Learn Luke this Advent: Start Here!

This Advent, learn the Christmas Story! Luke 2:1-20. One verse a day. This slideshow explains how to learn these verses easily.

Download slideshow as PDF.

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Every day during Advent, you get:

  • Today’s new verse

  • The verses you’ve learned so far

  • At the beginning, you’ll also get a short memory lesson

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Tell Your Friends!

I bet you know at least 3 people who might love to do this for Advent. Spread the love! Tell them now! You’ve already thought of them as you finish this paragraph!

Stuck for words? Cut and paste:


This Advent, I’m learning the Christmas story from Luke. One verse a day, the easy way. Like “Books by Heart” to get your daily verse right here on Facebook. Plus, links to free, short memory lessons that make remembering easy.


This #Advent, learning #Luke by heart. Follow @booksbyheart for daily verse, free memory lesson. http://LearnLukeThisAdvent.com 


This Advent, I’m learning the Christmas story from Luke. One verse a day, the easy way. Get your daily verse, plus links to free, short memory lessons, via Facebook, Twitter, email, or RSS. Check it out: http://LearnLukeThisAdvent.com

Prefer Paper?

These free updates will give you everything you need to learn Luke this Advent. But if you or someone you love prefers paper, check out my book, Christmas by Heart.

Don’t Forget to Tell Your Friends!

Seriously, it’ll just take a minute. They might not even have thought about what they’re doing for Advent yet. And learning with someone is much more satisfying.

Professional Biblical Storyteller Dennis Dewey Shares His Secrets

Dennis Dewey, biblical storyteller, explains in full how he learns entire books of the Bible by heart.

Dennis Dewey has been learning and telling huge chunks of the Bible for decades. How has he learned entire books of the Bible, plus large parts of many more?

Now you can find out. He explains his entire method in an excellent, lengthy article.

Read the full article: “Tools for Telling the Stories of Scripture by Heart” (PDF)

Learning From Storytellers

As you read, you’ll find that his approach has much in common with the methods I share in my book, Christmas by Heart. Over the years, I’ve discovered some of these methods from other sources, but I’ve also picked up many useful tips from the Network of Biblical Storytellers, to which Dewey belongs.

These storytellers are some of the few people I know who are learning long texts by heart in English.

The difference, though, is that Dewey and other storytellers have an ultimate focus on performance, on sharing this story with an audience.

This is exciting, and soon I hope to tell biblical stories myself. But most people would be quite happy just learning these stories. And it turns out that simply learning the texts is much easier and simpler than also preparing them for performance.

Still, storytellers have plenty to teach us. You won’t need do the steps related to storytelling … but you may find yourself trying more of these steps than you think.

Summary of Dewey’s Method for Learning Scripture Stories by Heart

Here’s a quick summary of his main steps. But you should read the full article.

  • Pray. The entire process becomes a prayer.

  • Read the text out loud. Read an entire chapter or episode at a time.

  • See what is already there. Close your eyes and think about the gist and structure of the story. What do you remember without effort?

  • Write out the story, breaking it into a “script”. This is very similar to my use of Bible rhythms, but read how he does it to see the important differences.

  • Synaesthesia: Stanislavsky Meets St. Ignatius. Dewey describes how he enters more deeply into the text.

  • Imagine the Storytelling Space. Here Dewey mentions Simonides, the famous Greek inventor of the “loci method” of memory palaces. However, Dewey does not stock an imaginary room full of mnemonics. Not exactly.

    Instead, he places himself in the “space” of the story. When Jesus is tempted in the desert for forty days, Dewey sees Satan on the left, and a calendar with “40 days” on the right. Then the wild beasts come, replaced by the comforting angels.

    It’s an interesting hybrid of traditional memory palaces and simply imagining a story.

  • Move with the story. Here we definitely get into storytelling technique. A storyteller needs to move! And yet, these movements could also make solitary learning much easier (and more alive).

  • Review. Even with all these techniques, Dewey still calls repetition “indispensable”.

In the rest of the article, Dewey shares more about how different biblical storytelling is from the usual, dry “reading”. He also compares biblical storytelling to jazz (you’ll have to read why yourself).

Finally, he suggests practicing to people, not your wall. Good advice, even for solitary learners. I’ve said my stories for my kids countless times.

Differences in My Approach

How does my approach in Christmas by Heart differ from Dewey’s approach? The biggest differences would be:

  • My use of Bible rhythms, although Dewey takes a very similar approach in breaking up the text.

  • My emphasis on seeing the verse clearly and learning it perfectly. I discovered a radical improvement in my ability to learn verses when I deliberately trained my visual and aural attention.

  • This training is slow, using a “cumulative method”. You begin by learning only one verse per day — because you’re also learning how to learn. As you improve, you can learn more verses per day.

  • This means that, at least at the beginning, I only build the entire story slowly, day by day. Dewey begins with the entire story at once, starting with the gist, and gradually clarifying it as he learns the entire piece.

  • For longer texts, I might make a simple “memory palace” to help me keep the stories in order. For instance, John chapter 2 would have only two prompts: one for the wedding feast at Cana, and one for the cleansing of the Temple. These are the main stories in that chapter.

    However, you might not always need a palace. I’d be curious to hear more about how Dewey avoids getting lost in a long book.

  • Finally, I think you need a definite review schedule to keep these stories renewed and fresh. For your first few stories, marking the calendar should be fine. With longer texts, you might need to use spaced repetition for the various chapters or episodes.

Now read his article for yourself, and see what you think!

Memorizing a Book Opens a New World of Detail

Learning a text by heart is like walking through a neighborhood where you've always driven. You see a new world.

Have you ever walked down a street that you’ve always driven? It barely feels like the same place. The usual blur transforms into a detailed world of buildings, trees, faces, flowers.

Memorizing a book feels the same way. The usual blur becomes an intricate world. For the first time, you notice the individual phrases, moments, even words.

Discover the Details of God’s Christmas Invasion

In my new book, Christmas By Heart, I show how you can easily memorize the Christmas stories from Matthew and Luke, throughout the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

Now if there’s any part of the Bible that most of us feel vaguely familiar with, it’s the Christmas stories. We’ve heard them before. Linus even recites a healthy chunk of Luke in the venerable Charlie Brown Christmas.

And yet, our yearly visits to these stories may have been more like a rushed commute. We may still have plenty to discover.

For instance, take this verse:

And behold an angel of the Lord
    stood by them,
and the brightness of God
    shone round about them;
and they feared
    with a great fear.

Sure, the angel appears to the shepherds. Yawn.

But if you memorize this verse, you’ll have to slow down and repeat, “and the brightness of God shone round about them.”

The brightness of God.

Maybe I’ve seen too many alien movies. But the brightness of God sounds much more intense than the usual artistic depiction of an angelic teenager in a white robe with a slight glow. You’ll get closer pulling a scene from Lord of the Rings or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not much closer, but they’re far more true than the Friendly Ghost tableau.

The details change everything. As I say these details, I slowly chip away at my thick mental crust of old boredom and mistakes. I notice things I would never have seen on a normal, quick read.

Learning to memorize is ultimately about learning to see and hear clearly. Memorizing slows us down enough to see what’s really there. And with a good text, the real thing turns out to be so much better than we vaguely assumed. Try it. You’ll see.

GoTell.org: A Biblical Storyteller Treasure Trove

See (and hear) the New Testament broken up into individual stories.

Memorizing an entire text, like a book of the Bible, is a big deal. For me, a few key insights have made this feat possible.

One is finding the rhythms in the text. Another is finding the stories in the text.

Stories are a much more natural division than the chapters. Stories are short, chapters are long. Stories are meaningful, while chapters are often fairly arbitrary chunks. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. We have a deep, almost biological hunger for stories.

Result: stories are much easier to remember than either chapters or individual verses.

Who got me seeing the Bible as stories? The Network of Biblical Storytellers, of course. This international group of scholars, ministers, and performers have ditched the “reverential monotone” — they want to tell the Bible as actual, living stories.

And on their sister website, GoTell.org, they have divided most of the Gospels into individual stories.

For most of the stories, you can listen to a storyteller’s rendition.

You can also read the “Story in Episodes”, where they break up the text out of paragraphs into a more natural, spoken pattern. These patterns are very similar to how I’ve broken up the text in my new book, Christmas by Heart.

The difference is that they seem to take more of a “free verse” approach, with longer lines and bigger chunks. I focus more on rhythm, on trying to find that actual back-and-forth movement in the lines.

But both are quite different from the usual “Bible as interminable column” approach. Clearly, if you want to remember the Bible, you need to break it up into natural chunks!

You might also enjoy some of their articles in the “Scripture by Heart” section. They have memory tips, and also discussions of why it’s worthwhile to learn these stories by heart.

I’m looking forward to getting to know these people better. They’ve devoted plenty of time and energy into memory work — some members have learned entire books of the Bible.

But they’ve avoided the trap of focusing on the memory work itself. They learn these texts so that they can tell them as stories, perform them, and make them live. They don’t just memorize, they memorize so that they can create.

Does Reading Too Fast Make You Forget? (Part 2)

Halleck presents his solution: how to read novels without frying your brain.

In part 1, we heard our friend Reuben Halleck blast the “rapid devouring of novels” as “fatal to thought”. (This was 1895, remember.) Now, in part 2, we hear his solution.

How do you read novels without frying your brain? Choose your own adventure.

Why is this relevant? Well, I don’t know about you, but when I try to remember the last few novels I read … yeah. Let’s see what he proposes.

Solution: Choose Your Own Ending(s)

How Fiction May Serve to Cultivate Thought — Since fiction is certain to be widely read, it is important to know how it may be made to cultivate the thinking powers. If persons would read a novel with the same care as a history, as much mental discipline might result.

Every move of the character in fiction ought to be compared with actions in real life.

Would real persons develop new emotions and change old ones as quickly and for the same reasons as those on the printed page? …

Whoa. That’s intense.

Thought consists essentially in comparing, in noting likenesses and differences; and it cannot be repeated too often that all mental exercise of this sort tends to cultivate thought in the only true way.

Again, after finishing one chapter, the reader ought to endeavor to forecast the following chapter. When the hero and heroine are plunged into difficulties, or the action seems in general to be taking the wrong course, the reader should lay down his book and ask himself how he would set things right, how he would avoid a certain catastrophe. By so doing, he will develop the power of constructive thought.

He will also shatter the spell and grind to a halt. Won’t he?

Or could we learn to enjoy this kind of creativity?

This practice would serve him in good stead in the actual difficulties of his own life. He would think his way out of trouble quicker….

It would be considerable trouble to read a novel in the way indicated, to forecast each chapter, and to devise as many ways as possible of unraveling the plot…

Yes. Yes it would.

… but the results would be worth the trouble. It is always more work to mine gold than coal….

The novels of Scott, Dickens, Reade, Collins, are, many of them, no less remarkable for their insight into human nature than for the ingenuity of their plots. In these they are immeasurably superior to the majority of later writers. These older authors will furnish plenty of material for the exercise of constructive thought.

Again, “later” here means circa 1895. Ironically, one such later writer, E. M. Forster, would inveigh against Scott in Aspects of the Novel precisely for Scott’s lack of insight into human nature, and his obsession with mere plotting.

You might think Halleck is missing the entire point of novels. We don’t read novels to think in the first place! But novelists themselves might disagree (again, Forster springs to mind).

Taking a “Choose Your Own Adventure” break every chapter sounds rather extreme. But hearing extreme solutions can be helpful. They can open up interesting vistas of more humane solutions.

I, at least, have often been at the other extreme, where I’m reading so fast that I barely visualize any of the characters, or experience the scenes. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster articulates this mere “hunger” for plot twists — and castigates it just as severely as Halleck.

If you eat too fast, you can’t digest. But if you really eat too fast, you can’t even taste it.

