The Skill of Memory

I've often been called upon to answer the question "How did you do that?" in regards to something I memorized. When I tell them that I use a memory system they nod politely and say "Yeah". I've learned that the question is a rhetorical one; they will not accept any answer but that I have a naturally incredible memory. Well I have news for you--I don't.

All up to and including some of high school I had a very poor memory. I, like others, thought that your memory is something you are born with and have no control over. Late one night my junior year of high school I was searching for something to read and found Harry Lorayne's The Memory Book. It's no longer in print (and probably hasn't been in print for several decades!), but he has several more books out that are available in most bookstores.

I spent a full year carefully reading the book and studying the methods described. I honestly did not really expect anything when I first picked it up, but after the first lesson I was a believer.

The book accurately described what memory was and how it worked. It explained that memory was not automatic, but required effort. I often get a lot of heat about how I can know all of my bank accounts' numbers but not know what I had for breakfast. These are the same people who will not accept that they too could have incredible memories if they'd only learn a memory system. They refuse to acknowledge that to memorize something requires a conscious effort and does not occur on its own.

On long car trips I love to play an old memory game. "I'm going on a picnic and I'm bringing ______". Where each person has to list what everyone else is bringing in order, and then append their own item. We can usually get a list as long as one hundred items before we reach everyone's memory limit. Everyone, that is, but me. I'm fine. What's more is that several days later on the return trip I can recall our old list.

Even multi-dimensional data falls easily to a good system. To prove this to myself I went ahead and memorized the entire Periodic Table (though admittedly I forgot it long ago).

Is it a miracle? No--I just have a system. My personal favorite memory system is the numeric phonetic alphabet. An incredibly useful thing if you need to memorize long customary conversions and atmospheric constants.

At one point in high school I could recite about 20% of my graduating class' ID numbers. The numbers themselves weren't good for anything, but it was a wonderfully effective method of exciting a group. I am a bit annoyed that I still know quite a few of them. Sometimes I worry that I might run out of enough room to keep the important things!

I really believe that everyone should be taught at least some sort of memory system at grade school. Imagine how much better faster our society would progress if we wouldn't have to spend so much time memorizing things!

© 2005 Nic Reveles
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