US Memory Champions Share Expert Techniques For Remembering Anything

At some point, we’ve all forgotten where we’ve left our car keys, the name of a new acquaintance, or that last, crucial item from the grocery store. Luckily, there’s a way to solve that.

We spoke to USA Memory Championship Winners Nelson Dellis and Ron White to learn their best techniques for remembering anything.

First, here’s their basic two-part memorization technique:

1. Turn the information into a mental picture. It’s much easier to memorize visual images than abstract information such as names and numbers. Think of a picture that you can associate with the information you want to memorize, and incorporate movement and feeling into it. “Actions and emotions that are shocking will help your memory, because they remain more vivid in your brain,” explains White.

The sillier the image, the more it sticks out in your memory. “You also want to make those images a little more colourful,” says Dellis.

2. Attach your pictures to a location. “When you save a document in a computer, you have to save it to a folder so you can go back and find it,” explains Dellis. “It’s the same thing with the brain — you have to attach your picture to something so you know where to look for it later.”

This ancient technique is called the memory palace. Think of a place that you know by heart, such as your house or your office. Set a specific starting point and create a path to walk through the location in your mind.

Mentally travel down the path, and place the pictures of what you want to remember in your surroundings as you walk. “When you’re done, and you want to recall what you memorized, go back to the place, walk through it, and all those images are waiting for you,” says Dellis.

Here’s how to apply this technique to everyday situations:

How to remember numbers

Since numbers are symbols, you need to give them meaning by turning them into pictures. If you’re a sports aficionado, you can picture Michael Jordan when you see the number 23. If you run for an hour and 45 minutes every day, you can visualise yourself running every time you see the number 145.

Regardless of what you associate your numbers with, make sure the images are vivid. For example, don’t simply imagine a swan because it looks like the number 2. “Make your image a monster-sized swan with demon eyes wreaking havoc on all the people trying to throw bread crumbs on the side of the pond,” says Dellis.

White held the record for memorizing a 167-digit number in five minutes. These are the pictures that he associated with each number:

1 is a pencil, 2 is a sink with two knobs, 3 is a three-ring circus, 4 is a car with four wheels, 5 is a star with five points, 6 is a bullet because there are six bullets in a gun, 7 is dice because opposite sides of dice always equal seven, 8 is a snowman, and 9 is a baseball because there are nine players and nine teams.

How to memorize a speech

“You don’t want to know a speech word for word,” says Dellis. Instead, memorize key topics or points that you want to say, and improvise around them as you deliver your speech.

To memorize the key points, use the memory palace. Let’s say you want to use your house. Visualize the main ideas of your speech as the furniture of each room.

White gives an example: If your first point is about time management, visualise the clock hanging in your living room. If your next point is about teamwork, imagine your favourite team playing a game on your couch. Move through your house in your mind until you’ve covered all of your points.

How to memorize poetry

Break up each line into chunks, and then come up with an idea or picture for the main words. Obviously, there are a lot of filler words, such as and/or/if/the, but don’t pay attention to them the first time through. Just memorize the concepts, and put them in the memory palace.

Once you get that down, go back and add the little flourishes and filler words to the bigger picture that you already created. “I have a lot of images preset for some words,” says Dellis. For instance, he pictures “and” as a circle and “or” as a square, but says “that’s all added afterwards.” Do a couple of iterations through the poem, adding more detail each time.

How to remember where you parked your car

If you parked on the fifth floor of your building, stop and pay attention to your surroundings. Look for notable things around you. “I’ll imagine something for the number 5. It looks like a snake standing up, curved,” says Dellis.

The snake should interact with the location in order to keep the image vivid in your mind. “I’ll imagine the car is just filled with snakes — that I open the door and they just come tumbling out, hissing or trying to bite me,” says Dellis. “The next morning, I’ll definitely remember the fifth floor.”

How to remember where you left your car keys

The primary reason we forget where we put them is because we’re not paying attention. “Imagine your keys are a bomb, and every time you set them down they explode,” says White. “When you throw your keys on the couch, imagine you exploded your couch.” This image will snap you right out of autopilot mode, and you’ll never carelessly throw your keys down again.

How to remember names and faces

“If you want to remember a name you have to visualise a name,” says White. If you meet a girl named Lisa, visualise the Mona Lisa. If you meet a guy named Matt, visualise a doormat. Every Steve should give you the picture of a stove.

You should have a predetermined picture of most people’s names. “It takes you a couple months to build up this encyclopedia of pictures for your names, but once you’ve done the work, you use the same picture for the rest of your life,” says White.

To make your memory better, look for distinctive features on their faces. “If Steve has a big nose, imagine his nose on a stove. If Lisa has pretty eyes, imagine the Mona Lisa with her eyes,” says White.

How to remember vocabulary words and their meanings

Vocabulary words are all about visualisation. Take the definition and the word, create pictures for both, and put them in the same story.

Let’s say you want to memorize the word “neophyte,” which means beginner. Create a picture for it. “Imagine amateur boxers fighting with their knees — two neophytes in a knee fight,” says White.

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