Improving Memory Through Better Visualization


I voraciously consumed all the Sherlock Holmes stories as a young person, and I remember reading somewhere that Holmes, speaking to Watson, once compared the famous Holmesian memory to an attic… There is only so much room to work with, my dear Watson, and so one must pick and choose what one stores there.  His point was that, when it comes to memory, space is limited, and so one doesn’t want to fill the mind with the trivial or useless.

This made a big impression on me. I dare say it it makes one of the legs of justification which firmly support my continuing disdain for celebrity tweets, pop culture gossip, and reality T.V.   I would hate to think that a “news” article on Miley Cyrus’s latest break-up pushed out of my mind the Pythagorean Theorem.

Modern memorists have upgraded the metaphoric memory locale from an attic to what they term one’s “memory palace.” Their focus is not on how many memories we make, but on how we make them.

Most of us probably think of memorization as involving repetition– going over and over names and dates and definitions and such until we have chiseled them, at least temporarily, into the unaccommadating and stubborn granite of our minds. Rote learning. Perhaps surprisingly to most, this is not the most important method used by the truly great memorists.

The problem with the repeat-and-repeat-(and-repeat…) method of memorization is that it is hella boring. Attempting to memorize a list of numbers or names as a straight list is, let’s face it, just not a very stimulating activity. The almost physical pain of straight memorization is universal. Out of the billions and billions of humans who have walked this planet, how many of them could have possibly enjoyed learning by rote? Probably less than the sum total of all those ever struck by lightning.

Nature has constructed the human brain so that we tend to forget non-stimulating incidents. Maybe this is so that we don’t clutter the pathways of our minds, who knows?  But for whatever reason, it is an obvious truism that the more stimulating, exciting, or shocking an event or piece of information is, the more likely we are to remember it.  For instance, many of us don’t remember what we had for lunch three days ago, but we would find it quite bizarre to discover that one of our friends has forgotten that their mother has died– even if that sad event occurred over twenty years ago.

Author Joshua Foer, in his book, Moonwalking With Einstein, explores memory-improvement techniques. He has discovered that the trick to bettering one’s memory is to find a way to make even the most boring data-list *exciting!*. To accomplish this, expert memory-makers have– for millenia, it turns out– transmogrified boring terms and numbers into titillating images. And the key word here is “images.”

Humans, compared to most other critters, have a brain which is particularly tied to a predominantly visual representation of our world. Dogs and bees may “see” the world in smells or other chemically sensitive tactile impressions, and bats may experience the world as a crowded circus of sounds, but we humans observe the world mostly via images. True enough, a catchy jingle or meme can stick in our head so deeply that we can’t get it out even if wanted to, and also true enough that smells have been found to sometimes be the quickest and deepest way to call-up old associations in our minds, but when all is said and done and remembered and forgotten, it is the image which predominates the human consciousness.

On the other hand, we have a difficult time becoming deeply involved with abstract items such as numbers or technical terminology or even people’s names. And in the modern human life, these types of things are precisely the things we are routinely pressed to commit to memory. What a depressing and ironic fate! But what if we could remember boring, abstract pieces of data as if they were exciting occurrences experienced in our lives? This would make it possible to memorize even extremely long lists of the boringest items. How cool would that be?!

This is precisely what great memorists, dating back to at least the times of the Roman Empire, have been able to do. The trick is turn each piece of data into a memorable visualization– the more bizarre, titillating, exciting, or downright obscene the image, the better.

Let’s use the example of memorizing someone’s name– an important but sometimes difficult task which comes up with some frequency in most everyone’s life. Let’s pretend that I meet a person called Tyler Craig, and I want to remember his name. As we all know from frustrating experience, trying to lock the memory of his face to the memory of his name is a faulty method at best.

However, using the visualization method recommended by the author (and apparently used in some form or another by EVERY top-notch memorist), I will associate Tyler Craig’s name with a image– a memorable image. For example, I could picture Aerosmith frontman, Steven Tyler, in a diaper down on his hands and knees scrubbing some jagged-edged (or “craggy”) tile. The gimmick here is that the tile will remind me of the name Tyler, and the cragginess will remind me of Craig. Get it?… craggy tile… Tyler Craig. Using Steven Tyler in a diaper just helps to make the image even more memorable, while also adding a buffer-layer of memory… using Tyler to recall Tyler. You could probably come up with a better image, but hopefully this helps you get the gist of what Foer is getting at.