People talk about slow food. What about slow reading? Forget about the stern injunctions to ceaseless self-improvement. What if reading more slowly would simply mean more enyjoment?

I’m just glad Halleck wasn’t around for Netflix. Or speed reading. Or … blogs.

(A selection from: Psychology and Psychic Culture
Reuben Post Halleck, M.A., 1895
Some headers, paragraph breaks, and emphasis added.
Available at archive.org)

Does Reading Too Fast Make You Forget? (Part 1)

Trying to read faster? You might be forgetting more.

I’m on a mission to figure out how to remember what I read. Could one problem be that I read too much? Too fast?

In part 1 of this week’s “Saturday Selection”, author Reuben Post Halleck inveighs against the “rapid devouring of novels” as “fatal to thought”.

I’ll stand back while you gag.

Done? It’s amazing how a 19th century dude can alienate you from beyond the grave in a mere seven words.

But hear him out. He’s not hating on fiction. The problem is rapid reading — whether it’s novels, newspapers, or medical journals. “Information overload” isn’t a new problem.

Halleck has a unique solution, at least for novel readers. I’m not sure what I think of it … but the answer probably does lie in this direction. I’ll let him explain.

Mental Digestion Takes Time

Effect of Novel Reading on Thought — For proper nutrition, it is necessary that food should remain a certain length of time in the stomach. Digestion, mental or physical, takes time.

Ideas must be kept in the mind until their relations to other ideas can be thought out. No mental nutriment can be received from them if they pass through the mind at a galloping pace.

In our study of memory, we saw that rapidly skimming over a subject to pass an examination brought no permanent results, because things did not stay long enough before the mind for it to connect them to other things by their relations. Acquisitions of this sort speedily pass out of the mind.

The rapid devouring of novels is fatal to thought. No idea is allowed to linger; the mind rushes on from one exciting scene to another in as quick succession as possible, ever calling for more excitement.

One novel is finished and another begun. No time is left for perfect digestion.

Libraries: The Villains!

The circulation of many general libraries averages eighty per cent of fiction. They deserve to be known as aiders and abettors in killing thought.

When’s the last time you heard someone take a pot shot at libraries?

The minds of inveterate novel readers are apt soon to become so unsuited to severe thought, that they regard it with as much aversion as a rheumatic person does a foot race.

This from 1895. Today, finishing an entire novel is an intellectual achievement. In some circles, it’s an act of minor heroism.

But just swap in “inveterate tweeters” or “inveterate Facebook addicts,” and we’ll bring this diatribe up-to-date.

I’d love to brush Halleck off. But deep in my gut, I know that I, at least, have read way too many novels, books, and articles way too fast.

The hard question: why? When I read so fast, am I really looking for growth? Or only distraction?

Next time: Halleck’s solution.

(A selection from: Psychology and Psychic Culture
Reuben Post Halleck, M.A., 1895
Some headers, paragraph breaks, and emphasis added.
Available at archive.org)

Advent + Daily Bible Verse + Memory Review = A Real Season

What are you doing for Advent? Here's a new option: get a new skill, try a new prayer, and stay mindful of the season -- all at once.

If you don’t renew your memories, you lose them. I’ve often had trouble making time for reviews, because I’ve seen them as gruntwork, not opportunities for thinking. But now I’ve found a new approach — make reviews part of a season. Like Advent.

Advent starts in a couple weeks. If you celebrate Advent, and you’re also interested in memorizing parts of the Bible, why not combine these two projects?

This combination is one of the best parts of my new book, Christmas by Heart. Advent needs a habit, and memorizing needs to be treated as a habit. The two needs snap together. The two desires strengthen each other. Perfect.

Advent is New Habit Time

Memorizing the Bible, or any text, is all about starting a new habit. You need to do a little every day. Every day, you learn one new verse, and you renew the verses you’ve already learned.

Starting a habit is never easy. But when Advent rolls around, we’re already geared up to do something new. We’ve got a big, wide “habit” slot, ready to be filled.

Learning the Bible is a perfect fit. Especially when you learn the Christmas stories from Matthew and Luke.

Daily Review Helps You Celebrate Advent

The synergy gets even better. Learning the Christmas stories during Advent isn’t some good but unrelated new habit, like doing push-ups or cutting back on chocolate. The whole point of Advent is to prepare for Christmas. And every time you review or learn one of these verses, what are you doing? Thinking about Christmas.

The “gruntwork” of review transforms into built-in time to stay mindful.

We’re already searching for a way to stay mindful during Advent, some gravity-defying force that will float us over the usual abyss of Holiday Insanity. Or at least hoist us up periodically for fresh air.

So now we have a new reason to review. We’re keeping the season! The ancient words create a small room of mental peace, a warm cave in the blizzard of holiday obligations.

Which shows the point of memorizing anything in the first place: so you can think about it. We may start out learning the verses to help ourselves stay in the season. But the season itself may also help us remember why we’d want to learn them at all.

I love it when things work together.

And learning verses can be much easier than you think. Read my free opening chapters to get started.

Jesus Used Rhythm and Rhyme: The “Our Father” in Syriac

Listen to the rhythms of the "Our Father" in the language of Jesus.

The Bible has rhythm. Find this rhythm, and you can learn the verses much more easily.

But I’d go further. With rhythm, you can learn these words closer to the way they were meant to be heard.

I’ve found a stunning example of these Bible rhythms: a recording of the “Our Father” in Syriac.

Not only do the lines have rhythm. Some of the lines seem to rhyme.

Now, I don’t speak Syriac (I’m still struggling to learn Spanish). I do know that text of this recording isn’t the exact words that Jesus would have used. And the pronunciation is modern. And it’s sung. (Although we don’t know that Jesus didn’t sing.)

But still, it’s much closer to the original than, say, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

When I listen to this, I feel like I’m there, hearing it for the first time. Jesus had a voice, a particular voice. He spoke with particular words, and they sounded very much like these.

See what you think.

My New Book: Christmas by Heart

This Advent, you can learn the Christmas stories from Matthew and Luke by heart.

Cover: Christmas by Heart

I’m thrilled to announce that my new book, Christmas by Heart, is now available on Amazon!

As you can see from the cover, the title says it all:

Christmas by Heart
How to Memorize the Christmas Stories from Matthew and Luke:
Learn One Verse Each Day Through Advent & Christmas 2012

Today is Saturday, and I usually feature a selection from a memory book. So I invite you to go over to ChristmasByHeart.com and enjoy free sample chapters from my new memory book. You can also download the sample chapters as a PDF, and see the lovely typesetting.

Another option: start by perusing the complete table of contents.

Use the Methods You’ve Been Reading About Here

Christmas by Heart is the first book in my new Books By Heart™ series. You learn a unique, simple, but powerful combination of memory techniques that enables you to memorize whole chapters or even entire books.

If you’re a regular reader of HowToRemember.biz, you’ll recognize many of these techniques as you read Christmas by Heart:

  • The four basic memory steps: pay attention, get interested, make connections, practice and review.

  • Bible rhythms, which make the texts much easier to learn. Almost no one else has noticed these powerful rhythms in the Gospel texts.

  • The cumulative method: You only learn one new verse a day, but you learn it perfectly.

  • No need to fire up Anki, either. This review schedule is so simple that you don’t need flashcards.

  • And you won’t even need mnemonics! For later books in the series, where you memorize an entire Gospel, you may need a few mnemonics for navigation. But in Christmas by Heart, you won’t need them at all.

Simple, Easy, Powerful

I am so excited to bring all these memory techniques together into a single, simple project.

I’ve made learning these stories as easy as I possibly can. The book introduces the techniques gradually, so you don’t have to learn everything all at once. Instead, you learn a verse right away, on the first day. As you learn a new verse on each day, you also get a short lesson on how to memorize a bit better.

The book even includes dates for the 2012 Advent and Christmas seasons. You can start on the first Sunday of Advent, learning one verse a day. Or, you can get the book as a Christmas present, and begin on the day after Christmas. Now you can celebrate an actual season of Christmas, instead of feeling like it’s all over on December 26.

Anyhow, I’ll stop now, so you have time to read the sample chapters. Leave a comment here and let me know what you think!

Learn Spanish by Memorizing Simple Bible Stories

If you're not up for spending a month in Mexico, learning simple Spanish stories by heart may be the next best thing.

Learning Spanish? Try memorizing simple Bible stories.

How simple? How about a version that uses only 850 vocabulary words (plus proper names) for the entire New Testament?

It’s the Nueva Vida Biblia Bilingüe (New Life™ Bilingual Bible). And it seriously does seem to use only 850 different words.

As a translation, sure, it’s not the most accurate. Instead of “priest”, you get “religious leader”. Instead of “Levite”, you get “man of the family of Levi”. There are no “parables”, only “stories” or “examples”.

But what do you expect for 850 words. It’s no study bible. But as a tool for learning basic Spanish grammar and vocabulary, this book seems ideal.

The Text is Familiar, But Also New

I’m already familiar with the content, which makes a huge difference. At the same time, I’m mostly focusing on texts that I haven’t memorized in English.

For instance, I’ve started with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in Luke, because this parable isn’t in the Gospel of Mark, which I’ve memorized. I don’t want a word-for-word English translation conflicting with the Spanish words I’m learning.

Not Too Easy, Not Too Hard

I already know enough vocabulary and beginner grammar to have a basic understanding of most verses. This is very exciting.

But the verses aren’t too simple. Actually, at this point, any complete sentences more complex than “Voy al teatro” have a lot to teach me.

Sure, I’ve logged many hours listening to carefully crafted dialogues. But somehow, they don’t energize my mind the way that following a story does.

To be fair, I never tried memorizing those dialogues. Memorizing changes everything.

Memorizing: Do-It-Yourself Immersion?

Why does everyone recommend learning a language by immersion? One reason is that you hear the same basic words and patterns over and over and over again.

I used to think that learning a foreign language would mostly be stockpiling vocabulary. But a huge percentage of the words in Spanish (and hopefully all the Romance languages) are very similar to our Latinate English. Quick, translate el dentista, el doctor, inteligente. Too easy.

But the common words, and even more, the common language patterns, are completely different.

For instance, Spanish is a festival of tiny pronouns and conjunctions. You can’t open your mouth without a se or a lo popping out. And que seems to be the glue that keeps everything from falling apart.

When I approach Spanish as a puzzle, I keep thrashing around, trying to parse each sentence by the rules.

But when I memorize a simple story, I’m practicing a skill. I don’t need to know exactly why the same sentence has lo robaron but then se fueron. I just need to keep deepening the new grooves in my brain. Lo robaron. Se fueron. Lo robaron. Se fueron.

Yes, I need a basic idea of what lo and se are doing there. But beyond that, my task is to get used to the new patterns.

Learn Verb Forms Naturally

Then there’s verb forms. The verb ir only counts as one of those 850 words. But even in a text this simple, this crazy verb will show up in forms as diverse as voy, fue, and iba.

Common verbs tend to be the most irregular. I would much rather learn these crazy forms in context than try to memorize (and then use) the conjugation charts.

(Lest I sound like a whiner, I want to note that I’m very happy to be speaking English and learning Spanish, not the other way round. English is insane. Especially our spelling and pronunciation.)

Memorizing Won’t Be Enough

Learning texts by heart won’t be enough. I’ll need to keep learning vocabulary and reading about grammar.

And I’ll need to make new sentences too. I’ve already tried striking up a conversation at the local tiendita. The conversation was short. Exciting (for me), but short.

Memorizing Focuses Your Attention

But learning these texts could be a huge boost. I’m willing to bet that memorizing is much more effective than spending the same amount of time taking in a stream of constantly changing language.

Partly, I know this from experience. I’ve listened to around sixty lessons of constantly changing Spanish. Because everything is always new, I remain at a superficial level, scrambling to figure out what’s happening. Not much sticks.

