned to snow ski, would you be surprised when you keep falling over?

No way!

So if you’ve never learned best-practice memorization techniques, why should you expect to remember anything fast and effectively?

Learning to ski is not magic.

You learn the best techniques and then practice them. If you’re taught well, you’re cruising down the slopes before you know it.

Unleashing the incredible natural ability of your memory is exactly the same.

You learn the best techniques and then practice them. And you can do it in very little time.

Repeat after me –

“My memory is a Ferrari, and I’m going to learn how to drive it super-fast!”

The Limits of Our Memory

One of the most highly cited research papers in psychology suggests the number of objects an average person can hold in their working memory is 7, plus or minus 2.

So I created a whiteboard animation video – watch it below – that challenges people to recall a list of 10 random words.

Sure enough, after 30,000 responses here are the results:

Words correct    1-4:   16%
                               5-7:   62%
                             8-10:   22%

Even if I gave people more words (or more chances to ‘win’), the scores would remain virtually the same.

So it seems hopeless, right? If there’s a proven barrier preventing us from remembering and recalling more than seven things, how can we possibly memorize more effectively?

This is when the video goes on to blow the mind of almost everybody who watches it...

It gives a second list of words – 15 this time. But it uses a little bit of ‘brain hackery’ and shows the words as a visual story.


The results this time?

Words correct    1-3:    2%
                               4-6:    2%
                               7-9:    6%
                           10-12:   17%
                           13-15:   70%

That’s a simple demonstration that your memory isn’t so limited!

(For a 21 word ultra-challenge, check out this new video.)

How Memorization Should Work

Read any article or book on memorization and you’ll discover the three steps of memorization.

The 3 R's of Remembering are -

  • Record
  • Retain
  • Retrieve

**Other names include Encode-Store-Retrieve or Learn it-Store it-Retrieve it

It’s nice and simple, and it makes sense – information comes in, and we store it safely in our mind until we need to recall it.

So why can we only remember about 7 random words? Where do the 3 R’s fall short?

Most people rely on their ‘unconscious’ memory.

They don’t intentionally do anything in their mind to memorize new things - just hope they’ll remember it almost by magic.

The 3 R’s are simple to understand, but I prefer to think of memorization in an even simpler way -

Memorization is about building connections between pieces of information in your mind.

The key words are ‘building connections’.

I like this explanation, first because you can’t build something without thinking about it. You have to take intentional action.

Second, that action has to be focused on creating a connection or link, a bit like building a bridge.

To memorize super-effectively you need to put the 3 R’s on steroids, and consciously or intentionally build connections using some specific memory techniques.

No, it’s not magic.

Recognizing Garbage 'Memory Tips'

You can use the 3 R’s as a checklist to easily recognize if a particular approach to memorization is going to be effective … or if it’s completely garbage.

For example, think about an average person listening to a list of words and hoping to magically remember them.

Did they intentionally do anything to the words to encode and record them in their mind, or to build connections between them?

No.

Have they successfully retained or stored the words in their memory?

Not really, no.

Did they try to retrieve the words from their memory?

Yes, but without the first two steps they were inevitably unsuccessful.

It’s no surprise the average person can only remember about 7 words.

And if you asked them a day later to recall the same words, they would fail miserably.

If a person recalls 8, 9 or even all 10 words, it’s typically because they were able to somehow build connections in their mind between the words – that’s the power of recording and retaining.

Some Common Garbage Memory Tips

Just so you don’t waste your time on memory tips that are NOT going to 10X your memory...

...let’s quickly apply the same 3 R's checklist against a list of tips you’ll frequently see on study blogs everywhere.

 

  • Eat right
  • Drink water
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Take Omega-3
  • Meditate
  • Exercise
  • Learn a new skill
  • Socialize
  • Laugh
  • Lose weight
  • Moderate alcohol
  • Start a hobby
  • Quit smoking
  • Take supplements
  • Listen to music

Do any of these involve encoding information or building connections within it?

No.

Do they involve an intentional strategy to retain information?

No.

Do they even require you to retrieve knowledge you’ve learned?

No.

In fact, none of these ‘tips’ even mention what you need to remember or how to do it. They’re focused on having a ‘healthy brain’.

That’s fine, but it’s a bit like going to your first snow skiing lesson and the instructor says -

“OK, what’s really important is that you have skis that work properly”.

Your reaction? A deeply sarcastic - “Thanks very much Captain Obvious!”

Yes, it’s important to have a fresh and alert body and mind, but that’s not a memory tip – that’s general advice for healthy living.

Why Repetition and Spaced-Repetition are Terrible (the Way Most People Use Them)

Now let’s think about another huge mistake people make.

What’s the most common way to remember something?

Repeat it over and over.

Repetition’s slightly more sophisticated cousin is called ‘spaced repetition’.

This basically means reviewing things less often once you can confidently remember them.

You could also call repetition ‘practice’, and practice is obviously valuable…

…except when you don’t do it right!

 

Let’s go back to the 3 R’s again - Record, Retain, Retrieve.

