Mirek Kukla's Reviews > Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It

Your Memory by Kenneth L. Higbee
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Jun 27, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: science-and-philosophy, social-sciences

Not Another Lame Self-Improvement Book
As a rule of thumb, “self-improvement” books are pretty shitty. They tend to have solely motivational value – that is, they help you care. I’d go so far as to say that, in general, self-help books are not a cause of personal improvement, but rather an effect: you must want to improve or change in the first place, at which point you are already nine-tenths of the way there. Either vague or obvious (and usually both), such books rarely tell you anything you didn’t already know.

This is absolutely not the case with “Your Memory: How It Works and How To Improve It.” Mnemonic techniques have been empirically tested, and they work. Highbee does a terrific a job both conveying that mnemonics work and explaining how they're used. Mnemonics are the most powerful, tangible way to ‘improve yourself’ I’ve encountered, and Highbee’s book is a terrific exploration of the topic.

How Your Memory Works…
The first part of the book is largely an educational exploration of memory. Highbee does a good job summarizing a wide swath of memory-related scientific literature, and answers our most basic questions: what is memory, and how does it work? In particular, he discusses the difference between short term and long term memory, the various ways memory is “measured,” the distinction between recall and recognition, the ‘stages’ of memory (encoding, storage, and retrieval), theories on why we forget, and so. This first half of the book is fascinating in its own right, and will whet your appetite for the lessons to come.

… And Tools to Better Use It
Where the first half of the book is mostly educational, the second half is primarily instructional. In particular, Highbee introduces mnemonics, and examines a variety of mnemonic techniques. On a high level, mnemonics can be defined as “memory aids.” In short, mnemonic techniques impose meaning or structure where there otherwise is none. They are memory tools that leverage the power of meaningfulness, organization, visualization, and attention. And they are concrete and specific – not nearly as vague as my explanation here would indicate.

No Bullshit
More on that later. For now, it suffices to say that if you have any interest at all in improving your memory – I mean, dramatically improving your memory - pick up this book. I hate how stereotypically self-helpy that sounds, but I’m dead serious: mnemonics are the shit, and Highbee’s book is the ideal introduction. His evidence based approach is refreshing, his exploration of literature is fascinating, and his instructions are terrific. I will concede Harry Lorayne’s “Memory Mastery” is probably a better teaching tool, and is somewhat more practical; Highbee’s approach is more academic, and his instructions are somewhat brief. But I thought this made for a much more educational, much easier read. Read one book or the other – or better yet, read them both. But whatever you do, learn about mnemonics. Your memory will blow your mind.

Summary: About Mnemonics
The Link System
The simplest mnemonic technique is called “the link system,” and it is a way to memorize an ordered list of items. The premise is simple: take each item, and associate it with the next item in line in a vivid, absurd, and visual way.

Ninjas and Dishwashers: An Example
So, let’s say you need to memorize the following list: tie, ninja, moon, rope, dishwasher. Now, the first item always is the hardest to remember, since, a priori, you have nothing to associate it with. Generally, I associate the first word with the ‘source’ of the memorization task. In this case, you should associate it with me, since I’m giving you this list to memorize. Let’s now walk through how you would use the link system to remember this list.

First, associate me with "tie" in some absurd, memorable way. For instance, imagine me walking down the street, with a tie on, when suddenly the tie start to constrict me, of its own volition – my face gets beet red – and pop! my head falls off. Now, the key is to literally visualize this scene, as vividly as you can. Picture it in your mind’s eye – close your eyes if need be. Got it?

Alright, next word is “ninja,” which we have to associate with “tie” (at this point, you can totally ‘forget’ about the old association – don’t worry, your brain’s got it locked down). Perhaps you can imagine yourself walking down the street, when hundreds of ninjas appear on the surrounding rooftops and start throwing thousands of tie’s instead of shuriken. Visualize those ninjastar ties, rotating in the air, piercing you from all sides. Got it? Next: “ninja” and “moon.” Imagine looking up at the moon, which suddenly spouts forth thousands of ninjas, which stream down to earth: see them shooting straight out of the moon, and crashing down and slicing you silly (if you can’t tell, I find that violence makes scenes more memorable).

And so on. I implore you to actually take the time and make the remaining associations. Once you’ve made your way through the list just once, you’re good to go. I’m serious. You’ve as good as memorized the list. What was the first item? It had to do with me, since I’m giving you the test – ah! Tie constricts, head pops off – “tie”! Next: something to do with ties – ah! Ninja’s bombarding you with spinning tie projectiles – “ninja”! Next: something else to do with ninjas – ah! Ninja’s streaming from the moon - "moon"! And so on.

Try It With a Friend
Of course, a list of five items isn’t very impressive, so you should actually test this system with a longer list of words. Find a friend, and ask him to come up with 20 concrete nouns. Then, have your friend read them aloud to you, pausing for ten seconds in between words to give you enough time to form your own vivid and absurd associations. Once you’ve heard this list once, you’ll almost certainly be able to recite the entire thing back to your friend – forward or backwards, at that. Seriously: try it out.

