Memory: Use It Or Lose It

When I was attending Iowa State University, I took a class in Religious Studies with Dr. Hector Avalos. On the first day of class, he recited the roster from memory. I remember thinking how amazing that was.

Then, in 2011, after watching Limitless with Bradley Cooper and understanding that we cannot simply take a pill to have limitless memory and that it takes work, I picked up The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas.

The feat of memorizing an entire roster had always stuck with me, and so I finally put the techniques I learned in The Memory Book to practice while I was at Truman. Memorizing all of my student’s names on the first day of class was still very challenging, but I put the necessary time in.

Classes are beginning at Washburn, and the time has come once again for me to bring back those memorization skills. In a timely fashion, I happened to be listening to the audio book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer.

This book reminded me of the tools I picked up in The Memory Book, such as visualizing ridiculous things in order to memorize a list or roster.  It also provided a great example of using a memory palace.  While I have always used visualizing ridiculous things in sequence to memorize a roster, I had yet to employ the use of the memory palace. I gave it a whirl, and was able to memorize the roster of 30 names from my first section of statistics in about 30 minutes.

Whoa! I thought. That was the fastest I think I’ve ever done that!

For the second section of 30 names, I decided to time myself. I stopped the stopwatch at 21 minutes and 7 seconds and was able to recite the entire 30 names.

Three Part Series on Memory

This post will be part 1 of a three part series. In this part, we focus on memorizing a list of words. The words we will happen to memorize are names, but they could be a grocery list, a to-do list, or simply a list of random words.  It would not matter.

Part 2 will give you tools of how to memorize long strings of numbers.

Part 3 will combine the two parts and provide a method that will help you memorize not only a word, but a number that is associated with it. This combination of techniques might be good in memorizing all the U.S. Presidents or the periodic table of elements in such a way that it wouldn’t matter if you were asked any of the following:

  • Which president (number) was James Polk?
  • Who was the 19th U.S. President?
  • What is the atomic number of Argon?
  • What is the element with atomic number 24?

Combining the techniques will provide you with a way to answer either type of question with relative simplicity. Let’s first start with part 1, however, which is memorizing a list of names (or words).

How to Memorize a List

Think of a house in which you are very familiar, and in particular, one that has several rooms and a driveway. I will walk you through how I would memorize the following list of 12 names which I randomly generated using Behind the Name.

  1. Hillary Bunker
  2. Roni Coy
  3. Brion Derby
  4. Steven Garbutt
  5. Fulk Jackson
  6. Jade Johnson
  7. Tillie Millhouse
  8. Earnestine Morrish
  9. Lynnette Pender
  10. Moreen Petit
  11. Angelica Quincey
  12. Lila Sheppard

First, I like to read through the names a few times to get familiar with them, looking for names that I may know well. For example, Hillary, Brion (the name, not the spelling), Steven, Jackson, Johnson, and Sheppard are all familiar to me and I can come up with familiar faces for each of these names.

Next, you’ll need to be able to visualize standing at the end of the driveway or walkway to the house facing the front door. What you will be doing is walking up to the front door, going inside, and doing a small tour of the house in your mind. Along the way, I will insert some people or items doing crazy things in different locations that should not make any sense.

Take your time after reading each step below to close your eyes and get a vivid image of not only what is being described, but also the movement you make through the house.

