Use Four Ancient Methods of "Ars Memorativa" to Master Your Memory

How memory techniques work

Our memory is not equally well suited to all tasks. Some things are surprisingly easy to remember (like where our bed was in our childhood bedroom), others are quite difficult, like a random sequence of numbers. The art of memory is about figuring out how to use the strongest aspects of memory for everything, rather than about how to make our memory as a whole stronger. A physical analogy might be learning to lift things with our legs, rather than working on making our arms stronger.

The tools I’m going to suggest are specifically oriented towards long term memory, though many of the techniques overlap with short term memory.

All of the techniques listed use one1 of three patterns:

  • Compress or chunk information to reduce “things” you need to remember
  • Provide conscious or unconscious Reminders, or connections to aid recall
  • Transform the target data into the type of “thing” most easily remembered2

First let’s talk about compression. It’s easier to remember a shorter list of “things” than a long one. For instance It’s much easier to remember a 3 digit number than a 20 digit one. But what constitutes a “thing”? Compression helps when what you need to remember is not entirely random. By finding and remembering the pattern3 you can remember large amounts of data in a small number of “things”. For instance, it’s easy to remember this 20 digit number: 12345678901234567890

Chunking is a similar idea, but in this case it is simply realizing that to your memory “93” is about the same size “thing” as “9” and “3”. By remembering information in larger “chunks” at a time we give ourselves less to remember. Reminders differ in that they help provide context and clues for what we are going to remember. The more related concepts are we are thinking of, the easier it is to remember something. Reminders range from totally conscious mnemonics, such as “Roy G Biv” giving you the first letter of each color of the rainbow, to totally unconscious ones such as smelling the same scent, or standing with the same posture as when you memorized your material.

Transforming information into more memorable forms is a less familiar technique. By learning or improvising patterns to associate one type of information, say the very abstract, with another easily remembered one, we only need to recall the easily remembered form of the information and the transformation system4 to get to our original data.

When people talk about memory, they typically are referring to one of three aspects: Recording, Retaining, and Recalling.
Recording is the process of actually learning the information in the first place5. We typically are better at recording things that we are interested in6, but our interest are not easily controlled. The best bet for utilizing our interest is connecting what we already care about to what we are trying to remember. Our minds are also much better at recording things that are concrete & visual. For instance a picture a gnome is much easier to remember than the abstract concept of injustice. We are all exceptionally good at recording spatial & geographic data. The details of locations is the strongest form of memory.

Feedback is also a powerful promoter of recording. If, as part of the learning process, there are changes or corrections that need to be made, it signals your mind to that the data is relevant. This might be associated with the biochemical advantage adrenalin provides to recording memory.

Most drugs which increase dopamine or alertness (caffeine, cocaine, adderall, provigil) also improve recording, though this is likely a side effect of increased interest in, well, everything. The drug Desmopressin allegedly causes nearly supernatural boosts to memory formation for a few hours after taking it, but has intense side effects7.

Retention is the measure of how long we are able to hold onto something once we have learned it. There are few tricks to retention, and it is pretty well understood. Two things that aid retention are “overlearning”8 and periodic repetition. The repetition can be done with decreasing frequency after the initial recording, for instance one can could refresh their memory after 1, 3, 6 & 10 days and expect nearly as much effect as if they practiced every day. There is free software called Anki available to help repeat practice at optimal times. There is also some suggestions that practice directly before bed yields longer retention.

Recall is the process of summoning what you have learned to mind. There are three different types of recall:

  • Recitation -- recreating the information whole cloth, the hardest form of recall
  • Recognition -- being able to spot what you know, like multiple choice tests
  • Relearning -- learning the material again or in a new way, often faster or more easily

Recall can be aided dramatically in several ways: by exposing yourself to the same or similar environments that you first learned in, working in the same posture, smelling the same scents, or imbibing the same drugs at the same levels. Recall works best in style of learning we recorded in, so practicing recognition doesn’t help that much with a recitation task later.

Material is practiced in more than one location or situation, becomes generalized and easier to remember in a variety of different states.

Techniques for learning:

Picture Conversion:
This technique is to simply turn what you are attempting to remember into a concrete picture in your mind. The more sexualized, violent, unusual, and vivid the picture is, the more effectively you will be able to remember it. Don’t be afraid to use rhymes and homonyms, and consider making it a short animation.

Example: “Sing the rapturous love-song unto me! Burn to me perfumes! Wear to me jewels! Drink to me, for I love you! I love you!”
You might envision a velociraptor singing and playing a ukulele. It then holds up some burning incense in one hand, and reaches to a heavily jeweled necklace in the other, until, dropping both it guzzles a massive chalice of wine. before two little hearts float up from it as it passes out.

