Updated: Feb 16
ever wonder how to remember anything you want? your schoolwork for tests? the facts in that new article you read? those new skills your boss recommended? the steps to making your favourite recipe? well knowing how your memory works may get you there. read on, I’ll show you how.
here’s the trick: memory requires imagination. memory has everything to do with association and context. here’s how it works: step 1 hear/read/experience something, step 2 connect that something to other older memories and ideas, step 3 reflect on those associations - we do step 1 and 2 all the time unconsciously, however, if we do it consciously it works wonders.
let’s look at an example. let’s say you want to remember the longest word in the English language - antidisestablishmentarianism (I’m not sure why, but just go with me). that may seem difficult but first let’s make sure we know what it means.
antidisestablishmentarianism refers to the people in British history who were against the separation of church and state. So ”establishment” means the combined church and state; the “dis” in “disestablishment” means the separation of church and state; the “anti” at the start means against the separation; the “arian-ism” at the end means, well, the movement or group philosophy. so, anti-dis-establishment-arianism - but how do we remember it?
now if you have studied British political history, or religious history or English law you may have a lot of other ideas to which this relates, making it easier to remember. Or if you have studied other movements or “isms” such as capitalism, socialism or conservatism you would have context for the word. but what about the rest of us? well, we could cheat and use a mind palace.
a mind palace is a magical place to store memories, lots and lots of memories. let’s try it out. think of your childhood home where you grew up. picture it in detail, with all the little flaws and items that you can never forget. now picture where you used to eat. kitchen table? dining room table? maybe standing up on the porch? whatever you remember.
now picture looking down at your plate. on it you see two french fries laid out into a Christian cross. on the other side of the plate is a steak and between them is a line of ketchup. you reach down grab a fry and scoop up the ketchup, destroying the line between the church cross and the steak, ie. the destruction of the line (ketchup) between church (fries) and state (steak): anti-dis-establishment-arianism.
now you can easily bring back the memory of that meal, and with it will come the longest word in the English language. but how come that works?
memory palaces work because they are personal - so if you never ate steak, or you grew up on the street, or you never saw a crucifix - this example would not work for you. you would have to find another place or another homophone like state and steak. but herein lies the power of the memory palace. the association of the new with the old, the connection between the unknown and the known. context is king when it comes to memory.
when you hear that new word, antidisestablishmentarianism, a pattern of interconnected neurons in your brain light up to represent it. you immediately start to associate any part of this new pattern with existing patterns. for example any recognisable words within it that represent a chunk of older memory, such anti or establishment. the more you learn about the word, the more related patterns emerge, lighting up related neuronal pathways.
as this rapid process continues, the more you do it consciously, the more patterns light up. each time you repeat the thought of the word or reflect on its meaning these patterns become more established.
for such an obscure word as the one we chose you may not come up with enough related patterns to establish it into long term memory. so the memory palace helps. it takes something you know very well (childhood dinner) as a foundation to relate to the strange word and its meaning. if you reflect on this a few times, you will find it very hard to ever forget.
you do not need to use a memory palace to learn everything. I use it here to put into relief a simple concept:
step 1 hear/read/experience something,
step 2 connect that something to other older memories and ideas,
step 3 reflect on those associations
the more you know the easier you will find connections to create the related patterns. Ie the more you know, the more you can know. the increase in knowledge has a snowball effect allowing you acquire more and more information.
for this reason university forms such a powerful learning period for those who pay attention. acquiring all that information at once literally acts as a workout for your brain, like an athlete training for an event. but here’s the really cool surprise: this can happen all through your life, from birth all the way through to the end.
your brain’s ability to associate one pattern with another and physically change shape as neurons adapt their connections to create new neural patterns, continues for the entire life of a healthy brain. neuroscientists call this ability neuroplasticity. (I just saw my brain playing with plasticine in my childhood bedroom and now I’ll never forget this word - love a memory palace - what do you see?)
so young or old, you can continue to learn always. oh, I almost forgot: why does memory benefit from imagination? well think about the memory palace, it takes imagination to create those connections (fries as crucifix or plasticine as plasticity). imagination means the ability to form new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. it literally means the facility to create new connections. And memory, is all about connections. context is king, remember?