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We didn’t always have the attention span of a goldfish, but today it sure seems that way.
Imagine our memory had been so bad, once we finally became old enough to pass on knowledge from generation to generation.
We wouldn’t be here today, had the elders not remembered a few important things.
Before the invention of scripture, memory artists were today’s equivalent of quarterbacks. King Cyrus of Persia was known for knowing all the names of his soldiers, and Socrates mocked writing for making people forgetful.
Anything that was written before 200 BC had no punctuation, all texts were basically just word strings. If you didn’t already know what you were reading, reading was useless.
In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and it was all downhill from there.
Once we could store information externally, physically store it anywhere in our house and access it at any time, the need to remember things significantly declined.
This tendency has continued ever since, and taken a major turn for the worse with the invention of smartphones and the globally available internet.
However, just because our memory sucks now doesn’t mean we can’t improve it. We know that the average number of list items we can store in our short-term memory is seven, though that can be increased with practice.
Through repetition, practice and becoming an expert in certain fields you can increase your capacity to remember things.
Chunking simply means dividing one string of information into several.
Can you remember 1117200112241999 just by looking at it once? Most people can't; but we can remember 2 dates in a row: 11/17/2001 and 12/24/1999.
By creating 2 chunks of differently formatted information, memorizing a string of seemingly random numbers becomes easy.
If you now put these dates into context, it’ll be even easier: if for example 11/17/2001 was your friend’s 11th birthday and the second date was Christmas 1999.
The memory palace is a technique where you walk along a route you know really well, and put memories in certain locations along the way.
For example, you could go through your childhood home and place the items from your shopping list on the kitchen table. Then, when you’re in the grocery store, all you have to do is to mentally enter the kitchen and see what’s there.
Once you see tomatoes, onions and potatoes on the table, you know what to shop for. You can even have multiple routes for different kinds of memories.
Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.
The cognitive stage: The skill is performed consciously and manually. This is when the brain is developing new strategies to do it more effectively. At this stage, there is improvement in fits and starts because the brain is monitoring performance and removing errors.
The associative stage: When the brain stops strategizing and just becomes more efficient.
The autonomous stage: Here the behaviours become automatic and the improvement stops. This is called the OK Plateau, and it used to be considered the upper limit of a person’s ability. Now we know that it’s possible to improve far above it.
Before the invention of writing or electronics, people used to keep palaces devoted to memory. Not physical palaces, but mental ones!
1. Think of a place you know well… a childhood home, perhaps, or where you live now.
2. Imagine walking up to that place, and putting the first object to remember right on the front porch.
3. Then, step inside, and turn to your left. What do you see? Put the second object there and so on.
The items would be remembered when you mentally visit the place after a while.
The major system allows you to convert numbers into sounds and thus words, thereby making them memorable. Each number keys to a certain kind of consonant, and vowels and some other sounds are unassigned. 1 is T or D. 2 is N.
The Major System is based not around letters but sounds, so “enough” and “knife” would both code for 28. “Knife” would probably be easier to remember visually though. No matter what letter you choose, each number corresponds to essentially the same position for your mouth.
Memory, and indeed most intellectual skill, is not fixed. Anyone, by using the right techniques and practising, can expand their mnemonic capacity beyond what many people would even think possible—an excellent party trick, or simple a useful tool to remember phone and credit card numbers.
Practise even more, and you might even be able to compete against others at national or world championships.
Diplomatic Services operational officer
Improving your long lost trait: Remembering
Curious about different takes? Check out our Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything Summary book page to explore multiple unique summaries written by Deepstash users.
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