How to Improve Your Memory, Instantly
A crash course in training your brain for amazing recall
Posted Feb 14, 2014 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Let me tell you something utterly amazing about your brain. Better yet, let me show you something you can do to increase your brain’s ability to memorize information easily… and for the long-term. In short, take a moment with me here and I’ll demonstrate a way you can consciously use your own brain’s hardware to make you feel—and seem to others—truly gifted.
First, consider this challenge. Pretend that I ask you to go to the grocery store for me to buy a particular list of 10 items. Furthermore, suppose that I was going to dictate these items to you and that I would not let you write them down—yup, that’s right. All you can do is listen to me and do your best to memorize them. After that, you’d get in the car, drive to the store, and start shopping based on your memory of what I’d said.
How would you go about doing this? Would you make a mental acronym of the items? (POM, for example, might help you recall that you’ll need to get pizza, oranges, and mustard.) Would you make up a song about the items? Maybe you’d try to make a mental map of the store and walk through it to get the items. All of these are clever approaches, to be sure. And yet none of those are the approach most people would take, which is to merely repeat the items over and over and over again, one continuous loop of “pizza, oranges, mustard… pizza, oranges, mustard….”
Regardless of the technique used above, the average person can successfully recall seven or eight of 10 items posed in such a fashion—and he can only do so in a scattershot fashion. He might recall that “mustard” was somewhere on the list, but he may not recall that it was the third item he was told to buy. The reason for this hit-or-miss memory is that, in most of the examples above, a relatively minuscule portion of the brain is being used to retain the information—the hippocampus. This portion of the brain is not really adapted to storing information in a sequential or long-term way. So imagine the power and efficiency of your brain’s ability to retain information if you could use a whole lobe of it, say 20 percent of your brain’s matter, to help you out—instead of something about the size of a lima bean. You can.
I’ve written before about the visual portion of the brain. We’ll put it to the test today. Let’s tap into the occipital lobe and, by doing a simple experiment, see if you’re not able to dramatically increase your own memory. We’ll use that simple list of 10 random grocery items to judge its effectiveness. As silly as what I am about to ask you to do may seem, I promise you this: if you really try it, if you really suspend disbelief, and if you really follow my directions, you will be able to recall that list of 10 items perfectly. I don’t mean that you’ll be able to eventually remember all the items; I mean you will have immediate recall of each item, in the order they were given, the very instant you want them, even if I ask you to list them for me out of order. (For example: "Tell me what the seventh item was, followed by the third and then the tenth.”)
It starts with this odd list. Keep it handy. We’re going to use it a lot initially. You’ll recognize it as the words from an old nursery rhyme (“One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door,” etc.). Here’s what I’d like you to do with this list.
As I rattle off the 10 items (provided on the link you’ll find below), you are going to consult that nursery rhyme list and use it to create a picture in your mind. You’ll do this by associating the item I ask you to get with one of the items given in that list. For example, if the FIRST item I ask you to recall is a bag of oranges, then you’ll make a mental picture of “oranges” somehow associated with a “bun.” You might imagine a bunch of oranges nestled in a hot dog bun. Or maybe you’ll picture a sliced orange sitting in between the top and bottom of a hamburger bun. It’s entirely up to you, but I can tell you this: the odder the picture, the more details you create, the stronger that memory will be.
When I ask you to recall the SECOND item—say, a gallon of milk—you should make a mental picture that places “milk” and a “shoe” together. You’re drinking milk from the shoe, perhaps; or maybe you’re kicking that gallon of milk down the hallway with your high-heeled shoe. It’s up to you.
We’ll continue in like fashion. I'll give the items in sequential order, you make the mental pictures. Initially, consult that nursery rhyme list—it’s fine! We are using that list as a matrix to help you organize the data I’m about to give you (the grocery list). Just DO NOT write down the list of items I ask you to buy—that’d be cheating. Go slowly so that you have enough time to really create each image. If I go too fast, just hit pause on the two-minute video you're about to watch. When we are done, I’ll ask you to answer the questions in the paragraph below. Again, trust me on this: if you really try it, crazy as it seems, it will work. Ready? If so, then click this link and get ready to hear the 10 items I want you to purchase. Go!
You’re back! Great.
Now, breathe deep, relax and answer these questions. Again, you may consult that memory matrix as you complete this questionnaire. (The answers are at the end of this article.)
- What was the third item I asked you to buy, the one you associated with the “tree”?
- What was the eighth?
- In this order, what was item number 9, then 1, then 6?
- Which numbered item was the “hamburger meat”?
So, are you amazed? You needn’t be. You were successful because you actively sought to use a large portion of your brain to do something that it naturally wants to do all of the time. Think about it: do you recall a time when you studied for a test and recalled that the answer to the test question lay in your notebook… it was on the right-hand page… in the upper-right corner…. Or do you recall precisely where you were when you heard of the attacks on 9/11? Of all the ways your brain tries to help you recall information, for most of us, it does so in a visual format. By virtue of the experiment above, you’ve just proven that harnessing that power of the brain can dramatically improve your own abilities.
Now, it’s up to you to put that newfound talent and knowledge to everyday use.
The original list of all ten items (in order): oranges, chocolate syrup, 50 lbs. of dog food, broccoli, air freshener, ice cream, 1 lb. hamburger meat, loaf of bread, blank data CDs, and heavy whipping cream
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