Bad Memory? Try the Techniques of the Ancient Greeks
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
Have you ever seen clips of people competing in so-called memory competitions and asked yourself: How do they do this? How are they able to memorize a whole bunch of random facts or numbers in a short amount of time? Watch the video below to get an idea of the memory capacities of these super-memorizers. In this video, you will see Simon Reinhard from Germany who looked at deck of 52 playing cards for 20.44 seconds (!) and, later, was able to sort the cards of another playing deck in the same order. Thus, Simon had memorized the order of 52 playing cards in 20.44 seconds! This is the current world record for this task.
Another example of a super-memorizer is the current Memory World Champion Alex Mullen from the US. If I gave you a sheet of paper with thousands of numbers and you had 1 hour to memorize as many of them in the correct order as possible, how many numbers would you be able to remember when I take that sheet of paper away from you when the time is up? Well, at the World Memory Championship 2015 in China, Alex was able to remember 3029 digits (!) in their correct order. This is impressive (here is a list of all official memory world records) and raises at least three questions: First, how do they accomplish this? Second, can I learn this? Third, can this be used for educational purposes?
The two main factors to increase one’s memory capacity are: the right technique and time to practice. The right techniques to achieve such memorization abilities are called mnemonic devices. Mnemonic comes from the Greek word mnemon meaning “to remember” and in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory. Mnemonic devices are techniques that were developed by the ancient Greeks thousands of years ago to help them memorize lengthy speeches. The Romans later adopted these techniques from the Greeks and actually had so-called memory slaves “graeculi” (little Greeks) whose purpose it was to memorize stuff – this is probably the first record of an external memory hard drive. Successful mnemonic devices follow three main principles:
- they ask you to systematically organize the material
- they require you to elaborate on the material, and
- they involve mental imagery.
Let me explain these principles using the most commonly used mnemonic device by memory athletes as an example: The method of loci or memory palace. Let’s say you are asked to memorize a list of random words, e.g., bowl, book, tiger, car,…. In a first step you imagine a location that you are very familiar with. This could be your house or apartment, but also – if you commute a lot – it could be your way to work/school. The important point is that you need to be familiar with this location, know it by heart. Let’s pretend for now that you decided to use your apartment for your memory palace. Okay, next you mentally walk through your apartment starting by the entrance and going a specific route, e.g., it could be a route you take when you get home after school: You open the door, take off your shoes and place them on a mat, hang you coat on the hanger, proceed to the living room and sit on your sofa. Now, while you walk through your apartment you place the words from the list that you need to memorize as images in specific locations in your apartment. While you do this, you can be creative and come up with quite bizarre and interactive images which will help you retrieve the information later. So, let’s do this: You see the door to your apartment and think that it would be a good idea to finally replace the door handle with a bowl. So you take off the handle and attach the bowl to the door, then you go inside and take off your shoes and place them on a big stack of books (this way you can reach them better and don’t need to bend over). Then you hang your coat on the hanger and notice that a tiger is hanging there. The tiger greets you and you continue to the living room where you decide to place a huge car on your sofa and sit in it. Later, when you need to retrieve the list of words you mentally walk through your memory palace and retrieve the words from the locations you placed them in: bowl, book, tiger, car. The memory palace systematically organizes the material you need to memorize, allows you to elaborate on your material by enriching it with meaningful or non-meaningful, bizarre content, and uses mental imagery. One big advantage of this technique is that if you happen to forget what you have placed in a specific spot you can skip to the next spot and retrieve that image. In an experiment, Roediger (1) tested different strategies against each other and found that indeed the method of loci was the most successful one for recalling random words in order.
When you ask memory athletes how they accomplish to memorize so much info in a short period of time they will all tell you that they use some kind of memory palace technique that they have refined over the years and over hours of practice, i.e., the second major factor of increasing one’s memory capacity. In fact, K. Anders Ericsson (2) argues that hours of practice using these mnemonic devices efficiently is all it takes to become a super-memorizer. In his view “exceptional memorizers [are] made, not born”. He reviews work from neuroscience that show that differences in brain activation patterns in memory athletes compared to non-memory athletes are due to the techniques that memory athletes use (3). While it seems intriguing to believe that with enough practice and the right technique you can become the next Memory World Champion, it is important to point out that innate factors do definitely play a role, too. People will differ regarding the number of hours of deliberate practice they need for mastering a task and everyone will reach a personal plateau. Thus, individual differences come clearly into play. However, it is safe to say that mnemonic devices and practice will noticeable increase your memory capacity.
Since most of us are not interested in learning random facts or numbers to compete in World Memory Championships, the question is whether adopting such mnemonic devices and practicing them could help students in school? The answer is: Yes, if you need to memorize simple facts. Mnemonic devices will not help you to obtain a deeper understanding of the material or to grasp conceptual knowledge of an idea and how it relates to other ideas. However, memorizing a list of words, cities, lakes, vocabulary, body parts, names can be boosted by using mnemonic devices. Although there are voices that argue that it is not necessary to teach students facts because they can look them up on Google, I think that remembering such facts is a crucial step for building knowledge and enables students to attach new information to prior knowledge which is key to learning and to obtaining a deep understanding of a topic in the future. If you are interested in learning more about how to use mnemonic devices in your studying: Alex Mullen, the current World Memory Champion, has created a wonderful website with plenty of resources on this topic. Thus, there is nothing left to say except for: Good luck and have fun building your memory palace!
(1) Roediger, H. L. (1980). The effectiveness of four mnemonics in ordering recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 558-567.
(2) Ericsson, K. A. (2003). Exceptional memorizers: made, not born. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7, 233-235.
(3) Maguire, E. A., Valentine, E. R., Wildling, J. M., & Kapur, N. (2003). Routes to remembering: The brains behind superior memory. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 90-95.