Most of us use the painful and minimally effective method to memorize called rote memory. We say the information over and over again and hope it will eventually stick in our minds. The reason for this is that we have never been taught a more effective way to memorize. For example, if we are learning Spanish we may say, “Baby girl, la nina,” and, “little boy, el nino,” over and over again and hope it will stick. We move on to another vocabulary like, “Shoe, zapata,” and repeat it server times.
Those were simple examples of foreign vocabulary. But as information becomes more difficult, it’s critical to leverage how our brains work best. A good technique is leveraging the skill of connecting new information (Information you do not know) with old information (Information you do know).
Sometimes you already have a connection when you learn something new. Many people already know that El Nino and La Nina are weather patterns that correlate to the ocean waters warming or cooling respectively. The tradition started when Spanish Speaking sailors noticed that some years the ocean waters were exceptionally warm around Christmas time so they named the condition after the baby Jesus El Nino. Then it’s opposite when the waters are exceptionally cold would be La Nina or baby girl.
This might make it easy to remember what the Spanish words are a baby boy and baby girl. But the most information you need to memorize is not so easily associated with something. What you need to do then is to use your imagination to create your own association.
Here is an example of how to learn Spanish. The word for shoe is zapato in Spanish. You can create an imaginative association that includes a bizarre picture and sounds like the word. Imagine a potter (sounds like Zapato) planting a plant that grows shoes. It is bizarre and has action. Both of these concepts will help you remember.
Essentially there are three things you need to use to develop your memory. There is the “see method” as in, S-E-E. The acronym means to sense, exaggerate, and energy.
First is sense, everything you perceive does so through your five senses, which are sight, sound, feel, taste, and smell. When you use your imagination to memorize information you will use your senses to create the pictures. It may seem that sight is the most important one to use but you can also use the others. We will do an exercise with this.
Then there is exaggeration. When you imagine something with your mind, you can exaggerate the size, diminish the size, or increase the quantity.
Letter 3 is E for energy. When you imagine something, you can imagine it as a moving picture or take some action. This actually makes the picture more bizarre. Sometimes the energy includes substituting the function of the object.
One of the best ways to memorize is linking. You link each item to the one before or after using a picture. For example, you went shopping and you misplaced your list of items. The items are
broom – broccoli – a lounge chair – butter – a wrench – a dog food dish – windshield wiper blade – hairbrush – potatoes – and bathrobe. I’d like you to follow along and we’ll memorize this list together.
First, think of a broom and broccoli. At first, you might think you could link them together because they begin with the same first three letters bro. That may help but not every two things are that easily linked. How about imagine sweeping with the broom, you think of how it would feel sweeping, moving your arms, seeing where the dirt is etc. You are using sense.
Then as you sweep the bristles of the broom become broccoli spears. You see them so you are using the S for sense. Since this is bizarre it counts as one of the E’s for exaggeration. Additionally, you are taking action and get the second E for energy. Now you have a link from broom to broccoli.
You can now create a fresh link for broccoli to the lounge chair. You could imagine a large spear of broccoli walking to a lounge chair and sitting. Or you can imagine someone sitting in a giant piece of broccoli.
Go through both of your pictures now. Were you able to name them and imagine the pictures? Now try it backwards.
The chances are you that you accomplished the list so far. If you missed one you just need to re-imagine and make the association stronger. Let’s continue down the list.
A lounge chair to butter. Imagine a giant stick of butter on your lawn. You sit down on top of it to lounge. With this one, if you imagine eating a piece of bread with butter on it that will not stick in your memory as well as reclining on a giant stick of butter. The bread and butter visual too plain and every day. Bizarre associations help you remember because your brain sees it as unusual.
Imagine you are riding along and you see a dog run by. Then later down the road, you see an elephant. Which animal do you think you will remember seeing? If you live in the United States or Europe you will probably remember the elephant more, because you are not used to seeing elephants. In Sri Lanka, you might not remember either animal because they are both common in that country.
There is part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System. It is the part that you use to determine what you are going to pay attention to. When you see or hear something unusual, your Reticular Activating System tells you that this needs attention because I need to think about what I should do. Yet when you see something that you see every day, it is not so important to focus on it, therefore you don’t.
For example, if you are sitting at your desk and you hear a cat meow and see it walk by in the hall you may not notice for more than a second. But suppose a few minutes later you hear a snake hiss and see it slither across your desk. You would react to that and frantically do something to remove the snake (Unless you have experience with snakes).
There as a reason that I went off on that tangent. Let’s see how much you remember your list after a distraction. Name the first four items on your list. Go through your associations. Do it backwards starting with the fourth item or forwards starting with the first item.
If you made strong enough associations and formed strong enough bizarre pictures, you should have been able to name the items with no trouble. If you missed one or more it is not because there was a distraction but because you did not make a strong enough picture to link them.
Thus far I have been giving you sample pictures to remember the items. Yet, you can create your own pictures. If you create your own picture to link two items together, use it. Since you created it you are more likely to remember it, than the one I suggested.
Now let’s associate butter to wrench and wrench to dog dish. For butter to wrench, we can use substitute function. Imagine someone trying to unscrew a nut and bolt with a stick of butter and the butter accomplishes the task. Or imagine spreading a wrench across a piece of bread.
The pictures you make can either be a continuation of the last picture or something different. IF you used the stick of butter to unscrew a nut and bolt, now use a dog food dish to screw it back in. Or we could use exaggerated quantities. Imagine a hundred tiny wrenches jumping out of a dog food dish.
Since we created a couple of extra pictures it is time to go through the list again. Starting with broom and ending with dog food dish, go through the list with all your picture associations. Do it now. Often when we read or hear something we want to just continue reading or listening because it is easier than stopping to do an exercise. Do the list forwards. Then do it backwards from dog food dish to broom. You may find that it is just as easy to go through the list backwards as it is forwards.
Now we can take a drive. It starts raining and we turn on the windshield wipers, only to find out that they are dog food dishes. That is more bizarre than imagining a dog eating a wiper blade because a dog could actually do that.
It is early evening and a lady is getting ready to go on a date. She needs to brush her hair and a bunch of tiny wiper blades jump out of her dresser drawer and all brush her hair. This picture includes diminution of size (tiny wiper blades) and exaggerated quantities (many of the tiny blades).
Another way to create a picture is to create one that would have emotional significance. To connect hairbrush with potatoes, imagine the lady or man picking up a potato to brush her or his hair. Instead the potato smears itself and makes his or her hair a mess. If you did that you would feel uncomfortable and angry.
Finally, we come to the final item, bathrobe. Imagine yourself or someone you know putting on a giant potato and tightening it on with a bathrobe belt.
We have now created a whole sequence of pictures to link the items on the list. You should be able to recite the list forwards and backward. Try it now. If you missed any don’t get discouraged. Just go back and think of your association of the missed item again. Think of it for a couple of minutes and it should stick with you.
You may wonder, how long will I remember the list? Will I remember it for a week, a month, forever? If you want a list to stick, I recommend rehearsing one hour after learning, 24 hours later, a week later, and finally once a month for three months.
In the next article, we will continue with list memorization with another technique. You will also learn which techniques will help you learn different types of information.