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How to Memorize Everything: Mnemonic Notes

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Can you memorize an entire deck of cards in under a minute? Impossible? Memory mnemonic experts routinely accomplish this incredible feat using memory mnemonics. In Moonwalking with Einstein a normal journalist chronicles his journey and eventual triumph in competing in the United States Memory Championships. A normal guy, with an average memory, could train his brain using memory mnemonics to do incredible things: memorize a deck of playing cards in < 1 minute, remember 100’s of digits, and quickly memorize long poems word-for-word. But honestly who cares?

Call me crazy, but I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to sit in his room to practice memorizing decks of cards for months to clock in under a minute (Well, at least I won’t admit in public to doing that :)  ). To me, this is a parlor trick. They certainly entertain people if you ever get interviewed by Jay Leno but the common person doesn’t care about memorizing cards. What about poems? I admit it, I’m not very cultured either. I don’t care about memorizing poems. Perhaps being able to recall a few choice quotes and verses would be nice, but I hardly need to master memory mnemonics for that. Don’t get me wrong, I could imagine myself one day becoming a renaissance man and making the ladies swoon with my mastery of Shakespeare. I'll chalk that up in my list of future New Year’s resolutions (to never accomplish). You get the point. Many people share my frustrations with how today’s uses for memory mnemonics seem pointless.

Memorizing a Semester of Lectures

When I came across memory mnemonics in college, I wanted to make them practical. I was excited about the idea of using them to memorize lectures. Imagine it! An entire semester of lectures neatly stored and cataloged inside my brain. Every test would be an open notes test (my favorite)! History exams would be trivial. Languages, English, Accounting, … almost any subject could be mastered with ease by carrying around mental notes. This idea intrigued me. If I could learn how to do this for college I could employ the same system for learning throughout my life.

 

To achieve this I began to practice during my lectures. I closed my notebook and opened my mind. After I practiced a few techniques, I found that it really worked. For me that was a big accomplishment. Before I began to use memory mnemonics I could not pay attention in class. I knew how to learn from books, but professors lecturing was like some painful Chinese water torture. Each word drove me closer to insanity. I couldn’t pay attention. On top of that, I always got the professors with the deep monotone voice. They’d start talking and I was asleep in 1 minute flat (which I still consider a better use of time then memorizing playing cards). Taking mental notes changes all of that. They helped me focus and enabled me to pay attention, memorize, and do really well in class. Although they weren’t able to divert my attention from the black-haired beauty sitting in front of me in my foreign language class (my wife is quite beautiful), I still found them to be quite useful.

 

 

Mnemonics in Life-Long Learning

After college, I took these same ideas and applied them to life-long learning. I've learned how to memorize books, lectures, and podcasts as I listen to them.  I’ve found this type of memorization to be fun and engaging. You’re always thinking of hilarious or vivid images to encode new memories into your brain. I think you’ll enjoy it too if you give it a chance. Plus the benefits extend beyond learning. Life-long learning has been shown to increase health and decrease the chance of developing dementia.


In this article, I will examine the basics of mental note taking. I’ll delve into a few simple concepts that allow anyone to memorize lectures, books, and other mediums with mental notes. Personally, I prefer memorizing lectures, podcasts, and audio books. These mediums teach you to memorize at a steady pace while people talk. I’ve also found that it saves tons of time to learn as I drive, do chores, and work-out. CAUTION – Memory mnemonics while driving can cause driving ineptness. You may become very bad with directions and rely too much on your GPS. At least that’s happened to me… Also, know your limitations. If you can't drive safely while memorizing, then don't. Although I prefer audio, I’ve also applied mental note taking to reading and general course homework.

This system uses Roman Rooms for topical memorization. When employing topical memorization, you memorize the central topic and that becomes a trigger for the surrounding information. As you review, go back and remember the context of each topic in order to improve your recall surrounding the central topic. I will also discuss proper review techniques to maximize your learning. Topical memorization combined with contextual review is a very effective form of memorization.

Pros

-This technique provides the ability to memorize lectures, books, podcasts and other material as you listen or read.
- This technique allows users to recall notes anytime and anywhere.
- This technique increases concentration on material as you are learning.
- Active review gives you the opportunity to choose what to remember and what to forget.
- It’s easy to transfer the information into long-term memory (try our MemCards App!).

Cons

- You will need to practice the method to master it.
- It’s hard to memorize dense information without stopping and focusing on it (lists, equations, specific dates ...etc.).
- It’s hard to stay consistent with long-term memorization.

If you’ve already read our article on the Roman Room, you may wish to skip the next section.

The Roman Room

For thousands of years, people have been using Roman Rooms to memorize long poems, Biblical text, and (in more recent years) decks of cards in under a minute. The possibilities are incredible, and anyone can accomplish these mental feats with practice. I use memory mnemonics for memorizing audio books as I listen to them and keeping a mental journal of my life. If you want to learn more about mental journaling, we cover it in-depth in our Peak-Learning Course. This course also teaches you how to memorize various types of information (dates, numbers, nouns…etc).

