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How to Develop a (Near) Perfect Memory

Written By: Mariya 30 June 2010 Other Posts By: Mariya

We entrepreneurs suffer from serious information overflow. As manic builders of new companies, we’re inundated with a flurry of ideas, mountains of to-dos, and incessant communiqué from the customers we’re trying to cultivate to the VCs we’re trying to woo to the friends we rely on to stay sane in the frenzy. With so many important details to remember, we’re bound to let a few critical ones slip through the cracks.

Since no project management tool will ever capture everything you need to remember, you’ll have to compensate by optimizing your mind’s capacity for memory. As someone who sometimes spends half an hour looking for her keys, I figured I was in need of some effective memory techniques and jumped at the chance to attend a recent memory workshop at Science House taught by Chris Harwood. Chris placed 5th in the 2009 USA National Memory Championships in which he competed in timed, tournament-style events such as memorization of a shuffled deck of cards, an unpublished poem, and a list of 300 random words. To put this in perspective, the typical memory span (i.e. the longest number of items – words, digits, etc – that a person can repeat back immediately in the correct order) of a young adult is about seven items, plus or minus two. Try out this digit span test to see how many you can memorize.

A useful starting point for improving your memory is to first understand why it fails. Here are a few interesting root causes that Chris touched on:

Lack of Motivation


Many negative beliefs spin into self-fulfilling prophecies, and memory-related insecurities are no different. Most people start off by assuming that they are just born with terrible memories and can’t do a thing about it. Since they don’t believe themselves capable of successful change, they don’t try to improve. You don’t need to be a statistician to know that when you don’t even try, your probability of failure is pretty darn close to 100%.


Even if you believe that a goal is achievable, you may not care enough to work towards it. For example, I’m quite confident that with practice I could learn to juggle empty beer bottles while riding on a unicycle, but doing so would be a wasteful distraction from far more important tasks such as writing FoundersBlock posts to entertain and educate you. However, unless you’ve found the Holy Grail of knowledge management systems (in which case, you must certainly let me know about it!), you’d probably still benefit by working on your memory and might even be surprised by the improvement you’ll see by implementing just a few key techniques.

Lack of Sensualization

We civilized apes have been frolicking the earth, popping out babies, and hunting woodland creatures with crudely constructed weaponry for about 2.5 million years. However, we’ve only been using proper language for the last 100,000 years and modern number systems for  a few thousand. Our brains aren’t wired to retain these relatively new inventions in human evolutionary history.

We do, however, consume information most intensely through our five senses, which is a fact many memory contest winners exploit to gain an edge on their competitors. By translating language and numbers into sensual information, a technique Chris refers to as “sensualization”, we use instead of abuse the antiquated hardware in our skulls.

As a simple “sensualization” exercise, imagine a lemon. You’ll start out most easily by imagining the way a lemon looks, but work to add more detail. What is the texture of the rind? How does it feel to run your finger across the surfaces and the ends? Now take a knife and cut the lemon in half. Pick up a piece and squeeze it. Can you hear the squelchy sound it makes and feel the cold juices running down your hand? Do you smell a burst of citrus? Bite into it. Can you feel your face scrunching up just imagining how it tastes?

Lack of Importance

The human brain can process millions of signals and stimuli in seconds. Unfortunately, most of this information turns out to be trivial or irrelevant and  never imprints in our memories. When trying to remember action items of a routine, operational variety, first adopt a productive mindset (Motivation), then add sensory information (Sensualization), and finally imbue them with a sense of importance.

Chris provides this R.E.C.A.L.L.S. checklist of elements that can help you create important mental imagery:

R – rampage

Face it, you love violence! This is why you watch crappy rated-R action movies and rubberneck when there’s a heinous crash on the side of the highway. Violent memories are typically vivid ones, so adding a little bit of rampage can help you remember better. For example, if “lemons” are on your grocery list, perhaps imagine yourself crushing them with a sledgehammer.

E – emotion

Important and memorable experiences are often emotional. Just think of your first kiss, your college graduation, your wedding ceremony, etc. Try to incorporate how you feel about an item or circumstance.

C – comedy

Have you ever forgotten a really amazing joke? Or one that was so bad that it was funny? Make your memories stick by inserting the hilarious, unexpected, and just plain bizarre.