Be sure to envision every little last detail, and use as many senses as you can. What color is the raptor? What does it’s skin feel like? What does it’s mouth look like? What color is the Uke? What does the incense smell like? what color is it’s smoke? What kind of jewels is the raptor wearing? What are they set in? How big are they? What do they sound like when dropped? What kind of wine is in the chalice? What does the chalice look like? Does the raptor pass out after chugging? Is he a sloppy drinker? What do the hearts that float up from him look like? Cartoon or realistic? Beating? In a thought bubble?

Interestingly, that entire visual tableau is probably only two or three “things” for your memory. All of those details we went over for vividness don’t add any difficulty for your memory either, quite the opposite they make the memory more vivid and easily remembered.

The Loci Method:
To organize these dense and vivid images you can use the spatial/locational part of your memory. To do so imagine a place you know well, perhaps your home. In your mind, walk through your home, starting on the left hand side and working your way around the outer circumference from left to right. At each easily memorable spot, take one of the images you are trying to remember and place it at that location. When you need to recall the sequence of images, simply walk in your mind through the location.

You can start placing images as you create them, before you have visited your entire list.
You can use the same location repeatedly9 which will often it’s strengthen effect.
Visualizing yourself actually taking the objects and physically placing them helps.
Visualizing the objects interacting with the location after placement10 also helps.
You can use objects instead of places pretty effectively as well. For instance you might place one image on each finger of your hand, or one in each corner of your credit card.

Number Triplets:
One very effective way of performing the otherwise difficult task of “picture conversion” for numbers is as follows. It does require you to memorize a person, an action, and a thing for each number from 1 to 10 before you can use it. I use the list below, which leans heavily on roman gods and their associations.

1 Being of Light Merging itself with Ox
2 Pan (satyr) Ejaculating on Goat
3 Saturn Giving Birth To, Swallowing Snake
4 Jupiter Electrifying, Electrocuting Stag
5 Mars Murdering Wolf
6 Apollo playing like an instrument Lion
7 Venus Sex (receiving) Clam
8 Hermies Teaching or Healing Tortoise
9 Artemis Veiling or Putting in a bag Moth
0 Atlas Crushing Mole

Whenever you need to remember a number, for example 9854382, break it into groups of 3 digits. (985 438 2--). Use the above chart (which you really do need to memorize) and make the first digit into a god, the second into an action, and the third into an object or animal.
985 becomes “Artemis Teaching a Wolf”, and 438 becomes “Jupiter giving birth to a Tortoise”. Be sure you add as much detail as possible, and make it as gross, violent, sexy, zany, smelly, and sloppy as you can. You are more or less aiming for shock value.

Now use the Loci method (above) to place each of these images, and you should be able to hold very large numbers in your head. If you need to retain them for long periods of time, walk your list periodically.

For dangling numbers, like 2--, I usually just invoke the “person” and have it interact with the location. For instance if I placed placed pan on a bookshelf using the loci method, I might have him start to lick the books there, or dance with them.

Learn it backwards:
When you are setting out to learn a large sequence of information, if the option is available to you, try to learn it backwards, repeating it through to the end after each bit you add.
For instance if you are working on a 10 line poem, first learn line 10, then learn line 9 and repeat line 10. Next learn line 8, and repeat lines 9 and 10. By the time you learn line 5, you will repeat lines 6-10 with ease. When you reach the first line, you will easily be able to run through the rest.

This pattern has a few advantages: It helps reinforce the later bits in the sequence, which often are harder to remember, it lets you work on the newest parts immediately, without burning a lot of time if you need to stop and look them up but still keeps the whole peice together in context. Most importantly: It maintains and boosts moral as you go. Every time you learn a new bit you get to see and feel the achievement of everything you have worked on.

Ultimately, none of these techniques are going to work if you don’t use them. Initially coming up with the “picture conversions” and creating vivid visualizations will be both slow and difficult, but this eases dramatically with practice.

Some diligent work will always be required, memorizing a 100 line poem isn’t going to happen on one reading no matter how good your visualizations are11. You will also need to periodically recall anything you want to retain. All of these skills provide mental leverage, but no matter how long your lever is, you still need to do some work on the other end.

  • 1. Or More
  • 2. Specifically either spatial memories, or highly unusual, sexual or violent imagery
  • 3. And as your mind stores “things” a pattern is only one thing
  • 4. Which must be bidirectional, and we only need to learn once.
  • 5. Some common failures of memory are simply never having noticed in the first place. This is often why we can’t find our keys.
  • 6. Virtually everyone is interested in sex and violence. This is an evolved biological imperative.
  • 7. Desmopressin will probably stop you from peeing for days, and can easily raise your blood pressure to lethal levels.
  • 8. Overlearning is the process of learning the material to be remembered, as well as a halo of surrounding material.
  • 9. For some mysterious reason the mind is not prone to mixing one set of placed items and another, it does happen occasionally though.
  • 10. in a non generic way! If they just look around in surprise it doesn’t really connect them to the space.
  • 11. ok, maybe with good visualizations and Desmopressin.