Learning scientist and head geek. Formally Labster CTO
Train Your Brain #2: How to memorize things
The next step of our Train Your Brain guide (find part 1 here) is to teach you how to quickly and effectively memorize all the important information that you are going to receive in the future.
That includes both the information in this guide and, perhaps more importantly, the flood of information that you receive during your studies and in your daily life.
So let’s get to it!
The single most important part of becoming effective at memorizing information is that you develop the habit of actually trying to memorize the material. It’s so simple that it’s actually quite easy to forget.
For that reason, you have to remember to ask yourself the following question as frequently as possible:
“How can I use this information/learning/tip/technique?”
By asking this question often, you force yourself to reflect upon your learning. And once you make a habit of that, you’ll begin to find it much easier to understand and memorize important information.
So… How can you use it?
No matter whether you’re a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner, using visualization to memorize study material is a very effective technique that anyone can use.
Some people are of course better at visualizing more vivid and colorful images in their minds, but that’s typically just because they have trained it more. That’s because visualization is much like a muscle - you need to train it for it to grow and become stronger.
So try out the following visualization tricks, and see how they work for you.
TRICK #1: REMEMBER NUMBERS WITH SHAPES
Let us start with a neat little trick that’ll make it a whole lot easier for you to remember numbers.
Often, when people have to remember a number like 24,527, they either remember the sound of the number (auditory learners especially) and repeat the number several times in their mind, or they visualize the numbers as they are shown on this page.
Visualizing the numbers is, however, very difficult for the brain, as you have to remember the many shapes of each number.
One way to make visualizing easier, is therefore to assign an object to each number, (e.g. number 2 is a swan ) simply because it is easier for our brain to remember real world objects.
There is, however, an even better way.
You can simply use the number pad on your mobile phone to make it easier to remember numbers, by visualizing the shape/pattern that the numbers form.
Many people already do this when remembering phone numbers or pin codes. Perhaps you’ve tried before to remember your pin code at a time where you didn’t have to type it, and found it difficult? But then, when you had to type it in, you found it easy, and didn’t have to put any effort in at all. That’s because you remembered the pattern the numbers make on the numpad, and not the numbers themselves.
You can use this knowledge for remembering any number.
With the number 1,893 for instance, you simply have to remember the following shape/pattern on the left side.
Some people prefer to have zero in the top left corner instead, so 6,270 would be like the shape on the right side.
The choice is really up to you.Try both, and use whatever seems most natural to you.
You can also make this trick even easier to use by replacing each shape with an object.
This is where a little bit of creativity is needed. For the left shape above for instance, you might just remember that it is a shopping cart. Or for the right shape, you might remember mountains.
By turning shapes into objects, you can make it a lot easier for your brain to recall the actual numbers, as you will help it find the place in your brain where you stored the numbers. It is like you are pointing at the place in your brain where the numbers are, by using these mental images.
For example, I had a PIN code for my AMEX card that I rarely used. It was 8012. I normally always forget my PIN code after not using it for a while, but for this number, I just remembered a shark with a wide open mouth. Never forgot the number again!
To remember long numbers like your entire credit card number, we can combine this trick with the next one.
TRICK #2: USING A PATH YOU KNOW WELL
Did you ever think that your path from home to school or to work could be useful for memorization?
If you hadn’t, good news! Memory paths can be a super effective way to remember long lists of information, as you can utilize the brain’s amazing ability to remember paths that help you navigate daily.
Let’s say you have to remember this list of information:
- Hostile Takeover Defenses (Topic for the items below)
- Poison Pill
- White Knight
- Scorched earth
This was actually a list (with many more items in total) of ways companies can prevent hostile takeovers, which I had to remember for an exam I had in Corporate Governance some years ago.
I still remember the list without any problems.
The trick is to first of all think of a path you can use for memorizing the list. I used the path from my old dorm to the university at Harvard, so let’s reuse that for this example.
The image below shows the path I took daily, and also highlights the key spots on the path that I remember clearly. To use the technique, I simply walk through the path inside my mind, see the key spots, and then at the same spot create an image in my mind that helps me remember the item.
Take a look below.
One thing you may have noticed by now is that I use rather silly or strange images. But this is actually an important part of the technique, because the more extreme the images are, the easier you can remember them!
