Practice Tip #11: Strengthen your Memory

I am not known for my elephant-like memory, mostly, because I do not have one.  Like most people, my memory is pretty average (if not below average).

To compensate, I write everything down, keep careful a calendar events and meetings I need to attend, calls I should make, and tasks to finish. I take notes at meetings, and I take notes while I research, especially of where I can find things again. I even make notes in the margins of books I own so that I can return to points I liked during a first read.

Sometimes my average memory seems worse when I am put on the spot. I feel flustered, I stutter, and, worse, I forget my facts, points, and ideas. I could fill a whole post with the verbal flubs I’ve made while standing behind a pulpit or on a podium. But I won’t. You’ve got better things to do than read about my faux pas.

That said, I can’t hide the fact that there are times when I need data, information, or names and Google just isn’t an option. No matter how much we would like to avoid it, there are some things that we must memorize, if just because it’s more useful to have facts, ideas and information at our tongue tip than it is to check Google or our smart phone every time we need it (or when a judge, client, or opposing counsel demands it).

Influence doesn’t come from being able to Google an answer; anyone can do that. Influence comes from knowing the answer already, and having it when you need it. That’s right: great orators and influencers–guys like Marcus Cicero, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln–don’t use Google. They just recall it when necessary.

So what’s a guy to do if he has an average memory?

Apparently, all most of us have is an average memory, but we can all improve it. In 2003, Nature magazine reported on an f.M.R.I. test that scanned the brains of the eight people who finished near the top of the World Memory Championships (yeah, it exists). As it turns out, their memories weren’t any better than those of normal  people (read: you and me). Says writer Joshua Foer:

Researchers put the mental athletes and a group of control subjects into f.M.R.I. scanners and asked them to memorize three-digit numbers, black-and-white photographs of people’s faces and magnified images of snowflakes as their brains were being scanned. What they found was surprising: not only did the brains of the mental athletes appear anatomically indistinguishable from those of the control subjects, but on every test of general cognitive ability, the mental athletes’ scores came back well within the normal range.

So what’s the trick to pulling up data when you need it? Using different parts of your brain, parts that are more geared for memory than where we usually store data.

There was, however, one telling difference between the brains of the mental athletes and those of the control subjects. When the researchers looked at the parts of the brain that were engaged when the subjects memorized, they found that the mental athletes were relying more heavily on regions known to be involved in spatial memory.

Spatial memory–that’s the area of the brain that remembers, just like it sounds, space and distance around a person, their environment.

The Roman statesman Cicero once criticized Jul...

Image via Wikipedia

Interestingly enough, this type of memorization is not new. Cicero, the Roman politician that I mentioned above, rose from obscurity to the Roman consulship on the strength of his orations alone, even drafted his book on oratory, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, with techniques that included using spatial memory to recall important facts when necessary. Foer explains:

The point of the memory techniques described in “Rhetorica ad Herennium” is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. It advises creating memorable images for your palaces: the funnier, lewder and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.”

In other words, maybe you won’t remember the banal or mundane, but you’re bound to remember the obnoxious.

What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I learned, is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity. For example, one of the most popular techniques used to memorize playing cards involves associating every card with an image of a celebrity performing some sort of a ludicrous — and therefore memorable — action on a mundane object.

For more, check out the article by Foer in the New York Times Magazine here, and look into strengthening your memory.

Remembering what you need to recall, when you need it, is worth the effort. It might not make you this generation’s Cicero, but it certainly won’t stop you in your quest to become it. In fact, it might even help.

(h/t to Joshua Foer for his fascinating article)

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One response to “Practice Tip #11: Strengthen your Memory

  1. and I used to think you had the best memory, now i know your secret. I have learned that this principle applies with memorizing music; I remember how to play certain songs on the piano better than others because of the creative way I attempted to memorize it.

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