By contrast, memorizing focuses my attention. With each pass over the material, the pattern etches deeper. I get that se I missed last time, or that al instead of el.

Don’t Forget Bible Rhythms

Naturally, I also break these verses into Bible rhythms. Chunking the text into phrases makes it so much easier to understand and remember.

Here’s the first verse of the buen samaritano (Luke 10:30):

Jesús dijo:
    “Un hombre iba de Jerusalén
       a la ciudad de Jericó
y fue atacado
    por ladrones.
Lo robaron,
    lo golpearon
       y se fueron,
    casi muerto.

Typing the Text Also Helps

To get these rhythms, I need to retype the text. But this is unexpectedly helpful. Even typing Spanish, I feel the patterns soaking in. Which makes sense — every way of learning activates different parts of your brain. So this “chore” turns out to be a good exercise.

Breaking My Public Domain Rule

Normally, I don’t memorize anything that’s under copyright.

But in this case, the free Spanish Bibles are mostly too old-fashioned, and probably all too complex. If you know of simple, contemporary Spanish New Testament that’s freely licensed, let me know!

I wouldn’t memorize an entire book of the Gospel with this translation. But for where I am, the controlled vocabulary and the simple language are a perfect match. Bit by bit, my brain is getting accustomed to real Spanish.

Why to Learn Verses Perfectly

Should you try to learn the verses _perfectly_? Yes. Because **perfection is easier** than "almost".

It’s easier to learn a verse perfectly than to almost learn it.

Paradoxical, I know. But it’s true. I know from experience.

I myself have “almost” memorized hundreds of verses. I’ve memorized the entire Gospel of Mark. But with the techniques I used at the time, I didn’t learn them all to perfection.

Today, I can say many of these verses perfectly. But many other verses, I’ll say with a slight paraphrase, or the occasional missed word or phrase.

You might think, so what? What’s a mistake here and there, if you still basically know the whole Gospel?

Perfection Is Easier Than “Almost”

For years, I thought so too. Then I realized something. Every time I hit a patch I wasn’t perfectly sure about, I had to hesitate. I had to consider two or more possibilities for what comes next.

Not only did this waste time and create anxiety, but it made the whole memory shakier. Blurrier. More likely to fail next time.

These days, I’m “polishing” my earlier memories from Mark and other books all the way to perfection. I know that whenever I hit a “shaky” verse, I need to check the text and repair this memory right away.

If I were to skip this step, I would create more work for myself. My mind would know that I wasn’t sure about this verse. Next time, my hesitation would be the same, or worse.

Avoid Uncertainty or You’ll Remember That You Forget!

Back when I was settling for “almost”, I was actually memorizing the entire experience of not quite knowing the verse.

Your memory is that amazing. You can memorize that you have trouble memorizing something.

The stronger this flawed memory becomes, the harder it will ever be to learn the verse correctly. You have too much mental baggage — half-memories of all the different versions you concocted in your mental thrashing. It’s a mess.

Perfection Is Simple

By contrast, when you know a verse perfectly, you know you know it perfectly. It’s easy. No more stress. You get a flash of exactly how the verse looks or sounds.

It’s easier to learn a verse perfectly than to almost learn it. The key is to correct your uncertainties right away by checking the text.

With the cumulative method that I use now, learning verses perfectly is actually quite simple. No mnemonics required. Just attention, imagination, and reasonable repetition.

How to Remember Passwords That Are Easy And Secure

Remember _easy_ passwords that are _harder_ for computers to crack.

Forget everything you ever learned about choosing a password. From now on, you’ll choose passwords that are easy to remember, but hard to crack. You won’t even need mnemonics. Just common sense.

You might think that a “strong” password needs to look like gobbledygook. Actually, the opposite is true. You can choose very strong passwords, really “passphrases”, by using several common words.

(Bonus at the end: an xkcd comic that explains this perfectly.)

Typical “Secure” Passwords Look Like Gobbledygook

It’s true that a short password like Carnival123 is much too weak. It’s just a common word with a couple of numbers. It’ll get cracked faster than, say, CoamIlt4Orr5.

Choose Several Common Words

However, what about these two:

  • CoamIlt4Orr5
  • carnival louse drier claw

Which is more secure? Surprise! The four common words make a much stronger passphrase than the shorter string of gobbledygook.

If you don’t believe me, paste each one into this password checking tool. CoamIlt4Orr5 has an entropy of 56.9 bits, while carnival louse drier claw has 96.1 bits. Higher entropy means a stronger passphrase.

Add a Word, Not Punctuation

Notice that carnival louse drier claw has no capital letters, numbers, or strange punctuation. Many web sites suggest or even require that you include such things. But adding an entire extra word is often much easier to remember. That extra word adds at least as much, if not more, security as throwing in a hard-to-remember comma.

How Computers Crack Passwords

Think about how a computer program cracks a password. The program may run through common single words first. Then deviations of those words. Eventually, it will need to test every possible combination of every character. Like this:


For every single letter you add to your password, the program has to try every single possibility over again, once for every character that the final character might be.

[much later]

No luck? Now it tries a fifth character:


You can see how adding an entire word makes a huge difference.

Putting spaces between the words also helps. You add a few extra characters, and the words are much more natural to remember and type.

Choosing Random Words

However, for these passphrases to work, you do need to choose random words. Your name and your birthday aren’t the best choice.

If you’ve got a few dice, try Diceware. “Diceware” sounds exotic, but it’s actually a simple list of several thousand words. Each word is paired with a unique, five-digit number. Those five digits stand for five dice rolls. You roll the dice, and add the word to your passphrase.

For instance, if you roll 2, 1, 1, 2, and 6, you look up 21126. That word is cloak.

Cloak is a common word. But unless you regularly dress like a hobbit, no one would ever think to try this particular word in your passphrase.

If You Don’t Feel Like Rolling Dice

Rolling dice can be a fun way to break up your workday. But if you’re in a hurry, you can try this password generating tool.

Yes, you might not want to use an online tool to choose a passphrase for your Swiss bank account. But even if you did, it would be much better than the old Carnival123 or even CoamIlt4Orr5 you’re probably using.

Look, Mom! No Mnemonics!

It’s surprising how easy it is to remember a random string of four or five common words.

If you really need to, you can try to make them into a striking picture. But visualizing and hearing the words are often enough. No mnemonics required.

For passphrases you use frequently, your problem is now solved. You’ve got a long passphrase that is both easy to remember and very hard for a computer to crack. Because you use it often, you’ll soon cement it into your mind.

Store Passphrases Somewhere Safe

Of course, most of use have passwords we don’t use as frequently. Even if a passphrase is easy to remember, we won’t remember it without review. How do you store passwords safely?

A Passphrase Memory Palace?

If you’re truly paranoid, you can use mnemonics and store your passphrases in a “memory palace” with the loci method. They’ll exist only in your own mind (and the databases of the websites you visit).

I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing this. But I’m sure someone’s done it somewhere.

The problem, aside from the extra work, is that without review, you could find yourself forgetting these passwords rather quickly. You’d have to develop a flashcard system that tested you on these passwords without, of course, actually including them in your deck.

Passphrases on Paper?

So, you’ll probably have to write down your passphrases, either on a piece of paper or in an encrypted file.

Paper gets a bad rap, but as long as it’s not a sticky note on your monitor, someone has to actually burgle your house or office to find it. No one can crack into your notebook from Sweden.

Encrypted Files?

If you prefer your computer, encrypting your files is a big improvement over a plain text file. An encrypted file is stored as gobbledygook. But remember that the file needs to unencrypted (decoded) for you to look at it. This means that it gets copied, unencrypted, into your computer memory. In theory, the file is vulnerable to attack for as long as you have it open.

In the real world, that’s probably okay.

Frequent Use = Soon Remembered

Again, for sites you visit every day or even every week, you’ll find these easy passphrases stick in your mind. You’ll only need to consult your Super-Secret Storage Facility for passphrases that you don’t use as often.

No More “Guess the Password” Scenes!

One side effect of your improved passphrases: you’ll never again be able to sit through those movie and TV scenes where the hero “guesses” a password. I’m seeing these scenes more often these days, not less, and they just get worse every time.

Come on, guys. Even a “weak” password takes a computer thousands of guesses. Give it up.

Xkcd Comic: Password Strength

And now, as promised, a brilliant summary from xkcd:

xkcd: Password Strength

Interestingly, the password checker I mentioned rates correct horse battery staple with a higher entropy than xkcd does: 104.2 bits, not ~44.

Anyhow, why not visit that password generator and give a few passwords a tune-up?

Review: “The Shoddy Lands” by C. S. Lewis

We create our own worlds. But why are they so shoddy?

In today’s Tuesday Review, I give you one of my favorite short stories by C. S. Lewis: “The Shoddy Lands”. It’s so short that you can read the whole thing in ten minutes or so. And I’ll keep this review even shorter, so you can read the story right after.

“The Shoddy Lands” originally appeared in the February 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The narrator, a huffy, very 1950s-era scholar, mysteriously gets stuck in the mind of his complete opposite: a boring young woman named Peggy.

He sees the world through her eyes. And what does he see? Not much. Everything is shoddy. There are no trees, only

the crudest, shabbiest apology for trees you could imagine. They had no real anatomy, even no real branches; they were more like lamp-posts with great, shapeless blobs of green stuck on top of them.

There’s not even any grass. Only shapeless stuff with no blades.

I stooped down and tried to find [blades]…the closer one looked, the vaguer it seemed to become.

Pretty horrifying, if you think about it.

Also prescient. Lewis wrote this decades before 3D video games.

He soon finds that people are equally vague. Only certain details stand out: the faces of certain young men and the fancy outfits of certain young women. Those are some of the few things that Peggy actually notices.

Part of the humor/horror of the story lies in how precisely her interests conflict with his. He may as well be trapped in an insane Trekkie convention.

To today’s sensibilities, the story may also seem to line up all the male chauvinist cliches and carefully check them off. But I think it warrants a more careful reading. The narrator is not a hero. The question isn’t how little reality that Peggy, a stereotyped 1950s woman, manages to notice. The question is how much any of us notice.

This story has haunted me for over a decade. But only recently, with my new focus on attention and observation, have I realized how this story illuminates my memory work.

Your attention and interest create your world.

On the negative side, we can sink and slither into pettier and pettier details, until we can barely see any faces but the strange idol in the bathroom mirror.

But on the positive side, our memory work knits new detail into our world. It’s like we co-create whatever we truly see. Or at least re-craft it within our own minds.

In some mysterious way, paying attention and thinking about things makes us more alive.

Obvious? Perhaps. But easily forgotten.

Read “The Shoddy Lands” (in the Google Books preview for Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories).

How to Remember Poems and Books of the Bible With the “Cumulative Method”

You can memorize an entire epic poem or book of the Bible -- one verse at a time.

Ever wanted to memorize an epic poem or a book of the Bible? You can, and it’s much simpler than you think.

I’ve been working on this project for years. I’ve tried various combinations of mnemonics, the loci method, and spaced repetition.

But after all my experimentation, the best method may be the one you’re about to learn: the cumulative method.

In today’s Saturday selection, author William Walker Atkinson explains how to learn a long text — one verse a day. Why so little? Because you need to train your mind to focus on a text and learn it perfectly.

If you’re like me, part of your mind thinks it’s impossible to learn a text perfectly. That’s why you should take it slow. One verse a day, perfectly. You’re forming a new habit.

You also need to attach each new verse to what you’ve already learned. Every day, you repeat all the verses you’ve said.

After a month of this training, you can learn two new verses a day. The next month, three.

But I’ll let Atkinson explain.

