How To Memorize: The Ultimate Guide

Welcome to the definitive guide on how to memorize! In this guide, you will discover …

  • Memory myths to ignore from here on in.

  • A no-nonsense explanation of how memory works.

  • The five principles of memorization.

  • Actionable techniques you can implement today to learn how to memorize names, lists, quotations, and more.

How to Memorize The Ultimate Guide_

Some people make light of their poor memorization skills, calling themselves “scatterbrained” or “absent-minded” as if it were an endearing trait.

If you are reading this guide, don’t buy those excuses. The inability to memorize can make you a prisoner of your own mind.

It can lead to awkward encounters where you can’t remember the name of an important acquaintance when you meet them a second time, forming a poor impression and costing you opportunities.

It can hinder your academic or professional career as you fail to remember procedures you just learned or materials you just read.

What if, instead of imprisoning you, your memory had the power to set you free? What if you could …

  • remember the names of everyone you meet at a party, forming meaningful connections and opening doors to greater opportunities?

  • impress your supervisors or clients in meetings with sterling recall of memos or trade articles, establishing yourself at the office as an authority to be listened to?

  • build a career as an actor or public speaker?

  • impress party guests and potential romantic partners by dropping the perfect quote, or memorizing their phone number without typing it in your smartphone?

All of these benefits and more await you if you learn how to memorize.

The Ultimate Guide on How To Memorize lays out the first steps of a journey to better memorization skills, and the improved life stations that come with it.

How To Memorize - Overview

5 Memory Myths Debunked

MYTH: There is a SECRET to a Good Memory

Some people claim to have unlocked the “secret” to perfect memorization and they and only they can teach it to you—fast—for a fee.

Don’t believe them. There is no magic secret to memorization—no great wisdom or technique that was known by the Maya and has been lost in ancient ruins, waiting for Indiana Jones to dig it up.

  • Memory is a fairly well-understood phenomenon of the brain. We don't quite understand why it happens, but we have a pretty good idea of how it happens.

    Memorization is a skill. Like any skill, the practice of the right techniques can sharpen it.

MYTH: Some People have Photographic Memories

You’ve heard of someone who has a “photographic memory”—they can put themselves in past situations or recall whole pages of books as if they were looking at a photograph, recreating them in exquisite detail for perfect recall. What a superpower! Make room, Avengers.

  • The truth is, the phenomenon of photographic memory has never been proven.

    Some people have a greater natural talent for memory, just like some

    people are naturally better at playing basketball or a musical instrument, some have a natural affinity for math or fashion.

People who say that they “see” memories muddy the waters on the existence of photographic memory.

Some people have excellent visual recall; others auditory recall; some have a great sense of spacial memory. This relates not only to cognitive ability but also to learning style. Actual “photographic memory” is not a thing, according to the best scientific information available.

There’s no reason to give up your quest to learn how to memorize because you are intimidated by someone who claims to have been born with a “photographic memory.” A strong memory is an admirable skill, but it isn’t a superpower. You can learn to do what they do.

MYTH: Memorizing Over And Over Boosts Memory

Stage actors love to share this chestnut with aspiring actors who struggle to learn their lines: “The more you do it, the better you get! Just keep at it, and soon you’ll be learning your lines in a snap.”

  • Experience may seem to bear that out, but this wisdom is misleading. Performing rote memorization tasks over and over again won't make you better at it just by sheer force of repetition, because you may be repeating the wrong techniques.

Actors improve their ability to memorize over the course of their careers not because they do it all the time, but because they learn tricks, techniques, and shortcuts—either from inference or specific study—to make them better memorizers.

Here’s the missing piece of the puzzle—you could learn those tricks, techniques, and shortcuts now, and dramatically cut down your learning curve and allow you to memorize faster, sooner.

MYTH: A Trained Memory Never Forgets

Another popular myth intimates that once you learn the “secret” of memorization, you will never forget anything ever again.

  • Memory skills don't turn your brain into an infallible cloud-based backup drive. Even trained memorizers forget things sometimes. On top of that, our cognitive abilities tend to decrease with age. Learning how to memorize is not a fail-safe ticket to perfect recall.

However, you can learn to maximize whatever cognitive ability you do have to forget things less frequently.

MYTH: People Only Use 10 Percent of Their Brain

“We only use 10% of our brains!”

