Technique for Long Term Memory

by thememorypage

1.2 • Organization of Material

To memorize a large amount of information for the long-term, you have to be careful to organize the material that you want to memorize so that it is “coded” in your brain efficiently.

Have you ever memorized a long list of items, and you were able to recall the items several hours later, but a few days later suddenly you forgot them all?

This might be because the list wasn’t coded very effectively.

In this document, we’ll explore the issue further, and I’ll give you some suggestions.

Harry Witchel of the Medical School at Bristol (U.K.) wrote me about his experiences with memory:

Dear Kevin —
I am quite interested in memory systems as well. As an someone in academia, it is very important for me to remember a lot of facts (as well as references). I work in the field of Physiology of the heart, and so I have had to memorize a lot of technical information which is often extremely abstract. Typically I translate abstractions into reusable
symbols, eg
K+ is a green banana (as per your example [1])
Na+ is a blue salt shaker
Ca2+ is a yellow bone
Cl- is a red swimming pool
ATP is a native American teepee
etc. and I use these symbols on a variety of mind maps. However, I find that when I get new information, although it is possible to put the info into a “rough” mind map which is neither colored nor pretty or even well organized, a good mind map (which I can refer to indefinitely) pretty much takes two or three attempts. Thus the transition from lecture to usable notes is time-consuming and slow. Also, I find that although I can usually remember the strucutre of mind maps, the words resident on each line have a habit of being forgettable (unless a picture is associated to each and every line).

I have discovered the same thing. In trying to analyze the situation, here is a thought to consider: while we often complain about forgetting things, our brain actually does a really good job of filtering information.

Imagine what it would be like if we remembered every exact detail of everything that happened to us during the day: including the exact time of day you brushed your teeth, where you squeezed the toothpaste, where you placed the brush first, how many times you brushed, how long the brush was under the faucet to rinse, etc.

We would explode from having too much information! But instead, we remember only the things that are important and the things we deliberately give our attention to. And the more attention we give, the more likely we are to remember.

The “rough” mind map works well for short-term things.


If I have an appointment today in room 114, I might think of a “tire” in my mind (my word for “14”) and I’ll remember it that day. Tomorrow I’ll forget about it easily, and it doesn’t matter. But for remembering things for the long-term, it pays to slowly and carefully work out an efficient way to encode the information right from the very start.

How do you do it? Practice. Over time I’ve tried to memorize lots of things. Some I’ve remembered quite easily; others I have totally forgotten because I wasn’t careful enough. Now that I’ve had lots of practice, I can sense in advance which pictures are going to be harder to remember than others, and I deliberately spend more time on them and “walk though” them carefully in my mind.

Also, I need to review often. If I’m memorizing a list of a dozen items, for example, I go back and review from the beginning after every four items or so.

Then after half an hour I review again. Then later in the day I review again. Then the next day I review again. The review periods become less and less frequent, and the list becomes more and more permanent in my mind.

It really isn’t a big of a chore as it sounds; if I’m careful when memorizing the first time, and I’m careful not to forget to review frequently, then I don’t even need to consult notes or cheat-sheets during any of the reviews, and I can do it while walking to class, or waiting in the cafeteria line, or wherever, and it’s a fun way to pass the time.

The biggest thrill I get is when I think I’ve forgotten something but suddenly I remember a bit of a picture and an item miraculously comes back to me!

Apparently Harry has figured out a good way to encode information that works well for him:

So, in conjunction with mind mapping I use an index card testing

system, with questions on one side and the answers on the other. Using
real index cards would be a bore (for me), cluttered, and wasteful of
paper, but I have purchased a computer driven flashcard program. My
program is wonderful (although each question category uses 50K whcih
seems a bit wasteful for text which should take up less than 1K).
Anyway, this combination of mind mapping (with symbols) and flashcards
seems to work well together for me.

I think using flashcards is a great idea. Having them on the computer enhances the memory experience and makes it more fun. Recently I’ve been putting more effort into putting on paper what I want to memorize in an attractive format, even using my colored markers.

Often when recalling things later I can still “see” what the paper looks like. Also, if I ever forget an item, I can just go back to the paper (which is filed away somewhere) for a quick review.

As an example, I decided to memorize the 12 gemstone foundations from Revelation Chapter 21. I wrote them down in two columns, with 6 items in each column. I decided to memorize them by number, so I numbered each item.

Also, since I don’t know that much about gemstones, I thought it was time that I learn, so I also dug up a couple of dictionaries and figured out what color(s) each stone was supposed to be. After I put it all down, it took me only about 10 minutes to memorize them all (including numbers and colors). It probably took almost half an hour to write it down in the first place and look up all of the colors.

So here is the key:

lot of effort was put in advance into organizing the material to be memorized. After all of this advance effort, the actual memorization process was easy.

I’m very pleased, too: memorizing always seems to be a trial-and-error process, and often hit-or-miss.

But organizing the material in advance is a very deterministic, predictable process which I can do very well. I’ve concentrated my efforts into the predictable part to make things a lot easier in the unpredictable part.


End Notes

1. Harry is referring to Part 3 of my “How to Improve your Memory” tutorial where I mention that bananas have lots of potassium.

2. Numbers can be memorized by converting digits to consonants and inserting vowels to form a word. The word can then be converted back to the number later. See Part 3 of the “How to Improve your Memory” tutorial.

3. For an additional example of organizing a complicated mess of numbers, symbols and other information, see the“Memorizing the Periodic Table” document.

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