Begin With One Verse A Day

We suggest that the student who wishes to acquire a good memory for words, sentences, etc., begin at once, selecting some favorite poem for the purpose of the demonstration. Then let him memorize one verse of not over four to six lines to begin with.

Learn That One Verse Perfectly

Let him learn this verse perfectly, line by line, until he is able to repeat it without a mistake. Let him be sure to be “letter perfect” in that verse — so perfect that he will “see” even the capital letters and the punctuation marks when he recites it. Then let him stop for the day.

The next day let him repeat the verse learned the day before, and then let him memorize a second verse in the same way, and just as perfectly.

Review Your Verses Together

Then let him review the first and second verses together. This addition of the second verse to the first serves to weld the two together by association, and each review of them together serves to add a little bit to the weld, until they become joined in the mind as are “A, B, C.”

The third day let him learn a third verse, in the same way and then review the three.

Continue this for say a month, adding a new verse each day and adding it to the verses preceding it. But constantly review them from beginning to end. He cannot review them too often. He will be able to have them flow along like the letters of the alphabet, from “A” to “Z” if he reviews properly and often enough.

Month 2: Learn Two New Verses a Day

Then, if he can spare the time, let him begin the second month by learning two verses each day, and adding to those that precede them, with constant and faithful reviews.

He will find that he can memorize two verses, in the second month, as easily as he did the on a verse in the first month. His memory has been trained to this extent.

Add Another Verse Each Month

And so, he may proceed from month to month, adding an extra verse to his daily task, until he is unable to spare the time for all the work, or until he feels satisfied with what he has accomplished.

Let him use moderation and not try to become a phenomenon. Let him avoid overstraining.

Renew What You Know Before Learning the New

After he has memorized the entire poem, let him start with a new one, but not forget to revive the old one at frequent intervals.

If he finds it impossible to add the necessary number of new verses, by reason of other occupation, etc., let him not fail to keep up his review work. The exercise and review is more important than the mere addition of so many new verses.

Let him vary the verses, or poems with prose selections. He will find the verses of the Bible very well adapted for such exercise, as they lend themselves easily to registration in the memory. Shakespeare may be used to advantage in this work….

Little By Little, Achieve the Amazing

It would seem almost impossible that one would ever be able to memorize and recite [a long selection] … from beginning to end, letter perfect. But on the principle of the continual dripping of water wearing away the stone; or the snowball increasing at each roll; this practice of a little being associated to what he already has will soon allow him to accumulate a wonderfully large store of memorized verses, poems, recitations, etc….

After he has acquired quite a large assortment of memorized selections, he will find it impossible to review them all at one time. But he should be sure to review them all at intervals, no matter how many days may elapse between each review….

Attention, Association, Repetition, and Interest

[T]he three principles of attention, association and repetition are employed in the natural method herein recommended. Attention must be given in order to memorize each verse in the first place; association is employed in the relationship created between the old verses and the new ones; and repetition is employed by the frequent reviewing, which serves to deepen the memory impression each time the poem is repeated.

Moreover, the principle of interest is invoked, in the gradual progress made, and the accomplishment of what at first seemed to be an impossible task — the game element is thus supplied, which serves as an incentive.

These combined principles render this method an ideal one, and it is not to be wondered that the race has so recognized it from the earliest times.

(A selection from: Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It
William Walker Atkinson, 1912
Headers, paragraph breaks, and some emphasis added.
Available at archive.org)

More to Come!

I’ve tried this cumulative method myself. My memories are much cleaner and sturdier than I ever achieved with mnemonics. This simple method yields amazing results.

Today, we can improve this method even further, using spaced repetition intelligently to make our reviews. And there’s much more to say about speaking and listening to texts, and using your imagination. More to come!

Why the “Memory Bee” for HowToRemember.biz?

The bee is an ancient symbol for memory. Unlike a mere hard drive, the bee _creates_, gathering nectar and _making_ honey.

Have you noticed the buzzing bee on my logo for “HowToRemember.biz”?

If not, I’m not surprised. You see hundreds, maybe thousands, of logos per day. “Logo exhaustion” will eventually be a recognized psychiatric condition (hopefully untreatable).

On the other hand, if you did notice, the bee may have bothered you. Random? What does a bee have to do with learning how to remember?

The Bee as a Metaphor for Memory

Actually, plenty. The bee is an ancient symbol for memory. As Mary Carruthers writes in The Book of Memory:

Trained memory is a storehouse, a treasure-chest, a vessel, into which the jewels, coins, and flowers of texts are placed. The reader gathers nectar from these flowers to furnish the cells of memory, like a bee.

(More on the “bee” in the Book of Memory.)

The bee metaphor goes way back, at least as far as ancient Romans like Quintilian and Seneca.

I love this metaphor for memory, because bees create. They don’t stockpile nectar, or obsess over whether they’ve lost a few grains. They make honey.

Memory and Creativity: Meant to Be Married

Today, we see our memories as hard drives. Either they give perfect recall, or they don’t.

Meanwhile, creativity seems completely separate from memory. Artists live in fear of accidentally spitting out an undigested chunk of prose or melody from someone else’s work. We must create ex nihilo, otherwise we’re mediocre derivatives, even plagiarists. You can literally end up in jail.

Modern “creativity” has a knife to memory’s throat.

But for the ancients and the medievals, memory and creativity were a happy couple, not bitter exes. You memorized the classics in order to create. A bee gathers from hundreds of flowers, and then it makes honey.

Look at Shakespeare. Did that dude ever make up a plot from scratch? And yet, he still acquired something of a literary reputation.

Actually, this divorce between memory and creativity may slowly be healing. Yes, the corporations are never going to let Mickey Mouse into the public domain without a dirty fight. But at the same time, thousands of artists release their work with Creative Commons licenses every day. The Internet “remix” culture is taking us back to a more natural, human world of shared creativity.

So now you know the reason for the “memory bee”. Creative memory.

Of course, the buzz may also help you remember that this domain is HowToRemember.biz, not the more typical .com, .org, or .net (all of which had been snagged by infernal domain squatters). But I certainly thought of the deeper, profound symbolism first, rather than the cheap mnemonic to help people remember my domain name.


Memory Palaces Can Boost Your Observation Skills

Building a "memory palace" may not be the best way to train your memory. But it might hone your observation.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how mnemonics are usually a distraction from serious learning. I spent a lot of time filling “memory palaces” with mnemonics that I ultimately didn’t need. But there’s a silver lining.

Memory palaces taught me how to look at an ordinary landscape.

(Side note: Sorry this site’s been offline a bit during the hurricane. It’s hosted in New York City.)

Normally, the average room or place is nearly invisible. After our subconscious does its magical split-second scan for attackers, aliens, and obvious treasure, we get the “all clear” and ignore where we are. We focus on the people we’re with, and/or our neverending internal stream of gripingness.

But what happens when you’re trying to make a memory palace? You look. Suddenly, all the “boring” objects stand out in sharp relief. They become real. You notice windows, corners, doors, fire hydrants, stairways, trees, flower pots, statues — all the actual nooks and things that make up a landscape.

Even the most industrial interior can have texture. That “Exit” sign is underneath a bizarre two-bulb lamp: a mnemonic could smash one of the bulbs. That door has a big, thick lintel where you could perch something. That hallway has a bizarre box jutting out with a defibrillator.

When you’re making a memory palace, every “spot” needs to be unique. Ancient writers warned against trying to store lots of mnemonics in the spots between columns. They all look alike.

So as you look around, you notice the details that make things different. What makes this desk or table or chair unique?

I always enjoyed “building” new memory palaces. (Unless I was trying to fit too much in a single room).

They reminded me of when I was a kid, taking my toys on adventures around the room. Remember when a sofa was a desert to cross, and if your toy fell on the carpet, it would drown in the ocean? The landscape would come alive.

Some people seem to be born observant. But I’m convinced that we can all learn to observe. It just takes practice — and enjoyment. If firefighters can hone their observation skills, so can we.

I’m not sure that memory palaces are the best way to do it. Drawing might be even better. Or even having “adventures” with my kids.

But memory palaces did get me looking at the landscape again as an adult. For that, I’m thankful.

What do you think? Have you tried to make memory palaces?

Review: “The Memory Book” by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas (1974)

_The Memory Book_ may be the best book on visual mnemonics I've ever read. I just wish these mnemonics actually worked.

Welcome to the new Tuesday Review! Every Tuesday, I want to review a book or website that offers major insights about remembering and thinking.

Today’s review: The Memory Book, by Harry Lorayne & Jerry Lucas. An oldie, a goodie, and possibly, a gigantic mistake.

I picked up my copy at a library book sale back in 2006. I’d been meaning to improve my memory for awhile, but this is the book that changed everything.

The Memory Book unlocked the strange and magical world of visual memory systems. Visual mnemonics, the loci method, mnemonics for numbers, names, decks of cards, Chinese ideograms, foreign vocabulary, maps, even sports plays — it’s all here.

I’ve read many similar books since then, but this little book packs in more visual mnemonic systems than any other book I’ve seen.

(And I haven’t even checked the updated edition. They may have added even more. They may also have cleaned up the occasional racist and chauvinistic undertones that publishers didn’t notice so much in 1974.)

Original Awareness (Pay Attention)

This is a great little book of mnemonics. Unfortunately, I no longer think mnemonics are the key to remembering. Instead, I think you remember best by cultivating the four mental habits of attention, interest, assocation, and review. Mnemonics ultimately get in the way.

Interestingly, Lorayne and Lucas also begin with attention. They call it Original Awareness. I can still remember reading this, and sensing that Original Awareness was probably important. But it also sounded boring. I wanted to get to the cool memory systems.

So did they. Attention gets very little discussion. They quickly move on, and the rest of the book features mnemonics.

Still, at least they mentioned attention. And it does come up again throughout the book. You can’t remember a name, for instance, if you don’t hear it first. Other memory articles and books often seem to skip attention entirely.

So Many Mnemonics … But Do They Work?

Mnemonics associate knowledge so that you can find it again. But instead of associating it other actual knowledge in your head, you associate the new knowledge with a strange, memorable, and otherwise meaningless mnemonic.

Arguing against mnemonics is bittersweet for me. If you flip through The Memory Book, you get a whirlwind of crazy new things to think about. I can still feel echoes of my first excitement. I glimpsed a new world, a world where I could I translate anything I wanted into images that would stay.

Over years of practice, I discovered that the images did stay. What didn’t stay so well was the actual knowledge.

Even when the knowledge would stay, I had a hard time thinking about it. My mnemonics for the Gospel of Mark might help me remember the words of a verse, but could I imagine the verse or think about it? Not so much. I was too busy imagining the mnemonic.

Mnemonics Waste Mental Energy

For instance, Lorayne and Lucas have a short chapter on remembering what you read. They suggest making up mnemonics for every fact as you read.

A single, fact-loaded paragraph generates a chain of six separate pictures. Some with multiple elements. For one paragraph.

When I read this now, it seems crazy. My eyes glaze over just rereading their complicated mnemonics. You would have to practice and practice and practice to be able to spin up mnemonics fast enough to read more than a few pages an hour.

And how long would they last? Mnemonics can fade quickly. You’d have to practice visualizing until these mnemonics would actually stay in your head for more than a few minutes. How would you keep similar mnemonics from interfering with each other? And how many facts would you still remember in a month?

Though they don’t answer these questions, Lorayne and Lucas may have managed to developed their mnemonic skills to overcome these problems. Even so, why didn’t they just spend all that mental energy thinking about the actual material? Instead of making mnemonics, they could have been finding meanings. Connecting to what they already knew.

How would you have any time left over to think about what you’d read?

Mnemonics Are Better Than “Normal” Inattention

I will say this — mnemonics are better than nothing. If you’ve spent your whole life not paying full attention (as I did), mnemonics force you to think more clearly than you ever have.

Every so often, Lorayne and Lucas seem to sense that improving your memory has much more to do with concentration than mnemonics.

