Section 1 – Introduction to Memory
First, let’s talk about memory.
You, good sir, were not born to memorize dates and other bullshit that the academic system forced on you. You, however, have a brilliant mind capable of memorizing a lot of information you don’t know you’re memorizing. Look at where your memory would likely have been adapted to—survival. Your brain originally had to answer questions such as, “How do I get back to my tribe/group/whatever?” “Is this berry dangerous?” and so forth. You learned these lessons through either repetition (as you walk the same path every single day, you’ll notice that you think about it less) or via emotion (I bet you can remember times when someone had you angry in vivid detail).
So, your memory of the motorcycle demonstrates that you have a very powerful and useful memory for context—where things exist in relation to other things. Congratulations! You’re right smack in the middle of the bell curve and your memory is normal.
Memory, however, needs a goal. Remembering bullshit for no reason is a waste of your precious time. Remember things that will help you in your day to day life, and be OK with forgetting the rest or trusting it to systems. Your mind is brilliant and it’ll know if you’re trying to bullshit it into remembering a list of capitals for no good reason. There are ways to do that, sure, but they’re highly specialized and of little practical value to you. Memory pros forget where the keys are just the same as you.
SECTION 2 – The Basics of Remembering Everything
SO! Having said that, here are my tips to help YOU, good sir, improve your memory. My word of caution is that you must keep your expectations in check. If you’re simply memorizing bullshit for the sake of it, that you’re never going to use again, you will lose it. The nature of memory is that it prunes out stuff you don’t need.
1) First, you must activate your senses. Multi-sensory memories (sight & touch, or Sight & Smell, or Sight & Sound, etc.,) are easier for you to remember. How can you do this? Vocalize. Say the words out loud that you wish to remember, and maybe even say why you wish to remember them. I cannot stress the power of vocality enough. Build on that vocality by writing it down. Don’t just say the word, but handwrite it on a notecard. Why? Typing uses a very limited subset of repetitive motions to create words as opposed to handwriting for which two letters will never be identical for you. Drawing words is a different and more powerful mental process than typing them.
2) Got your senses activated, sir? GREAT, let’s move on to step two.
Repeat. But don’t just repeat once, repeat often. Those index cards you wrote down are your best friend. Keep them in your pocket and pull them out when you have a spare minute in the grocery store line, waiting in the office, or any other such thing. Yes, you’ll look stupid, people will probably ask you about it, and if you have social anxiety you’ll not want to do it. Do it anyway. Seeing the same sights over and over is how you learn to remember them in such a natural way that you no longer have to actively think to make those associations. Vocalization of the cards is important at this step as well. Again, keep those senses activated. You know how you get to Carnegie hall right? Practice. True memory is something you don’t have to think to recall, it becomes a part of you, and getting those memories to be a part of you takes repetition and activation.
3) Been busy practicing Sir? Great, move onto step three.
You’re going to notice that some cards are coming to you more easily than others. This is natural. Don’t ask me why it happens. Go get an envelope for the cards that are coming easily to you. Got it? Put the easy cards in this envelope. You will pull that envelope out one day every week and review it. On the front of the envelope you will mark what days you reviewed it to help you keep track of your progress.
If some cards start becoming harder to remember, those go back into the big pile you carry with you. If they become second nature to you, you move them into yet another envelope which you will review once a month. Write “Review Dates” on the envelope and make sure those dates are scheduled into your calendar.
These three steps will give you the ability to memorize anything you want. This system is designed to take advantage of your natural tendencies. It is not perfect, but it has a method for dealing with its own imperfections. You’ll notice that it takes time. All good things do. But let’s say you don’t have time… there are some “dirty” methods you might be able to use.
Section 3 – Tactics for Memorization
Here’s an exercise I want you to try.
Think about that motorcycle you managed to memorize. It’s a beautiful motorcycle, no? You know all the pieces by heart. Imagine that this motorcycle is in a familiar place to you, like the garage or in your driveway. How does it smell there? Like oil in the garage? Dust? Dandelions? Really take a minute to appreciate the way the sun bounces off the shiny coating, all those beautifully chromed metal pieces. Got that image in your mind? Great.
Now, I want you to close your eyes and imagine that scene again. Walk around the bike, take a moment to get familiar with the whole scene. FEEL it. Now, imagine that somebody you know, and maybe don’t even like, got sick of you not being able to remember the names of the pieces and they took a knife and carved the name of each piece where it belongs in the bike. Go ahead, look at it. That bastard carved “Muffler” in giant letters onto the muffler you spent hours polishing to perfection. God, he carved “Rims” into the rim. “Handle” into the handle. SHIT. All those hours of work you did, all that beautiful chrome, RUINED. Do you see those names carved into the bike?
Oh man, now you’re gonna have to take the bike apart and fix those pieces. Imagine the bike pieces floating apart like something out of a sci-fi movie. Look at each one in relation to the other. How the hell did this asshole carve the names on things INSIDE of the bike? You look at each one the name carved into it. You’re probably angry about this.
Any time you need to remember the name of a piece in that bike, you can call up this fake memory. Take a minute to feel the whole scene, feel the story of just how pissed you are about that asshole carving up this pristine bike. Get into it.
Section 4 – Cautions on Memory and its Limitations
Not everything is worth remembering. In ancient times up until early American times people kept something called a “commonplace” book. This was a container of everything they cared enough to remember. Quotes, names, whatever. It was an extension of the person’s brain and it could never forget important information. They would organize these books with indexes and everything else to help them find what they were looking for.
Remembering information because you need to recall it or because it matters to you (anniversaries, birthdays, your girlfriend’s favorite color, jewels, etc.,) is worth doing; everything else can probably comfortably exist in a system. You have a calendar to help you remember that you have appointments. You have a phone to handle your phone numbers. These capture systems outside of your mind exist for a reason. Businessmen used Rolodexes, and politicians often use business cards to remember who they talked to and about what.
Not everything is worth your time to memorize, and if you’re taking time to organize and sort your information you might find you have an easier time remembering its location, and therefor what it was you were trying to remember in the first place.
If you do need to memorize something, please do not STRESS about it. Stress reactions inhibit your body’s ability to do anything but panic. Instead, think about the information and ALLOW yourself to memorize it. You’re going to look at the name of the item and really allow yourself to take in what it is you’re trying to remember. Feel yourself taking that information in, and let go and allow it to sink in your brain. You’re not in a race. Whenever you accomplish something you’re 100% better off than the people who did nothing.
Section 5: Resources & Final Notes
Apps like Anki will help you with “spaced repetition” of the sort I recommended for the cards. It’s better to use the cards, but if you’re dead set on something like a smartphone app, Anki is good.
Some vitamins and so forth are tied to better memory. Right now I’m supplementing with Ginko and Fish Oil to increase my cognitive functioning. I haven’t been doing this long enough to give you a judgement of efficacy, but it’s worth mentioning to you.
Exercise is paramount. If you want to have a better mind you need the feel-good juices that come from a good run, lifting, whatever. Gym time is not negotiable, so do it.
Sleep, like exercise, is necessary. Eight Hours, every night. Do it. No excuses. If you’re having trouble sleeping reduce caffeine intake after 3pm, reduce electronic usage after sunset, eliminate electronic usage an hour before bed. Play calming music during evening hours. I like Yo-Yo ma.