Let’s try a little experiment. Give yourself 30 seconds to memorize the following list of 20 words. This will be far more mind-blowing if you do it, trust me.
Oh, also grab a pen and some paper to check your results. Do it! I’m not going anywhere.
You ready? Alright fellas, let’s go:
Ok time’s up. Put the list away and try to write down as many as you remember.
To those of you who actually participated – thank you! You can relax and forget about them now for a little bit. How did you do? It turns out that working memory for words is about five items or so, so if you did better than that congratulations! If you did significantly better than that maybe either you know the technique I’ll be covering shortly (cheater), or maybe you made a story involving the words or something similar. While that’s a good technique, if you didn’t get all twenty then there’s still plenty of room for improvement!
Interestingly enough, the average person’s working memory span for digits is approximately seven – part of the reason that phone numbers are typically broken down the way they are. Cool!
Alright, I lied when I told you to relax and forget about those words. Without looking at the list or your paper, try to remember them again. Any luck? How about reciting the list backwards?
Almost everyone not using a fancy technique ought to have found this nearly impossible (or is a genius). After failing to remember all twenty the first time, the amount of time between when you first tried to memorize it and now would have knocked a couple more items off of what you had beforehand. And reciting it backwards was probably just completely out of the question.
The technique I’m about to show you works phenomenally well. After you learn it you will not only remember the list for days, but you’ll be able to recite it in order backwards and forwards to your heart’s content.
In general, the technique works by creating a series images that associate each item in the list to the next item, forming a series of links. In fact, smart people have called in the Linking Method. As long as each image is fairly unusual, really vivid, and definitely links the two items in question, this method will work really well. Bonus points if you can find an emotional reaction to some of them – if you find them funny or gross, they’ll stick with you really well.
Let’s go back through the list with an example of some of the images that I would use to memorize the list. For each one just take a moment to really visualize it, and then move on to the next one.
Cash to Judge: Picture a fat, greedy, corrupt judge, sitting on a gigantic pile of cash he’s kept from all the bribes he’s taken. The pile has grown so high that he’s now way above his judge’s bench, and a little bit of money spills off every now and then. What a jerk.
Judge to Train: Ever try running for an LRT only to have it leave just as you reach the door? Just imagine doing that in a full-blown billowing judge’s gown (complete with the outrageous wig that just barely manages to stay on your head). As the train pulls away you whack furiously against the door with your gavel, but to no avail.
Train to Cow: A whole LRT full of cows. Most are sitting down, an awkward cow couple is making out in the corner, a drunk cow just spat up her cud on the floor, and a few cows are standing up holding onto the overhead bars. So talented.
Cow to Printer: Student cows are trying to quickly print off their homework, but unfortunately their hoofs are way too big to push the tiny little buttons on the printer. In frustration they try to kick it, then give up and just eat some of the paper.
Printer to Stairs: As you’re trying to delicately carry your printer up the stairs to your room, you accidentally drop it and watch in horror as it crashes down the stairs. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Crack. What a catastrophe – it’s now in a billion pieces.
Stairs to Grandmother: You know those big staircases tourists take to get up those Mayan pyramids? What if grandma was trying to climb one of those (maybe with a walker)? That would be pretty insane, but hey – your grandma’s tough.
Grandmother to Bottle: After a long day of pyramid-climbing, it’s grandma’s turn to hit the booze. She’s got empty bottles of beer and wine just lying all around her, and she’s already on a new one. It’s embarrassing that she can still outdrink you.
Bottle to Grapes: You buy a bottle of wine from someone who’s quite a ways away from being an expert at producing it. In fact, all he’s done is stuffed a glass bottle with as many grapes as possible. It tastes alright, but does nothing for your blood alcohol level.
Grapes to Rat: Have you ever seen those pictures of a squirrel with its cheeks stuffed full of food? I assure you, rats are nearly as cute, and just picture a tiny little rat with its cheeks stuffed with dozens of grapes. Maybe a little juice is leaking out of its mouth. D’aww…
Rat to Barn: You open up the door to a big red barn, and as soon as the daylight gets inside hundreds of rats run and squirm out of the way. They’re all fighting over themselves to get under some hay and away from you. The squealing is deafening. Time to set some traps…
Barn to Missile: The ground under your red barn shakes, then slowly parts to reveal a hidden underground cold-war style missile silo. Smoke billows out as a massive intercontinental ballistic missile roars out of the ground, set to do massive destruction.
Missile to Confetti: Minutes before hitting Moscow and starting World War 3, the missile explodes in mid-air and releases into the atmosphere tons and tons of… confetti. Yay! Children are happy! Politicians are relieved! Gutters are clogged for months…
Confetti to Telescope: Just as Galileo is about to prove the existence of some new moon, that annoying couple in the apartment upstairs decide to have a confetti fight. All he can see through the telescope is shiny confetti everywhere, sort of like a kaleidoscope. No moon discovery tonight.
Telescope to Piñata: All the kids are crying at the party because you forgot a baseball bat, so you decide to use your dad’s expensive telescope to break the piñata. Kids are swinging it around wildly, and you’re hoping it doesn’t break.
Piñata to Mud: With a big ripping noise the piñata cracks open, and instead of yummy candy all that pours out is mud. Kids are justifiably upset. You’re mostly relieved that the nutritional value is higher than candy.
Mud to King: The king is walking along in a stately royal parade, when a passing car splashes through a puddle and covers him head to toe in mud. He is not impressed. All the royal furs are likely damaged beyond repair. It’s just dripping off his face.
King to Key: After you perform some duty (perhaps killing the irresponsible driver), the king holds a royal ceremony for you in which he presents to you a key to the kingdom. Unlike keys to the city, though, this one is a massive three-foot long key. You can’t even lift it as it’s made from pure gold.
Key to Celery: The best locksmiths always carry stalks of celery with them. Why pick a lock when you can just carve a new key out of celery? Downsides include the water that squeezes out of them when you insert them into the lock, and the very high likelihood that they’ll just break off. Good thing they’re biodegradable…
Celery to Calculator: Normal engineering students use their calculators daily, almost hourly. But expert engineers push the buttons with celery sticks. It’s really tough, and you really wouldn’t want to eat the celery after they’re done.
Now, assuming that you’ve actually read all of that and taken the time to visualize each pair, it’s time to put this to the test. Hide the list again, and start at the beginning with Cash. See how many you can remember now without looking, letting each word take you to the next one based on the picture. If there are any that you get stuck on, take another look at the pairing above – chances are the pair wasn’t quite vivid enough (likely my fault). Take the time to change it in any way that helps.
At this point hopefully you will have noticed you have substantially increased the amount of the list you can recall – hopefully even the full list. What’s really cool is that at no point were you asked to memorize anything – just visualize it, and what’s even cooler is what happens if you try to recite it backwards. Now start with Calculator…
Michael Ross is studying structural engineering and uses memory techniques far less often than he talks about them. You can check out this and some of his less fascinating thoughts at his “weblog” or by following him @Mikerobe007.
Image CC: Niklas Barsk via Flickr