The way most people use repetition is this – they practice retrieving the information over and over.

When you study with flashcards (a physical tool for using repetition) this is what you do…

“Do I remember the answer? No?
How about now? No?
What about this time, do I know it yet?”

Unfortunately, they don’t use an intentional strategy for recording and retaining the information.

They’re relying on ‘magic’ again!

No wonder repetition doesn’t work very well.

If you throw enough mud against a wall some of it will eventually stick…

...but your arm will almost fall off from exhaustion.

The Science of Forgetting (and Why Spaced-Repetition is Fantastic) 

Back in 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus created the ‘Forgetting Curve’ that demonstrates the concept of how we forget information.

After we learn something, it naturally starts to fade from our memory over time.

We can stop this decline by reviewing or refreshing the information in our mind.

If we review again and again, the strength of the memory is increased, and it’s ‘decay’ is slowed down.

By strategically spreading out the time between review sessions, you can review the same information less often but still strengthen your knowledge.

That is what’s fantastic about spaced repetition.

You spend the majority of your time and effort focused on new information that isn’t yet glued in your memory, and less time on knowledge that’s already putting down roots in your mind.

However, strategically throwing mud against a wall is still throwing mud against a wall!

You need to use the first two R's as well as retrieval.

But spaced repetition (without encoding and storing) isn’t the only popular approach to memorization that's less than optimal.

The 3 R's Test of More Ineffective Memory Tips

Before we get into what you should be doing to memorize more effectively, let’s quickly use the 3 R's Test to identify some more memory tips that just don’t cut it.

These are all 'sub-optimal' memorization strategies -

Highlighting - this identifies what needs to be memorized (which is important) but doesn’t use the 3 R's.

Re-reading - this is another form of repetition. It doesn't include recording or retaining and depending how you do it, may not even include retrieval.

Re-writing - this is more active than re-reading but it's still just repetition.

Summarizing - there's generally no encoding or storage, and probably little retrieval either.

Don’t multitask - this is good advice but it doesn’t involve the 3 R's.

Play brain games - these generally aim to train your working memory, but any success doesn't transfer to improved long term memory.

Use your learning style - this is just bad advice. The concept of individual learning styles is popular but has long been shown by academic research to be a myth.

Chunking - this means breaking information into smaller 'chunks'. That's a useful first step, but the 3 R's don't get a look in.

Chew gum - yes, some people actually promote this as a memory tip. Obviously, it doesn't engage any of the 3 R's.

The 5 Principles of Memorization

Now you can identify poor memory techniques, how do you identify really great techniques?

They use these five basic principles.

Meaningfulness

Things that make sense are easier to remember than those that don’t.

For example, ‘bubbles’ is easier to remember than ‘sbeblbu’.

If new information is meaningless or confusing, a good memory technique will start by adding meaning. Rearranging the letters ‘sbeblbu’ to ‘bubbles’ would certainly do that.

Organization

Information needs to be well organized in your mind to be easily accessible.

Think about finding a book in a library or a word in a dictionary. You can easily navigate around and find what you need because there’s an organized system.

Association 

Association is all about connecting or linking new information to knowledge or facts you already have stored in your head.

A simple example is how I remember the difference between ‘stationary’ and ‘stationery’. I think of a stationary car, because ‘car’ has an ‘a’ in it, and for stationery with an ‘e’ I think of ‘letters’ which is also spelled with an ‘e’.

 

Visualization

Human memory is predominantly visual. Images are fundamentally more memorable than words.

If you close your eyes and remember some childhood memories – best vacations, your favorite school teacher or anything at all – you’ll notice you use visual images to recall each of those details in your memory.

Like you discovered in the video above, visual memory is incredibly powerful.

 

Attention

The final basic principle of learning and memorization is Attention. Clearly, you can’t remember something if you don’t learn it in the first place. This is where lack of attention comes in.

The biggest reason people ‘forget’ someone’s name is they weren’t paying attention when they were introduced. Not paying attention is a rookie mistake!

The 5 Principles of Memorization (5PM) all make sense, right?

They’re not specific techniques but you can use them (just like the 3 R's Test) to test whether a suggested technique will be effective or not.

*Watch the free video training at Memorize Academy to learn more about these principles.

The 5PM Test of Memory Tips 

Let's put the 5 Principles of Memorization to work. 

When I was a student (before I knew about best-practice memorization techniques) my go-to memory tool for exams was acronyms.

I’d put a group of words into a list, and use the first letter from each word to create a new (usually senseless) word.

As soon as the exam started I’d write out all those silly words on the exam question paper and hope I could use them somewhere in the exam.

One of two things would happen...

...quite often I couldn’t remember all of the 'target' words each of those individual letters represented.

Second, even if I was able to use an acronym to answer an exam question, a day or two later I couldn’t recall either the acronym or the words it related to.

Using the 5PM Test you can easily see why acronyms and other popular memory techniques are ineffective, despite their popularity.

 

Memorization Techniques of Memory Super-Heroes

I spent over 30 years going to school and college (I know - crazy, right?) and I now have four university degrees to use as wallpaper.

