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?
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!”
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%
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%
That’s a simple demonstration that your memory isn’t so limited!
The 3 R's of Remembering are -
**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.
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?
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.
...let’s quickly apply the same 3 R's checklist against a list of tips you’ll frequently see on study blogs everywhere.
Do any of these involve encoding information or building connections within it?
Do they involve an intentional strategy to retain information?
Do they even require you to retrieve knowledge you’ve learned?
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.
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.
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.
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.
They use these five basic principles.
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.
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 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So what SHOULD I have been doing?
That's what we'll look at next...
Nope, it’s not magic.
I’ll briefly explain the 3 Essential Techniques, but there are many variations and different techniques for different situations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 :)