Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Man Who Stole Your Ability to Memorize...and How You Can Get It Back

Of all the theories people have about their own intelligence, perhaps none is so ridiculous as saying that you have a “bad memory.” As tutors who work one-on-one with students from elementary school all the way through graduate school, we interact with a broad slate of learners--and we hear this one all the time. When we hear students say they have a “bad memory,” we want to say, “Sure, kid. And you know the lyrics to how many songs? You can recite how many comedy sketches by heart? You remember the layout to how many video game levels?” The thing is, these kids do struggle to remember things in school. It’s just that the problem isn’t with their memory. It’s not even with the particular subject they’re studying. It’s with how they’re viewing the information. Anyone who thinks they have a “bad memory” is probably using outdated memorization techniques, but the real problem is they’re not outdated enough.

Nowhere is the power of perspective more obvious than in how kids approach history. Some kids view history as a story. They love it and they find it easy to remember. Other kids view history as a series of random facts. Generally speaking, these kids hate history. These two approaches to studying for a test are totally different. The kids who view history in terms of the big picture spend their study time relating historical events to other historical events--and even more memorably, to their own lives. They find the logic that underlies series of historical events, and they emotionally relate to the experiences of the figures in their textbooks. Because they make history fun and relatable, their knowledge of it is long-lasting and can be easily used.
On the other hand, the kids who view history as a series of random facts rely on the least effective memorization technique of all-time: the flashcard. They treat each individual fact as an isolated piece of “data” to be independently stored. Quick question. How many stories do you remember from your high school days? What percentage of the flashcards you studied do you remember? Flashcards--and the technique of mindless repetition in general--are the worst method for making information stick. The latest science shows that the best method around...is story.

This shouldn’t be news. For over 99% of human history, the primary way of passing information from generation to generation was through stories. The Odyssey, The Bible, Gilgamesh and Enkidu...stories, stories, stories. Remember that these stories began as oral traditions. Long before they were able to be written down and shared, bards traveled the country reciting these 100,000-word-long poems entirely from memory. And it wasn’t weird or impressive. Stories are so effective that people could and do remember the entirety of these works word-for-word. And as it turns out, the human brain is not wired to store random data; it’s wired to remember stories.

Homer (far left) was not the only person to figure out the power of story
In his book Moonwalking With Einstein, Josh Foer goes on a journey into the world of the international memory championships. There, he meets people who learn and recite large amounts of random data in short amounts of time. But what they’re actually doing inside their heads is not memorizing the data--they’re turning it into a story. Funnily enough, the “Memorization Bible” for Josh’s memory mentor is not some up-to-the-minute book on neuroscience. It’s a text from Ancient Rome that uses the principles of narrative to make memorizing even the most daunting mountain of data doable. Humanity used to be amazing at memorization. It’s not a skill we are “bad at.” It’s a skill we all have lost.

If our ancestors already knew the power of storytelling, then how did we get so off-track with how we remember important things? When did we decide that memorizing something should feel dull? The idea that schoolwork should feel like work is one of the conspiracy’s greatest achievements. And in part, that idea came from the conspiracy’s spin on the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied memory over 100 years ago.

Ebbinghaus wanted a strictly scientific way to measure the act and efficacy of memorization. That meant he had to eliminate any unfair (and unequal) memorization advantages that came from different people having lifetimes of personal experience, both logical and emotional. So, he constructed an experiment that took logic and emotion out of the equation. In his experiment, subjects were required to remember long lists of three-letter nonsense words. The words had to be combinations like “KOJ”; try as anyone may, there was nothing even slightly memorable or logical--or interesting--about them. As if that wasn’t dull enough, Ebbinghaus then took away emotion as well. The words were to be repeated in the exact same vocal inflection to the regular beat of a metronome. Unsurprisingly, no one would participate as a subject in Ebbinghaus’s experiments except Ebbinghaus.
Ebbinghaus made learning boring

Even though you may never have heard of Hermann Ebbinghaus, you’ve certainly felt the effects of his discovery. Ebbinghaus purposefully removed the advantages of emotion and logic for the sake of his experiment, and his results made a huge splash in the scientific community. But once he was done proving that repetition is one way to make memories, everyone forgot to bring back those other, far more advantageous ways. Instead, we all came to believe that we have to endure super-boring repetition in order to memorize new facts. People became less concerned with how they were working than with how hard they were working. It’s either instant genius or blood, sweat, and tears. UGH! Thanks a lot for that one, conspiracy!

So the good news is that you can memorize anything! You just need to turn it into a story, and your brain will be happy to remember it for you. So, how do you transform what starts off as random data into brain-friendly stories?

1) Look for the inherent logic. In stories, the logic is often chronological, and that is super helpful for studying history or literature, for instance. But for something like science or math, you can also use spatial logic, the steps of a process...anything that connects the information in a meaningful way. Understanding things in terms of the bigger picture always ensures that any one fact has a tougher time escaping.

Want to make it even more unforgettable?

Katie doesn't need flashcards to remember her wedding day. Does anyone?
2) Add emotion.  We remember stories from our own lives not just because of where and when they occurred, but because of what they felt like. Emotion is an extremely powerful memorization tool; it’s why you never forget where you were on 9-11, or the birth of your first child, or the most embarrassing moment of your childhood. Find reasons to attach emotion to what you’re learning. If it’s history, what would it feel like to be leading the charge at Normandy, or to be Augustus right after Caesar was slain? Making the information relatable to you and your own experience makes it almost impossible to forget.

3) Finally, don’t be afraid to add logic or emotion from outside of the material. Many people know to come up with mnemonic devices to make things stick, but if you can make those devices gross, or hilarious, or downright absurd, then you’ll be giving yourself a visual that is unforgettable. It doesn’t matter if that memory hook has anything to do with the data when you start; once you’ve connected them in your mind, you’ll never forget them.

Sharpie Makers: 1. Humanity: 0.
The only people who have benefited from our culture’s obsession with mindless repetition are the people who make notecards and Sharpies. The rest of us have had to waste a lot of time and endure incredible boredom all in pursuit of the weakest, least durable memories out there. If you want to read more about the science that is transforming our understanding of memory and the learning process, check out free download of “The Science Behind the Straight-A Conspiracy.” And from now on, ditch the flashcards, and focus on figuring out why your learning makes sense. Take the time to understand the logic behind a math equation and you’ll never forget it. Look for ways to connect emotionally to your required reading. And, above all, weave everything you’re learning into a story. The most up-to-date learning tool is actually the oldest one on earth.