Faithful readers will recall that I’ve been toying with various memorization techniques for a couple of months. This has led to a spirited evening spent memorizing the names of U.S. presidents with my boyfriend (we’re great at parties), having strangers mistake me for someone who’s not forgetful when I remembered all nine of their names, and, probably best of all, managing to actually remember which password goes with what–my password for updating apps on my phone, my facebook password, my LinkedIn password, my Gmail password, etc. This will save me a lot of time and frustration. Playing with mnemonic devices and interviewing U.S. memory champion Nelson Dellis and author/culturalist Joshua Foer ultimately culminated in the publication of most in-depth article I’ve ever written for the Performance Menu. Here’s an excerpt:
Although both Dellis and Foer use these skills they’ve developed in their day-to-day lives, they are both quick to agree that memorization has its limitations. It’s a step towards learning, but isn’t learning itself.
“Memory is the basic building block of learning,” Dellis said. “It gets information quickly in your head. That’s not the actual information you want to learn, but once you have it in there, you can review it and make sense of it after that and that’s where the actual learning comes.”
Foer points out that although repeating something over and over again is mindless, memorization can actually be mindful by “forcing you to reckon with what it is that you’re trying to learn.” He views committing things to memory as a necessary first step for processing the world. “Understanding is essential, but sometimes you need a little extra help,” he explained. “For example, say you memorize all the U.S. presidents, and what years they served. That’s raw and kind of uninteresting information, and it’s not that useful in and of itself, but it becomes useful when you are reading U.S. history and then all of a sudden this information that was kind of disconnected can provide context and structure to what you’re reading and what you’re learning.”
Remembering basic facts gives you a starting point to fasten other facts to. Awareness of this is embedded into the medieval mind. In fact, the Latin word inventio gave rise to the words invention and inventory, signaling, Foer believes, that one needs to stock their mind with knowledge to be able to project into the future with new creative insights.
Giving oneself permission to use memorization asa starting point for analyzing information in detail at a future time is actually quite relieving. Trying to understand and analyze everything can be overwhelming, but allowing oneself to indulge in a bit of rote memorization as a stepping-stone can make things easier in an age where it’s easy to get oversaturated with details.
But although mnemonic devices are very effective for recalling structured information, the memorization techniques aren’t ones you’ll necessarily want to use for all kinds of learning. Embedding random images in your head instead of observing what’s going on around you isn’t always the solution. “I can imagine some situations where it would distract you by taking you away from something practically meaningful and relevant,” Foer said. The memory palace, for example, “is a technique that’s good for something that does not have inherent meaning to you; you’re adding a layer of meaning where there is none.”
Yet the brain does prefer to take in information in the form of pictures, and as I mentioned previously, the more bizarre or disturbing these images, the better.
Graphically sexual or violent images are surprisingly effective.
This 8-page article includes a list of ways to make your training more memorable, Dellis’ five-step strategy for memorizing names, and, since it’s a fitness journal, a boatload of information for how to use this to inform your coaching (if you’re a coach) or performance (if you’re an athlete).