A – action

When your ancestor was faced with a tiger in the jungle, he just needed to run the hell away from it, not figure out how to spell its scientific name. Human beings are wired to respond to dynamic stimuli and recall compelling action scenes.

L – lewdness

The marketing maxim “Sex Sells” is especially true when appealing to your primal brain. Finding a mate and reproducing effectively were quite the titillating topics du jour on the prairies lands where your ancestors roamed. Several million years later, nothing much has changed. Use this to your advantage!

L – lavishness

There is a reason epic, visually gluttonous movies tend to do better than the sort of “artsy” French avant-garde films in which two people sit in a perfectly white room for two hours. When your brain is bored, you will stop paying attention and consequently forget things. The more over-the-top detail that you can embed in a scene, the more interesting and memorable it will be.

S – sensualization

Remember that your brain isn’t optimized for language and numbers. For a performance boost, incorporate sensual information from all five senses into your memories.

Putting It All Together

We’ve learned that belief and desire play an important part to memory success and that the more sensual and important a memory, the less likely we are to forget. Let’s combine what we’ve learned with a common memory technique called Linking in order to memorize a To-Do list. At the memory workshop, we were given this list of items:

  1. Buy Milk
  2. Do Your Laundry
  3. Go to the Bank
  4. Pay Your Bills
  5. Write Article about the Neuroscience of Memory
  6. Go to a Science House Lecture

While there aren’t an overwhelming number of elements in this list, linking can be used on far longer lists and for retaining information longer. Via the linking method, I managed to remember this list and all the linking imagery we used almost perfectly even though the memory workshop was over 2 weeks ago!

In linking, the first step is to attach a sensualized, importance image to your list item. Make it as detailed and dynamic as you can while staying relevant. Then, find a way to take this image and link it with another memorable image reminding you of your the second link item, and so on and so forth. Be creative with your choices and be sure to make a vivid connection so that each image/item instinctively leads to the next one.

Here are the images we used at the memory workshop:

Buy Milk

As you walk out of your door, you’re confronted with a cow (comedy). All of a sudden, it stands up and sprays you with milk from its udders (action, comedy)

Do Laundry

You rip off (rampage) your milk-drenched clothes and wring them out for washing (action)

Go to the Bank

The milk droplets wrung from your clothes turn into sparkling gold coins (lavish) as they fall, making a musical ringing sound (sensualization) as they hit the floor.

Pay Your Bills

You gather the coins and mold them (action)  into a giant envelope into which you stuff orange duck bills (comedy) before handing it off to the mailman

Write a Paper on the Neuroscience of Memory

The mailman gives you a different envelope which you rip open excitedly (emotion), only to discover a spongy bluish-gray brain that reeks of formaldehyde (sensualization)

Go to a Science House lecture

You shrink and jump onto the brain (comedy). As you hit the surface, you burst through it (rampage) and end up in a room at Science House.

Try redoing this exercise using your own linking imagery. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already developed a simple technique that, with practice, can help you memorize extensive, tedious lists. There are plenty of more advanced techniques for those of you interested in diving deeper into the rabbit hole. Chris recommends reading Use Your Perfect Memory: Dramatic New Techniques for Improving Your Memory written by Mind Maps inventor Tony Buzan and engaging in fun, memory-intensive activities like long-form improv. Go try some of these ideas and remember to let us know about your experiences in the comments below!

About Chris Harwood

Chris placed 5th at the 2009 US Memory Championships and has conducted Memory Workshops for Fortune 500 companies such as Xerox and General Electric. He works as a software engineer during the day and devotes his nights to comedy and memory.  Chris has studied improv, sketch, and stand-up at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, the Magnet Theater, and the American Comedy Institute and can been seen performing improv on the Magnet Theater’s Megawatt team King Canute in NYC and World Class Indifference in Fairfield County, CT.

About Science House

Science House is dedicated to advancing and promoting science around the world. Founded in 2008, Science House brings people together though three major initiatives. The Science House Network hosts public and invitational events to discuss cutting edge topics in science and business, Science House Capital provides funding and support to early stage high tech companies, and the Science House Foundation provides charitable grants to get kids excited about science. If you have a science driven start-up and would like to pitch your business to Science House’s team of angel investors and entrepreneurs, please contact megan@sciencehouse.com.

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  • http://improve-memory-guide.com/ Improvememory

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