1 The basic idea

(Human) Memory is not so much a problem of space, but of recalling. Even though the exact mechanism of memory is not known1 we have good evidence as to how it works in general and we’ve been able to hack these mechanisms for our benefit.

While there are several memory tricks, hacks and techniques, you can see that most of the more powerful ones rely on two basic steps:

  1. Making a connection of ideas; and
  2. Establishing a way to recall that connection

However, most practitioners of memory tricks and hacks will tell you that there’s a third major component to using these methods: practice. It’s astounding how much practice matters when exercising the memory, and how little it seems to be represented when discussing the major mnemonic methods.

Don’t believe me?

2 A simple test

Try writing down ten easily recognizable landmarks on your commute to work, your regular dog-walking route or any other path you think you know near-perfectly. Write down the ten easily recognizable landmarks in order and in a way that can be recognized by anyone, even those completely unfamiliar with the place or culture you live on.

In other words, imagine that you’re writing the list for a foreigner who is magically transported to point A and they are tasked with getting to point B without ever straying from the path.

Now go ahead and write it down. Seriously, take pen and paper and write down these ten landmarks, in order.

Are you done? Go on to Google Maps and see if you’re right.2 How did you do?

3 The usual results

It’s amazing just how much our brains can abstract information. As others have written before, our brain needs to actually abstract or block out information from the outside because the senses deliver more information than the brain can actually process.

So we abstract, we skip over the details when we think they won’t be necessary and we do this unconsciously. Think, for instance, of the app on the lower left corner in your phone screen. Check: are you correct? Check, right now, and come back to this sentence. Now, can you tell me exactly what time is it? You just looked at the screen with a clock on it!

Again, this is not to demerit your memory, but to establish the point that I want to build on: we think we know with more detail than we actually do, this is how normal brains work.

But exercising memory is mostly realizing that our brain takes these shortcuts whenever possible, and we must teach it to walk a different path, if you follow the analogy. The memory palace and the loci methods are precisely built upon the idea of more or less forcing the brain to stop abstracting the details and to make them explicit so as to aid in memory of particular things.

4 Restate my steps

So let’s restate the major ideas for the memory techniques:

  1. Establish a way to connect ideas;
  2. Establish a way to recall those ideas; and
  3. Practice that recalling

The importance of the third point will be evident in this particular method.

5 Memorizing texts

This method is made for memorizing text verbatim, as is written in a piece of paper, and it’s supremely simple:

  1. Write down the initial letter of each and every word you want to remember;
  2. Read this list of letters, aided by the original plain text any time you can’t recall how to continue.
  3. Keep reading and rereading the initials with appropriate intervals (maybe of hours or days); hopefully you will need the original text less and less as you can recall more and more of the text just by looking at the initials

See how this adheres to the principles mentioned above. Step (i) is easy, because the connecting ideas are merely a word and a single letter; step (ii) is also easy, because the mechanism of recalling is merely by “reading” or “completing” the word, based on the knowledge of the first letter. Step (iii) is the crux of this procedure.

Practice recalling a text through its initials. It can be done, and as seen the first two major steps are almost completely intuitive. But this will only work if you practice recalling over and over again.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a sample from my memory—please believe me in this, bold characters are the ones I had to look up. The first paragraph in a major classic book, from memory.

E u l d l M, d c n n q a, n h m t q v u h d l d l e a, a a, r f y g c. U o d a m v q c, s l m n, d y q l s, l l v, a p d a l d, c l t p d s h. E r d c s d v, c d v p l f, c s p d l m, y l d d e s h c s v d l m f. T e s c u a q p d l c y u s q n l a l v, y u m d c y p q a e e r c t l p. F l e d n h c l c a; e d c r, s d c, e d r, g m y a d l c. Q d q t e s d Q, o Q, q e e h a d e l a q d c e; a p c v s d e q s l Q. P e i p a n c; b q e l n d n s s u p d l v.

6 Epilogue

I realize that mere memory is not the best cognitive tool of humans, and is only the first step in the road to true knowledge and wisdom. I know that schools are more concerned with memorizing and repeating of facts and I don’t wish to further that idea: this is merely a toy, with limited scope and even more limited usage.

But it’s a fine introduction to memorizing things. Who knows? Maybe I regard it as a toy because my working with computers means that I can store text near-perfectly without needing to recall it. Maybe it is useful for someone else.

What I do want to emphasize is this: memory is similar to a tool, useful only when it’s actually being used. The brain can retain an impressive amount of information, but it can easily get out of reach if one never exercises the memory.

Why did we remember lots of phone numbers before? Because we needed to, and the need awoke a powerful tool inside us. I’m not advocating to returning to the past for nostalgia’s sake; rather I wish to advocate for keeping our brain in as good shape as our bodies with constant nudges and exercise, if only for the pleasure of flexing to the mirror every morning. And who knows, maybe one day it will be useful beyond a mere curiosity. Mens sana in corpore sano.

  1. At least, not with the description and predictive levels of, say, Newtonian mechanics.

  2. Or, if you’re living in a future where the Plague has lifted, go outside and check for yourself.

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