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A few years ago my wife and I went on a two-week trek through Italy. Our final stop was Positano, a sleepy coastal town on the Amalfi Coast, and we read voraciously in the sun for days. It was fantastic. It was during this time that I read Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans (the picture is proof – that’s my 2006 self on a deck in Positano, with my then new glasses and a glass of Italian wine, reading this book. Skip to the bottom of this post to see one reason why it was so much fun to read there!)
The book in general was a fascinating read – I took lots of notes in my Moleskine (which have since made their way into Evernote along with everything else). The biggest takeaway I had, and something I’ve referred back to time and time again at work and play, relates to ways to improve short-term memory. I’ve used some of these “hacks” during games with family where memory is the limiting factor. I’ve surprised myself more than once with just how easily I’m able to remember things just by converting them to the visual representations described below.
Memory is critically important in everyday life, yet we’re outsourcing our memory to search engines, Wikipedia, and other tools on a daily basis. For most of human history, people have been exercising brain power out of sheer necessity. We didn’t have digital to-do lists and access to all the world’s information on our smartphones; if we wanted to speak intelligently about a subject, for the most part, we had to store that information in our brains (the horror!)
We’ve since gotten lazy. And that’s OK for most things, but it means that when our memory is needed, it’s not always ready. We haven’t trained ourselves to be able to recall things at-will, and that ultimately has an impact on our lives (where was I going with this again? I can’t remember).
If you find yourself struggling to remember things – and if you feel this is impacting your life in a negative way – there are some things you can do to work around it. With just a little bit of practice, you can improve your chances of remembering your landlord’s last name, your girlfriend’s phone number, or your credit card’s 4-digit PIN.
The basic idea is this: for thousands of years, our ancestors spent a lot more time processing spatial data than they did with numbers. The difference in the size or color of a predator or plant made a big difference in terms of survival, but remembering sets of numbers or a list of Starbucks drinks to buy for friends didn’t. So most of these hacks rely on your brain’s ability to remember a short static list of things (“pegs”) to start from, and clear images to go along with them that you “burn” into your mind.
Here are the three most basic tricks I learned from this book that I’ve used in the real world.
1. Make mental journeys (my favorite)
Also referred to as memory palaces, and possibly the origin of the phrase “in the first place”, “in the second place”, this trick is the easiest to learn in my opinion. It’s super-effective too. The basic idea is that you use places as your triggers for remembering things.
Here’s how you do it: take a set of physical locations (like the rooms of your home) and create a walking path through them. Memorize that path (i.e. walking in the door, walking through the kitchen, stopping at the closet, etc.) Then when you need to remember a sequence of items (of any type) you mentally place them in the rooms as you go, creating a mental image that’s so memorable in that spot with your item there’s no way you could forget it. You can best do this by exaggerating something about the thing you’re trying to remember.
Then, to recall the list in order, just walk the same exact path through your home and recreate the story for each room in your mind.
You can use this approach to remember an almost limitless number of things provided you memorize a consistent “path” that feels natural to you, and you get creative enough with your visuals.
For instance, here’s a journey through an apartment:
2. master bathroom
3. guest bathroom
5. living room
8. downstairs bathroom
9. storage closet
I’ve personally used this approach to remember 20+ celebrity names in a family game of “Tribes”. I’m always surprised by how easily I can walk through my childhood house, picturing Michael Jackson moonwalking on the kitchen table and Babe Ruth smashing the TV with a baseball bat. On the first try, I got as far as remembering 19 things out of 20 in order when previously I capped out at maybe 7. Trying to remember things without my memory journey seems crazy at this point.
There’s a subsequent hack that has you memorizing things in the “nooks and crannies” of the rooms, enabling you to store even more. You use a predetermined sequence through each room (near-left corner, left wall, and so on) that can help you remember 10 (or more) items per room which can help your memory journey store 10 times as much data on the whole (10 x 10). This is a little overwhelming for me at this point, but I can see delving into this someday if needed.
2. Use the number-rhyme system
This approach is great for remembering up to 10 items (in order… or not) and is relatively easy to learn. The author of the book uses this hack to remember grabbing ten things each time he leaves the house.
Here’s what you do: first, memorize the ten words below that rhyme with the number it correlates to. One is gun, two is shoe, three is tree, and so on. Then for the first item on your list, visualize something containing both a gun and the item itself (for example your keys being blown to pieces by a bullet). For the second, visualize your item wearing large, obnoxious shoes. And so on.
Then to recall, just count up from 1, convert the number to the word it rhymes with, and think about the visual.
Here’s one possible rhyme list – there are lots of options:
3. Use the number-shape system
This is also for remembering up to 10 items; order may or may not matter necessarily… but if it does, this trick still works.
The number-shape system is quite similar to the number-rhyme system in that you pair your items with a visual that represents a number. This time, the number is converted to a shape that looks like the number (to help you remember it initially) instead of something it rhymes to as in the last hack. For example, to remember a grocery list (eggs, milk, cereal, apples, peanut butter) you’d take each item in order, and pair it with a visual representing one of the numbers below:
0. black hole, donut
1. pencil, candle
3. butterfly, heart
5. hook, pulley
6. lasso, golf club
8. hourglass, snowman
9. tadpole, flag
So for the grocery list above you could imagine: #1 an egg balancing on a pencil, #2 a swan drinking milk out of a cat’s bowl, #3 a butterfly landing on a Cheerio, #4 a sailboat that’s candy apple red circling The Big Apple, #5 a hook pulling a container of peanut butter off of the shelves, etc.
Those are the three basic tricks. But there are tons more where they come from. Mind Performance Hacks goes into detail on all three of these plus Nooks & Crannies, the Major System, the Dominic System, Carroll’s Couplets, and more. Lots of fun.
And for those who read this far just because you’re wondering what our view was from that deck in Positano, here it is 🙂