Remember that if you think up your own silly pictures, you’re more Originally Aware of the information. Just trying to form the associations is half the battle–you’re concentrating on the material as you never have before.

But they go on to suggest using mnemonics to memorize the Bible or Shakespeare. I know from my own experience that mnemonics make remembering texts harder. They make me think about the goofy mnemonics, not the meanings of the texts. Spend that time reading the words slowly, out loud, and you’ll learn them much faster.

Learning Is Not Magic

It’s worth noting that Lorayne used these memory tricks professionally — as actual tricks. He was a magician. For instance, he routinely memorized the names of an entire studio audience, hearing each name only once.

If I had to memorize hundreds of names in twenty minutes, I’d use mnemonics too. I wouldn’t be trying to know these people, only hold on to the information long enough to perform.

(In real life, I think a more meaningful approach to names would be much better.)

But learning isn’t a studio performance. Facts are worthless if they don’t mean anything to you. And meaning comes from connecting facts, not to mnemonics, but to other meaningful knowledge.

The Memory Book remains an excellent introduction, possibly the best, to practical visual mnemonics. But when are visual mnemonics really practical? Magic shows? Definitely. Tests that are all about the grade? For sure.

Books you really care about? For that, you need quality thinking.

How to Remember Like a Firefighter

Before firefighters enter a burning building, they'd better know their way around. And guess what amazing technology they use to navigate a smoke-filled, unfamiliar death maze? Yep. Their memories

Firefighters rely on their memories to save lives.

How do I know? From this article: “Memory and Observation for Firefighter Exam Study Guide”. Turns out that firefighters get tested on their short-term memory in the entrance exam. They need to be able to memorize a floor plan before they rush into a burning building.

Since it’s a study guide, the article includes tips for how to memorize — or at least, how to pass the memory questions on the test. The three most helpful tips are:

  • Tell yourself you can remember.

  • Memorize an image by “reading” it.

  • Learn to observe.

Tell Yourself You Can Remember

I’ve seen this idea elsewhere, but it’s fascinating to see positive thinking discussed in an actual study guide for would-be firefighters.

The more you think you can remember, the more mental energy you can direct to the task. But if you’re too busy doubting yourself, you’re draining that energy into a negative sink.

Memorize an Image by “Reading” It

When you’re faced with a floor plan to memorize, the natural instinct is to try to see everything at once. This is impossible, so your eyes start jumping around the picture.

You may take in lots details, but they’re random. How will you ever reconstruct the image? How can you be sure which parts you haven’t seen yet?

Instead, this article suggests “reading” the image — left to right, top to bottom.

Wow. So simple, but it never occurred to me. We’ve read hundreds of thousands of pages in our lives. We think of a page as linear, but it’s actually an extremely complex image. We make it linear by how we look at it. You’re doing this right now, as you read.

Of course, the “reading” approach may not be enough. We don’t automatically memorize articles, do we? Maybe we also need to see the whole picture, and then break the picture into chunks. We probably need to see each detail in multiple contexts, so that we have a better chance of remembering it.

On the other hand, if you practiced the reading approach, it might be enough. You might learn to burn each detail into your mind.

Learn to Observe

You can’t remember what you haven’t first observed, or paid attention to. The article also includes basic exercises on sharpening your observation skills.

Here’s an interesting one: when stuck at a traffic light, look around and start saying out loud what you see.

“On my left is a three-story building with a bank of four windows on the first floor. There are two doorways, one on either side of the bank of windows.”

(Note the firefighter emphasis on possible exits.)

It might sound boring. But noticing details makes the world more interesting, not less. Instead of a dull background to your traffic stop, you start to see the world a little more clearly.

I keep forgetting to try this one when I’m actually driving. Now that I’ve written about it, maybe I’ll remember.

Try the Firefighter Test

So, think you could pass the firefighter memory questions? The last page of this article includes a floor plan to study and sample questions. Try it. You might discover a whole new way to think.

How (and Why) to Start the Half Hour Thinking Habit

"Knowledge used does not need to be remembered; practice forms habits and habits make memory unnecessary..."

Yesterday I talked about setting aside a half hour each day to think. But starting a new habit, however splendid, takes work. Since I got this idea from an old book called Thinking As a Science, I’d like to let that author, Henry Hazlitt, give a few further tips on thinking every day.

Introducing the “Saturday Selection”

This also kicks off a new tradition I’ll call the “Saturday Selection.” In my memory research, I’m constantly finding interesting texts. I enjoy peppering my articles with snippets, but every Saturday, I’d like to share a longer selection.

Some of these selections will need tidying up for reading onscreen. I’ll add headings and paragraph breaks.

And now, Hazlitt on the thinking habit:

Practice Makes Memories

But while it is not true that we fail to practice a thing merely because we fail to remember it, it is true that if we do not practice we are not very likely to remember it. The only way we could remember would be by constant rereading, for knowledge unused tends to drop out of mind.

Knowledge used does not need to be remembered; practice forms habits and habits make memory unnecessary…

Hazlitt’s focus is not so much on remembering as on actual thinking. But here, he touches on the vital point: knowledge unused tends to drop out of mind. Flashcards are one way to keep knowledge in mind, but only as random bits. Thinking could be a much more natural solution.

Starting a New Habit Means Stopping an Old Habit

Practice being the thing needful, it is essential that we put aside a certain amount of time for it. Unless you lay out a definite program, unless you put aside, say, one-half hour every day, for pure downright independent thinking, you will probably neglect to practice at all.

One half hour out of every twenty-four seems little enough. You may think you can fit it in with no trouble. But no matter how shamelessly you have been putting in your time, you have been doing something with it.

In order to get in your thirty minutes of thinking, you will have to put aside something which has been habitually taking up a half hour of your day. You cannot expect simply to add thinking to your other activities. Some other activity must be cut down or cut out.

One Half Hour Is So Much Better Than Nothing

You may think me quite lenient in advising only one-half hour a day. You may even go so far as to say that one-half hour a day is not enough. Perhaps it isn’t.

But I am particularly anxious to have some of the advice in this book followed. And I greatly fear that if I advised more than a half hour most readers would serenely neglect my advice altogether.

After you have been able for a month to devote at least one-half hour a day to thinking, you may then, if you choose, extend the time. But if you attempt to do too much at once, you may find it so inconvenient, if not impracticable, that you may give up attempting altogether.

On Actually Following Advice

Throughout the book I have constantly kept in mind that I wish my advice followed. I have therefore laid down rules which may reasonably be adhered to by an average human, rules which do not require a hardened asceticism to apply, and rules which have occasionally been followed by the author himself. In this last respect, I flatter myself, the present differs from most books of advice.

Above all I urge the reader to avoid falling into that habit so prevalent and at the same time so detrimental to character: — acquiescing in advice and not following it. You should view critically every sentence in this book. … But when you agree with any advice you see here, you should make it your business to follow it. The fact that part of the advice may be wrong is no reason why you should not follow the part that is right.

One New Habit at a Time

Most people honestly intend to follow advice, and actually start to do it, but . . . They try to practice everything at once. As a result they end by practicing nothing.

The secret of practice is to learn thoroughly one thing at a time. As already stated, we act according to habit. The only way to break an old habit or to form a new one is to give our whole attention to the process.

The new action will soon require less and less attention, until finally we shall do it automatically, without thought — in short, we shall have formed another habit. This accomplished we can turn to still others.

You can read this book for free.

Think Every Day, and Remember

What would happen if you set aside a single half hour every day to think?

A few days ago, I mentioned that I want to start taking one half hour a day to just think. No new information. Instead, I reflect on what I’ve recently learned. I stay focused by typing my thoughts.

My goal is to weave my scattered, shiny new info bits into sparkling tapestries of knowledge. Instead of using flashcard prompts to trigger atomized memories, I skip right to the good stuff: actual thinking.

It’s only been a few days, but this new habit already packs some surprises.

You Remember More Than You Expect

First, I remember so much more than I expected to. It just takes a little time.

If you ask me about a book I’ve read, my first mental scramble might not turn up much. Since that quick dumpster dive into my memory comes up empty, I assume I’ve forgotten it all.

But when I sit and think, the details slowly emerge from the shadows. They’re like little forest animals. Apparently, the harsh glare of the question made them nervous. Some are more timid than others, but that’s okay. I’ve got time now.

You’ll Enjoy This

Second, this is not one of those new habits that takes three weeks (or months, or years) before you actually enjoy it. As soon as my fingers touch the keys, the floodgates open. I feel great.

Turns out I’ve been trying to think, but I’ve been stuffing it into those odd crevices of time when I should instead be, say, actually listening to what my kid is saying. Or falling asleep.

We need to think. But it feels so much better to do it deliberately.

Don’t Wait Until “Down Time”

On that note, I suggest taking this time as early in the day as possible. If you try to tack it on after everything else, you’ll be tired, and you’ll be likely to skip it. Also, you’ll be telling yourself that it isn’t really important.

For now, I take this half hour right after lunch. This hooks my new habit to an existing habit (always a big help). Plus, I’ve already been forced out of “work mode”, so I don’t have to rehash the argument of why thinking is worth doing.

If you’re not free to take time then, and the morning’s already spoken for, then at least slot the time as early as you can in the evening.

No Stress. This Isn’t A Test.

Perhaps my favorite part about reflection so far is how open-ended and free it feels. Unlike flashcards, I’m not testing myself. I may happen to realize I’ve forgotten a particular detail, but the focus remains on what I do remember.

Creative Connections

Even better, I’m trying to do more than merely remember. I’m doing creative thinking. I’m looking for new connections. And creativity feels good. Since I’m not trying to craft a specific work (like a blog post), I get all the fun of creativity without the usual pressure to refine what I write.

You Could Also Try Talking

I enjoy writing, but not everyone has made a career out of touch typing. You want your thoughts to run freely, and typing might be too slow.

I got this whole idea from an old book called Thinking as a Science, by Henry Hazlitt. Given the technology of his time, Hazlitt recommended talking. Out loud. To yourself.

Try it. Talking can keep you surprisingly focused, compared to silent ruminating. But Hazlitt noted that you might want to make these monologues in private.

To practice it, you must either lock yourself up in your room, or sit alone in a forest or field, or walk along unfrequented streets and by-ways. You can by no means allow any one to hear or see you talking to yourself. If you are caught doing this some asinine idiot is sure to mistake you for one.

I love the construction of that last sentence.

On the other hand, he was also writing before cell phone earbuds.

Give Thinking A Try

So, what do you think? Can you spare a half hour a day for sheer thinking? Maybe you can’t, but if not … why not?

How to Remember in 4 Basic Steps

With these four basic steps, you can master any subject.

Welcome to HowToRemember.biz! Let’s look at the four basic steps to remembering.

  • Pay attention
  • Get interested
  • Make connections
  • Practice and renew

Pay Attention

You can’t remember what you haven’t seen. Or heard. Or somehow sensed.

This seems obvious. But how often do you give something your full attention?

I know that I often read, listen, and look with a divided mind. A huge percentage of my mental energy is sucked into a neverending internal monologue. While that part of my mind natters away, I have less energy to focus.

Full focus feels special. We’ve all experienced that keen awakening when we really look at something, even for a few moments: a stunning flower, an awesome new toy, a beautiful face. Those moments are highlights. Those are the kinds of impressions we never forget.

The secret is that we can make strong impressions whenever we want — if we choose to focus. But we won’t make that choice unless we get interested.

Get Interested

Your mind will only remember something if it’s interesting. Period.

Now, many contemporary (and ancient) memory guides think that you should make material interesting by bolting on mnemonics (memory prompts). For instance, if you want to remember a “2”, you can think of a swan, which has a similar shape.

I used to think this way myself. I made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mnemonics.

