I used to have a good memory. By the first week of high school, I knew all 300 of my classmates’ names by heart. These days, I forget names at a party within a few hours and barely remember what I learned in college. It’s a frustrating problem I’ve wanted to fix but didn’t know how.
Thankfully, I stumbled upon USA Memory Champion Joshua Foer’s inspiring TED talk on memory. He believes that memory is a skill that can be practiced, and with techniques that date back to the Greeks, anyone can develop a savant-like memory.
How to Start Improving Your Memory
Foer’s story was convincing enough, so I Googled around to find out what the memory experts recommend and started my journey with these resources:
- Moonwalking with Einstein - Foer’s NY Times bestseller on memory
- How to Develop a Brilliant Memory - Step-by-step examples from eight-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien
- Secrets of a World Memory Champion - laymen’s explanation of memory techniques from enthusiast Chris Hunt
The key trick is to embed new information into experiences from your own life. Let’s apply it to a real-world setting where we often wish we had better memory: remembering a friend’s birthday.
How to Memorize a Birthday
My friend Évariste’s birthday is 05-29-87.
For each two-digit number, imagine a relevant famous or recognizable person doing something to an object. The more detailed, ridiculous and personal the image is, the more memorable it’ll be.
- 05: Reminds me of a high-five, so I imagine Borat high-fiving a goat.
- 29: Reminds me of the 1929 stock market crash, so I picture a pinstripe-suited banker jumping out the window.
- 87: Doesn’t mean anything special to me, so I convert those numbers to letters using A=1, B=2,.. to get the initials HG, so I see Hermione Granger furiously gulping down Polyjuice Potion.
Then combine the first person (Borat), the second action (jumping out the window), and the third object (Polyjuice Potion) to create this unforgettable scene:
Borat jumps out the window of Évariste’s apartment into a giant vat of Polyjuice Potion.
These images are so personal and zany that they’ll be easy to recall and decode into the original number even a year from now.
Go Forth and Remember
See if you can memorize a friend’s birthday using the above method. Then, try addresses, names, phone numbers, shopping lists and even poems, quotes or jokes.
What things do you want to remember most? Please let me know - I’d love to learn from your goals and experiences!
Thanks to Kohzy Koh for reviewing a draft of this post and to Joshua Foer for starting me on this journey.