Energising your Memory

This article was originally printed in Issue 395 (Sept/Oct 2011) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Energy = CreativityAccording to Greek Mythology, Zeus, the god of energy and king of Mount Olympus, was also the ultimate paramour. He could get any girl, and often did, siring many of the most important gods, demi-gods, nymphs and mortals of Greek myth. The goddess with whom he was most passionate, however, was Mnemosyne, the Goddess of me
mory. Legend has it that their union lasted nine days and nights and resulted in the birth of nine children. These children were the nine muses; the goddesses of creativity. This story, I believe, contains a moral the ancient Greeks certainly knew well – that creativity and memory are intimately related. If you put energy into your memory, it will bear creativity.

The individuals who best embody this principle today are the competitors of memory sports. Competitors of this somewhat obscure sport memorize vast quantities of mostly meaningless information at high speeds – pages of random digits, decks of cards, abstract shapes. The world record for a shuffled deck of cards is 21.9 seconds. The techniques these mental athletes use are like nothing one might expect.  Memorizing, for the most part, conjures up images of painful repetition and rote learning of the sort we did at school. The methods used in competition, by contrast, involve the formation of energetic and creative journeys across mental landscapes.

I first heard about these mnemonic wizards during a session on Wikipedia, prompted by a meeting with someone who claimed to have a photographic memory. What I discovered was that there exists no scientific evidence (at least, that I could find) of people with eidetic or photographic memory. In addition, there are good non-scientific reasons to be suspicious of such claims; far from being a super-bowl of savants, no participant of the World Memory Championships has ever claimed to have a photographic memory.

To my mind, this is much more exciting; It is one thing to think that there are real life super heroes walking amongst us, but another thing  altogether to think that anyone can develop such phenomenal powers of memory with the right techniques and practice. I tracked down the Australian Memory Champion, Tansel Ali, a man who once memorized the Sydney Yellow Pages in only 24 days, and asked him how I might go about improving my memory. To my surprise, and joy, he invited me to meet him and offered to coach me in preparation for the Australian memory championships (and perhaps the World championship) later this year.

Despite everything I had read about these mnemonic ‘tricks’, I was still skeptical. I had never had a good memory.  In fact, my school, trying to help me with my disorganization (a symptom of my terrible memory), put together lessons to teach me organizational strategies aimed at helping  me deal with the fact that I was constantly forgetting to bring things like books, permission slips and stationery. I could never remember to go to a single lesson. Despite my initial reservations, I went to meet with Tansel. At the start of our first meeting, I could remember nine of a list of 15 words, which is average. By the end of it, I could memorize 30. After a few days practice I could memorize 40 words with ease. Now, I can memorize a list of 40 words in just over two minutes and then repeat it backwards.

I am able to do what I do because I understand that successful remembering requires that I put energy into the thing I am trying to remember. Just as the best jokes are those with the most surprising punch lines, the most memorable associations are those that do violence to our expectations. For example, you are trying to remember a shopping list: which is the more memorable mental image, a regular packet of sausages, OR a string of sausages, which, when accosted by a hungry dog, rears up like a cobra and tries to take a bite out of the surprised pup? The point here is that by making the image energetic and surprising, I am exercising my creative muscles and transforming the mundane into the memorable.

So how, then, should one bring one’s mental energy to the task of memorizing? There are three key steps to making things memorable. The first step is to be mindfully aware of whatever it is that you are trying to learn; the second step is visual encoding; and the third is organization.

Without cheating, try answering the following question: on the one dollar coin, which way does the queen’s head face? How did you go? If you got it right, were you sure, or did you have to guess? Even though hundreds of coins pass right under our noses (and through our fingers) each month, and have done for many years, because we have never really made ourselves aware of the direction the queen is facing, most of us do not know. You cannot remember something you never knew in the first place, so the first step to remembering is being mindfully aware. And for the record, she faces to the right.

The next two steps, those of visual encoding and organization, go hand in hand. We all have naturally fantastic memories for certain tasks; no one, for instance, after being given the ‘grand’ tour of their mate’s house then has to sit down with a blueprint to rote learn the layout. A few minutes of wandering around and we can mentally navigate the house without any difficulty. Our brains are primed for this kind of learning. Another example we can all relate to: a well-constructed film with an engaging narrative will resonate with us long after we leave the movie theater. We make no special attempt to memorize the movie, but we may recall the film or a particularly engaging or graphic scene with great clarity even years after only a single viewing. Thus, the key to memorizing is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form.  An easy way to do this is to visualize a story involving the things you want to remember – and remember, the more energetic (and so more creative) the story is, the easier it will be to recall later.

All of us could stand to improve our memories; whether we are looking to pick up a new language in months instead of years (like Bruce Balmer, a competitor from the first world memory championships who learnt 2000 foreign words in 18 hours);  to cram for an exam (I memorized 12 week’s worth of notes the night before my last exam and felt like I was sitting it as an open book); or just to remember a shopping list.

Investing more mental energy into your memory will boost your creativity, and hopefully, help you remember the name of that movie you wanted to see, or where you left your keys. Memorizing a deck of cards in 21.9 seconds is a little more complicated, but not a lot.


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