A very important part of the trick is to make the image you make-up to associate with the data– whatever it is– as REAL as possible to you. You have to really see it, experience it. That’s why some have claimed that a good imagination is absolutely requisite to having a good memory. If your make-believe muscles have atrophied since grade-school, you might not right away be able to make your images truly VIVID enough to leave a deep impression in your brain. But with some practice, we can all reclaim our childlike ability to pretend and to really see– to see in living color and touchable texture– the things we conjure in our minds.

To make the image as real as possible, you need to use images which you can imagine in detail. That’s why it’s a good to use people you know for your images, or even celebrities. These are people whom you can truly picture, down to their dimples and curls, whereas just some shadowy, generic “person” won’t make the kind of impression which a lasting memory demands. You can also use animals, or cartoons, or really anything– as long as you can picture vividly.

According to Foer, three part, ACTIVE images end-up being the most utilitarian. The three-part image would consist of a: 1) subject 2) verbing an 3) object. For instance, a rockstar-scrubbing-tile.

The three-component visual seems to be helpful for at least a couple of reasons. One, by imagining some activity (especially some crazy or obscene one), the image will be more memorable. And two, you can greatly increase your stock of images without having to come up with a ridiculous amount of celebs or relatives to use.

You’ll also need to place your images in your mind so that you know where you find them. This is where the memory palace comes in. As you are memorizing a list of items, you will mentally walk through a room in your palace (or a street in your neighborhood, etc) and place or stick those images in very specific locations. This is especially important if the list must be remembered in order. In the future, other memories will be stored in different rooms/streets/etc or even in different palaces (neighborhoods, etc) altogether.

Let’s say I want to remember which movies my girlfriend is dying to see. We’ll pretend they are The Godfather, The Matrix, and Titanic (she’s a bit behind in her movie viewing). I can dedicate to my girlfriend (in my mind) a building from my memory, preferably with several hallways and numerous rooms. Let’s say I choose my high school. And for storing her must-see movies, I’ll choose the room of art teacher Mr Limerick, located halfway down the Art and History corridor. In Mr Limerick’s classroom, I’ll turn right and spot, in the first row of desks, a jaw-jutting older Marlon Brando together with Agent Smith, both men in sunglasses, facing each other and duking it out while riding on a miniature cruise ship– the pink and white ship rocking like it’s some sort of see-saw much too small for the horse-play of the two grown men.

Here we have it all… a memory palace (my school, and more specifically for this particular memory, a certain classroom) and a three-component, memorable visualization. This one image should call to mind all three movies.

Now, this is just the beginning. A true memorist in this way could memorize his girlfriend’s top ONE HUNDRED must-see movies. How is this possible? It is with these long lists that the memory palace method really shows its worth and surpasses any other system so far devised.

Instead of belaboring the point, let’s just add to the list six more movies. This is how it might be done…

The additional movies are: Driving Miss Daisy, Robocop, Frozen, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Braveheart, and Field Of Dreams. In Mister Limerick’s classroom, I’ll then place: Godfather-era Brando and Agent Smith rockin on a small cruise ship, followed by Morgan Freeman in chauffer-hat riding on the shoulders of Robocop, both of them with icicles hanging off them. And behind these two groups, will be Kevin Costner in his baseball uniform spanking with his bat a bent-over, bare-assed, kilt-wearing Mel Gibson– while a black cat jumps from one of their heads to the other with a sizzling sound each time it its paws hits the roof of their heads, with Gibson’s long, “Braveheart” hair on fire.

In this way, I have remembered nine movies (I’ve assumed order is not important), and placed them in context (my girlfriend’s must-sees) by putting them in certain place in a certain locale or “palace.”

For people using this method of memorization routinely, the memory palace turns out to be really more like a memory compound. As you memorize more and more things, you will eventually outgrow you palace, and have to requisition other locales in which to ensconce your bizarre images. Foer states that he has stockpiled several HUNDRED memory palaces.

In my next post, I hope to talk about “chunking” and “pattern recognition” and memory-building in terms of what has been learned about skill-acquisition in general.


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