And mnemonics have their uses. I’ve written plenty of articles on them.

But mnemonics also have a dark side. They can distract you from the very things you’re trying to learn. They reinforce the perception that the material itself is dull.

Here’s another secret: everything is interesting.

Seriously. You could write a dissertation on dust bunnies, if you had to. Start asking questions. (Where do dust bunnies come from, anyway?)

We find things dull when they have no meaning for us. You could give the most exciting story in the world a blank stare if it was written in a foreign language.

How do we find new meanings? Partly, by looking and listening with greater attention. But also by connecting new things to what we already know.

Make Connections

We remember by connecting.

Think of a baseball geek. He can remember thousands of game scores, because he’s interested. Obsessed, even.

But those scores don’t float about in isolation. His brain is a baseball network, a power grid humming with thousands of criss-crossing connections. Every game score is connected to those players, to those teams, to the epic story of that particular season.

Ultimately, all this “data” connects to his enthusiasm for baseball itself, his memories of the actual games he’s played and seen.

A few days ago, I wrote about using these steps for remembering names. You collect names and classify them. Instead of making mnemonics, you study the names themselves. You see how they connect to each other. In short, you become a name geek.

The more meaningful connections you make, the better you’ll remember. You craft your own mental network.

Practice and Renew

But this network needs to be strengthened by practice and renewal. Otherwise it fades.

Practice is pretty basic. Memory is like anything else. Use it or lose it.

But memory is also unique, in that well-planned renewals can yield astonishing results. With “spaced repetition”, you can renew your memories on a special schedule. You do a lot of reviews at the beginning, but as time goes on, you can wait longer and longer between renewing a specific memory. Eventually, you can wait months or years.

On the other hand, scheduling spaced repetition isn’t always worth the trouble. Sometimes, it’s easier to renew something every day until you’ve mastered it. Then you can move it onto a long-term schedule.

The usual method for spaced repetition is computer flashcards. But flashcards can lead to burnout. For anything more complex than vocabulary words, flashcards can shatter knowledge into random little bits.

I’m currently exploring how to renew what I learn without losing the larger context. More on that in future posts.

Learn More

Speaking of renewal, can you remember all four steps you just read? Close your eyes and try.

Here they are again:

  • Pay attention
  • Get interested
  • Make connections
  • Practice and renew

For more on these basic steps, read Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It, by William Walker Atkinson (1912). You can read it for free here. This book is packed with specific, unique tips on memorizing that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Or, get a quickstart guide to remembering names.

KeepWhatYouLearn.com Will Soon Become HowToRemember.biz

As my memory research changes focus, I'm relaunching this site with a new domain and a new theme. But I'll still be blogging about the same basic idea: how to remember anything you want.

I’m making a few changes here at KeepWhatYouLearn.com. Within the week, the domain for this site will be HowToRemember.biz. (Don’t worry, all the old “KeepWhatYouLearn.com” links will redirect properly.)

Also, the site will have a new, simpler theme.

Also, with this relaunch, I’m kicking this blog into high gear! I’ll be posting at least once a day (except maybe Sunday).

Why all these exciting changes? Because over the last few months, I’ve found a new, exciting focus for my memory research. How do you remember? By the right kind of thinking.

My Old Focus: Mnemonics and Flashcards

When I began KeepWhatYouLearn.com, my memory research focused on:

  • mnemonics (memory prompts)

  • flashcards and spaced repetition, using the program Anki

I did some pretty amazing things with mnemonics and flashcards, like memorize the entire Gospel of Mark and an epic poem. Over the years, I made thousands of mnemonics and thousands of flashcards for various facts.

And yet, I discovered that mnemonics and flashcards may not be the solutions I thought they would be. Mnemonics have a dark side, and flashcards can lead to major fatigue.

My New Focus: The Things Themselves

Gradually, I’ve realized that the mind is exceedingly precise. If you train it to think about mnemonics, you’ll think about mnemonics. If you train it to burn through Anki flashcards, you’ll get in a rut of trying to burn through flashcards as fast as you can.

You have to step back and ask yourself — why are you trying to remember anything in the first place? So you can think about it, right? And that leads to a startling conclusion.

Instead of focusing on mnemonics and flashcards, we can focus on the things themselves.

Sharpen the Senses

We can train our senses to take sharper and sharper perceptions. When an artist draws, he sees the details that the rest of us miss. But he didn’t start out so perceptive. He had to train this faculty.

And he doesn’t use mnemonics to remember the exact shape of a nose. He looks and looks and looks at the nose.

Interest the Mind

We can also train our minds to remember, not “interesting” mnemonics, but the actual things we want to think about.

As we discover that these things are interesting in themselves, the world itself becomes brighter, more colorful, more intense. The world itself hasn’t changed. We’re just seeing it a little bit closer to how it really is.

With these insights, my memory research will now focus on questions like attention, interest, and connecting new things to what we already know.

For instance, I recently wrote about how to remember names by making a hobby of collecting names. I’m excited by how radically different this approach is. The standard advice is to slap a goofy mnemonic on your new acquaintance’s face. Instead, you can enter a new world of names and meaning. You skip right to the good stuff.

Any Use for Mnemonics and Flashcards?

Mnemonics and flashcards do have their uses. I still need a way to remind myself to think about and renew older insights, and the spaced repetition of flashcards seems hard to beat. However, I need to learn how to use them without slipping into the “video game” mindset. Flashcards need to help me think, not provide one more pile of “to do” items.

New Domain: HowToRemember.biz

As I said, I’m changing the domain to HowToRemember.biz.

When you think about it, “Keep What You Learn” has a bit of a negative undertone. The assumption is that, if you don’t hang on, you’re going to lose everything. This is true, but only in a sense. We think all the time, and we don’t lose what we actually think about.

Why focus on the possibility of forgetting? Negative energy wastes effort.

Instead, “How to Remember” is much more positive. Remembering is a skill. Here’s how to do it. Focus on the good.

New, Simpler Theme

I’ll also be launching a new theme. I’m inspired by the theme at ZenHabits.net — I love the focus on one article at a time.

Plus, it’s about time that my theme that worked on mobile devices.

Daily Posts!

So those are the changes coming up. Same guy, same old articles, new domain, new theme, new research, and a new article every day. There’s so much to talk about. Grab my RSS feed, and I’ll see you tomorrow!

Why Remember, With Wikipedia On Your Phone?

I have a copy of Wikipedia on my phone. Why should I try to remember anything? So I can _think_ about it. But Wikipedia can help! We need to stop pitting our memories against our info technology, like they're in some kind of cage match.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has come true. With a free program called Aarddict and a big enough SD card, you can keep a copy of Wikipedia on your phone.

(Actually, the images aren’t included yet, but that’s purely a function of bandwidth and space. In a few years, you’ll have the images too.)

You might be immune to such wonders by now. Maybe you’ve had the entire Internet on your phone for years. But that cell connection is never completely reliable. For me, having an actual copy crosses a new threshold. As long as I keep the thing charged, I can look up almost anything, anywhere, even a super-villain’s cave.

And this is … awesome. Seriously.

Pocket Libraries Can Help Us Think

Surprised? You might be expecting Mr. Memory Guy to launch a tirade about the Dangers of Cell Phones Making Us Stupid. And I have been known to do that.

These days, I’m rethinking that approach. I think we should all have Wikipedia, and all the world’s classics, and probably even more, in our pockets.

Because we can’t remember “everything”. We can’t come within a billion miles of that insane goal.

But we can think. And these pocket libraries can help us think.

I want to say that again, because it’s taken me awhile to realize this. Pocket libraries can help us think. They just can’t replace thinking.

Your Memory Vs. Your Phone? No.

We need to stop pitting our memories against our info technology, like they’re in some kind of cage match. It’s like pitting your stomach against your refrigerator.

Your refrigerator gives you instant access to strawberries even when the ground is frozen stiff. But no one forgets that critical shade of difference between storing strawberries and eating them.

The more gigantic the collection of facts we have at our instant disposal, the more we realize that thinking and remembering are so much more than mere fact retrieval.

Pull up a Wikipedia article on chemistry, physics, mathematics, or any advanced topic. How far do you get before you glaze over? All these “facts” are just words in a foreign language. The words mean nothing to you unless they can connect to something you already know. Something you … remember.

The Magic of Wikipedia

True, Wikipedia has a special magic here. The unfamiliar words link to a fuller explanation. With a few clicks, you can find that exquisite balance between what you already know and what you want to learn. You find exactly which wing of your mental labyrinth is unfinished, awaiting new construction. And you read more, exactly what you need to know, right there in your hand.

Which is all amazing. You can grow with a speed and precision that boggles the mind. You can construct a fantastic edifice, and the exact part you need keeps materializing in your hand.

But — and here’s where Mr. Memory Guy pipes up — what comes next?

And the Magic of Reflection

What happens after all reading? How long does your new construction last? If you try to think about this next week, will you have to start all over again?

The pocket library helps us take in information. But no technology can replace reflection.

When we reflect, we reorganize what we’ve learned. We make new connections. We turn raw information into ordered knowledge. We weave new data into our own utterly unique webs of thought experience.

In short, we think.

Do you have to keep everything? I don’t think so. If you forget 90% or 95% of a lengthy Wikipedia session, who cares? Throw the little fish back. What matters is whether you pop open the few oysters and find places for the pearls.

I used to think that Anki reviews could be used as triggers for this kind of reflection. Now, I’m not so sure.

I suspect that reflection is its own special activity. If I want to remember what I read, I need to schedule time to think about it. In a sense, it’s that simple.

Yes, the right tools and techniques will certainly make that reflection more powerful. But it begins with taking time to think.

Even a half hour a day would make a good start. One half hour, scheduled and set aside for deliberate thinking about what you’ve read and learned lately. It sounds so obvious … but who actually does it?

I’m game. How about you?

How to Remember Names? Collect Them (Part 2)

If you could remember names by collecting them, how would you organize your collection? How about animals, colors, birds, trades ...

In part 1, we discovered a new approach to remembering names: collect them. Taking a selection from an old memory book, we follow “Mr. X” as he grows more and more interested in the world of names.

We last left him thumbing through a phone book, eagerly snapping up new names. What does he do with them? What any collector does. Organize.

Organizing Names

He found that some names were derived from animals, and put these into a class by themselves — the Lyons, Wolfs, Foxes, Lambs, Hares, etc.

Others were put into the color group — Blacks, Greens, Whites, Greys, Blues, etc.

Others belonged to the bird family — Crows, Hawks, Birds, Drakes, Cranes, Doves, Jays, etc.

Others belonged to trades — Millers, Smiths, Coopers, Maltsters, Carpenters, Bakers, Painters, etc.

Others were trees — Chestnuts, Oakleys, Walnuts, Cherrys, Pines, etc.

Then there were Hills and Dales; Fields and Mountains; Lanes and Brooks. Some were Strong; others were Gay; others were Savage; others Noble. And so on.

I love the feeling of all these names connecting to each other, each finding their place.

Of course, we don’t hear how he would sort name like, say, “Powell”. He might at least find out it was Welsh.

Ordered Knowedge Leads to Meaning

It would take a whole book to tell you what that man found out about names. He came near becoming a “crank” on the subject. But his hobby began to manifest excellent results, for his interest had been awakened to an unusual degree, and he was becoming very proficient in his recollection of names, for they now meant something to him.

He easily recalled all the regular customers at his bank — quite a number by the way, for the bank was a large one — and many occasional depositors were delighted to have themselves called by name by our friend.

Mastering a Difficult Name

Occasionally he would meet with a name that balked him, in which case he would repeat it over to himself, and write it a number of times until he had mastered it — after that it never escaped him.

Creating Associations

Mr. X. would always repeat a name when it was spoken, and would at the same time look intently at the person bearing it, thus seeming to fix the two together in his mind at the same time — when he wanted them they would be found in each other’s company.

