How to Develop a Photographic Memory in 4 Easy Steps

Could you memorize the order of a deck of cards in less than 30 seconds?

(Hat tip to Josh.)

Don’t feel bad; I don’t remember what I ate yesterday at noon. In fact, a third of Brits under 30 don’t even remember their home phone number.

According to a 2007 survey by a neuropsychologist at Trinity College Dublin, a third of Britons under the age of 30 cannot even remember their own landline number without picking it up on their handset. The same survey found that 30 percent of adults cannot remember the birthdays of more than three immediate family members. [Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:]

The point is, while some people are blessed with naturally impressive memories, true memory experts are made, not born. How to significantly improve your memory? Come on, we’re gonna build a palace.

The memory palace

The idea dates back to the fifth century BC and was first synthesized in the Rhetorica ad Herennium. So what does a palate have to do with remembering your shopping list? Your memory is not just a hard drive that stores everything as well. He is particularly good at some things and terrible in others.

Work with it, you will be impressed. Work against that and you’ll wander the supermarket aisles for that one thing that’s on the tip of your tongue …

Our ancestors didn’t need to remember long lists, they needed to remember routes to resources. Memory champion Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, wrote a song for the New York Times explaining:

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not need to remember phone numbers or verbatim instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement or American History program (because they lived in relatively small and stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they had to remember was where to find food and resources and the way back and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. These are the types of vital memory abilities they depended on, which is probably why we are relatively good at remembering both visually and spatially. [The New York Times]

While we have trouble remembering lists of random numbers, the human mind is naturally great at remembering places. What memory experts do is work with the brain’s natural configuration to transform hard-to-remember things and fit them into an easy-to-remember format:

The interest of the memory techniques described in Rhetorica ad Herenniu is to take the types of memories our brains aren’t so good at hanging on and turn them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. [The New York Times]

So what do you need to know about the basics of memory for cooking?

  • We are really good at memorizing layouts, routes and spatial information.
  • We remember the things that stand out; absurd, funny, sexual or offensive things.

Here’s how you combine those principles to remember anything:

1) Build your palace

He doesn’t have to be very regal. Basically it can be any building that you know the layout of. A good starting palace is your childhood home.

2) Build the images

The things you want to remember (like the items on a grocery list) should each have a picture associated with them that you won’t forget. What kind of images do we remember? Extreme things that stand out. Go for crazy, obscene or funny.

The Ad Herennium advises readers at length on creating images for her memory palate: the funnier, obscene and bizarre the better. “When we see trivial, ordinary and mundane things in everyday life, we usually don’t remember them, because the mind is not stirred by anything new or wonderful… Evolution has programmed our brains. to find two things that are particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex – and most importantly, it seems, jokes about sex. [Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything]

3) Place the images in the palace

So how do you remember your shopping list? Think about how you would normally walk around your childhood home, and “place” the memorable pictures in the order you need to remember them along this route.

So, for example:

  • You enter through the front door and there is a burning cow (symbolizing the burgers you have to buy at the store).
  • You go up the stairs but they are slippery from the dripping blood of the flaming cow (you also have to buy ketchup.)
  • At the end of the upstairs hallway is a huge human ass (you have to buy hamburger buns.)

Did hearing any of these pictures make you say “disgusting” or “disgusting”? WELL. It means they are working.

4) Go for a walk to remember

Time to remember? Just walk around your palace, visiting every crazy picture. You can use this system for most memory activities. Cicero used it for speeches, connecting the dots he wanted to make as items in his palace.

Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, using memoria rerum. In his Of Oratore, he suggests that a speaker giving a speech should make one picture for each main topic he wants to cover, and place each of those pictures in a location. Indeed, the word “subject” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a holdover from the art of memory.) [Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything]

Yes, your mind is going to be full of dinosaurs, naked people, and a level of absurdity that would make Salvador Dali cringe. Who knew developing your memory could be so fun?

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Michael E. Marquez