65% of survey respondents agreed with this statement—a demonstration of how easily we can memorize something if it is short, provocative, and repeated in popular culture a gazillion times.

  • The truth is, no evidence backs up this claim. Scientists have never discovered a portion of the brain that goes completely unused for any purpose. We may not use our whole brains all the time, but neurological studies have revealed that large sections of the brain get activated during various tasks, each of them accounting for way more than 10% of the brain.

Study and technique can allow us to form new neurological pathways, but the notion that our brains are hard drives sitting at 10% capacity waiting for the other 90% to be filled is complete nonsense.

How Memorization Works

Memory is the process by which the brain acquiresstores, and recalls information. The sub-processes associated with these three stages include:

  • Encoding.

  • Storage.

  • Retrieval.

The storage of memory usually happens below our level of consciousness. This is a good thing—otherwise, everything we ever saw, learned, or experienced would be constantly screaming back at us from our conscious mind, vying for our attention in a chaotic mess.

How Memorization Works

The “Stage Model of Memory,” proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin in 1968, presents three different methods of storage:

  • Sensory Memory. This earliest stage of memory records basic facts about our surroundings, as registered by our senses, and stores them for only a few seconds. Many of them are not relevant for long-term memory. However, sensory memory can become a crucial part of an important long-term memory. Suppose someone asked you to recall what your bedroom smelled like the first thing in the morning on some random calendar day. Chances are you will have no idea. However, you may be able to recall many years later the exact aroma, temperature, and noises present in the room when you woke up on the morning of your wedding day or your first day of university.

  • Short-Term Memory. This is also known as “active memory” and contains the information relevant to the specific task at hand. Short-term memory will tend to stick around only for about 30 seconds before it is either filed in long-term memory or lost completely.

  • Long-Term Memory. Memories filed for long-term storage can stick around for your entire life, but they may either be easy or hard to recall because they exist outside of the active, conscious mind.

Attempting to “remember” something activates the retrieval process, which is far from perfect. The information may not have been stored effectively. It could be theoretically accessible, but not available on command. To make matters worse, it could have been improperly encoded, meaning the memory available for recall is inaccurate and untrustworthy.

Memory tends to organize itself into “clusters” of related information. For example, if you have ten things on your desk and one of them is an apple, thinking of the apple will tend to call to mind the other nine things on the desk.

Principles of Memorization

Long-term memory is based on five core principles:

  • Relevance. There must be a reason you want to memorize this information, a personal connection to the material. It could have practical relevance to your job or daily life; or it could have emotional relevance—a quote or passage from a text you find beautiful or meaningful, for example.

  • Clarity. You must be able to understand what you are trying to memorize. It is very hard to memorize nonsense—although, with enough relevance, you can learn how to memorize anything. For example, Reform Jewish bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs rarely understand the ancient Hebrew in their Torah portion, but they learn how to memorize it because it is relevant to their culture (or at least so they don’t look bad at the ceremony).

  • Association. Association involves the formation of “memory clusters”—forming a link between one object or concept with another, so by remembering one, you also easily remember the other. Associating something unfamiliar with something very familiar can help you remember the unfamiliar thing.

  • Visualization. Making a “mental picture” of the thing you are trying to memorize. A powerful principle for people who are visual learners.

  • Focus. The ability to dedicate your full attention to the act of memorization, without distraction.

Memory Techniques

Now that we understand memory a little better, let’s dig into some techniques you can implement today to become better at memorizing …

Link and Story Method

This simple memorization technique works because it builds associations between words, objects, and concepts, so by remembering one, you remember the other.

Linking words is easy.

Consider the hotel search engine Trivago. Their tagline is “Hotel? Trivago!” You can’t get more simple than that. But the marketing strategy is to expose potential customers to this messaging so many times that they automatically link the two words in their memory. When they think “I need a hotel room,” the link created by the ad will cause “Hotel? Trivago!” to arise from long-term memory, perhaps encouraging them to use Trivago to search for a hotel room.

Linking Memory Technique

You can build similar associations between one word or concept and other words or concepts. When you associate words, you encode them together into clusters that recall as a group.

For example, if you are tasked with ordering food for your team and your colleague Adam loves turkey sandwiches, you might repeat “Adam, Turkey. Adam, Turkey. Adam, Turkey …” over and over in your head, and so on. When it comes time to order lunch, and your brain faces the question “What should I order for Adam?” your brain is likely to return the encoded cluster of “Adam, Turkey” to your conscious memory, and you have your answer!

