How To Go From An Absolutely Terrible Memory To US Memory Champion

Vincent Carlos

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In 2004, Joshua Foer was commissioned by Slate Magazine to cover the US Memory Championship

Here he observed participants memorize 35 decks of cards in 5 minutes, memorize 1,000 digits of a randomized number in 30 minutes, and memorize 100 faces and names in 3 minutes.

Joshua, who considers himself someone with a terrible memory, was stunned at what he was witnessing.

“Who are these people?” he thought.

Obviously, they had to be savants, right?

Wrong.

Apparently, they’re not savants at all. Instead, they’re just normal people who simply use old techniques that have been around for thousands of years.

“All of us here have average memories,” young memory grandmaster Ed Cooke told Joshua. “But what you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.”

Joshua was skeptical, though. But he was also curious. So after Josh came back home, he decided that he wanted to learn these ancient memory techniques

And one year later, he went back to the US Memory Championships not as an observer, but as a participant.

And here’s the crazy thing: he won!

So what’s the technique Joshua used to go from a terrible memory to a world-class memory?

Here’s how:

1) Think Visually

Imagine that you’re a test subject in a research study and I’m the researcher conducting the study.

I tell you that I’m going to show you 30 random images for less than half a second each and your goal is to memorize as many of them as you possibly can. Then afterwards, I’m going to show you 2 different images at the same time: One image you’ve seen before. The other image is completely new. You then have to tell me which image you’ve seen before.

Got it?

Question: Do you think you would be able to recall all 30 images I showed you?

“No way, that’s impossible!” you might say. But if I was to actually do this experiment with you in person, science says you’d definitely be able to recognize all 30 images.

Your memory for images is that good. In fact, your memory for images is so good that you can actually recognize 10,000 images!

In the 1970s, researchers carried out the exact same picture recognition test that I just described, except instead of 30 images, the researchers asked their subjects to remember 10,000 images. (It took 5 days to perform the test.)

That’s a lot of pictures for a mind to keep track of, especially since the subjects were only able to look at each image once. But regardless, the researchers found that people were able to recognize more than 80% of what they had seen.

How were normal people able to do this? Because it turns out that our brains are far better equipped to remember certain types of information better than others. Visual images are a lot stickier to our brains than abstract stuff like numbers and words. If I was to show you 10,000 words instead of 10,000 images, for example, you probably wouldn’t get anywhere near to recognizing 80% of those words. But since it’s images, your brain can easily remember it.

Crazy, right?

Therefore, if you want to remember difficult things, then you simply have to use a little imagination to “translate” them into easier things. That means turning words and numbers into pictures in your mind’s eye.

For instance:

  • If you want to remember that Teddy Roosevelt is the 26 president, try to think of a Giant Teddy Bear being hugged by NFL running back Adrian Peterson (#26)
  • If you want to remember that you’re on page 42 of a book you’re reading, try to think of Dodgers player Jackie Robinson (#42) reading a book.
  • If you want to remember to take out the trash, try to think of garbage trucks unloading tons of garbage into your kitchen.

If you only remember one thing after reading this article, then remember this: The best way to remember something is to turn it into a visual image.

2) Create A Mind Palace

We’ve all experienced that moment when we’re in desperate need of something, such as our phone, our car keys, or our wallet, but we can’t find it because our room is a mess.

Well, it’s the exact same experience we have when we try to remember things. As humans, we tend to remember things in a chaotic way. As a result, we constantly struggle to remember things because we don’t have a proper system in place to consciously search our memories in an orderly way.

This is why memories typically only pop up into our mind when it’s triggered by a cue. For example, you forget the name of the main character in a movie you just saw. It’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t remember it.

It’s frustrating. It feels like you’re stumbling around in the dark without a flashlight looking for that one cue that will trigger your memory. Nothing is coming to your mind. But then I tell you that their name starts with the letter “L” and all of a sudden it hits you. “Her name is Liz!,” you say.

This is why you need a system to help you remember things better. More specifically, this is why you need “A Memory Palace.” A memory palace is the technique that Joshua used to become the US Memory Champion, which he talks about in his book “Moonwalking With Einstein.” Essentially, a memory palace is a mental map or location that stores past memories, and it allows a person to trace back information whenever needed.