He also acquired the habit of visualizing the name — that is, he would see its letters in his mind’s eye, as a picture. This he regarded as a most important point, and we thoroughly agree with him.

This choice fascinates me. Instead of visualizing a mnemonic, he visualizes the actual word. Would this work? Perhaps … if you were fascinated by names.

But he would also connect new names to his own experience:

He used the Law of Association in the direction of associating a new man with a well-remembered man of the same name. A new Mr. Schmidtzenberger would be associated with an old customer of the same name — when he would see the new man, he would think of the old one, and the name would flash into his mind.

Interest is the Key

To sum up the whole method, however, it may be said that the gist of the thing was in taking an interest in names in general. In this way an uninteresting subject was made interesting — and a man always has a good memory for the things in which he is interested.

The case of Mr. X. is an extreme one — and the results obtained were beyond the ordinary. But if you will take a leaf from his book, you may obtain the same results in the degree that you work for it.

Make a study of names — start a collection — and you will have no trouble in developing a memory for them. This is the whole thing in a nut-shell.

So. What do you think?

(A selection from: Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It
William Walker Atkinson, 1912
Headers, paragraph breaks, and some emphasis added.
Available at archive.org)

How to Remember Names? Collect Them

Have you tried to remember names using bizarre mnemonics? Here's a new (old) approach -- get _interested_ in the names themselves. Start a collection.

How do you remember names? The usual memory advice focuses on mnemonics. For instance, if you met a Mrs. Stampson, you could imagine a big stamper (as in “Fragile”). Then you would pick a notable facial feature (usually unflattering), and visualize that stamper stamping away.

This method seems to work for some people. In The Memory Book, Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas brag about memorizing hundreds of names from an audience in a single performance. The book includes a long list of mnemonics for common names.

But lately I’ve been rethinking mnemonics. I’ve been exploring an old vein of memory books that emphasize interest and attention to what you want to remember. According to them, you can train your mind so that you don’t need mnemonics.

I found this old chapter on remembering names. Like me, you might relish how different it is from the standard memory advice. I haven’t even begun to test it myself, but there’s a lot here. The more you think about it, the more exciting the implications are.

The Basic Problem

First, we get the basic problem:

… names in themselves are uninteresting and therefore do not attract or hold the attention as do other objects presented to the mind.

The standard mnemonic solution relies on finding interesting mnemonics. Instead, we’re going to learn how to make the names themselves interesting.

The author describes the (hopefully real) case study of “Mr. X”, the would-be name expert.

(I’ve broken up the text and added headers. Some of the emphasis is mine too.)

Train Your Hearing

The gentleman, whom we shall call “Mr. X.,” decided that the first thing for him to do was to develop his faculty of receiving clear and distinct sound impressions. In doing this he followed the plan outlined by us in our chapter on “Training the Ear.” He persevered and practiced along these lines until his “hearing” became very acute.

He made a study of voices, until he could classify them and analyze their characteristics. Then he found that he could hear names in a manner before impossible to him. That is, instead of merely catching a vague sound of a name, he would hear it so clearly and distinctly that a firm registration would be obtained on the records of his memory.

Listen and Repeat

For the first time in his life names began to mean something to him. He paid attention to every name he heard, just as he did to every note he handled.

He would repeat a name to himself, after hearing it, and would thus strengthen the impression. If he came across an unusual name, he would write it down several times, at the first opportunity, thus obtaining the benefit of a double sense impression, adding eye impression to ear impression.

All this, of course, aroused his interest in the subject of names in general, which led him to the next step in his progress.

A Study (and Hobby) of Names

Mr. X. then began to study names, their origin, their peculiarities, their differences, points of resemblances, etc. He made a hobby of names, and evinced all the joy of a collector when he was able to stick the pin of attention through the specimen of a new and unfamiliar species of name.

He began to collect names, just as others collect beetles, stamps, coins, etc., and took quite a pride in his collection and in his knowledge of the subject. He read books on names, from the libraries, giving their origin, etc.

He had the Dickens’ delight in “queer” names, and would amuse his friends by relating the funny names he had seen on signs, and otherwise.

He took a small City Directory home with him, and would run over the pages in the evening, looking up new names, and classifying old ones into groups.

Wow! This guy is poring through the phone book, looking for new names to nibble. How would you organize names? We’ll find out in tomorrow’s post…

(A selection from: Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It
William Walker Atkinson, 1912
Headers, paragraph breaks, and some emphasis added.
Available at archive.org)

Spanish Update: Stalled on Vocabulary, Memorizing Poetry

Could memorizing poetry be better than vocabulary flashcards for learning a language?

So here it is October, and I’d planned to learn Spanish by Christmas.

My original, rosy visions of success certainly haven’t come to fruition. On the other hand, I have gotten farther along into a foreign language than ever before.

Challenges of Spanish Vocabulary Card

I can’t quantify “how much” Spanish I’ve learned so far. I definitely can’t understand ordinary conversations. I catch words here and there, especially towards the end of those impossibly long and syncopated sentences, when the rolling waves of words slow and break. Spanish speakers do occasionally have to stop for breath.

I also have not stuck to my original plan to craft a picture-only Anki deck. Somewhat typically, I instead set myself an interesting technical challenge: generating vocabulary decks that include native pronunciations from forvo.com. I’m still excited that I got that to work.

But grabbing those audio files is automatic. Grabbing images is not. Every image is a painstaking hunt.

I found that the Spanish version of clipart.com may be a great resource, because the images are actually tagged with Spanish words. However you need a subscription to (legally) download the pictures for your decks. Maybe there’s another royalty-free image site out there with a Spanish version, where you can download “comp” images for free.

(On the other hand, by the time you see the clipart.com pictures, you’ve already downloaded them anyway. Otherwise you couldn’t see them. Part of me wonders whether it’s legitimate to use the public Internet to sell your stuff, but try to set rules about how people can look at it.)

Anyhow, even with tagged clipart, I lost motivation to keep hunting up images. Especially images for non-nouns. Maybe it reminded me too much of making mnemonics.

Memorize Poetry?

Instead, I got inspired to try memorizing Spanish poetry. Apparently, Heinrich Schliemann, the German chap who first excavated Troy, also gained fluency in several languages. One of his techniques was to memorize large chunks of text.

I started slow, one stanza a day. Here’s my first poem, a haunting 19th-century lover’s lament.

Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y, otra vez, con el ala a sus cristales
jugando llamarán;
pero aquéllas que el vuelo refrenaban
tu hermosura y mi dicha al contemplar,
aquéllas que aprendieron nuestros nombres…
ésas… ¡no volverán!

Volverán las tupidas madreselvas
de tu jardín las tapias a escalar,
y otra vez a la tarde, aun más hermosas,
sus flores se abrirán;
pero aquéllas, cuajadas de rocío,
cuyas gotas mirábamos temblar
y caer, como lágrimas del día…
ésas… ¡no volverán!

Volverán del amor en tus oídos
las palabras ardientes a sonar;
tu corazón, de su profundo sueño
tal vez despertará;
pero mudo y absorto y de rodillas,
como se adora a Dios ante su altar,
como yo te he querido…, desengáñate:
¡así no te querrán!

Learning this by heart has been tough, but also a huge relief. I’m finally seeing how the words snap together into real sentences.

In theory, I’ve already been doing that for months with the Assimil lessons. But memorizing requires attention. As I examine the phrases over and over again, I see and hear them more clearly. Gradually, Spanish comes into focus.

Plus, I love how they sound. Try them.

The Dark Side of Mnemonics

What if mnemonics (memory prompts) actually _weaken_ your memory?

For years, I’ve been using and talking about mnemonics, those magical little memory prompts that seem capable of locking anything into your mind. But I’ve slowly begun to wonder whether mnemonics are the wrong approach altogether.

Mnemonics rely on taking something “boring” (the thing you want to learn) and attaching it to something “interesting” (a crazy, bright, colorful, loud mnemonic). You remember the interesting mnemonic, which leads you to the more elusive (boring) fact.

Mnemonics Make Extra Work

One obvious drawback is the extra overhead. Making and thinking about mnemonics takes work. Even though I’ve long considered mnemonics one of the two “basics” of memorizing, I’ve also considered them a last resort.

I used hundreds of mnemonics to memorize the entire Gospel of Mark, verse by verse. At first, the success astounded me. But as time wore on, I began to tire of navigating my “memory palace” (an old house) to hunt up individual verses. The whole process felt like drudgery.

So I dropped the mnemonics and the verse numbers, and began to say the text as stories. More time on the text itself, less time on mnemonic overhead.

But the mnemonics didn’t leave.

Some Mnemonics Won’t Go Away

Today, when I recite Mark, where does my mind still go? Back to that bedroom, hallway, or basement where I stored the old mnemonics.

True, mnemonics don’t much interfere with abstract thinking about the words. Nor with hearing the rhythms. But my mental images are boring at best. They are exquisitely random, but by now, they’re automatic, almost “natural”. They block a full experience of the verses — my imagination is already occupied.

With effort, I can imagine the actual scenes. But I have much mental work to undo.

The “Test” Mentality Masks the Problem

Why did it take me years to see this problem? Because it’s interior. And my first two decades of “thinking” focused on exterior tests. Teachers wanted to know if I could write out specific information. They didn’t much care what was going on inside me.

Mnemonics dovetail neatly into tests. Tests prioritize disconnected bits of information. Mnemonics match this dynamic. In both cases, you focus on the output — on whether you can recall a specific, quantifiable snippet.

And in both cases, you completely ignore the deeper meanings. Why think about this? What does it connect to? How does this enrich your understanding of the larger world? How is it valuable in itself?

These answers can’t be quantified, or even easily articulated. Each of us will give different answers.

If, like me, you grew up taking tests, you’re so excited at getting (almost) perfect “scores” that it takes awhile to sense this problem. But the score is the problem. Mnemonics focus you on whether you remember, not on the thing itself.

And flashcard programs like Anki, which I’ve long considered the second and more important “memory basic”, have a similar problem.

But it gets worse.

Mnemonics May Weaken Your Memory?

Yesterday, I came across an entirely new idea: that mnemonics may weaken your natural memory.


I must have heard this before, but if so, I don’t remember it (oddly enough).

I’ve read any number of criticisms of mnemonics: that they don’t work, that they’re a waste of time. But that mnemonics weaken your memory?

That would be a radical paradigm shift.

And yet … after years of working with mnemonics, the idea has a strange resonance. The more I think I need a mnemonic to remember anything, the less likely I am to try to remember without mnemonics.

What if mnemonics become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I think I can’t remember without them, so I can’t?

(Sometimes my mind seems insanely pliable. I’m not only building the house I live in, but the tools are shaping themselves in my hands as I build.)

Solution: Attention? Thinking?

What if the whole dichotomy of hard vs. easy to remember is a complete misdirection? What if, instead of trying to bolt on “easy” mnemonics, I should be examining, illuminating, connecting, understanding, and basically thinking about the actual “hard” material?

I came across this quote in another book:

Attention Develops Interest. — When it is said that attention will not take a firm hold on an uninteresting thing, we must not forget that any one not shallow and fickle can soon discover something interesting in most objects. Here cultivated minds show their especial superiority, for the attention which they are able to give generally ends in finding a pearl in the most uninteresting looking oyster. When an object necessarily loses interest from one point of view, such minds discover in it new attributes. The essence of genius is to present an old thing in new ways, whether it be some force in nature or some aspect of humanity.

Reuben Post Halleck, Psychology and Psychic Culture (1900)

Today, the obvious “memory culture”, such as it is, centers around mnemonic feats, like memorizing multiple decks of cards, as fast as possible, at the World Memory Championship.

Impressive. But ultimately … useless?

