Memory is the brains way of integrating sensory-motor information into a symbolic representation that allows prediction of future occurrences. This is the evolutionary basis for memory. When trying to commit information to memory, it is important to engage with the material in a fashion that complements how your brain naturally performs this task.
The world is not a two dimensional plane. The brain evolved to remember material that is living, active, colourful, vivid, and engaging. It is no wonder so many people find such a hard time trying to remember the names and sequence of complicated processes that are described abstractly in a book: there is no life to it!
To make the task of learning simpler and more interesting, there are memorization techniques that can be employed. Arguably, the most effective and time-tested technique is the Roman Room (many rooms become a Memory Palace when practised regularly). The idea is very simple, yet powerful. This is the sort of exercise that you need to experience to appreciate. The first five techniques will be what the Roman Room is built on. Master them all and you will be surprised at the results.
As the name suggests, this memorization technique involves creating associations between items in a list and assigning images to each connection to help you memorize better. For instance, your accounting exam is tomorrow and you need to memorize which items fall under the Current Asset section of a balance sheet (Cash, Inventories, Accounts receivable, Prepaid expenses).
You can create associations as below:
I currently don't have any cash to buy any inventory
To buy the inventory, I shall collect my accounts receivable that my friends owe me
If I collect the accounts receivable, it should be enough because I already have prepaid expenses from last year to count towards the purchase
This approach is really similar to the Link Method. While you create a bunch of different images between each two items using the Link Method, you combine everything into one big picture with the Story Method. This technique helps you memorize the sequence of the images and hence the order of the items. Using the accounting example, it would look like this:
I currently don’t have any cash to buy any inventory. Maybe I should collect my accounts receivable that my friends owe me. After I get my money back, it should be enough because I already have prepaid expenses from last year to count towards the purchase.
You can use this memorization method by associating terms or list items with familiar locations. Let's say, for your Greek myth exam, you have to memorize a list of symbols of each of the Olympian deities. Take Aphrodite's symbols/characteristics for example: Eros/winged cupid, myrrh tree, apple tree, and goose.
First, pick a place that you're very familiar with, say your house. Imagine that you walk into your front yard, and find a winged cupid sitting perched on top of a ginormous myrrh tree. As you enter the house and into the kitchen, you see a five-feet-tall goose devouring your dinner leftovers from the fridge. Aghast, you run out of the kitchen into the living room, only to find that an apple tree is planted in the middle of it, and apples strewn all over your couch.
Get the idea right? Make these images as absurd, comical, sensory (e.g. can incorporate sounds, smells, tastes), and vivid as possible for best results. This is a centuries-old method started by ancient Romans and is still used today by many World Memory Champions.
This is useful system for memorizing lists in a particular order. There are two steps:
Step 1 requires you to memorize words that are easy to associate with numbers (e.g. 1 to 5). You can use words that rhyme with the number, or shapes that resemble the number. For example:
Sun or Bun
Once this peglist is memorized, you can now associate the words with the list of objects you need to memorize. For example, you need to memorize the five successive stages of history as identified by Marx and Engel: Primitive Communism, Slave Society, Feudalism, Capitalism, and Socialism.
In the primitive times only a little after the sun was created, people shared their buns (food) in a communal setting.
Slaves were treated worse than animals in the zoo
It was not free to become a feudal lord. The price was to own some land.
Those capitalist pigs want more and more money!
Bees are social insects, so they live together in a hive.
If you need to know what the fourth stage on the list was, all you need to remember is more, and then you'll remember capitalism. Another advantage to this memorization technique is that once you memorize the peglist, you can use it repeatedly for other lists.
For memorizing any structured concepts or information, mind maps work well by laying out the structure and making the flow of information more clear. If you are struggling to memorizing the whole decision making process in the correct order for the short answer section on your upcoming psychology exam, or anything similar, you should try out this method!
Now that you have been introduced to some basic techniques to help you remember things, it's time to put it all together. Let's make a comparison before we begin. Try remembering the following words in order:
Textbook, shoulder, computer, picture frame, refrigerator, molecule, pen, cloud, telephone, cat
Do your best. It is not an easy task, particularly because there are no obvious associations to make between the words to help recall, let alone ordered recall.
Now, the Roman Room is a technique that could be applied to a list of words like this, or any information once you get well practiced at creating visual depictions of abstract words. The technique goes like this: bring to mind a room that you are very familiar with. This can be anything from your current bedroom, a bathroom, a living room, anything that you are very familiar with and therefore comes to your mind in a detailed depiction.
As you walk into the room, the corner over your left shoulder is number 1. Then, moving clockwise round the room, the next wall is number 2. The next corner is number 3. And so on, so that the corner that is number 5 is opposite of the corner that is number 1, and the wall that is number 2 is opposite the wall that is number 6.
There are 8 numbers so far: there are 4 corners and 4 walls in a typical room. In addition to these 8 distinguished locations, number 9 will be the floor and number 10 will be the ceiling.
It is important that these enumerated locations become automatically identifiable. To practice, take ten pieces of paper, numbered 1 through 10, and draw them at random. When you draw a number, identify that location in your mental room as quickly as possible. So, for example, if you drew the number 4, you should see the wall immediately across from the door (since location 1 is the corner behind your left shoulder, location 2 is the wall to your left, and location 3 is the next corner moving clockwise). When you identify this location, think about all that is in that location usually. This may be where you store some of your books and one of the walls your bed touches, as is the case in my bedroom. This number-drawing exercise is important for two reasons: it important that you are able to quickly identify what corners, walls, ceiling and floor corresponds to which number in the numerical sequence, and revisiting your mental room is helpful for giving your mental representation of your room more life.
Next, with your room clearly drawn out in your mind, we can use the room to help commit information to memory. An excellent method is by incorporating into the room objects that are symbolically representative of the information you want to remember. The list I provided earlier is easy to use because they are all objects: you can place a textbook in the location number 1 (which is behind the door in my room, so I imagine it as a door-stop), lean on location number 2 with your shoulder (because it is the wall on your left-hand side), and so on.
What is important is that you SEA to see. That is, incorporate Senses, Emotions, and Action into your memory. For example, placing the textbook as a door-stop, I imagine seeing and feeling the textbook, feeling my frustration that the door handle has been making holes in my wall, and imagine myself choosing the book and putting it in place.
This level of engagement with memories takes time, but it makes their recall more efficient and reliable because you have created a mental environment that allows for greater integration of memory. So, in the end, you will save time.
Some rooms you can use as temporary storage: remembering a phone number, grocery list, etc. Other rooms you can use for permanent storage: important life lessons you have learned or other useful information that you may want to call on later.
As you become better at using this technique, you can incorporate more and more rooms. By connecting the rooms in a memorable order, such as story, you expand the amount of information you can consolidate using this technique (ex. bedroom, bathroom, living room, mom's bedroom, and so on). Each new room continues the count, using the same over the left shoulder, clockwise routine: 1, 10, 11, 20, 21, 30, etc. So, not only can you remember information, you can remember the information sequentially.
When this technique is practiced to maturity, this process becomes natural. It is difficult to overstate how this technique can improve your memory.
Some of these techniques may work for you, and some may not. Next time you have to regurgitate a textbook for an exam, try these out!
Scott Hagwood (2006), Memory Power, New York: Free Press – the ideas are derived from this book and are not the intellectual property of the author.