You’ll get a long way with a little creativity, however, there will of course be some things that are more difficult than others to use the technique for. The above list was rather easy, and it can become more complicated to remember e.g. a list of chemical names using this method.
Another thing you may think is difficult to remember with this technique is numbers. But as mentioned above, this technique can be very useful for that too, when combined with the previous one.
How to Remember Long Numbers:
- First, you simply split the number into groups of 4. For example: 4902 1790 0723 2597.
- Create a numpad path for each of the groups (see below).
- Use the path trick by walking a short path in your mind that you know very well. Create four stops during the walk at spots you remember clearly (e.g. traffic lights), and see the patterns above in a strange ways (e.g. a UFO in the sky creating the first pattern etc.).
To make it even easier, you can try to see if you can find any objects which look like the patterns. In the example above, the first one might be a butterfly, second the front of a ship, third the mouth of a shark and fourth a coat hanger.
Be creative and create fun images in your mind that will make it difficult for you to forget.
Give it a try, and see how powerful it is!
TRICK #3: EXPAND YOUR MENTAL IMAGE
In the previous trick, we saw how you could memorize a list of information using mental images of the white knight, green mail etc.
Now you can take this mental image you already have in your mind, and start to expand it to attach new meaning to each topic.
Simply visualize the specific item on the list (in the mental image, e.g. the white knight next to the police station), and then think about the additional information/meaning you want to attach to that item.
Doing this will make it a lot easier for your brain to recall the information about that topic later, as you are actively helping your brain organize the information you get.
To help you remember the additional information, try to see if you can visualize the information by creating new mental images around the item (in this case around the white knight).
TRICK #4: THE POWER OF FIRST LETTERS
As you may already have noticed, we have used the first letter memorization technique for this guide.
The word SMART is used for two things in particular: first, to help your brain recall the different topics in this guide, and second, to help your brain organize all the information you receive.
You can use the same technique to remember long lists of information as well. Some pilots, for example, frequently use this technique when they go through their checklists. Below is an example.
Pilot’s Checklist Example:
The checklist below can be remembered by using the word “2FIST”.
- Flaps Set, Fuel Pump On
- Instruments Checked and Set
- Switches set
- Transponder set to ALT
You can also use this in your studies. Just line up the keywords that will help you remember the information in a book, then take the first letter of each word, and potentially reorder them and make them form a word you can easily remember.
TRICK #5: USING FIRST LETTERS WITH SENTENCES
There is also another smart way to remember long lists of keywords which is particularly useful when the words need to be in a certain order.
For instance, let us say that you need to remember all the planets in the solar system. If we include Pluto, they are:
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
Putting the first letters together we get: MVEMJSUNP
You could reorder the letters so you form a word, but as you can see, that would be slightly difficult in this case. If you were to do this, it would change the order of the planets and we would not know that Jupiter is the fifth planet, for example.
Instead, you can use your creativity again to form a sentence out of the letters, which is much easier to remember than the planets themselves.
Here is a quick example for the planets:
My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas
Try to see if you can say the names of all the planets in the right order using the above sentence without looking at the list of the planets.
TRICK #6: COMBINE VISUAL AND AUDITORY SKILLS
This trick is a quite funny one, which you can use for both your studies and also to quickly remember lists in your daily life such as shopping lists, checklists or ingredient lists.
It is also a great way for you to train your creativity and visualization skills, so we encourage you to use this trick as often as possible.
First of all you need to remember a list of 10 words by heart. The great thing about this list is that each word rhymes with a number, so it leverages your auditory skills to quickly recall words in the future.
Go through the list below a few times, until you can say the list out loud with your eyes closed.
- 1 = Bun
- 2 = Shoe
- 3 = Tree
- 4 = Door
- 5 = Hive
- 6 = Sticks
- 7 = Heaven
- 8 = Gate
- 9 = Wine
- 10 = Pen
Got it? Great!
Now write down a list of ten items/chapters/topics/keywords you would like to remember. Then go through each word in the list, and make a mental image of the word together with the number-rhyming word.
Let’s try this with an example where you have to remember a list of 5 ingredients for a smoothie:
- 1 = Banana Bun
- 2 = Strawberries Shoe
- 3 = Blueberries Tree
- 4 = Almonds Door
- 5 = Orange Juice Hive
Now you simply go through the list and create a mental image of each of the items together with the memorization object.