The Peg System
Of course, the link system is limited in that you have to memorize a list in order. Thus, to retrieve, say, the 7th item, you first need to step your way through the first 6. The peg system is a more general mnemonic technique that overcomes these limitations. However, it comes at a price - a onetime, initial investment of effort.

The basic premise of the peg system is this: first, you pre-memorize a set of "peg words" - one for each of the numerals from 1 to 20 (this is the initial investment of effort).

Then, to memorize a numbered list of, say, 20 items, you associate each item with the corresponding "peg word." For instance, let’s say you have the following peg words: 1 = soda, 2 = sun, 3 = swim, and so on.

Let’s now use these pre-memorized pegwords to help us learn our earlier list of items. First, item number 1 is “tie”: what’s the peg for the number 1? “Soda.” So, associate “tie” with “soda.” The 2nd item is “ninja,” and the pegword for 2 is “sun,” so associate “ninja” with “sun.” The 3rd item on the list is “moon,” and our pegword here is “swim,” so associate these two… and so on.

Let’s say we’ve done this with a list of twenty items, and at the end, your friend asks you: what was the 3rd item on the list? Well, you think to yourself, my third peg is “swim.” What did I associate with “swim”? Ah – “moon,” you answer. Easy as pie. Note also that you don't have to memorize the 20 items in order - it's perfectly OK to first memorize the 19th item, and then the 12th item, and so on: one you've "hung" an item on its appropriate a peg, it'll wait for you until retrieval. The order of hanging doesn't matter, because all your "pegs" are numbered.

Note that the peg system works on the same principle as the link system: you memorize words by using absurd, active, visual associations. Notice that mnemonics make the material memorable, they help you organize it, they force you to visualize it, and by their very application, they force you to pay attention. They create structure and meaning where there otherwise is none, and somehow, your brain takes care of the rest.

Limitations of Mnemonics
Note that all of my examples so far have involved memorizing concrete nouns, for this is where mnemonics are most effective. Abstract words are much harder to memorize using mnemonics - largely because the visual element is often missing - but it certainly can be done.

For instance, back when I had to memorize vocab words, I would take each word, find the first concrete noun it reminded me of, and then visually associate that noun with the meaning of the vocab word. For instance, “dilatory” made me think of “dildo”. Since “dilatory” means “causing delay,” I imagined myself running away from an alien and running into a huge dildo. It was in my way, and I had to limbo under it to get past. This slowed me down, allowing the alien to catch up... and eat me, of course. Then, when I saw "dilatory" on the test, I'd think: dildo - aliens - running - limbo - ah! "to slow down."

Mnemonics take more mental effort than rote memorization, it's true: you actually have to consciously apply yourself and think in the store phase. But the extent to which mnemonics are more effective and efficient than mindless memorization is absolutely insane. And the memories last much longer - you no longer have to cram and count on your short term memory to pull you through.

Another limitation of mnemonics is the fact that they don’t help you “remember to remember.” Take the familiar example of ‘losing’ your keys. “I forgot where I put them!” you cry. But really, what happened is that you never 'stored' the memory in the first place. In other words, this is a ‘storage’ problem, and not a ‘retrieval’ problem.

If you had set your keys down consciously – took note of the action, perhaps said out loud, “I’m an consciously placing my keys here,” you’d be able to later remember where you placed them, mnemonics or no. Mnemonics work by helping you more effectively ‘store’ items in memory, which they then help you retrieve. If you don’t didn’t ‘store’ something in the first place, mnemonics won’t help you one bit. In other words, mnemonics don't cure absentmindedness.

Conclusion: Tools You Must Choose To Use
By now it should now be clear that mnemonics don’t transform your memory: they simply teach you how to better use it. Your memory won’t start to magically ‘remember things better’. Your participation is required, and it takes mental effort.

This is why “Your Memory” is so unlike most self-improvement books. It doesn’t vaguely promise to transform you, only to lather you with banal bullshit. Rather, this book presents non-obvious tools that work. These techniques don’t magically change you or your brain; rather, they change what you can do with your brain - if you so choose to use them. So, my friend, what's your choice? Seems like a no-brainer to me.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 14, 2012 – Finished Reading
June 27, 2012 – Shelved
June 27, 2012 – Shelved as: science-and-philosophy
June 27, 2012 – Shelved as: social-sciences

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Jakub (new) - added it

Jakub I remember when you taught me this technique in high school. I used it to memorize vocab as well. One word particularly stood out and I always remember it.

Descry: To catch sight of

First association was cry. Babies are the fist thing that I thought of. Then I used your advice to make it gory. I imagine a crying baby falling. I try to catch it, but only get its eyeballs which I hold on to as the baby continues to plummet who knows where. But I always remember: descry = to catch sight of.

I need to start employing this technique again, but I'm not really studying much that requires memorization currently.

I used a similar technique in music theory last year:
God Damn Asshole, Every Body Fucks Cats! - GDAEBFC :)
Fat Babies Eat All Day, Good Cat! - FBEADGC

It was really funny reciting these two lines to myself constantly during tests. But it worked. The only class I couldn't get a evaluation for and I got a 4.0 while half the class failed. Got me into Omicron Delta Kappa.

Mirek Kukla Woot! That's awesome. That association got me to crack up at work, btw

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