Unfortunately, during those years I only used study and memorization techniques I’ve already mentioned as being complete garbage.

Face palm.

So what SHOULD I have been doing?

That's what we'll look at next...

 

Visual Imagery Mnemonics

When you see ‘memory athletes’ memorizing pi to thousands of digits, or remembering and recalling six decks of playing cards, they’re using visual imagery mnemonics.

Nope, it’s not magic.

I’ll briefly explain the 3 Essential Techniques, but there are many variations and different techniques for different situations.

Link and Story Method

This is a super simple technique.

You visualize an object and then create a story that connects it to the next object.

This is what I used in the video above, so you already know it’s amazingly effective.

When you make the story crazy and exaggerated it becomes even ‘stickier’ in your memory.

Memory Palace Method

Greek politicians used this technique thousands of years ago to recall the important points in their speeches.

You imagine a journey, room or building you know like the back of your hand. Choose some spots along that journey or around the room/building that stand out. At each location visualize the object you want to remember.

To recall everything, imagine yourself walking past all those locations and ‘see’ each of the objects.

There’s a brief demonstration of a simple Memory Palace in this video on how to memorize a speech, but you can use the same approach for memorizing anything.

It’s stunning how effectively this works, which is why it’s a foundation technique of memory athletes.

Substitution Method

The big question you probably have right now is –

“How do I use these techniques for abstract words?”

This is the key to making visual mnemonics work for practical things, like studying for your medical, biology or law exams.

It’s simple enough to create a mental picture of a physical object, but how do you visualize a weird sounding word, or words that aren’t nouns?

Substitution is all about transforming a word into a picture.

When you hear the word ‘love’ you might imagine a heart. Or you could picture a witch for the word ‘wicked’.

Want some more challenging examples?

Check out how I do it for names of the chemical elements in the periodic table in the video below.

I use the Link and Story Method to associate each name, but just focus on the substitution I use to 'picture' each name.

This is the same principle you can use to memorize numbers, formulas or absolutely anything.

The first step is to turn what you need to remember into a mental picture.

For step-by-step training in these 3 Essential Techniques, check out this video series.

Why are Visual Mnemonics So Effective? 

The success of these techniques relates back to the 3 R's of Remembering. 

Substituting a word for an image records or encodes what you need to remember. Since your memory is predominantly visual, using mental pictures is ultra-effective.

Linking the different pieces of information together (with a story or familiar places) is how you can organize and retain what you need to remember.

Retrieving your knowledge is infinitely easier because of the cues and connections you’ve created.

Visual mnemonics also combine and use the 5 Principles of Memorization.

Substitution gives meaning to unfamiliar words and concepts.

The intentional and systematic approaches help organize your new knowledge.

All the information is connected together with direct associations.

Visualization is one of the main features of these techniques.

And because you need to consciously and intentionally apply visual mnemonics, they naturally require your attention.

Here’s the final reason visual mnemonics are amazingly effective – with practice you’ll get super-fast at using them.

And that’s when you’ll discover your memory really IS like a Ferrari!

 

*If you’d like to learn more from the world’s most viewed memory coach, check out all the available video training.

**Of course there's more to studying than just memorization. Read about the best study skills recommended by scientific research.

 

Tell me in the comments below how many words you remembered from the video, and if you thought this was awesome, please give it a 'like' and share it with any students you know - they'll thank you for the valuable information :)

 

 

 

Here are some memory FAQs you might find interesting.

No. It’s a popular idea, but the scientific concept that comes closest to it is eidetic memory.
After staring at an image for some time, people who have eidetic memory report still being able to see the picture even after it’s removed from their sight. This is different to an ‘after image’ when you see the ‘negative’ image of a picture you’ve stared at for too long.
However, unlike visual memories, eidetic memories fade away involuntarily and can last only a few minutes.
It’s thought that a small percentage of children have eidetic memories but it soon disappears and no adults have this type of memory ability.
These are people who have a heightened ability to acquire and recall new non-autobiographical information. They’re typically fantastic at remembering numbers and facts. The current view of superior memorizers is that their abilities are not innate, but are the result of using mnemonic strategies and a lot of practice.
Can you hear the throaty growl of that Ferrari engine?
There are around 50 known ‘highly superior autobiographical memory’ individuals, or ‘HSAMs’ in the world.
These individuals are able to recall the day of the week and specific details of what happened on that day for every day of their lives starting around mid-childhood.
HSAMs do not have the same amazing ability to recall information that’s not related to their own life and experiences.
Brain training games generally aim to challenge your working memory. Your working memory allows you to ‘keep things in mind’ while you perform complex tasks.
However, we’re focused here on making things stick in your long term memory.
There’s currently no convincing evidence that working memory training enhances general cognitive ability or improves your long term memory.
To put it another way, it’s generally agreed that brain training games improve your ability and skills at … brain training games.
Up to 2% of the population may have an inability to visualize mental pictures. This condition has been named ‘aphantasia’.
It means you might struggle to recognize faces – and it also means visual mnemonics are not for you.
 

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