The Roman Room is versatile and powerful because it uses your vast spatial memory. Think about how easily you remember your house or your route to work. Compare that to memorizing a list of dates. Spatial memory allows you to memorize a lot more information quicker.

Roman Rooms are easy to use. You simply take a well-known room and walk through it in your mind, setting images you would like to remember on different objects in your room. These memories are stored away like papers in a filing cabinet. The Roman room is the filing cabinet and the objects in the room are the different files.

As you stroll through the room, you take memories, convert them into images, and make these images interact with the room’s objects. This allows you to come back to that room in your mind in order to remember them anytime. Perhaps you want to remember to buy a carton of eggs. If you imagine smashing that carton of eggs on your couch, you’ll find that you can remember that memory whenever you think of your couch. Try it out! See the dripping eggs and feel the disgusting, gooey mess with your hands. What find is that it’s easy to remember this image for the next 24 hours. In order to build a Roman Room, you can go around a room and choose ten of these memory places. That means that you’re able to store ten memories in every Roman Room.

I’ve found that it takes me about 5 rooms to memorize a book. Therefore, at the end of the article I’ll suggest that you choose 5 rooms that you’re familiar with to convert into Roman Rooms.

How to build a Roman Room

How about we build a Roman Room together? Begin by choosing a room in your house. Picture yourself standing in the doorway leading into that room. Look to your left and find the first item you see. We’ll be walking around the room in a clockwise direction. Look for items that are unique. For example, a lamp works better than a doorknob, since most of the doorknobs in your house will look similar. Once you’ve chosen the first item, continue in a clockwise direction and find the next item in your room. I’ll use ten items in my living room to help show you how to use a Roman Room:

1.    Coat Rack
2.    Book Shelf
3.    Decorative Porcelain Fish
4.    Rocking Chair
5.    Antique Clock
6.    A decorative birdcage on my entertainment center
7.    My son’s Wii
8.    Couch
9.    Stool
10.    A Unique Picture Frame

It’s important to space out the items in your room. Generally, Roman Rooms consist of 10 memory places. So give yourself room for each of the ten memory places. You can also get creative if you need to add in an extra memory place. In your mind, you can move a game, a remote control, or another object to the place that you need it to be. This gives you flexibility.

With these memory places, I can store 10 memories in my living room. Take a few moments and write down 5 rooms in a house that you know well. Can you picture each room in your mind and find 10 memory places? Once you’ve found ten places in each room, write down all your memory places.
It helps to run through these memory places a few times until you know them by heart. Also, your recall will improve the more vividly you interact with each memory place. In your mind’s eye try to see it and feel it. Try wiping down your memory place with a rag or dusting it. The more senses you employ and the better you’ll be able to recall memories.

Mental Note Taking


Once you’ve applied the Roman Room technique, mental note taking is simple to understand. So let me show you how it works. The last book I read was Rework by David Hansson. I’ll use this book to walk you through how I take mental notes. To reiterate my earlier comment, we’ll focus on topical memorization. Topical memorization means that we’ll memorize images that represent the topics in a book. You probably won’t be able to memorize an entire book word-for-word after one pass, but good luck to anyone who would like to try! Topical memorization will help you memorize the topics as triggers to the rest of the information surrounding a topic.

I begin by saving the title in the first memory place: “Rework.” “Re” reminds me of a VCR rewinding (for those of us who remember VCRs :) ). “Work” brings to mind the picture of a hammer. If you have a hard time converting memories to images, practice with our Random Noun Generator.

Next, I’m going to take the VCR and the hammer and combine them together with my first memory place, (1) a coat rack. In your mind see a VCR on top of a coat rack. Then, take a hammer and begin to smash that VCR. This image allows me to remember the title “Rework” whenever I picture my coat-rack.

Memory Mnemonic Tip #1: When using memory mnemonics it helps to include action, multiple senses, and concentration. It also helps to include images that cause an emotional response. Try making the image disgusting, humorous, or sensual for improved recall.

Let me revisit our first memory image. In my mind, I’m going to smash my VCR with a hammer. I will hear the thump of the hammer, the cracking of the plastic, and experience the action. I can feel the pieces breaking off and hitting my face.

All this will happen in your mind in an instant. Learning to bring together these images will be difficult at first. Try practicing with podcasts or YouTube videos online. As you’re learning, pause the audio when you need to catch-up. Keep practicing until you can store the images without pausing. It also helps to practice memorizing random nouns back-to-back. Use this Random Word generator to improve your mnemonic memorization (also found in the free MemNem Gym).

