My brother has the best memory. He can recall the names of people he’s met only once, even briefly. He never forgets a date or appointment. He recites one-off jokes from truly forgettable movies and doesn’t understand when no one gets the reference. We say that he’s the family archivist — his brain holds memories from decades-old vacations, meals and events. If he says we stayed at the Holiday Inn in Rochester in 1997, and the breakfast waiter’s name was Kevin, and I didn’t finish my grapefruit… well, he’s probably right.
Truth is, I don’t know how he does it. I can’t remember anything. I rely on lists, iPhone alarms and the brute force of repetition. If I were older, this might be cause for concern. If I were any less anxious, I’d never be the places I was supposed to be, or file stories even remotely close to deadline. I always assumed I was a lost cause — that the best way to remember things was to surround myself with people like my brother, outsourcing the job of remembering to those who do it better. But it turns out I was just approaching memory the wrong way. “People think the skill of a good memory can’t be learned”, says Ron White, a self-proclaimed “memory expert” and the winner of the National Memory Championship in 2009 and 2010. “It really can.”
Although White makes a living from his memory, he doesn’t try to understand it scientifically. “I think memory is a bit of a mystery”, he says. “But I do know this: your memory remembers things that have action and emotion tied to them. So for example, you can remember every detail of a car accident from 30 years ago but not where you drove two days ago.” So how does that help you remember more phone numbers or the names of your new colleagues? White’s solution — the steps he teaches as a speaker — is to make new information meaningful and sensory by tying random ideas to concrete, visible items. Here’s the way he teaches kids to memorize the first five presidents of the United States, and how that process can be adapted to anything.
1 Organize. Number five pieces of furniture in the room you’re in, 1 through 5.
2 Associate. On piece of furniture Number 1, imagine a washing machine. On piece Number 2, imagine you’re swimming in a river behind a dam (and dam is the key word here). On piece Number 3, imagine a chef cooking. On piece Number 4, imagine medicine spilled everywhere. On piece Number 5, imagine a man in a rowboat.
3 Repeat. Try that again, from memory. Say aloud: “Number 1: washing machine. Number 2: Dam.” And so on.
4 Add Value to those words. Here’s where White’s going with this:Washing machine = WASHINGton
Dam = aDAMs
Chef = CHEFerson
Medicine = MADISON
Man Row = MONROW
Repeat until you’re comfortable with the order, the associated words and the presidents’ names. Once you’ve left the room, continue using the furniture and associated objects, especially when you’re stumped.
5 Adapt it. Try that with other words, phrases, numbers or ideas. Repeat this process and number five pieces of furniture in each room. When you want to memorize something, turn it into a picture and see it on that piece of furniture. “You could memorize 15 key points from a book you just read by taking the 15 key points and turning them into pictures and seeing them on furniture”, he says. “Or you could take 10 points from a speech you want to give and imagine them on your furniture to give the speech without notes, thinking about your furniture as you talk.”
6 Back it up. There are a number of other memory games that can exercise your head muscle; keep after them to stay sharp generally, using White’s technique based on individual needs.