Memory Medic

How to improve everyday memory.

Memory Athlete Gimmicks Tip 3: SVO

Our default language structure can help us memorize easily.

Moon Walking With Einstein is the title of a recent memory improvement book written by Joshua Foer, a reporter of memory championships. Foer became so entranced by watching astonishing memory feats in the contests that he decided to learn the secrets. After talking to memory athletes, he started practicing the techniques and within a few years became a memory champion himself. You could do that too!

Memory athletes are those seeming freaks of nature who enter contests to see how fast they can memorize the sequence of four shuffled decks of cards or how long a string of digits they can memorize. But memory athletes are not freaks. They are ordinary people like Foer, you, and me who have learned some gimmicks that make possible the seemingly impossible.

Here, I will describe the simplest and easiest gimmick to use. I call it SVO, which stands for SUBJECT (or actor or agent), VERB, and OBJECT. This is the intuitive way we think with our language. Usually the subject is a person, which is why others call this technique POA for person, object, action). But animals or inanimate things can do things too. The trick is to visualize, using lots of imagination, an actor doing something relating to an object…as in moon walking with Einstein. Memorization is made easy because the images are so bizarre and vivid. 

I will illustrate the principles with Foer's method for memorizing the sequence of a deck of cards. He didn’t explain his method completely, deliberately I think, because he probably did not want to be “drummed out” of the elite memory athlete club to which he had been initiated. Not knowing his particular scheme, I will conjure an illustration of how all cards can be visualized. For example, the suits might be as follows:

  • Spades: Batman (black, darkness)
  • Clubs: Tiger Woods (re: golf clubs)
  • Diamonds: Diamond Jim Brady (diamond tie stud) or Zsa Zsa Gabor (who famously said, “Daaahling, always wear your diamonds, even to the grocery store. You never know who you will run into”).
  • Hearts: Somebody you love

Then, to associate the card number with the suit, you could use the number code, which is another tip that I will explain later. But as an illustration, the number four is coded as “rye,” which can be a picture of a field of grain or a bottle of rye whisky, whichever you prefer. Thus, for example, the four of clubs would be visualized as Tiger Woods (SUBJECT) teeing off (VERB) on a bottle or rye whisky (OBJECT), instead of a golf ball. What does one do with the face cards? They can be converted to numbers too, Jack = 11, Queen = 12, King = 13, Ace = 1 (Or 14; the number code for one is “tie” and you don’t want to get confused if you are using Diamond Jim Brady as your code for diamonds.

Finally, Foer did mention that he clusters three sequential cards into one image, so that he only has to memorize 17 items, with one item left over, instead of 52.

Well most of us aren’t going to enter memory contests or card-count in Vegas (they catch on to you pretty quick). So, how do we apply this to everyday life? You could use this SOV approach to play a better game of bridge. But many events in daily life are better remembered this way.

First, a simple illustration:

  • Capital of Arkansas (Little Rock): most people know Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. Visualize Clinton (SUBJECT) throwing (VERB) a little rock (OBJECT) at Noah's ark (…ansas)

Now, here is a more complex example where you can string together multiple items to be remembered:

  • Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system: Everybody knows that the heart is key, because it pumps blood. See the heart (SUBJECT) as pumping (VERB) blood (OBJECT) out on to the main traffic artery, like a freeway. Imagine you as an image of Harvey (like Harvey the rabbit in the movie) riding in a boat in the blood river. See the boat slow down and start to back up as it leaves on the off ramp. Maybe you want think of the boat going through a hole (“ole” for arteriole) to get to the off ramp. Then see the boat stop at the stop light (covered with baseball caps … capillary). Then, on green the boat goes back up on the access road (because Harvey had gotten off too soon, in vain (vein). This schema also helps as a metaphor for associating function at the various locations.

While all this seems bizarre, it works with great power. Facts and concepts memorized this way are robustly encoded and readily consolidated into lasting memory because humans are visual animals. We have far more brain area devoted to vision than we do any other sense.

Another way to make the point is with the age-old phenomenon of fairy tales. Fairy tales often carry a moral that we want our children to remember. A few fairy tales are even for adults, with the political protest embedded as a metaphor. In any case, a fairy tale is easy to remember because it is visually vivid, with people acting on or with things.

SVO is perhaps the most flexible memory device. Use it for simple memory tasks or for truly demanding memory challenges.

 

The publisher of Dr. Klemm's Memory Power 101 book has now made it available as an audio book at Amazon. Also, you can read multiple reviews here

William Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D., is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University.

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