First, you could visualize a banana tree with buns hanging in the tree side by side with the bananas.
Next, you could visualize a pair of boots filled up with strawberries.
Thirdly, you could visualize a tree with blue bears sitting at the foot of the tree relaxing.
Now continue with the remaining ingredients.
IMPROVE YOUR VISUALIZATION SKILLS EVEN FURTHER
By now you have seen the amazing power of using visualization for memorizing information.
To help you make your mental images easier to remember, here is a list of things to keep in mind, when you create the images.
- Senses Vision Color Size Smell Touch Taste Sound Rhymes Rhythm Words Notes
- Emotions Funny Offensive Rude Angry
- Situations Movement Locations
- Objects Real Symbolic
- Categorization Ordering Numbering
- Combinations Strange/Unusual Unique
- Exaggeration Amplification Reduction
All of the items above allow you to make your mental images more distinct, and thereby easier for your brain to recall later.
BUILDING A STRONG MENTAL IMAGE
Once I had to use all of these techniques to memorize a 500 page book in one week before an exam.
Let's just say that I had quite a lot to do during that semester, running multiple companies while simultaneously studying, so I found myself in need of some seriously effective memorization tricks.
The subject was Business Economics and I had to remember two key topics. The creators of these topics were named Cournot and Bertrand.
To remember this, I started using personification of the two people in my mind, giving them strange faces and strange bodies that were easy to distinguish.
Once I had done this, I could start creating my mental picture based on these two personifications.
The more time I spent on my mental image, the easier it became to add additional information as the mental image became clearer.
I was slowly creating a highway of information that made it easier and easier for me to enter, and later recall and extract information from this mental image.
Here is a drawing of what my image looked like.
The image above was made just for the sake of this guide, and is actually made from a mental image I made 5 years ago. I still remember it like it was yesterday!
As you can see, my drawing skills aren’t the best, but the mental image and learnings are perfectly organized and very clear in my mind when I look at the different parts of this mental image.
I simply focus on a part of this image (e.g. the money pile), and then I am able to look up the specific list of keywords for that topic.
By using the many ways to make the mental images clearer in your mind, you will be able to get started using this powerful skill right away.
REPETITION IS THE MOTHER OF ALL SKILLS
Another (perhaps less exciting) way of boosting retention levels is by reviewing your notes. Your notes should be simple enough for you to keep an overview, but also detailed enough so that you don’t have to re-read chapters. If you’re looking for ways to improve your note-taking, try out these 6 strategies for taking high-quality notes.
When you re-read your notes, you tap into your own memory and activate your brain in such a way that it will be easier for you to recall the information in the future – even without your notes.
This way of practicing the information you already have in your mind is extremely powerful (but unfortunately often ignored) as it trains your brain on how to recall/use the information you have in your mind.
All the way from elementary up through university, I’ve always been quite good at math. That meant that my fellow students often asked me to explain the complicated parts of our math curriculum to them.
After a few years, I even started setting up small teaching sessions for my class mates.
Why would I do this? Well, first of all, because I like helping others. But more importantly, it was because I understood the power of using it or losing it.
You see, by teaching others, you make sure that you yourself understand the material very clearly, so that you’re able to explain it properly. This can dramatically improve your ability to understand and remember things.
So our advice to you is this: Use any and all opportunities you have to explain and teach others!
This is one of the most powerful ways to motivate yourself, to understand the material, and to help others appreciate your effort in helping them learn and understand.
The same goes for this guide – by writing about all of these techniques and teaching you how to become a super-learner, we automatically remember, re-use and re-organize all the tips, tricks and techniques that we have acquired through the many years of studying and striving to be top-performers.
You can do the same by explaining some of these techniques to others, as this helps ensure that you fully understand the potential and how they can be applied in your daily study life.
- Visualization is an important part of memorizing material, and it can easily be trained and improved, no matter which learning style/styles you posess.
- There are many types of techniques, which you can choose between depending the type of material you are memorizing.
- There are many ways for you to start memorizing information more effectively. These include:
- Using your mobile number pad to remember numbers
- Using a well-known path to remember lists
- Creating creative mental images in your mind
- Using first letters of words to create sentences
- Combining visual and auditory senses to recall long lists