Sounds complicated and abstract, right? It does. But luckily, it’s very easy. In order to grasp the concept of the memory palace, you don’t have to be a prodigy or have a specially-functioning super-brain, instead all you have to do is follow 2 simple steps:

A) Create Your Own Memory Palace

Our brains are better equipped to remember abstract words, numbers, and ideas when you connect them to a concrete image such as a familiar place.

To apply this, all you have to do is pick a place that you know well in real life and that you can easily visualize in your mind. This is your memory palace. Your memory palace could be your childhood home, your favorite running trail, or even a museum. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a place that you know well and that you can easily visualize.

For beginners, I would suggest picking a place that you come into contact with often. The more frequently you come across it, the better. For example, a good first memory palace to use is probably your house.

B) Plan A Route And Follow It

Now, imagine you’re standing at the entrance of your “memory palace,” which is your house in this example, and try to create a route to walk through it.

It could be: front door, then the living room, then dining area, etc. This is just an example, but try to decide which is the best way for you to walk through your house. And as you “walk” along the planned route you came up with, make sure to pay attention to every detail in your memory palace. Look at the Van Gogh painting you have on the wall in the living room, take note of the bright yellow lamp next to the doorway, remember the big cactus next to the TV. Note every feature or item in a sequence.

But here’s the thing: once you are set on a route, stick to it! Why? because you’re going to use the same route every time you want to walk through your memory palace.

3) How To Remember 10 Random Objects

If I asked random people on the street to try to remember a list of 10 random objects, most people would struggle to do this. It’s true. You can actually test this out yourself online if you want.

In fact, in 1956, Harvard psychologist George Miller published a famous study titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” which explains that most people can only store 7 objects in their short-term memory on average, with variations ranging from five to nine.

However, by using the memory palace technique, you can now memorize 100 objects if you wanted to with relative ease. (I’m not kidding!)

For example, let’s say I asked you to memorize the following 10 words in order: Bear, Truck, College, Shoe, Drama, Garbage, Watermelon, Waterfall, Abraham Lincoln, Pink

In order to remember this list of 10 words in order, all you have to do is 1) convert each word into a visual image and then 2) mentally distribute those images into the different locations of your memory palace. And all of a sudden, those forgettable items become unforgettable.

For instance: The “Bear” is standing at the doorway of your house. A mini “Truck” is driving across the Van Gogh painting in the living room. A banner of where you went to “College” is hanging on top of the yellow lamp. And a “Shoe” is stuck on the cactus near the TV.

Expert Tip: When you’re doing this, try to make the images as memorable as possible. The funnier, lewder, more grotesque, more sexual, more humorous, and more bizarre, the better. For example, make the Bear wear a ballerina tutu or make the Shoe shine like a strobe light.

Then once you’ve finished and you want to recall all 10 words, all you have to do is rewalk the path in your memory palace and you will see each image in the precise spot where you left it. You can even revisit this memory palace a day, month, or even a year later and all those memories will be stored in the same way you left it.

If you’re like me, or anyone else I’ve shared this technique with, you’ll find yourself floored by the end of this exercise.

Remember It!

Every day, you constantly forget things. As a result, you call people “dude” instead of by their first name. You use the same simple password on every website. You take pictures of garage signs so you know where you parked. The list goes on and on.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be like this. Like Joshua Foer, you can easily improve your memory by learning to think visually and organizing those memories in your mind palace.

Of course, what I have provided you in this article is a simplified version of using the memory palace. But it’s a good idea to practice using your memory palace on simple scenarios like memorizing 10 random objects if you’re a beginner. But then once you’ve learned how to do this, you can easily start using this technique for just about everything.

You can use it to memorize a deck of cards in less than 2 minutes. You can use it to remember where you parked. You can use it to remember what page of the book you’re on. You can use it to remember people’s names. You can use it to remember people’s birthdays. You can use it to remember where you put your keys. You can use it to remember your shopping list. You can use it to solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded. You can use it to remember someone’s phone number.

Simply put, if you use this technique, your life will get a whole lot easier.

Honestly, if you use this technique, it’ll feel like you’ve evolved into some kind of superhuman. But in actuality, you’ve just decided to use a simple technique that has been around for over 2,000 years.

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Vincent Carlos is a LinkedIn Top Voice whose articles have been read by millions of people. He's also an avid reader. If you like reading as much as he does, then join thousands of others who have subscribed to his book club at vincentcarlos.com, where he talks about the best ideas from the books he reads.

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