It is easy to link two objects. The Story technique takes this method further, particularly useful in remembering long lists of objects.

In this case, you remember associated objects by telling yourself a story about them. Stories have a natural flow and logic to them, adding the principles of visualization and clarity to the task of memory.

Story Memory Technique

For example, if your shopping list includes eggs, bananas, hot sauce, and paper towels, you might try telling yourself the following story: “Annie puts hot sauce on her eggs, but not on her bananas because that tastes bad. If she uses too much hot sauce on her eggs, she sweats and has to wipe her forehead with a paper towel.”

This simple story creates memorable images, including the absurdity of hot sauce on bananas, as well as the graphic visual of Annie wiping her forehead with a paper towel because the hot sauce on her eggs is too hot. One story … four items down on your shopping list!

Memory Palace Method

First recorded in ancient Rome, the Memory Palace technique has facilitated some astonishing feats of memorization, including rapid learning of languages, speeches, and exam study guides. It is an enormously powerful tool to master for those who want to discover how to memorize faster.

The foundational principle of the Memory Palace is our ability to vividly recall details of places we know intimately. It involves using the power of our imagination to stock familiar surroundings with items we wish to memorize, imbuing them with relevance and easy visualization.

Memory Palace Method

To practice the Memory Palace Method, follow these five steps:

  1. Pick your Palace. Choose a real location that you know like the back of your hand—your home or school, or even better, a specific room or hallway in that home or school.

  2. Consider the Distinctive Features of your Palace. Make a list, on paper or in your mind, of everything in your palace. What hangs on the walls? Where are the lights and windows? Are there cracks in the walls you tend to notice? Where is the furniture? What colors do you see?

  3. Encode the Details of your Palace in your Mind. If possible, walk through your palace. It’s a place you know well, so presumably, you have access to it! Look at each detail and repeat them out loud, as if you were describing your palace to a stranger. This will help encode the palace into your visual memory.

  4. Fill your Palace with What you Want to Memorize. Now that you have encoded your palace into your mind, fill it with the things you want to memorize. Imagine the information hung on walls, sitting on shelves, stuffed in corners. This is an imaginative process, but you can even take it a step further and make it literal—tack pictures of what you want to memorize on the walls, so you have a real visual memory of what you want to recall.

  5. Visit your Palace. When you want to recall something from your palace, visit the palace in your imagination. Recall the familiar surroundings and remember the relevant information you stocked it with, amid the familiar colors, cracks, and corners.

Chunking Technique

“Chunking” is the act of breaking down a long piece of data into manageable “chunks.”

For example, you could memorize a phone number a few digits at a time. Phone numbers are often broken down into 3-4 digit chunks just for this purpose. You could do the same thing with your bank account or routing number.

Chunking Memory Technique

If you have a long list of vocabulary words or statistics to memorize, “chunk” them into two or three terms to memorize at a time. Forget the bigger list and just learn how to memorize your chunk. By remembering part of the chunk (one word, one statistic, etc.) the rest of the chunk will be easier to access.

This works for memorizing lines and/or speeches as well. Instead, just focus on a few lines at a time, in sequence.

PRO TIP: Overlap your chunks if you need to memorize something in order, like a speech or theatrical lines. For example, include the last line of the chunk in the first line of the next chunk so one chunk flows into the next logically.

Practical Techniques

How to Remember People’s Names

When you meet someone new, the name will stick in your short-term memory fairly easily. The goal is to encode it in your long-term memory so that you associate the name with the new acquaintance’s face. Try these techniques:

  • Repeat the person’s name in conversation as many times as you can, including when you meet them (“Steve? Hi, Steve, it’s nice to meet you! Where are you from, Steve?”) and when you depart (“Steve, it was a pleasure to meet you! Bye, Steve!”). Repetition is a simple, crude way to encode information into long-term memory.

  • Spell the name out. Spellings are a form of memory cluster. Don’t just hand over your phone for the person to type their name and number into—ask them to spell it out for you so you can type it in and form the connection primarily. If you get a business card, handwrite the name to encode the person’s name in your muscle memory.

