Better memory with one simple trick

There are people in this world who can remember just about anything. I am not one of them, and you may not be, either. But there are things we can do to improve memory, even make it look like those lucky few who remember everything without much effort.

In other words, there are tricks to remembering stuff that can make you look like a real phenom. In this article I’ll show you how to remember lists, even very long lists, even if the items are not naturally related.

The secret is to turn your list into a story. We humans are a story-telling folk and tend to naturally gravitate toward any story. Some stories are better than others, but any story is infinitely easier to remember than a simple list of stuff.

Take this list for example:

  • Pliers
  • Hammer
  • Eggs
  • Horse
  • Tree
  • Teacher
  • Oboe
  • Milk
  • Zipper

This list is about two items longer than most people can remember. Seven things is the normal limit whether the things are items or numbers. That’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. They were easier to remember back when they had some element of “story” associated with them. You must have noticed that your phone keypad (probably) has, among other things, ten digits from one to zero, and the numbers from two to nine each have three (four each on the seven and nine) letters on them. If you are old enough you will remember that telephone numbers were once composed of nine digits, the first three of which were the “exchange.”

When I was a kid my family’s phone number was PYramid 4-5329, abbreviated as PY4. In other words, 794. That made it easier to remember. (Until some wise guy decided to divide the country into area codes and added three more digits to phone numbers making them immensely harder for most folks to remember. And of course added to that now are country codes.)

Back to lists and stories. It might be interesting for you to read the above list, turn away from it, and see how many items you can remember. If you’re like most of us, seven is about all you will be able to recall without putting a sustained effort into memorizing the list.

Here is where the story comes in. The purpose of the story is to associate, or link, each item to the next item in a memorable way. By “memorable” I mean the more ridiculous and exaggerated you can make the association, the more you are likely to remember it.

And you have to literally imagine this story happening. The more strongly you can imagine it, the better.

So here goes my story — yours could be entirely different:

I’m using a pair of pliers to pick up a hammer and it is proving difficult. I lose my grip on the hammer and it falls into a bowl of eggs, breaking every one of them and making a real mess that tips over and falls on a horse. The horse is startled and kicks a tree dislodging a teacher who was in the tree. He falls to the ground and breaks his oboe. I offer him a glass of milk but spill it on the zipper of his jacket.

It takes longer to put this story into words than it does to make it up. When doing it yourself you won’t need to put it into words. All you have to do is visualize it.

And visualize it you must. Just making up a story with words and not imagining it happening will not work. The stronger the visualization, the more effective the recall of the items in the list.

The more bizarre or even unreasonable your story, the better. For instance, instead of just picking up the hammer with the pliers, imagine the pliers gripped so tightly they break the hammer handle in two, causing the hammer head to fall from a height into the eggs breaking them with a huge splash that completely inundates the horse, and so on. “Reasonable” or “probable” is not important; outrageousness is.

Once you have composed your list story you need to tie it to its purpose so you will recall it in a timely manner, and so you can remember the first item on the list.

Lets say, for example, this is a list of things you want to take with you when you visit Uncle Joe tomorrow. (The list is a strange one for that, but then, maybe so is Uncle Joe.) At what point in tomorrow’s probable schedule do you want to remember to collect the items to take with you, or want to be sure you have everything? If the last thing you typically do before leaving is check the house thermostat, tie your list to that.

Imagine the thermostat just as it looks with a pair of pliers resting on top of it. Better yet, make the image more memorable by imagining the pliers gripping the thermostat, breaking it, ripping it off the wall, completely destroying it. Then when you look at the thermostat tomorrow morning you will be reminded of the pliers, which are of course the first item on your list.

It is best if you do not write your list or put it in an app on your phone. This makes it too easy to just read the list and not rely on your memory. By forcing yourself to rely on your memory you will be actually improving your ability to remember.

Lets try a grocery list; make a story out of the following list:

  • Radishes
  • Cheese
  • Lettuce
  • Onion
  • Cucumber
  • Red bell pepper
  • Milk
  • Hamburger meat
  • Cookies

This is a fairly short shopping list, but for learning purposes short works as well as long because chaining items together like this in a narrative makes it about as easy to remember fifty items as ten. The more items there are on a list, the longer it takes to construct the story, of course. Even that gets faster with practice and accurately recalling even very long lists is easy if you have strongly imagined each connection.

Here is the narrative I came up with for the grocery list:

The first thing I do at the store is take a cart from where they are kept at the front of the store. The carts are almost totally buried in a huge mound of stinking, rotting radishes. (That way when I look at the carts I will remember the first item on my list, radishes. Unpleasant, yes, but memorable.) In pulling a cart out of the radish sludge I see the cart already has huge chunks of cheese in it, cheese I don’t want so I get all messy emptying the unwanted cheese out of the cart. There are leaves of lettuce in a nearby pile so I use them to wipe the sludge off the cart. As I’m doing this my eyes begin to water to the point where I can hardly see and I realize that some of what I thought were lettuce leaves are leaves of onion. Because my vision is hampered I run into a woman who makes funny noises at me because she has a large cucumber sticking out of her mouth (choose your orifice of choice), and she has a red pepper on top of her head. She steps aside and I continue into the store but start slipping and sliding because there is milk all over the floor. A store employee is idiotically trying to sop up the milk by throwing ground hamburger meat on it and I think how silly that is when they could be dunking cookies in the milk.

It took me about 15 seconds to make up this list-story and commit it to memory by visualizing it.

This method of associatively, visually chaining items can be used for lots of recall tasks. Lists like groceries and things to take to Uncle Joe’s are just the beginning. Anything that can be made into a list can be remembered by chaining.

The regular use of associative chaining has a strengthening effect on memory. This method is akin to the way memories are formed and retained at the neuronal level so cognition and memory are improved, regardless of age and how good or bad your memory was to begin with.

charles e. henderson, ph.d.

By Charles E. Henderson, PhD

Charles E. “Chuck” Henderson PhD has had three careers. As a professional woodwind musician he worked with a number of well-known groups and musicians in America and Europe. When CTS ended his musical career he went into sales where for 16 years he broke numerous national sales records. He retired from sales to earn three college degrees (BA, MA, PhD) in communication and psychology. His research and clinical specialty has focused on subliminal communication and he has been a leader in the research and development of self-hypnosis techniques and applications. The author of nine books and numerous articles and audio recordings, he lives with his wife in Madison. Wisconsin.

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