“Information can only be built onto more information.” – Kevin Horsley1

“Long-term memory capacity is virtually limitless: the more you know, the more possible connections you have for adding new knowledge.” – Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel2

We stared at a list of random words and characters halfway through the eight-mile, mud, and obstacle-filled Chicago Spartan Race Super. We were told to remember the sequence that matched the last three digits of our race numbers, and then sent on our way to climb ropes, carry logs, crawl under barbed wire, and jump over (dwindling) flames.

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It wasn’t until after we crossed the finish line that they asked us about the random info we had seen in the middle of the woods. I was ready though, and I can still remember even two weeks later. I just have to picture my friend, Adam, at a cheap hotel, surrounded by cigarettes, lottery tickets, and porn: Hotel 042-1818. Adam’s high-school football number was 42, and the other things can all be purchased once you turn 18.

It seems like a funny way to remember random information, but it actually takes advantage of how our memory works.

Memory Hooks

Our brains are made up of a vast network of interconnected cells, called neurons, and our ability to learn and remember depends on linking those cells together. “A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between neurons,” explains Joshua Foer, in Moonwalking with Einstein. “A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception—some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web.”

To create a new memory, or remember a string of random information, it’s important to connect it to as many existing ideas as possible. The existing memories act as hooks on which the new ideas get attached, and the more hooks you use, the better the memory sticks.

It’s kind of like those rubber sticky-frogs that can adhere to windows – the more of the frogs limbs that hit the window, the better the chance of the frog sticking. If only one foot sticks cleanly, the frog will likely fall off, but if you can get all four to hit the glass, it’s going to stay.

The same thing applies to memories. The more existing memories that you can link to a new idea or new information, the more likely you are to remember that new information in the future. It’s why it can be hard to remember new words when you’re just starting to learn a foreign language, but after a while it becomes easier as you have a greater vocabulary and more experiences linked to those words.

Get Creative!

While exploring the memory palace technique, Ed Cooke explained how a key to creating memories that stick is to use attention-grabbing visual images. Just like thinking about Adam at a cheap hotel surrounded by cigarettes, lottery tickets, and porn, try to make the images funny and bizarre.

As memory master Tony Buzan says, “When you train your creativity, you automatically train your memory. When you train your memory, you automatically train your creative thinking skills!”

Next time you’ve got to something to remember, try to think of a few ways you can link it to existing memories. If it’s a new word, does it have any familiar sounds in it? If it’s a number, can you associate it with a previous address, or the number of your favorite athlete, or a memory of something that happened to you at a certain age?

Have fun with it.

PS. If you were inspired by the post on getting comfortable being uncomfortable, a Spartan Race is a great way to do it! Plus, now you’ll know how to tackle the memory challenge with ease!

  1. Unlimited Memory []
  2. Make it Stick []