I’m not ready to give up on mnemonics just yet. I feel like they may have a place somewhere. If nothing else, your first mnemonic escapades prove that you can remember at will.

But what if the secret isn’t the mnemonic itself, but the attention you give it?

Away from the spotlight, a rich vein of lesser known memory literature lies waiting to be explored. In this school of thought, mnemonics are a distraction. Yes, you can keep what you learn, but through attention and thinking.

Could it be that simple? I’ll keep you posted.

Spanish Update: Renaming the World

In the light of my first new language, a new world blossoms around me.

A few months back, I decided to learn Spanish by Christmas. Sometimes it feels like I’ve hardly learned anything. Other times, I feel immersed in a new world.

An Axe For the Frozen Sea

I’ve read that a new language opens a new world. But this means more than the distant worlds, the strange fairylands of Spain or Mexico. The new world already opens around me. Warm shafts of light are illuminating and changing the things I thought I knew. They’re coming to life.

It’s like peeking behind a scratched plastic bus stop shelter, and finding, in the brick of some building, a tiny wooden door for leprechauns. Or like seeing your grandparents run into old friends at the bowling alley. Their eyes light up, their voices shake off the sleep, and their laughter erupts.

Kafka said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Spanish might not yet have shattered my inner glacier, but I’m discovering odd patches of luxuriant growth on the bald old ice. Slowly, the green spreads.

New Words for Old

Why? Because words connect things. When I feel half-dead and wintry, I don’t always get much help from these well-worn English words I’ve been using for three decades. Their strands are tangled, attached to too many memories and moods and even almost-forgotten pain. It takes an effort akin to poetry to really hear a familiar word (say, “fork”), and see the thing in all its strangeness.

But … el tenedor. What is this tenedor that suddenly confronts me? A bizarre, powerful device.

What is this alternate dimension where tenedors and cucharas and cuchillas and platos scatter around a mesa?

Mesa. For an instant, my table is a desert mesa, and we eat on a great plateau like giants. Table could never do that for me.

Of course, with only a little thought, table can lead to a collection of Thanksgivings (some lovely, some horrid), to Aslan’s Stone Table, even the Last Supper … but it usually doesn’t. Not without effort.

Meanwhile, these new words make instant poetry. I’m renaming the world.

And these new names bring the power to free things from that old pain. When you’re a child, words like “God” and “love” can be ruined by the wrong kind of giant. Now the giants have shrunken and gone, but some of the old strands are thick as suspension bridge cables, not easily cut. I’ve had many new thoughts since childhood, but the old words can still, without warning, dredge the old stagnant lakes.

But … Dios is someone entirely different, entirely new. And Dios me ama.

Review Bible Chapters With a Review Chart

To review chapters from a long text, I skipped Anki this time around and tried ... a paper chart. I can see a whole month's worth of scheduled reviews at a glance.

I love smart flashcards with Anki, but as you may know from previous posts, my early enthusiasm led to flashcard burnout. Over the last few months, I’ve experimented with new ways to reclaim the material I learned.

Long Texts: Renew Whole Chapters

Long texts, like the Gospel of Mark or the Glugs of Gosh, bring special problems for review.

When I learn a long text, I start with small clusters of verses, then slowly connect the clusters to make stories, and then connect stories to make chapters. Eventually, I renew the text by saying entire chapters at once.

Saying whole chapters may seem inefficient and long, but trust me, you want to renew texts in sensible, natural sections. Hopping around from bit to bit forces you to waste time “looking things up”. It also destroys the larger rhythm.

By now, I have a long list of chapters that I’ve learned in their entirety, including the 16 chapters of Mark, the 13 “cantos” of the Glugs, and several chapters from Luke and Matthew.

I had an Anki deck where each card reviewed a whole chapter. “Recite Mark 1.” “Recite Mark 2.” Simple. Elegant. But it drove me nuts.

Chapter Roulette

Why? The deck turned into a game of chapter roulette. I never knew how many chapters I would have to say on a given day.

Some days were reasonable: 2 or 3 chapters. You can spread those through a day. No problem. Other days, the mischievous sprites of spaced repetition would converge, and I’d be looking down the barrel of 5 chapters, 6 chapters … 9 chapters …

And of course, if I choked and didn’t make it all the way through that day, they’d be waiting for me tomorrow. Blocking up the line, making the next chapters age and fade as I procrastinated.

And none of this helped me slow down and appreciate reviews for their own sake.

So, I quit.

But of course, I couldn’t leave those chapters alone forever. I knew from past experience that no matter how well I’d learned them before, they would eventually fade if I didn’t renew them.

Solving the Problems of Chapter Review

What were the real problems with using Anki? I needed to limit my reviews to a reasonable amount each day. But the premise of spaced repetition requires that you follow the schedule. How could I do both?

By spacing new cards properly. Every single new card adds lots of repetitions. I can’t control these repetitions once I start learning the card (at least not much), but I can control when I put new cards into the system.

If I started all over again, with no scheduled repetitions, I could carefully add one new chapter each day. If adding a new chapter today would mean that one of its future repetitions would fall on a busy day, then I’d wait to add this chapter until tomorrow.

It might sound extreme to start all over again. But I wasn’t starting from scratch. I mostly remembered it. I was going to review entire chapters.

Besides, I wasn’t in a rush to learn any more new material, so it didn’t really matter (much) how long it took me to get through everything. It had already been too long. I’d be polishing the rough edges off my memories anyhow. All that mattered was that I would only have to review 3 or 4 chapters a day.

But how could I plan this? How could I see ahead?

Reboot With a Chapter Chart

Anki does have a feature that shows you future reviews. (Open a deck, then Tools -> Graphs...) But I needed to see hypothetical future reviews, that could recalculate depending on when I planned to add a new card. Anki needs a “forecasting” feature. Maybe I’ll write a plugin.

But a paper chart was a lot easier. Lately I’ve become a huge fan of paper charts, like this chart for tracking a “chain” of daily efforts. So, I got a piece of graph paper, and made a chart like this:


(NOTE: If you hate charts, there’s a simple alternative. Add a new chapter every fourth day. Don’t add them any more often. This won’t be quite as refined as the chart, but it’s a lot better than piling up too many reviews.)

Each row in the chart is one day.

The first column is the day of the month.

Each column after that is an interval of spaced repetition. The “names” of the columns (the alphabetical letters) don’t relate to how long the interval is. They’re simply a short label that helps me stay in the correct column (especially when I continue the chart onto multiple pieces of graph paper).

The numbers in these columns are chapters of Mark. In the first row, on June 26, I started with Mark 1.

Four Days of Initial Reviews

The next day, June 27, Mark 1 had moved to column B. The first four columns are the first four days. I repeat each chapter at least once, preferably two or three times, over the first four days.

This isn’t how Anki works. Anki doesn’t make you repeat new material over the first few days. But I read this idea a long time ago, and it works. At least for texts, I need this initial period of lots of review.

So, going down the rows, you can see how every day, for the first few days, Mark 1 gets repeated in the next column. The next repetition is always in the next column.

Then Longer Intervals

On the fifth day, June 30, I could stop saying Mark 1. Now I could begin the usual spaced repetition intervals: 4 days, 7 days, 12 days, and so on. Each column, moving right, is for one of those intervals. E is for four days, F is for 7 days, etc.

So, the next day to say Mark 1 was four days from June 29, which was July 3. And on the chart, there’s Mark 1, in the row for July 3, in the E column.

I didn’t need to say Mark 1 again for another 7 days: July 10. On July 10, Mark 1 is in the F column.

Hopefully all that explaining actually helps. Basically, the next repetition is always in the next column. And each row is a day. So, if the next column is E, the four-day interval, you move down four days, and write the chapter in the E column.

The Rows Show You Each Day’s Reviews

The goal is to limit our daily reviews to three, or four at the most.

Each chapter always gets reviewed in the same pattern: every day for the first four days, then wait four days, then wait seven days, etc. (See the full schedule).

So, adding a new chapter is easy. Look at the “cascade” pattern in the chart. You can fill a new chapter in quickly: every day for four days, skip down four rows, skip down seven rows …

But, here’s the brilliant part. You can see how many chapters are already slotted in each day’s row. If the row already has three chapters, don’t start a new chapter that day. Skip it.

Look at June 29th. Column A, where a new chapter goes, is blank. I already had three chapters scheduled for review that day: 3, 2, and 1. So I skipped June 29th, and started chapter 4 on June 30th.

Look down the rows. You can see how every time a day has three older reviews, I don’t put a new chapter into column A. I skipped days 2, 3, 7, and 8.

That skipping makes all the difference. By knowing when to skip adding a new chapter, I keep my daily reviews to three or four chapters a day. It’s a whole different experience.

Mark Is Fresh Again

Using this chart has completely freshened my memories of Mark. I can say the chapters with ease. Now I’ve moved on to the first two chapters of Luke (the birth and childhood of Christ).

You might be thinking: what about conflicts with later reviews? Couldn’t you do this in Anki? Excellent topics for my next post.

“Memorize Mark” Book Will Teach Memorizing By Doing

Inspired by my new favorite resources for learning Spanish, I'm rewriting my book _Memorize Mark_ as a quickstart guide. Instead of reading a hundred (delightful) pages of theory first, you'll start memorizing Mark right away.

My first major memory project was to memorize the entire Gospel of Mark. For years, I’ve been testing different combinations of memory techniques. I want to learn texts by heart as efficiently as possible. But I also want to go beyond mere memorizing, so that the texts move me to deep thought and imagination.

Now I’m working on a book to share what I’ve learned: Memorize Mark. This book will teach you how to learn the entire Gospel of Mark by heart. And you’ll be able to use these techniques to learn other texts as well.

In my first drafts, I focused on explaining the theory of how to memorize. You would read several introductory chapters, then launch into the specially formatted text of the Gospel of Mark.

But thanks to my decision to learn Spanish by Christmas, I’ve discovered a much better way to structure a how-to book. Learn by doing.

Learn By Doing

I recently bought a pile of books for learning Spanish, and they come in two types. Learn by theory, and learn by doing.

I’ve discovered that I learn by doing.

In the past, I spent several months learning a couple thousand Spanish vocabulary words (somewhat incorrectly). But I still couldn’t make a sentence.

Then, after finding a much better way to learn a language I downloaded the free introductory lessons to SynergySpanish. Within a few minutes, I was making my own Spanish sentences. For the first time.

Then, the Assimil Spanish With Ease book (and later CDs) arrived in the mail. Once again, we dove right in. Every lesson centers around an actual dialogue. A few notes explain key concepts.

I can use this same approach in teaching how to memorize.

Memorize Step by Step

For instance, instead of reading a chapter about Bible rhythms, and why they’re so important, now you’ll begin by reading the first verse, rhythmically. Then I’ll explain the basics of how rhythm unlocks your ability to remember.

With each lesson, you’ll learn exactly what you need to know right then, so you can keep learning new verses, and reviewing what you’ve learned. Instead of reading a whole book first, you start memorizing right away.

Start Simple, Explain and Review Later

Memorizing, like Spanish, requires learning many new concepts. But with Assimil, you learn new concepts as simply as possible, and only later do you get more details. This approach both:

  • Helps you focus on basics first

  • Automatically reviews these concepts later, when you deepen your understanding

In contrast, my original draft was laid out more like a dissertation. Each separate concept was explained in full, in its own chapter. This approach is great for a systematic exploration, but it’s inefficient for learning a new skill. Plus, there’s no built-in review.

I’m thrilled to be reworking these concepts into an approach where you learn and review as you go.

I still plan to write a book delving into the theory of this method. But I’ve finally realized that most people, including me, are mainly interested in getting started, not waiting for the perfect exposition.

Beta Testers Needed

Want to help me test these techniques? Contact me and let me know. Your feedback will improve the book tremendously.

Get Notified When the Book Is Available

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