This technique is something I discovered while reading the brilliant book Tricks of the Mind byDerren Brown, who is probably the best illusionist on the planet. The whole memory trick is so juicy that I can’t resist passing it forward.
What makes something memorable?
Have you ever considered why we remember certain events from childhood with amazing detail, but are having trouble to recall the faces we met at bus stop in the morning, or the taste of last night’s dinner? Apparently, the brain is more apt to remember unusual and vivid images instead of things that are bland and ordinary. This can be further reinforced by having an emotional reaction to the image. I think the easiest way to demonstrate what I really mean by this is to try the linking system as explained by Brown. Below is a list of words. Take a minute and see if you can memorize them in the correct order:
Easy? I think not. And what if you leave the list for 30 minutes. Would you still remember it? I don’t think so.
So, how do you then memorize this list in the correct order with much less effort? The answer is using unusual and vivid images, linking them to each other and – if need be – further emphasizing the memory of the image by considering your own reaction and feelings to what you see or experience. To understand what I mean, just read through the below descriptions of images that I created in order to remember the items on the list:
- Cat/potato – An orange cat (imagine Garfield) is balancing on a brown potato, trying to get it rolling to move forward. The cat has big round eyes and makes me want to pet her.
- Potato/painting – I see a painting on the wall, with frames made out of round potatoes. The potatoes are starting to rot and the smell is making me nauseated.
- Painting/forest – I am walking in a Lord of the Rings style elven forest with soothing dim blue illumination and paintings of different sizes hanging from the branches.
- Forest/baseball – There is a perfectly round clearing in the middle of a forest where different animals of the forest are playing baseball. The sky is downcast but I still feel an urge to join the game.
- Baseball/cow – A baseball player is hitting the ball, and as soon as it’s speeding away he jumps on a cow and rides to the first base. I find the whole “bovine baseball” game amusing.
- Cow/pencil – I am checking for pencils in a local office supply store, when a cow walks casually to me and asks which one I’d recommend.
- Pencil/spaghetti – I am preparing dinner at home – spaghetti bolognese – but find out that I’m out of pasta. It seems perfectly ok to take a box of wooden pencils instead and pour them to the boiling water on the kettle.
- Spaghetti/book – There is a book on my living room table with a string of spaghetti as a bookmark. I open the book and eat the spaghetti. Tastes like ink, paper and dust.
- Book/coffee – I reach out for a book on the table, but find all pages wet and brown. They make my fingers feel wet too and when I open the book an aroma of coffee hits my nostrils. I feel a little angry that someone has poured a cup of coffee on my book.
- Coffee/television – I am drinking a cup of coffee and hear a faint noise from the bottom of the coffee mug as I am taking the last sips. There is a small TV screen on the bottom of the mug with a sitcom on.
- Television/carpet – I enter a strange room and feel disoriented; looking down I see flat TV screens on the floor, whereas on the walls there are carpets hanging.
- Carpet/piano – I need to move a heavy piano but it seems impossible and I am getting a little frustrated. I am trying to get a carpet under it so I could then move it easier.
- Piano/canoe – I have managed to get the Piano downstairs and to the river. Now I am trying to get it to a canoe that seems too small for it. The canoe is also constantly moving in the surf.
- Canoe/cable – I am sitting on a canoe but without a paddle. Instead, I am pulling on a cable that hangs in the air between opposing shores. I am about midway through but pulling is hurting my hands and they are starting to turn red from blood.
Try seeing the images clearly in your mind with vivid colors and notice your own reaction to what you are seeing. You can use the images I created or create your own. Go through the list of words just once or twice using this method and see if you can remember them (you can test this by taking a blank piece of paper and writing down the list from memory). How about trying to remember them few hours or few days later? I find myself remembering lists created with this method still few weeks after first memorizing them.
