Syllabus for Memory Class at AAC, Spring 2010

In this class, I taught how to memorize **50, 100, 500** or even **thousands** of facts. With special **memory techniques**, students could begin to **keep what they learned**.

Syllabus: Keep What You Learn
2010 Spring, Tues. and Thu. 12:501:40.
Aquinas Academic Center, Front Royal, Va.

Summary: Learn to memorize, improve your other classes

Welcome! In this class, you’ll learn how to memorize 50, 100, 500 or even thousands of facts. With special memory techniques, you’ll begin to keep what you learn. For instance:

  • history facts
  • vocabulary meanings
  • definitions
  • literature facts
  • science facts
  • math formulas

Instead of hoping you’ll remember such things, you’ll know that you will.

Do these techniques really work?

Yes. I’ve used these techniques to memorize thousands of facts. For instance, I know the entire Gospel of St. Mark. That’s 678 verses, nearly 15,000 words. I can recite any verse by its chapter and number.

This may seem like a superpower. In one sense, it is. It’s amazing, and you will learn how to do it.

But in another sense, this “superpower” is really a simple matter of training. In this way, memorizing is like speech, walking, reading, driving, using computers, and our other cultural “superpowers”.

In many ancient and medieval cultures, memorizing was considered just as normal as reading or driving is today. When Jesus was ten years old, the average Jewish boy memorized the entire Pentateuch. In medieval times, an aspiring monk or nun had to memorize the entire Psalter. Even today, many a Muslim knows the entire Qu’ran.

With the right techniques, and practice, you can keep what you learn.

Why haven’t I heard of these techniques before?

Sadly, in the transition from the medieval to the modern era, many educators explicitly rejected memory techniques as too “medieval.” In many areas, they had an added objection. Memory technqiues were too visual, too scholastic — in fact, too Catholic. Since then, there have since been small revivals, and even some academic research, but advanced memory techniques still haven’t gone mainstream.

It’s time to reclaim this heritage. With these ancient techniques, updated with modern research and tools, we can keep what we learn.

Class Format

Each class is 50 minutes, as usual. Many classes will be lectures. Others will include class discussions, as we practice making mnemonics (memory prompts).

We’ll have frequent quizzes, but no tests or papers on the material in this class. Instead, you’ll do memory projects, where you memorize information from your other classes. Memorizing does take work, but this way, you can do the work on what you already need to study.

Required Materials

There is no required textbook. Instead, I will provide handouts.

You must keep the handouts organized and bring all handouts to every class. I suggest a binder to keep them organized.

Please bring to every class: your class handouts, looseleaf paper, and a pen.

At home, you’ll need a tool to maintain your set of flashcards.

  • I suggest the free computer program: Anki.
  • But you can use index cards instead, with small sticky notes to mark study batches.

Fee: 5.00 to cover the cost of handouts.

I can also offer index cards and sticky notes at cost, if there’s a demand.

Grade Breakdown

PercentProject
25Quizzes
25Attendance, Participation
25Memory Projects
25Daily Flashcard Review
100TOTAL Grade for Class

Quizzes

  • We will begin each class with a short quiz.
  • If you miss the quiz, you get a 0 and a Tardiness penalty.
  • If you bring a written excuse, you remove the Tardiness penalty, but not the 0.
  • (With a quiz every class, 1 or 2 missed quizzes won’t destroy your grade.)
  • I may offer a quiz makeup project, if there’s demand.

Attendance

For absence or tardiness not to affect your grade, I need a note or call from your parent or guardian.

Participation

  • I will note whether you listen and pay attention.
  • Feel free to ask questions, though you don’t have to if you don’t need to.
  • Sometimes, you’ll need to contribute ideas, as we make up mnemonics (memory prompts).

Memory Projects

Memory projects will include:

  • preparation work for memorizing
  • memorizing information
  • presenting what you’ve memorized, both in written tests and in recitations

Daily Flashcard Review

Modern research has shown that for efficient review, your brain needs proper scheduling of each card. As you start to study lots of cards, you’ll need a short review every day. This habit of daily review is so central that it will be graded.

I’ll provide logsheets, and you’ll track whether or not you review each day. The minimum daily review time is short: 15 minutes. But you must review every day except Sunday.

The sheets must be signed by a parent/guardian and brought to class every two weeks for a brief inspection. This will encourage you as you develop this habit.

