The Principles of Memory

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Whenever we have to remember something, our first instinct is often to reach for our phone. Using our phone we can write a note, set a reminder, or put something on to our calendar. And, ultimately, there’s almost no reason to use our own brain to remember stuff.

But, this over-reliance on technology means we’re missing out on a ton of benefits that come with memorisation. Memorisation helps with learning, it helps with building our focus, and there’s even some research to suggest it helps with boosting longevity.

So, I was interested in finding out how I can go back to remembering the old-school way – with my head.

Eventually I found 10 awesome techniques to improve my memory, which I want to share with you now:

Interest 😁

In order to remember something properly we must be interested in it. Just think about all those times we’ve been sat in class and we’ve completely tuned out because nothing resonates with us. And then afterwards we can’t remember a single thing the teacher/lecturer said.

The point is, we have to have a reason to remember something.

For example, if we get to decide what subjects to learn, choose those subjects that best align with the career you want to have or will bring you the greatest amount of enjoyment. Don’t just try to learn/remember something because you feel like you have to.

Intent 🤓

A key factor in remembering more is having a positive attitude and telling ourselves that we’re going to remember the thing we’re learning.

The best way to build our intent to remember is to take notes. If we’re taking notes while we learn, we’re actively consuming that information and telling our brain that this stuff is worth remembering.

The other option is to gradually build an intention to remember by using a concentration checklist. The idea behind the concentration checklist is to check in with ourselves every 15 minutes and see if we’re still focused on the task at hand. To begin with, we’ll find that our mind wanders a lot. The intention to remember won’t really be there. But, over time, we program our mind to concentrate and avoid all distraction things we’ve go around us.

Basic Background 📖

Our ability to remember something depends, to a great degree, on how much we already know about the subject. If our knowledge of a subject is limited, we’re unlikely to remember more about it before we’ve build a solid foundation first. If we begin by increasing the basic background of knowledge, we’ll find it much easier to build and memorise new knowledge.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Albert Einstein

Selectivity ✍️

We can’t remember everything. Our brains have a limited capacity so we’ve got to be wise about the things we choose to internalise.

In other words, we have to be selective and only memorise the key/important details.

For example, if we’re studying for an exam, it doesn’t actually make much sense trying to learn everything. By looking at past papers, we’re often able to spot patterns and can make a pretty good decision about what the best topics would be to learn. Put another way, we’re being selective about our learning and what we eventually need to remember. This is much easier than learning 100% of the course.

Mnemonics 🏡

Mnemonics are a great way for us to remember a list of items, by using all our senses and our brain’s love of patterns. They’re great at turning pretty boring and abstract information into something fun and engaging, which helps us to remember the thing more easily.

Here are 3 different mnemonics you need to try out:

  1. Architectural mnemonics: this is also known as building a ‘Mind Palace’ where we create a building in our head (like a house, or a mansion, or a castle) and recollect information as we mentally walk through the building. For example, if we wanted to remember a deck of cards, and the first card was the Ace of Hearts, we could visualise ourselves in the kitchen with a gummy heart burning on a red hot stove. Then if the next card is the Jack of Clubs, we could imagine our friend Jack looking at the gummy heart, picking it up, and hitting it with his golf club.
  2. Physical mnemonics: this involves using our own physical features to remember information. Perhaps the most famous physical mnemonic is where we use our knuckles to remember how many days are in each month of the year: each knuckle represents 31 days and each groove represents 30 days (except February).
  3. Textual mnemonics: when we think about mnemonics, we often think about textual mnemonics. For example, we can remember the order of operations in mathematics by using BODMAS, which stands for Brackets, Order, Division, Multiplication, Addition, and Subtraction. The other way of doing this is to use actual words to remember something e.g. we can remember the order of the planets in our solar system using a fun sentence like ‘My Very Easy Method Just Summed Up Nine Planets’ (although, I think there’s only officially 8 planets now haha). So if we can find a way to condense some boring piece of information into an acronym, it can supercharge our ability to remember it.

Recitation 🙊

Whenever you’ve finished learning something, one powerful technique to remember that information is to recite what you just learnt in your own words. This is great because the process of reciting information forces us to recognise our weak points – if we’re struggling to explain something then we clearly need to go back to that area and learn it a bit better.

As a result, because we’re never trying to remember what we already know, we’re building out our web of knowledge. This, in turn, makes it easier to remember new information through association (see below).

Mental Visualisation 👀

This is another pretty powerful way to remember information. The idea here is that if we can build a better mental picture of the information, we’re utilising a completely different part of the brain.

Most of rely on the left side of our brain when we try to remember stuff, as that’s where words/text is processed. So if we can incorporate the right-side of our brain too (where visual stuff and emotions are processed), we’re giving ourselves the best shot at remembering.

For example, we can remember that a Bactrian camel has 2 humps, because Bactrian starts with the letter B (this looks like 2 little humps). Similarly, we can remember that a Dromedary camel has 1 hump, because Dromedary starts with the letter D (which looks like 1 hump).

Association 🧩

Our memory is strengthened when new facts are associated with information that’s already familiar to us. So whenever we’re trying to remember something it’s a good idea to try and mentally locate the knowledge that we’ve already got that this new information builds upon.

The way I like to think of this is like doing a puzzle. When we place a puzzle piece in the middle of the board there’s no other piece that links to it (i.e. there’s no context), which makes it difficult to complete the puzzle. But, when you connect a puzzle piece to some part we’ve already done (like the edge) it makes it so much easier. And it increases our understanding of the overall picture we’re trying to create.

So, if we want to learn something like calculus, don’t just jump from addition/multiplication and go straight to the hard stuff. We won’t remember anything that way. Instead, take all the small steps in between and really internalise how each piece of the mathematical puzzle joins together.

Consolidation 📒

Our brain really struggles to remember large blocks of text. So if we want to get better at memorising, we have to consolidate the information. This involves bringing everything you want to learn into one place, structure it logically, and summarise that information to the bare essentials.

For instance, if I’m learning from a textbook I’ll usually take notes in the margin of the main points I want to remember, summarise each chapter, and condense the rest of the useful knowledge into questions that I can test myself on later.

Distributed Practice 👽

The final way we can improve our memory is re-visiting the information we want to remember at regular intervals.

So instead of trying to remember everything in one study block and then completely forgetting about it, it’s far better to spread out our learning of the topic over a number of different study sessions. This is known as distributed practice.

I’ve talked about this in a previous video, but the whole idea is that when we re-visit the same information at regular intervals we better encode that information into our long-term memory. And, I suppose, that’s the ultimate goal when it comes to getting better at remembering.

If you want some more tips about how to improve your memory and become a more intentional learner, then make sure you subscribe to my newsletter below.