 

 

The second topic I wanted to memorize was “Base Camp.” This is the name of the software program the author’s business created. To memorize this I’m going to see a “base” from baseball, and imagine a fence wrapped with barbed-wire surrounding it. This “base camp” is setup on (2) my book shelf. I can also add soldiers shooting from inside the camp, and include the sounds and smells of guns going off to make the image more vivid.

Memory Mnemonic Tip #2: If you hold the scene in your mind for a few seconds it increases your recall even more

The third topic I decided to store was the idea that I’d rather “not live in the real world” if it requires you to accept the status quo. For this image I will save a picture of a globe balancing precariously on (3) the decorative porcelain fish in my living room. I picture myself pouring red paint over the globe to negate the idea. While painting the globe in my mind, I also summon the feeling of disdain for those who accept the status quo in the workplace.

This is our first example of memorizing a topic rather than a noun. I’ve chosen a simple picture to represent the idea that the author was discussing. We’ll talk about correct review principles later in this article, but it’s important to review the topics associated with the pictures, and not only the pictures themselves. When you use topical memorization, the memorization is pointless unless you remember the concepts behind the words. So when you come back to this image summarize the ideas the author was discussing.

Memory Mnemonic Tip #3: When using topical memorization be sure to review any context surrounding the topic that you can remember. This will increase your natural recall of the information.

The next topic I wanted to memorize was the idea that “excessive planning is bad.” This topic needs to interact with (4) my rocking chair. To remember this, I picture myself unfurling a long scroll that represents a plan. Then I set it on fire. To improve the memory I feel the parchment and the heat; I smell the smoke; and I watch the sparks scatter across my carpet, fearing that my carpet will catch ablaze. This image has four recall hooks: the picture, the feeling of heat/parchment, the smell of smoke, and the feeling of fear. The more hooks that attach a memory to a memory place, the more likely you’ll remember your image.

Memory Mnemonic Tip #4: Each new sense, emotion, or action you add to a memory can improve your recall. The more of these “hooks” the better. However, don’t make the image too complicated. Go for simple and vivid.

I’m going to store one more memory in my Roman Room to make sure you understand the principles. The next topic in Rework was how growing a business shouldn’t necessarily be your goal. To store this idea, I pictured Mario from Super Mario Brothers growing after he got a mushroom. I hear the arcade noise and see the action. Since I’m interested in classic video games, this memory has an extra hook in it: my interest. Memory mnemonics are specific to each person. Try including images that you find interesting to increase your recall.

Memory Mnemonic Tip #5
: Including images that relate to your interests increase recall.

Reviewing Your Notes

After you code the images it’s important that you maintain good review habits. I remember back in college I rarely reviewed my notes. I’d understand concepts during class, then I wouldn’t think of them again until I was tested. This meant I had to relearn all of this information. Many people go their entire life continually forgetting information only to re-learn it again a few weeks or months later. Let me share a few review principles that help to keep memories active in your memory longer.

The human forgetting curve requires you to review information at 1 day, 1 week, 2 weeks, and double after that (1 month, 2 months, …etc.). However, what I’ve found is that once you get past the first two review periods, you can retain information for quite a long time. This recall duration can be further increased by using our memory mnemonic tips listed again below:

Memory Mnemonic Tip #1: When using memory mnemonics it helps to include action, multiple senses, and concentration. It also helps to include images that cause an emotional response. Try making the image disgusting, humorous, or sensual for improved recall.
Memory Mnemonic Tip #2: If you hold the scene in your mind for a few seconds it increases your recall even more
Memory Mnemonic Tip #3: When using topical memorization be sure to review any context surrounding the topic that you can remember. This will increase your natural recall of the information.
Memory Mnemonic Tip #4: Each new sense, emotion, or action you add to a memory can improve your recall. The more of these “hooks” the better. However, don’t make the image too complicated. Go for simple and vivid.
Memory Mnemonic Tip #5: Including images that relate to your interests increase recall.

To incorporate these ideas, review your new mental notes the next day. Then review any new memory places again at the end of the week. After you’ve finished your book, you can either continue your reviews to convert the information into long-term memory or you can offload all your notes. A useful tool for long-term memorization is our MemCards application. I programmed this MemCards flash app to keep track of your notecard review periods for you (Click Here to sign-up for free, then login and go to "MemCards"). Another option is to have a stack of notecards and keep track of your review periods along the right side of the notecards. Either way, the trick for long-term memorization is consistency.

Your memory can grow at an exponential rate, which means that the amount of information you can memorize using correct review periods is staggering. I’ve found you can keep up with most of your notecard reviews with only 15 minutes per day. However, it’s hard to stay consistent and organized. That’s why an electronic aid like our MemCards web application is helpful.

I hope you liked the article! I enjoy sharing lessons about peak learning with others. If you did like our article sign up for our newsletter which will update you when new articles are available. I love getting emails from my readers so send me an email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

The next article in this series will discuss how to a simple method of speed reading.

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