How to Use Memory Systems
For Recalling Facts, Anecdotes, and Stories like a Savant
Have you ever had the experience of being in a conversation in a social or business situation and something interesting is being discussed and you have a relevant fact, anecdote or story that is ‘on the tip of your tongue’? Everyone is familiar with that frustrating sensation of feeling like you know something about a topic but being unable to recall the specific information or details at the moment it would be the very most useful to do so. Then a few hours or days later the knowledge seems to just pop into your head. How many of us would have performed better in a job interview, business meeting, presentation, social situation or maybe even a date if our working, conscious memory could instantaneously pull facts and data out of our unconscious. This article will share and demonstrate a shockingly simple, bizarre and surprisingly fun memory system for hardwiring your mind to do exactly that.
If the human brain is such a powerful computer why does this happen?
The human brain can hold about 1000 terabytes of information, to put this in comparison Google has only indexed 170 terabytes of information on the Internet. So why can’t we instantly recall facts? The conscious mind, which neuroscientists frequently compare to the RAM (random access memory) of a computer, has a much smaller capacity for information, some sources estimate as low as 512 megabytes. Continuing with the technology metaphor, the search engines of mind prefer to go down familiar paths to pull data out of the unconscious. Some obscure fact that suddenly becomes relevant to a present conversation requires a lot of your very finite ‘conscious RAM’ to extract from the obscure domain of your unconscious where it resides. How often do you forget your mother’s name or forget what your job is? Probably never because these are very familiar pathways to the search engines of your mind. Why do relevant facts pop into your head hours or days after you need them? Your unconscious mind is kind of like a personal assistant. Let’s say there’s some memory you need but can’t find, your unconscious will get to work looking for it, and will deliver this memory to you when it is found (most of the time).
So like a computer hacker who wants complete and instantaneous access to the full database, how do we hack our memory?
- Absurd or Novel Visual Associations: Think back to a moment when you saw something very strange or novel to you. This could be the first time you rode in an airplane, saw people get in a violent fight, a car accident occurs or an exciting visual experience like a concert. I bet it’s easy for you to recall all kinds of details surrounding this event, who you were with, what was said, what you felt about the situation, etc. This is because the mind forms much stronger neuronal pathways and resulting memories when an event is occurring that is bizarre, absurd, strange or novel. It is much easier for our conscious mind to access memories that are strange or weird than those that are mundane and bland.
- Multiple Pathways: Our conscious minds also have the most ease accessing memories that are well networked with multiple pathways to other common memory areas. I’m never going to forget the basic sales skills I learned early in my career because these memories are networked to the memories I access almost every day as I work, memories of books I’ve read, memories of courses I’ve taken, memories of articles I’ve written, memories of conversations, memories of movies I’ve watched, memories of mentors I’ve had and memories of deals I’ve done.
From now on whenever we hear see or hear an interesting piece of information that we think will be useful in the future we are going apply both of these mechanisms for ensuring fast extraction of it in the future.
Step 1: It starts with a fact, anecdote or story we want to remember. For example let’s use, The Disastrous Australian Emu War of 1932:
This is a hilarious, yet real war that Australia declared and lost against giant flightless birds in Western Australia. In 1932 the global great depression was hitting people hard in the frontier of Western Australia, to compound the problem there was a vast population of over 20,000 giant flightless birds invading their fields and eating their crops. The Australian government decided that a military solution was the best way to solve the significant emu problem. A major of the Royal Australian Army, seizing what he thought was a golden PR opportunity publicly declared a war against the emu and then proceeded to Western Australia with a small group of machine gun-wielding troops. It turned out that the emu was actually a worthy foe; the birds where surprisingly resilient to machine-gun fire, could run much faster than soldiers and were much better adapted to the harsh environment of the Australian frontier. The Australian government, dealing with a global depression and losses from WW1 eventually gave up on the military strategy and instituted a bounty system to incentivize locals to kill the birds.
Now, this piece of information, while not having much utility, is downright hilarious, and a great anecdote to bring up in social situations anytime Australia is being discussed.
Step 2: Create an absurd visual association: What’s important is that you create a really bizarre visualization that connects the piece of information (the Australian Emu War) to words or ideas that we encounter in social or business situations. The visual association should be whatever comes into your mind first.
Memory Trigger: Someone mentioning Australia
Visual Association: When I hear Australia, the first thing I visualize is the iconic Sydney Opera House. Now for the absurd association visualize this scene; close your eyes and imagine thousands of giant emu birds (40 feet tall!) attacking the Sydney Opera House, tearing off parts of it with their giant claws. As this happens a bunch of soldiers who are dressed like farmers fight back and shoot their guns at the giant birds, like a scene in Starship Troopers where the troopers are fighting the bugs! Quite an absurd scene isn’t it?