Are you beginning to see how useful this memory trick can be for storing shopping lists in your mind? There are drawbacks, though. First of all, you have to use some other method to remember the first word on the list, as from that word all the other words can be remembered using the links you created. And what if you forget some link in the middle? Maybe the image you created was not vivid enough or you did not see it in enough detail to create a memory imprint. Now all the words following the missing link are potentially lost as well.
Don’t worry. There is an even better memory trick. This was just a warm-up to familiarize you with the basic concepts of creating vivid images and associating them with other objects.
A mental route
This trick is known as the loci system. Instead of linking the things that need to be remembered to each other, you will link them to a specific location along a path that is stored in your memory. This is the actual method I use to remember what to get from grocery without having to write anything down. Basically the loci system means linking vivid images to specific places along a familiar real-life route. The locations are fixed along the route and should not be changed. Different images represent the things that need to be remembered.
Let me further clarify by using my actual shopping list loci as an example. I take these steps pretty much every time I go to the grocery, so they are natural for me to use (even when I actually take another route, such as go to the grocery straight from work, I can still easily recall this one). I underlined the actual words that serve as locations, but provided also the context so you better understand how this route works for me:
- Grab keys and wallet from computer table
- Grab bag from shelf
- Put shoes on in the hall
- Go to the elevator
- Get out from the front door of the building
- Open the metal gate leading to the street
- Pass a big yellow mailbox
- Go over the bridge towards shopping mall
- Pass the kebab restaurant
- Go up a small flight of stairs
- Go to the entrance of the shopping mall
- Take an escalator down to the grocery
As I live alone and like to have fresh food as often as possible, I rarely need to remember more than 10 different items. To see how loci system works, let’s attach my shopping list to the above locations in a similar way words were linked to each other earlier:
- Computer table – What the hell! Someone has poured milk on my table! It’s on the keyboard and dripping to the floor. I feel my socks getting wet.
- Shelf – I am about to grab my bag when I accidentally step on a tomato on the floor. Just great… Now I have to clean this up!
- Hall – I am putting on my shoes when I realize they’re made of ham! It smells a bit and I’m having hard time with the shoelaces since my hands are getting greasy and slippery.
- Elevator – Some punk has written “Heinz” on the elevator wall using ketchup.
- Front door – There are colored eggs in neat rows marking the way from elevator to the front door.
- Metal gate – When I am opening the gate I see a herd of cows running past on the street.
- Mailbox – The mailbox is made of cheese and I can see letters inside through the holes in it.
- Bridge – Looking down from the bridge I see a whole road covered with bags of frozen vegetables.
- Restaurant – The whole front of the restaurant is covered with hundreds of stacked yogurt cans.
- and so on…
In my opinion there is no need to be specific with the mental images. It is enough that you understand the proper association from the image that you created. For example, I am not going to buy a herd of cows in the grocery, but instead when I recall the image I immediately associate it with meatloaf.
Unlike with linking words to each other, with this system you are not stuck even if you forget an image along the route. You can always just skip that loci and move to the next one.
This same method can be used to remember tasks, to-do lists and so on. You just need to create a mental image of a familiar route with static locations, associate that specific route with something such as “things to do today”, and then attach images to the locations on that path. The really fun part starts when you create multiple routes – or what can also be called a memory palace. For example, each room in your house could be its own path with multiple locations. Just make sure that the locations are distinct and you always go through them in a fixed order. This way they become familiar quickly as you walk along the route in your mind a few times.
You can also create an imaginary “hub” with multiple doors, each of which leads to some familiar route with its own loci (e.g. childhood home, workplace, a friend’s house, favorite park etc.). It is also possible to create completely imaginary loci, such as the insides of an alien spaceship or ancient tomb. However, I do not consider it worth the extra effort, since real life routes and locations are already imprinted in your mind and can be used just as effectively.
Try this out, have fun with it and let me know what you think. It might take a bit of getting used to at first, but soon you’ll notice yourself speeding through the routes and creating mental images with ease. With e.g. shopping lists it becomes very easy and quick as you are likely to buy certain items over and over again, so you will find yourself reusing images created earlier and just placing them on the different locations along a route.