  • Associate the name with imagery. Use the Link and Story method to associate the person’s name with something similar. It could even be fanciful. For example: “Trent lives in a castle, which has a moat, which is another name for a trench.” Trent does not actually have to live in a castle for your memory to accept this encoding!

  • Associate the name with other people. Think hard about a person you know well who shares that name. Then when you see the person a second time, your name will pull the information up as a memory cluster: “Oh yes, this is Jane, the same name as my boss Jane.” If you know no one by that name, choose a celebrity or fictional character — “June, like Elisabeth Moss’ character in The Handmaid’s Tale.”

How to Remember Lists

Longer lists of details can be remembered using:

  • The Chunking Technique. Memorizing a few items at a time.

  • The Link and Story Method. Put the items on the list into a story.

  • The Memory Palace Technique. Fill your Memory Palace with the items on your list.

  • Write the List Several Times. Create muscle memory association between your hand and your mind.

  • Other Mnemonic Techniques. Make a song out of the list.

How to Memorize Telephone Numbers

Remembering telephone numbers is a lost art in some ways, since most of us store phone numbers on our phones. With the phasing out of long-distance surcharges, the numbers we need to remember have become longer and longer, including area codes and in some cases even country codes.

Still, whether as a party trick or to store the most important numbers in an unhackable and impossible-to-misplace location (your mind), you can try the following techniques to learn how to memorize phone numbers:

  • Chunk the Numbers. Start with the area code or the prefix, or even the last four digits and remember those. Learn the longer sequence of numbers a few digits at a time.

  • Look for Patterns. Notice if any of the numbers line up in a chronological sequence; if a part of the number consists of all odd or all even numbers; if two digits repeat or form a palindrome (the same forward as backward; for example, “6226”).

  • Learn the Number Actively. Say the number out loud three times, encoding it in your auditory memory and verbal muscle memory. Visualize the number on a keypad or keyboard.

How to Remember Words, Speeches, and Quotations

Remembering a long text, speech, or quote frightens many people due to the size of the task, but there are ways to make it easier. To remember long speeches, texts, or quotes, approach the task in the following ways:

  • Practice the Chunking Method. Learn the text a section at a time or even a line at a time. Forget the rest of it; just get one part right. Start the next part with the end of the last part to create one-after-the-other connections and flow.

  • Learn Actively. Read the text aloud or write it down as you memorize, encoding muscle memory, auditory memory, and visual memory.

  • Focus on Key Words. When you know the nouns, verbs, and prepositions in a phrase, the adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and articles tend to fill themselves in. Think of the keywords islands, the connecting words vehicles you use to hop from one island to the other.

How To Memorize: Final Advice

As you can see, improving your memory skills is a multi-faceted task with many new habits to build and strategies to implement.

Does it feel overwhelming? I don’t blame you. Like learning a sport or an instrument, learning how to memorize takes practice to master.

The good news is, it all starts with a first step.

Make Things Absurd and Funny

We tend to remember the funny and absurd more than the mundane. Make an outlandish joke out of the thing you hope to memorize—an awful pun, a silly limerick, even a dirty or rude joke. No one ever has to hear it but you!

Don’t Use More Ideas than Necessary

The simplest version of the concept is usually the easiest thing to remember. Don’t burden your memorization process with extra details or conditionals like “Unless …” “If …” or “On the other hand.”

Use All Your Senses

Sensory memory can be a powerful conduit to encoding your long-term-memory. Link the thing you are trying to memorize to the way the object looks, the way the words look, the way the word sounds, the way the letters sound when spelled out, a smell or taste, the air temperature or another sensation.

Build Connections Between Pieces of Information in your Mind

Use association to familiar places, friends and family names, other objects, daily tasks, silly stories … anything you can do to create a cluster of memory. That way, when you pull on one piece of the cluster, the entire memory comes along with it.

Start here:

  • Pick one category of information you want to learn how to memorize. It could be names, quotations, lists … take your pick.

  • Choose one technique to apply to memorize that one thing.

  • Apply the technique at least once a day for 30 days.

  • Add another category of information to memorize, and/or a new technique, every 30 days or when you feel you have mastered the habit. Feel free to stick to last month’s technique if it is working for you.

  • Keep a journal. Write down a record of your results so you can reflect on them. Getting it out of your head and on paper helps you process what you have learned … and remember it more thoroughly!

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