Step 3: Significant Life Event Association: Sometimes the visual association for whatever reason doesn’t work to bring the memory our conscious. For this reason, it’s also a good idea to link (using another absurd visualization) the piece of information we want to remember to a significant life event occurring close to the time that we learn that piece of information. The significant life event could be a significant change happening in your career or work, something happening in your family life, moving somewhere new, a relationship change or any number of things. What’s important is that the significant life event is something that was very memorable and set the general mood for your memories of this time of your life.
Visual Association: Like before we are going to create an absurd visual association to link the time frame to the piece of information.
Significant Life Event: In the weeks surrounding the time I first learned about the Australian Emu War, I was dating a particular girl named Yolanda, well sort of dating. I was busy with work and unable to spend nearly as much time with her as I would have liked, we had a real connection so this frustrated me. This reflected a general frustration I had with my life and work at the time. Any kind of romantic relationship is a fairly significant event in the neuronal network of our minds. It was during a very hot summer. So I am going to imagine Yolanda outside on a hot, bright day in an outdoorsy frontier environment and she is being attacked by giant Emu birds (yikes!). This violently bizarre and emotional scene is definitely going to stick my memory. Now when I think of Yolanda around this time in my life I will think of the Australian Emu War.
Retrieval by Significant Life Event Association: Mentally go back to the approximate time you think that you acquired the information you are looking for. Let your conscious search engines feel the emotions you had at the time about a significant life event that was occurring. If you’ve used an absurd visual association to link you will recall in mere moments the information you are seeking!
Step 4: Environmental Path Association: Another effective way to link a piece of information we want to remember is to associate it to the environment we where in while we acquired the info.
The Environment: I first learned the funny story of the Australian Emu War from a documentary film I was watching at a client’s house. The house had a huge back door patio that had a phenomenal view of the rocky mountains in Colorado.
Visual Associative: I imagine giant Emus, bigger than normal ones, running down the mountains towards me sitting on the patio of my client’s house. As they get closer I can hear their screeching, angry bird calls. As they get closer I run out to my car and watch as the giant emus tear my client’s house apart!
Retrieval by Environmental Path Association: Our memories of environments are usually closer to the surface of our unconscious than abstract facts or random (yet useful at odd moments) pieces of information. Environments naturally get strongly linked via strong, wide paths to our time frame and significant life event memories. You experience this when you travel to a place you grew up and have strong emotions recalling events.
So now as opposed to the Australian Emu War existing in some obscure and hard to access corner of my mind I now have 3 fairly strong neuronal pathways linking to it.
I highly doubt it will ever take me more than 2–3 seconds for me to remember the Australian Emu War in any given scenario. Now since you have taken the time to read this and visualize along with me the various absurd scenarios above I have essentially implanted false memories in your mind (like Inception!) so chances are you will not forget the Australian Emu War either! However, it’s VERY IMPORTANT that memory systems are built by your own creative faculty using the visualizations that appeal to you. Take the time right now to build your very own personalized memory systems:
What does Australia make you visualize?
Absurd Visual Association Link:
Significant Life Event Path:
If you are bold enough, in the comments below tell us about the visual associations you’ve build.
Now a lot of people reading this may think:
This is very interesting and I can see how memory systems work but it seems like a lot of work to do to remember a pretty insignificant piece of information.
Like anything worth doing, using memory systems does require some work, at first it may take you 5–15 minutes along with quite a bit of concentration to build the three visual association links for a piece of information but your mind is an amazing computer and will quickly adapt to using memory systems. After practicing for just a few days or weeks you will find that your conscious mind builds visual associations in as little as 10–30 seconds. Trained memory veterans who have been using memory systems consistently for years build their absurd visual associations in milliseconds expending only a very small amount of mental energy.
Development of Creative Faculty
As you can see memory systems rely pretty heavily on your creative faculty.
Unless you are a novelist, work with kids or have an artistic job your creative faculty probably doesn’t get much exercise so it might be a little rusty when you first start using it to create absurd and bizarre visual associations. The good news is that a little practice will fire it back up in a matter of a few days or weeks. You will notice some interesting things:
- Your sense of humor will actually improve since you are becoming more creative. Sometimes it will seem like there is a little comedian in your head making jokes about your life as you go about your day.
- You will find your friends and family giving you more attention because of your improved sense of humor and clever observations.
Overall Memory Improvement
You may think:
Sometimes I encounter dozens of facts or pieces of information worth remembering a day, am I supposed to use memory systems on all of them?
I would start by building one or two memory systems a day. Once you are competent with that start building more memory systems daily. One of the things that’s awesome about memory systems is that once you start improving your mind with them, you will find yourself remembering and recalling with ease information that you didn’t even make associations for!
Our minds are hardwired to seek validation and approval from others, it really is fulfilling when after practicing memory systems for several weeks or months your friends, family, and strangers start complimenting you on your sharp memory!