Cool Memory Techniques - List Memorization

Fri, Nov 4, 2005 4-minute read

This is a “life hack” I’ve been meaning to share since I designed my very first GeoCities homepage, and I figure that now’s a good time to get off of my laurels and do it.  That is, memory and memorization techniques that I’ve found helpful through time.  Not that I’ve invented them, but that I use them.

[ Apple, Pencil, Fox, Anvil ]
- a list -

One difficult recall task we are often faced with is memorizing a list of things.  Remembering a shopping list.  Retaining a “to do” list.  However, the only reason it is difficult is that you haven’t (yet!) found a way to make it concrete, and less abstract.

One of the things I was always impressed with, in my many years as a Starbucks supervisor, was how easy it was to memorize the drinks of regular customers.  Some people were bad at it – the people who didn’t really interact with the customers, or get to know them.  However, when you do take the time to learn more about your regulars, you start associating their favourite drink with them automatically.  It’s no longer an arbitrary mapping of “Fred” to “Double Tall Ristretto Vanilla Non-fat Extra Hot With Whip Latte.”  Instead, you recall making their drink as you talked about their troubles at work.  Or laughing about how the non-fat gives them permission for the whipped cream.  It’s a little story that builds up to something that you relate to almost unconsciously.  After awhile, you just start associating drinks to people, without even having drink-based stories underpinning your memory.

Now how does this relate to memorizing lists?

It relates because you use the same technique.  Turn the list from something abstract to something that you can relate to.  The secret is to link each item with the next item through a vivid and dynamic story.  With this technique, you’ll be able to memorize gigantic lists nearly effortlessly.  And as a cool parlour trick, you’ll memorize them in order – and be able to recite them both forward and backward.

Start with the first item. Paint a vivid picture of it in your mind, adding motion if possible.  Visualize all of the detail you can.  Then, incorporate the next item into your scene.  Form a strong association between the two items, again using vivid imagery and motion.  Then, drop the first item, and form a strong link between the second and third items.  Continue this pattern of associating two at a time until you reach the end of your list.

Let’s memorize the list above.

You’re standing in the produce section of Safeway, looking at the gently slanting apple trays.  You pick up an enormous apple, marveling at its deep red luster.  You turn it around in your hands, looking for any imperfections.  Your mouth waters in anticipation.  Satisfied that you’ve selected the best apple, you begin to put it away. 

Then, out of nowhere, you hear the singing zip of an arrow flying from a bow.  You feel your hand jerk, and look down in surprise.  Splashes of apple juice decorate your arms and shirt as a sharp yellow pencil settles deep into the apple.

You’re walking down a country road, marveling at the bright yellow pencil you got from school.  The smell of freshly cut grass wafts through the air.  The sound of clucking chickens draws your gaze to the right.  Hens flap wildly, as you notice a fox attempting to open their gate.  The gate is locked, so he’s not having much luck.  In desperation, the fox calls out to you, “Hey, mind if I borrow your pencil?  I’m trying to pick this lock.”

As you approach him, holding out your pencil, and anvil drops from the sky, smiting the fox for his evil ways.

I’ll bet you already have the list memorized.  And I bet you’ll still remember it next week.