You will not being graded on whether you get each card right or not. You simply need to review.

Sunday is optional. A single missed day each week is a minor setback, if you schedule your studies properly. I don’t want to interfere with your practice of Sunday rest.

Topics we’ll cover in this class:

  • Introduction
  • Why we have “bad” memories
  • Why our memories are actually amazing
  • You can train your memory
  • Five basic steps to memorization
  • Beginner pitfalls to avoid
  • Spaced Repetition: Reviewing the right material at the right time
  • Organizing information
  • History of the Art of Memory
  • Oral mnemonics (memory prompts)
  • Mnemonics based on rhythm, rhyme, or acrostics
  • Visual mnemonics, and using your imagination
  • Storing your mnemonics (the loci method)
  • Memorizing specific kinds of information
  • vocabulary
  • definitions
  • numbers
  • years, history facts
  • literature facts
  • science facts
  • math formulas
  • In-class practice and recitations

About Bill Powell

I’m a web designer and developer, an editor, a typesetter, a writer, and a teacher. I’ve studied memory techniques, ancient and modern, and successfully memorized large amounts of material, such as the entire Gospel of St. Mark. I’ve taught these memory techniques to Christendom students, and I’m excited to offer them here at Aquinas.

I’m also assistant editor for the new Catholic kids’ magazine, St. Mary’s Messenger. (See my resume for more of my projects.) I graduated summa cum laude from the Franciscian University of Steubenville in 2001, with a B.A. in Philosophy and another B.A. in the Communication Arts.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions or comments. Thanks!

How to Make a Memory Palace: An Overview of the “Loci Method”

You can make a "memory palace" by using mental places ("loci") you already know, like your bedroom or kitchen, to store memory prompts.

Forgetting is often misplacing, so storing your mnemonics helps you find them again. An ancient method for storing mnemonics uses places you already know, like your bedroom or kitchen. We call these places “loci”, because that’s the Latin for “places”.

The fascinating thing about loci is that how well you remember them. Even if you think you have a bad memory, you can probably imagine exactly where hundreds of items are in your house!

Store mnemonics in the empty rooms of your memory

So here’s the trick: let’s say you want to remember the 46 books of the Old Testament, and you can do it with 42 mnemonics. These mnemonics are things like an apple with a bite for Genesis, an EXIT sign for Exodus, and so on. You need to remember all these in order.

What do you do? Start at one end of, say, your bedroom, and imagine that a huge apple with a bite is embedded in your bed’s headboard. Then imagine a huge EXIT sign is smashed through your bed. And so on.

You mentally go around the things in your loci in order, imagining that you connect each mnemonic to a particular place (like your oven or sink), which serves as a “shelf” object.

If you imagine each scene vividly enough, you’ll remember it later. You’ll imagine your headboard, and see the apple sticking into it, and think, “Genesis!” It’s an amazing trick.

(Of course, you still need to use spaced repetition to review these images, or they’ll eventually fade.)

You can usually fit about 5 items on each “shelf” object in your room. (For instance, we already put 2 items on two different parts of the bed.) This is much more efficient than putting just one mnemonic on each big thing; you’ll run out of room fast.

If possible, try to store the same number of mnemonics on each object (like 5). It’s easier to be sure you haven’t missed anything later.

When you connect, make the mnemonic and the “shelf” into one continuous shape.

For instance, you can:

  • splatter parts of the mnemonic over the shelf object,
  • or impale the mnemonic on the shelf object,
  • or have the mneomnic using the shelf object,
  • or attach them with visible glue, tape, or other connector,
  • or make up an even better way to connect them.

You need a continuous shape so that you won’t “lose” the mnemonic later.

Imagine this as big, bright, and colorful as possible.

And each new combination should be unique. If the headboard and the footboard of your bed look similar, don’t use them both to store mnemonics. The unique shape is what helps your mind find this again.

Should I use the loci method for everything?

No, please don’t! The loci method is splendid, but it’s a lot of work. You should almost always try flashcards first. (For instance, you could try memorizing the Old Testament books in chunks of 5.) It’s always more efficient not to use a mnemonic if you can help it.

You could also try to find or make a poem, or a simple chant. These can be very efficient too.

For a very short list of 5 or 6 items, you can also make the first mnemonic really big, and use it as “shelf” to hold the rest of the items. As long as you can remember that big mnemonic, you don’t really need to store it in any loci.

