Mnemonic Devices and the Expansion of Memory

Mnemonic Devices and the Expansion of Memory

 

Remember this phrase: "Add another deer to the soup."  

Añadir is the Spanish verb meaning "to add."  Having been on a quest to learn Spanish recently, I've since become interested in the mechanics of memory and began diving into the vast sea of information at my fingertips.  There are countless tools and techniques that can be used to improve memory function and recall.  Some people even use these techniques in competition (check out the World Memory Championships).  But aside from trying to memorize the order of two shuffled decks of cards in under 5 minutes, these tools can strengthen and condition the mind for everyday life and improve our capacity to remember.

The reason I've added another deer to my soup is to paint a quick story to frame the meaning of the verb.  This is an example of a memory technique called a mnemonic device.  The goal here is to take the boring piece of information that you need/want to remember and turn it into something vivid, colorful, and exciting that you can't possibly forget.  The piece of information becomes framed within the miniature story and thus sticks more aptly to our memory over the long run.  I discovered this technique while researching Spanish verbs and stumbled across a mnemonic for caber, the Spanish verb meaning "to fit."  The mnemonic device was presented as "it's hard to fit a bear in a cab."  This image of a bear struggling to fit into a cab has stuck with me ever since.  Caber now exists as a cemented word in my vocabulary.  

Another interesting technique I came across was the "method of Loci" or "memory palace."  This technique was invented over 2000 years ago and used by the Greeks and Romans to memorize long, effective speeches.  The method is simple and expands on the idea from the caber device.  You take a familiar place, like your house/apartment/bedroom or street you live on, identify key locations within it, and populate those locations with the items you wish to remember.  For example, walking into my room there's a bookshelf, a desk, a window, a bed, and a dresser.  Let's say my friend needs me to bring 5 things with me when I come visit this weekend: speakers, 12 craft beers, a guitar, hiking shoes, and a screwdriver.  Now, the goal is to tie each of the 5 items to the 5 locations in my room -- in order, so that I can easily walk a loop in my imagination when I need to remember.

Now comes the fun part where you let the imagination run wild, and the more vivid you get, the more effective the technique is:

The first location I pass is my bookshelf where a pair of speakers are blasting Ray Charles' "Georgia."  Then I walk to my desk and 12 ice cold craft beers are swaying to Ray's music.  Looking out my window I see Jimi Hendrix wailing on his guitar in a pair of red bell bottoms.  I turn to my bed and a leprechaun is jumping on one leg with a pair of hiking boots.  I finish by walking by my dresser and I promptly catch a screwdriver that the leprechaun threw at me as he laughed in a high pitched whine.

Take a couple minutes to memorize this little story and you'll see how well it sticks.  

The beauty of the technique is that you can expand it to include as many items as you want to remember.  Simply add more rooms with key locations (a bathroom has a toilet, a sink, a bathtub, a shower, towel rack, mirror, medicine cabinet, etc..) and you have more slots to fill with things to remember.  It's helpful to keep the order of key locations consistent as well.  This allows you to walk the same path in your mind more than once and fill it with different memorable stories.  

Being immersed in this digital age, our cell phones and computers are acting as an external hard drive for our minds.  When all the knowledge of the world is the palm of our hands, we don't need to use our memories like our ancestors did.  Try turning off your Google Maps for a change and memorize the route to your destination.  Our lives are defined by the culmination of memories that we accumulate over the years and it's important to exercise and strengthen this capability within us to remember.

Check out this amazing TED talk by Joshua Foer for some interesting perspective on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_foer_feats_of_memory_anyone_can_do?language=en#t-1208433.  

Happy memories my friends.  

 
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