Being able to retain and recall huge volumes of information is an enviable business skill, no matter what you do. Think of the entrepreneur who can pitch to investors without once resorting to notes, keeping almost unbroken eye contact while instantly recalling stats, figures and facts; the advertising executive who presents to a prospective client without ever having to look up one statistic or budget item; or the manager who can remember the exact details of an important decision made in a meeting several weeks ago.
In each of these instances the audience will be left with the same impression: they know their stuff. Even Twitter was impressed when South Africa’s Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivered his 2020 budget speech without referring to his notes.
Training your brain in the art of memory might be easier than you anticipate. A study conducted by Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands showed that after just six weeks’ training, participants were able to double their performance in memory tests.
So to improve your recall power, starting today, read on for some tips, tricks and methods that are even used by those who test their memory skills competitively, the memory ultra-athletes of our time.
Because the human mind responds to systems and images, it’s easier to remember faces than names, which is why most popular techniques rely on graphic representations of information.
Memory palaces, the first of these, is also called the method of loci (locations). It dates back centuries and was used by Roman and Greek orators to remember their intricate speeches. Today it is used by almost all top competitive memorisers.
It involves pairing the items to be remembered with various physical locations, which could be your bedroom, your kitchen or even a fictional beautiful palace. The important thing is that you first have to imagine the location as richly as you can. Only once you’ve achieved this can you start imagining the items you want to recall by association.
To remember them, you then take an imaginary tour through the space, seeing what you find in your mind’s eye as you go. To strengthen memory associations, make funny or even outrageous connections. Use sounds and colours. Make the connections ‘sticky’ so that your mind won’t let them go. There’s no need to be constrained by politeness – no one else needs to know what you’re thinking.
The memory palace method, as a study published in Nature Neuroscience states, uses spatial learning, which engages the hippocampus, a vital brain region for memory. As Joshua Foer, a former US Memory Champion, said in an interview: ‘What you’re training is your ability to create wild, funny, weird, strange, in some cases raunchy images as quickly as you can in your mind’s eye. And if you do that, your memory takes care of itself.’
Watch this YouTube explainer on memory palaces to try the technique yourself.
This strategy uses patterns made up of letters, ideas or associations to remember lists. You could, for example, use the first letter of each list item to construct a unique word or sentence. Any idea what the first letter of each word in this sentence stands for: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas? (Clue: the ‘M’ stands for Mercury.)
There are several types of mnemonics and some also use images, but only by association. For example, to remember Leo’s name, think of a lion when you see him. Even the simple method for remembering whether stalactites hang from the ceiling or grow on the ground (stalactites have to hold on tight; stalagmites might reach the ceiling) are a type of mnemonic.
On average, our brains can hold four different items in the short-term memory, but grouping items based on the relation between them allows us to retain more as our brains ‘see’ them as a unit. The most common example is telephone numbers that we remember by breaking them up into three groups: the dialling code, first three digits and the last four digits, or grocery lists that we group by letter.
This powerful graphic technique maps information as a branched network of words, tasks, ideas and so on to create a visual representation around a central concept. Though visual like the memory palace, items are arranged hierarchically and not linearly, which makes it easier to structure the information to be able to grasp it and build on it.
Want to find out more?
Listen: How to remember everything, in which Joshua Foer, a journalist and the founder of the wonder-filled Atlas Obscura, explains to Slate's Charles Duhigg how he trained his brain in six months to become the US memory champion.
Read: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer (Penguin Books) is Foer’s first-person account of his quest to better his memory under the guidance of top mental athletes. ‘Memory is like a spiderweb,' he writes, 'that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.’
Visit: Daniel Kilov is an Australian memory athlete and writes on memory-related topics for the Australian Mensa magazine. Kilov's blog is a gold mine of videos and articles explaining mnemonics, his preferred method.
Download: There are several brain-training apps, such as Lumosity or Peak, that can help to improve your memory skills.
Lisa Lazarus is a freelance writer with Master's degrees in Educational Psychology as well as Creative Writing.