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How to remember anything: Lessons from a memory champion


Joshua Foer keeps a Post-it note above his computer that says "Don't forget to remember." The author of the new book "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" went from a man with an average memory to the official U.S. Memory Champ in 2006 by immersing himself in the world of professional memorizing. After studying the skills to learn entire dictionaries, he became convinced that anyone could have an exceptional memory. You just need to know certain memory techniques. Here are six secrets from his book to becoming a savant.

Build a "memory palace": "Housing" a list of things you need to memorize is essential.

"The idea is to create a space in the mind's eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember," writes Foer. It's a method used all the way back in Ancient Rome, when orators needed to commit their speeches to memory and when books hadn't yet become the main method of storytelling. The memory palace should be a place you know inherently, like the home you grew up in, or the route you take to work every day. Then take the ten things you need to remember, like a grocery list, and plant each item in a different place in your memory palace.

For example, put "paper towels" in your parent's old mailbox, then walk inside your old home and put "garlic cloves" on the kitchen counter. When you need to recall those items at the grocery store, instead of remembering the words, walk through your childhood home and find each item where you mentally placed it. It may seem like a lot of effort, but it's a process of embedding one kind of memory into another memory. Foer explains: "Humans are good at using spatial memory to structure and store information whose order comes less naturally." So a list of numbers or words may be hard to remember but if you embed them in a memory that naturally unfolds, like the blueprint of your old apartment, they'll live longer and be easier to retrieve.

Get creative: When you're "dropping off" those grocery list items in your "memory palace" it helps to engage all of your senses. Remembering what the garlic smells like, or how the garlic skin crumbles in your hand before you place it on your mentally rendered kitchen counter, will help solidify where you put it. It makes sense in literal life. You're less likely to forget where you put your keys when you focus on their texture in your hand as you're laying them down on a table. When you need to remember where you put them, you'll remember how your hand felt as you put them down and the image of the table will simultaneously appear. As Foer found, engaging a sense in your memory helps solidify it.

Get colorful: "Things that grab our attention are more memorable," explains Foer. "The funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better." When he was memorizing a grocery list by placing each item in his "memory palace", Foer was advised to get surreal in his thinking. "Paint the mind a scene unlike any that has been seen before so that it cannot be forgotten," Foer's memory coach advised. As he memorized his first grocery list by using the "memory palace" technique" he committed "salmon" to memory by imagining it flopping under the strings of a piano. "The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting and so different from anything you've seen before that you can't possibly forget it," he writes.

Try "chunking": "Chunking is a way to decrease the number of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item," explains Foer. It's the reason phone numbers are broken up into three sections or why remembering a sentence is easier than remembering each letter in the sentence. If you are given a series of digits to remember, just break them up into parts. It also helps to assign meaning to them. Separating them into three sections as if they were a date and then remembering that specific date (take 021411 and rethink it as 02/14/11 or Valentine's Day), will help solidify the memory.

Practice makes perfect: Foer made it to the memory championships not simply by learning these techniques but by replacing them with web surfing or even reading. He'd memorize numbers up to four hours a day before the big championship. But for the rest of us, all it takes is about an hour a day of practicing memory techniques to get our brains working like humming hard drives.

Wear earmuffs: We live in a world of distraction, now more than ever. In some ways those distractions serve as our exterior memory banks. Writes Foer: “With our blogs and tweets, digital cameras, and unlimited-gigabyte e-mail archives, participation in the online culture now means creating a trail of always present, ever-searchable, unforgetting external memories that only grows as one ages.”

But those same blogs, tweets and instant messages with their pinging noises and flashing colors, make it impossible to focus on one task at hand, like memorizing a poem.  "No matter how crude, colorful and explicit the images one paints in one's memory palaces, one can only look at pages of random numbers for so long before beginning to wonder if there isn't something more interesting going on in another room."  Foer found that an oversize pair of earmuffs worked to block out exterior noise and helped his brain zoom in on one task, like memorizing a series of numbers. But more subtle ear plugs would work just as well. (Shine)


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