  1. Here we are at the end of the driveway of the house looking toward the front door. Imagine the former first lady, Hillary Clinton, has dug herself a bunker there.  Really get that image burned into your mind. In fact, the bunker is dug in such a way that it leads to the front door.
  2. Now, imagine the bunker fills with water and Hillary gets into a boat and rows herself to the front door, with each row hitting her knee. A bunch of decoy ducks are all over the water.
  3. You probably know someone named Brian. Do you happen to know the actor Bryan Cranston (from Breaking Bad)?  Anyway, think of a Brian/Bryan/Brion opening the front door to welcome you home, but they are all dressed up as if they are going to the Kentucky Derby as a woman.  (Think of those crazy hats).
  4. Since I don’t know the house you are using very well, you will be somewhat on your own as you navigate through the house.  The rest of the images could be in a hallway, a staircase, or inside one of the several rooms. Let’s put a huge picture of Stephen Colbert (or, if you don’t know who that is, choose a Steve you know) on a nearby wall right inside the front door.  Now visualize him mooning you in the picture with big black letters GAR printed across his butt.
  5. Where are you now in the house?  Let’s place Michael Jackson there alongside Spock. Jackson looks at Spock, and in his very soft voice, asks, “Who the Vulc are you?” (Spock is a Vulcan).
  6. Whether there is a television there or not, place one near Michael and Spock.  Playing on the TV is this scene from The Big Lebowski: The Dude: “F*** sympothy! I don’t need your f***in’ sympathy, man, I need my f***ing johnson!”  On top of the TV is the ace of spades with a big letter J on it to remind you that it isn’t a spade, it is a Jade. Make the card really big so you won’t accidentally miss it later.
  7. Let’s now move to the next room. Perhaps you’re familiar with the character Milhouse from The Simpsons?  If so, visualize him with a garden till, tilling away at the floor. Or maybe you can visualize a grain mill a little easier? As a homebrewer, I can. Maybe put this mill inside a large doll house so that it is now a mill house. Imaging trying to mill a doll-sized garden till. Either one should work.
  8. Remember Morris the Cat in the 9 Lives commercials back in the 80’s? He’s a fat orange tabby with a deep goofy voice.  Visualize this cat sitting around the corner from the room that you are in. As you are traveling to the next room, there he is! Imagine he sits next to a beer stein, and with a lisp, says “Hi, I’m Morrish. Want to earn a stein? Just rub my belly.”  Visualize the entire process. He sits there. He speaks. He rolls over. You rub his belly. You earn the stein, so you take it.  Now, walk into the room you were headed to.
  9. In this room there are a bunch of loons. All of them are waddling around saying “Der… Der… Der.”  All but one are penned up.  You throw a net around the one that is not in the pen.  You just threw a loon net. (Hope this gets you to Lynnette).  Now, throw it back in the pen. Why are all these loons saying “Der“?
  10. Along the way to the next room, you see your pet in distress (think of a former pet if you don’t currently have one).  Perhaps it is Morris from a memory ago? It is yelping in pain.  Luckily, there is some morphine available right next to your pet in a huge bottle with MORPHINE written on the side (the middle letters scratched out).  You give your pet some morphine and pet it.
  11. You hear the song “Hallelujah” being sung in the next room. Upon entering you see Angels singing. They are singing along with Quincy Jones (click on the link if you are not familiar with this musician). They stop singing and the Angels lick Quincy.
  12. Jealous of all the licking, a singing German Shepherd wearing Lee jeans runs in singing “la la la la la la la” before getting its own lick in.

What craziness did you just read?

Scroll down now so that you can hide the names and the instructions.

No peaking!

OK, now. In your mind, let’s get back to the end of your driveway looking back at your house.  Can you recite the 12 names?

If you failed, it is probably because you did not get the image you were supposed to visualize vivid enough. Another review of the instructions and you can probably get it.

Obviously, the work isn’t the memorization part, but it is how creative and imaginative you can be. In this world of smartphones, memory is becoming a lost art. Memorizing a roster 40 years ago would not have been that big a deal. A few hundred years ago, memorizing the list of names may have been the only method of getting the roster!

Now, memorizing a roster is a parlor trick. A few times, I have even received applause! The capacity of our memory is fading. What does this mean for future generations?

Perhaps the part of the brain we use for memorization isn’t really a “part” and is just a process that will no longer be needed. Other “processes” will take memorization’s place.  This is looking at it optimistically.

Perhaps, there is an actual part of the brain used for memorization, and that “part” will just become mushy and dormant. That is the more cynical thought.

I’m pretty sure we still do not know the answer. I only have my own life to live, however, so I’m going to use it rather than lose it.

4 thoughts on “Memory: Use It Or Lose It

  1. Great post! You really brought the memory palace idea to life. I have used similar techniques to memorize ordered lists in the past, but I have yet to memorize anything quite as long as a class roster. I’m going to give it a go in a future semester, now that I see it’s fairly doable.


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