A mnemonist is a person who specializes, whether professionally or otherwise, in the art of memorization. Some people such as world renowned Harry Lorayne and Dominic O’brien are so good at memorizing things that they take their skill to the stage, performing mind-boggling shows of seemingly impossible feats of memorization. While this display of super-memory may seem daunting, if not impossible for the average person, but the truth is that with sufficient practice and proper technique, this super-memory could be achieved by almost anyone.
Most mnemonic techniques rely heavily on the creative power of the mnemonist, and a good mnemonist is able to create images and associations instantaneously (Dominic O’brien for instance can memorize a pack of playing cards in less than a minute). Professional mnemonists typically agree that memory works something like this: we remember what we are interested in, what is bizarre, and things which have logical order; we then associate these things to other familiar objects or experiences.
This is the basis of mnemonics. You take what you want to memorize, turn it into something bizarre (thus it becomes interesting and usually funny), and associate it with something familiar. Or, if you have to memorize a list of things, you simply arrange scenes of associations into a fun little story; the story provides logical order for easy recall.
I don’t claim to have as prodigious a memory as O’brien or Lorayne, but after reading a lot of material on the subject of mnemonics, I feel confident that my memory has improved, and I want to share a little technique that can be very fun and also extremely useful.
Dominic O’brien suggests using a technique called the journey method. This is one of my favorite methods of memorization simply because it provides a nice logical order. The example I’m about to show you uses only five steps; you could make as many steps as you want of course.
First, take a look at this short grocery list
Now let’s suppose you want to memorize this list. Most people would be able to remember those few things, but if there were ten more items the average person would forget around half of the list. With the journey method of memory you can memorize a list as long as you want. Here’s how.
To begin with you will need to think of a route or journey that you want to take. In his bestselling book How to Develop a Perfect Memory, Dominic O’brien uses his house for one of the journeys; this is easy so we’ll do it also.
First, you need to get a clear image of the journey you are going to take. We only have a five item list so we will only need to work with five rooms of our house. You can always add rooms for longer lists. The hallway, foyer, and so forth may also count as rooms.
The five rooms of our simple journey will be the kitchen, the living room, the hallway, the bedroom, and the master bathroom. In order to remember the list we have to make mental images of the list items and associate them to our familiar house locations. The more extreme and bizarre the images, the better they will be remembered.
To start, get a clear impression of your kitchen. See the sink, the stove, the counter, and the fridge. Now we want to link our location with the first item on our list: eggs. You have to make the scene as strange as possible. When I think of eggs the first thought that comes to my mind is Humpty Dumpty. I get a pretty clear image of him just sitting there right next to the sink. Humpty is a clumsy little guy, and my sink has a garbage disposal. I imagine Humpty falling into the sink and being sucked into the garbage disposal. I can hear the cracking of eggshells and the smell of rotten eggs hits my nostrils. This may sound graphic, but I imagined it this way for two reasons. First, it’s utterly ridiculous, and second, I personally think it’s hilarious. I know I won’t forget it. The scene may be different for you; whatever you imagine, make it extravagant. Also, try to incorporate as many senses as possible, like taste, feel, and smell.
If you were at my house standing in the kitchen and you decided to go explore the rest of the house, you would be forced to walk through my living room. Whatever journey you imagine, make sure it has logical order like this; don’t step into the closet and end up on the back porch (or Narnia for that matter).
Next, imagine yourself entering the living room. You want to connect this with your next item on the list, which happens to be the milk. I’m thinking of cows right now. I imagine a group of cows hanging out on my couch and chair; suddenly they realize that the furniture is made of leather! And they freak out, screaming and shouting.
Isn’t this fun?
As I walk down the hall I notice that the walls contain lighted displays of all sorts of breads and pastries, just like at the grocery store. It smells delicious. I keep walking and enter the bedroom.
I try to open the door, but something seems to be holding the door back. When I finally get it open, I realize that there is lettuce everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Balls of lettuce are on the floor, knee deep. They are rolling off of the shelves. I have to get to the bathroom, so I trudge through the mess, lettuce crunching under my feet.
I enter the bathroom and see a strange sight. My bathtub is literally filled with pasta and red sauce. The rug in front of the bathtub now looks like shag carpet-oh wait, that’s spaghetti.
This sounds strange, but I bet you won’t forget the list. Try it on your own. Make up whatever route you wish, with as many steps as you choose. You can actually make multiple routes and give them a logical order. For instance, you could memorize a list of one hundred words very easily if you had five routes with twenty stages each. Be as creative as you can. Be as crazy as you can. If you forget an item on the list, chances are it’s because the image you made wasn’t strange or creative enough. Practice frequently and your mind will get very good at rapidly creating fun images you won’t soon forget. Just remember that each time you create a new list, you need to clear the old one. At the beginning of the process imagine all of your rooms normally without any people or fantasy characters in them.
That’s it. Practice it and have fun!