Jill Price was born in 1965 to a Jewish family in California. She lived an ordinary life attending a local school but it wasn’t long before her family noticed something unusual about her. Her memory was remarkable. For most of us our memory is a blurred collage of snapshots with some more vivid than others. Jill can remember, in detail, every day of her life.
In 2006, neuroscientists formally diagnosed her with a condition known as hyperthymesia shared with no more than about twenty-five other people on earth.
A good memory is such a valuable skill and yet so many of us feel we struggle with recall. If I gave you a list of ten things to remember how many do you think you’d remember ten minutes later? How about names? If I introduced you to ten friends of mine at a party, how many of their names would you remember?
Fortunately, by applying some simple principles it is easy to make significant improvements with you memory. Your memory is like a muscle and your brain can change over time to provide a greater memory capacity.
In this article I’ll explain the principles to improving your memory, and then explore how you can apply these principles to double your recall of lists, names, and everything you read.
First, the principles:
- See memory as a process
The memory process has three separate steps:
STEP 1: ENCODE — STEP 2: STORE — STEP 3: RECALL
We assess our memory only at step three – but if we didn’t do step one or two well, step three will be impossible. Think of it like creating and saving a file on your computer. If you create, and then save a file, a search will easily find it. But if you never created it, or you didn’t save it, you’ll never find it. So the way to improve memory recall is to improve step one (encode) and step two (store).
- Improve Step 1 (Encode/Creating the File):
The way to improve the first step (and consequently improve memory of all forms) is to pay closer attention. How often are you introduced to somebody and forget their name immediately? That’s not a fault of your memory. It’s the fault of your attention.
How distracted are you when you are introduced to someone for the first time? French philosopher Simone Weil, said ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’. Be generous with your attention to others, and if you want to remember anything specific, focus!
- Improve Step 2 (Store/Saving the File):
To improve Step 2 (saving the file) there are three effective methods:
Repetition, Association and Visualisation.
Repetition – simple and effective – memories become stronger through reinforcement.
Association – more potent as a technique, especially when remembering what you read. We learn by association and assimilate new information based on what we already know.
Visualisation – especially potent – actively using your imagination (and use of images in particular) is the real key to the best memory techniques.
Let’s now look at how to apply these principles to improving different types of declarative memory:
How to remember names
Pay attention – Pay attention when someone tells you their name. This means being present, undistracted, and having already decided you are going to remember their name. (Being present also gives you a higher chance of getting the person to like you.)
Associate and visualise – Repeat their name back to them as soon as you can, preferably immediately (them: “I’m Hannah”; you: “Hi Hannah”). Then create an image that somehow represents this name. This is what really makes the name stick. You could use metaphor, or create a more literal representation. You could incorporate the first letter or choose to represent the sound of the name. You could link it to somebody famous, or someone you already know. Use your imagination as actively as possible – the sillier the better.
How to remember what you read
The Oscar winning film Rain Man was based on the extraordinary life of a man named Kim Peek. Kim was born in 1951 in Salt Lake City, Utah. From an early age it was clear that he was a special child. Considered a ‘megasavant’ he had been born with the two hemispheres brain not properly connected resulting in an extraordinary and almost unbelievable capacity for memorising things.
Another talent he possessed was the ability to read two pages at a time, one with his left and one with his right eye. He purportedly read more than 10,000 books in his lifetime. For comparison’s sake, the average American will read about two books a year. Whilst Kim’s talents are unquestionably unique, there are ways to improve your memory for the things you read.
My method, the SQRQS Model will massively increase your recall of what you read:
1) Scan – Before you start reading, scan the document. Decipher the length and how the information is presented.
2) Question – Now ask yourself: “What do I know about this already? What do you hope to find out?” This helps you establish a context and find meaning. Remember, you learn by associating new information with what you already know.
3) Read – Now read the document. Pausing in between sections will help increase your recall even further.
4) Question – Put down the document and test yourself. What specifically do you remember? What do you think about it? How would you explain it to someone else?
5) Scan – One last scan, if you need. Steps one to four will highlight what’s important to you, now one last scan will help to fill in any blanks.
There you have it: SQRQS.
How to remember lists
The Memory Palace
If I asked you to tell me the first thing you’d see on your left as you walk into your bedroom, could you? Can you recall the rest of the furniture in your house? Of course you can. This is your ‘Memory Palace’.
This is one of the most powerful ways to improve your memory and often used by memory champions. This technique uses what you already know to help you remember a list of what you don’t.
Before you do this exercise, create a list of 15 random words to memorise.
Step 1: Create your memory palace
- Get a pen and paper
- Decide on a room to work with (e.g. your bedroom, sitting room, kitchen)
- Draw an overhead view of your room on the paper (or in your mind if you prefer)
- Identify 15 locations (e.g. furniture or other landmarks around the room) that you would pass in sequence walking round the room in a consistent direction.
- On your diagram write the numbers 1-15 on the relevant furniture or landmarks around your room
Step 2: Memorise your memory palace
To memorise your memory palace, close your eyes and imagine walking around your room, in the direction you chose, and check you correctly identify each point, 1-15. Try doing it backwards. Make sure you’ve got it before moving on.
Step 3: Memorise the list of 15 items using your memory palace
- To memorise your list, you ‘imagine’ each of the 15 items on your list on each of the 15 consecutive points in your memory palace.
- Use your imagination as actively as possible and make all the images bizarre, silly, and cartoonish. Use all of your senses: The more senses you incorporate, the more you engage your brain, and the more memorable the mental ‘engram’ will become. For example, if the first item on your list is a chicken(!) and the first spot in your memory palace is a table – you would imagine a cartoonish, noisy, colourful chicken on your table!
- Repeat for each item on your list, going round your memory palace for each item.
Hopefully the above will help remind(!) you that your memory is already phenomenal – given the right conditions. Have fun applying the principles above and with practice you’ll soon realise your memory is far better than you ever thought it could be.
3 point review
- The memory process = encode, store, recall
- Remember names by paying closer attention, then repeating, associating and visualising
- Use the SQRQS Model to remember what you read, and create a Memory Palace to remember lists