Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Books! + Scientific Mnemonic System Thoughts

I just acquired a slew of new books: "Ad Herrenium", "On the Composition of Images, Signs & Ideas" - Giordano Bruno, "The Medieval Craft of Memory" - Carruthers Ziolkowski, "Your Memory How it Works and How to Improve It" - Kenneth Higbee, "Art of Memory" - Frances Yates and "Giordano Bruno & the Hermetic Tradition" - Frances Yates.

I also downloaded a whole bunch of e-books: "Improve your Memory" - Ron Fry, "How to Develop a Super Power Memory" - Harry Lorayne and a whole bunch more.

I do not have the time to read any of them right now, but I cannot wait until I can! I have been thinking about a system I want to develop for synthesis memorization. I came up with a simple scene that could be used for this. Darth Vader (carbon) holding a green light saber (green = life = oxygen) being shot at by a cleaning lady (nitrogen) in a forest representing nucleophillic attack. The objects would have to be able to be built into a larger picture, for instance, a Darth Vader holding hands would be just about impossible to memorize, considering how versatile carbon is. I could also develop a PAO system for each element, but stereochemistry would be really difficult to include in this. This system is going to have to be very complex...

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I finished "Moonwalking with Einstein" today and I thought it was a fantastic book that is a must read for anyone interested in mnemonics. My next step is to get another book and begin reading it, preferably one that discusses more detail about the actual techniques used at one of these competitions. Josh's book mentioned multiple books that he had read in his journey to becoming a memory champion. Ed Cooke, his trainer, suggested reading all of the literature from when mnenonics were first recorded, such as The Ad Herennium. I also want to start developing about twelve memory palaces because that is how much Ed said you would need to begin practicing. Sometime in the future, after creating more memory palaces and learning how to memorize lists, I would like to develop a PAO system for numbers for myself. Josh's book mentioned mental math techniques as well as speed reading and that is definitely something I want to look into as well.
There are a lot of cool random bits of information that I would love to memorize - one of the most important being the periodic table. The motivation behind this is to be able to easily memorize the 100+ reactions that I will be required to memorize my following semester  for organic synthesis.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The OK Plateau

Josh realized that after awhile his scores were not improving. He attributed this to a phenomena called the OK plateau. Basically, the body gets to a certain skill level and says 'there is no reason to improve anymore beyond this level' and stops getting improving. A simple way around this is to focus on your technique, stay goal-oriented and get constant and immediate feedback on your performance. Focusing on these three things while you purposefully fail by putting yourself in a situation harder than you can perform is the best way to beat the OK plateau. An easy way to do this is if you are trying to memorize a deck of cards faster is to set up a metronome to click at the same speed that you are able to memorize a card. Then, increase the speed by 10-15% so you cannot memorize fast enough. This forces you to speed up. While it will be very difficult to not make any mistakes, eventually in a couple of days you will be able to achieve that speed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Memorizing numbers

Memorizing numbers is an entirely different story than memorizing a list of objects. The objects can easily be turned into an extremely creative imagine, but how do you turn a number into something interesting?
There is a system known as the Major System that assigns a letter to the numbers 0-9 and from this you can create an image for every number 00-99.

0 = S                     5 = L
1 = T or D             6 = Sh or Ch
2 = N                    7 =K or G
3 = M                    8 = F or V
4 = R                     9 = P or B

So for instance, the number 53 would be "LM". Your allowed to insert vowels in between the consonants, so the image for 53 could be "lime". This is done for the number range stated above and all of these 100 images are pre-memorized. The lettering system gives you a reference. That is, if you cannot remember what your lime image means then you refer back to the numbers. You can connect the images by placing them in your memory palace along a journey. Therefore, each number turns into an image that is much easier to remember and you only have to memorize half as much! (1 image = 2 numbers).

A more complex system than the Major System is the Person-Action-Object system. In this system, each number 00-99 gets a pre-memorized person action and object. For instance, one of Josh's cards was him  (person) moonwalking (action) with Einstein (object). Any six digits can then easily be turned into a single image. The number 16-72-84 each has a PAO. By taking the person from the first set of numbers, the action of the second set and apply it to the object of the third, a large amount of numbers can easily be memorized.

The PAO system can easily be used to memorize a deck of cards. Each individual card gets its own PAO, for a total of 52 PAO's. Any three cards becomes a single image creating 52/3 = 17 + 1(card) images that you have to remember, instead of 52


There are two types of recollection methods: memoria rerum - memorizing the "gist" of a piece of literature and memoria verborum - memorizing a text word for word. Cicero suggested when giving a speech that the speaker should create an image for each major topic in the speech and memorize them through a journey (rerum). Therefore, you hit the main points and it is far less information to memorize. He also said that the best way to memorize a piece of literature is to repeat a line two or three times before developing a series of images for it. For words that could not easily be turned into an image, like conjunctions "and", "or", and "the" he had pre-memorized images that he would insert into the journey he created. For unimaginable words he would visualize a similar sounding or punning word.

Memory Duration

I want to figure out how long my memory will keep one of these lists in my head. The problem is that I am so excited about easily memorizing these lists that I keep repeating the journey in my head and reinforcing all of the images (to this day I can still remember the seven-membered list of items that I memorized a month ago). I memorized a second list containing fifteen items. I reinforced them a couple times and three days later the list was still as clear as day.
I got the basic gist of the memory palace from reading the first six chapters of "Moonwalking with Einstein", so I decided to try it myself for real. I took a two minute test in which I took a list of 100 words and tried to memorize as many of them as I could. I was able to get through 18 words and after the very first attempt in repeating them, I only messed up once. On the second attempt I recalled all 18 correctly (and I could probably do it again right now).

I decided to take a five minute test to see the limit of this strategy without training. I was able to memorize 26 items (and I'm almost entirely sure that I could have memorized more given more time). Josh said that on your very first attempt you could usually memorize anywhere from 30 to 40 items in a list, but I didn't try this.

My main goal at this point, realizing that these memory strategies definitely DO work, is to practice them and get good enough to use these strategies in every day life.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Power Mnemonics

I watched a video of Josh Foer talking about a memory palace memorization techniques. Using the words "fox", "license", "soup", "hair", "gerbil", "ring", and "finger" he demonstrated how you could walk through your memory palace - an imaginary mind slate in which you can put objects to stimulate memory recall. The video was interactive, so I tried out this technique that I was totally skeptical about. The amazing thing is that it worked! The idea that he discussed was that images are very memorable, so by creating more memorable images and dropping them into your memory palace you could easily remember them.
This is extremely cool and excites me to try these techniques for myself. I want to see how far these techniques will actually be able to stretch the power of my memory. I have always been pretty bad about staying with things that I have quick ideas about - for instance I wanted to go to graduate school in Germany and learn German...that bombed out. This is something I want to stick with and test how it works very much.

Some things that are very promising with these techniques:
Ben Pridmore - memorized a deck of cards in 32 seconds and could memorize over 1000 digits in an hour.
Tony Buson - "one hour a day 6 days a week practicing and you would be able to join the world championship

The biggest problem with memory is that it is great at memorizing certain things and terrible at others. Our minds evolved through natural selection in an environment different from the one we live in now. People once depended solely on the ability to memorize information such as the location of food sources and how to get home. We now live in a world in which we have technology to answer all of these questions for us, therefore our ability to use these simple systems has diminished. New elaborate systems have been developed to cope with our changing surroundings. They allow us to memorize things that are important to us today - written language and numbers (things that did not exist when the original memory techniques were developed).

The way in which this is done is through elaborative encoding -taking kinds of memories our brains cannot remember easily and transforming them into memories our brains can remember easily like lists and numbers. Several books outline these strategies very well:

"The Retorica Ad Herennium", "Institutio Oratoria" - Quintillians, "De Oratore" - Cicero and many others. Each book discusses the memory palace in detail. The memory palace is a hard concept to explain. A memory palace is some structure, a building, a route to school, your office, even the seams on a baseball. The only important factor is the memory palace is known by heart, every intricate detail, that you can imagine walking through with your eyes closed without even being there. Once you have a memory palace that you can completely imagine, you walk through it and place memorable images throughout the memory palace. Once this is done, all you have to do is re-walk the route and the images you placed, if stimulating enough, will literally "pop" into your head. According to Josh, you need multiple memory palaces to memorize a multitude of different information.

I memorized seven objects over a month ago with this method and it works too well, I can't get the stupid images out of my head whenever I picture my house. Walking through a memory palace depositing these items is freaking awesome. The sensation of each item simply pops into your head as you walk through. The indistinguishable smell of picked garlic in front of my house is still stuck in my head.

The Origin of Memorization

The discovery of these memory techniques is accredited to a poet and theologian named Semonides. The story goes that the exact second he stepped out of a banquet hall to talk to some servants, the roof collapsed killing everyone inside. Being the only survivor, the loved ones of the mangled victims begged for his help. He realized that he could recall the location of everyone in the hall and directed the loved ones to the location in which they had been seated. This is how the art of memory was born. Semonides realized that if he replaced the images of people in the banquet hall with objects that he wanted to remember, he could easily memorize hundreds of items in a list with little work. Many people elaborated on this idea and these ideas have become what is known as mnemonics.

The Beginning

Today I read a fascinating article by a journalist, Joshua, Foer, about memory sports - the art of memorizing anything from random numbers to a poem. During his reporting, of the conpetitors continued to say that anyone could learn the techniques that they were using to improve their own memory. As a follow-up story for the magazine, he decided to spend a year learning the techniques everyone was describing to see whether they actually worked or not. A brilliant man, Ed Cooke, liked the idea of teaching an American mnemonic strategies, so he trained Josh over the next year.After his year of training, Josh competed in the very competition he set out to report on. And won.

Josh wrote a book, "Moonwalking with Einstein," that described his experiences over the year he was training. It discusses all of the baseline tests he went through and how much he improved. It also discusses the history of memory and a lot more extremely interesting information.

I was fascinated by his article, so I decided to read the book for the fun of it. It did not take long to become extremely interested in trying these techniques for myself, but I was extremely suspicious of the true power of these techniques. I decided to journal interesting facts from his book, as well as my own attempts at trying the strategies he discusses. The following blog entries are a summary of the notes that I took after reading his book and several of the most recent entries will discuss other books that I have read/are in the process of reading.

The purpose of this blog is as much to inform anyone interested that there are extremely powerful and simple techniques in improving your memory as it is to simply document my findings and improve my writing ability.