Still, some loci full of mnemonics can be the perfect tool for a big memory job.

Memorize the Books of the Bible

You can memorize all the books of the Bible with this list of visual mnemonics.

On this page, you’ll find a list of visual mnemonics for all 73 books of the Bible.

All these mnemonics are visual. They’re pictures you can see in your imagination.

And they’re mnemonics, because they’re easy to remember, and they’ll remind you of the names of the books. You might not be able to imagine “Haggai” very easily, but you can imagine an old hag.

Scroll past the list for a longer explanation.

Old Testament

BookMnemonic
GenesisApple with bite
ExodusEXIT sign
LeviticusLev-er
NumbersCalculator
DeuteronomyHuge dew drop on top of on switch
JoshuaJosh/Joshua
JudgesJudge wig
RuthRuth or root
1&2 SamuelTwo Sams
1&2 KingsTwo crowns
1&2 ChroniclesTwo old chroniclers, writing in a big book
EzraA PEZ dispenser
Nehemiahbig knee
TobitA big toe that has bit
JudithJudith
EstherA frightened queen Esther [holding big ‘E’]
JobComputer monitor, for someone’s job
PsalmLyre (a harp-like instrument for singing)
ProverbsChunk of pave-ment
EcclesiastesMexican napping in a siesta [with ‘E’ on hat]
CanticlesA cantor singing (Canticle of Canticles, Song of Songs)
WisdomAn old, white beard.
SirachSir Ack — a knight hack-ing & coughing (Ecclesiasticus)
IsaiahIsaiah/Isaac
JeremiahJeremiah/Jeremy
LamentationsA handkerchief, soggy from tears
BaruchA big bar
EzekielDry bones dancing (Ezekiel’s vision of bones coming to life)
DanielLion (Daniel in the lion’s den)
HoseaGarden hose
JoelJoel/Joe
AmosMouse holding paws to make an A
ObadiahBed shaped like an O
JonahWhale
Micahmic-rophone
NahumMan hum-ming
HabakkukProphet Habakkuk carried by hair
ZephaniahZ-fan (E.g. big Z or Zebra stuck in fan)
HaggaiOld hag
ZechariahZ-car (E.g, Zebra driving zebra-striped car.)
MalachiMail-man (Malachi also means “messenger of God”)
1&2 MaccabeesTwo giant bees

New Testament

I group the New Testament books differently. I don’t need help remembering the Gospels or Acts, and Apocalypse (or Revelation) at the end is pretty easy too.

What mixes me up are the Epistles. But you can break them into three equal groups! The first 10 are by St. Paul, and the last 5 aren’t. (Assuming Hebrews isn’t his). On a side note, the Pauline letters are ordered from longest to shortest. Philemon is tiny.

Note that I’m combining “1 and 2” sets into a single mnemonic. For example, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians are two apple cores.

BookMnemonic
Matthew, Mark, Luke, JohnNewspaper (Gospel means “good news”)
ActsAxe
RomansRoman soldier
1&2 CorinthiansTwo apple cores
GalatiansGalaxy
EphesiansElephant (has E, ph, an)
PhilippiansPhillip or Phillip’s head screwdriver
ColossiansCol-umn
1&2 ThessaloniansTwo saloon doors
1&2 TimothyTwo Timothys
TitusTie-dye shirt, in T shape
PhilemonLemon
HebrewsJew (Hebrew) in traditional garb
JamesBlue jay
1&2 PeterTwo keys
1&2&3 JohnThree Johns in triangle
JudeSt. Jude’s image of a face, or a dude
Apocalypse (Revelation)Explosion

Kinds of mnemonics used in this list

As you noticed, this list includes different kinds of mnemonics.

A name of someone you know

Many Bible books have names which are still common today, like Joshua, Judith, and Timothy. Do you know someone who has this name, either in real life, or even a movie character or a celebrity? You can imagine that person as a mnemonic. Usually, you’ll just imagine the face.

BookMnemonic
IsaiahIsaiah/Isaac (Isaac is different, but it’s more common now, and sounds similar.)
1&2 SamuelTwo Sams (With two Sams, we combine both books into one mnemonic.)

A symbol of something that happens in the book

Sometimes, you can imagine one thing that happens in the book. Or you can imagine something that reminds you of the book’s meaning.

BookMnemonic
GenesisApple with bite
NumbersCalculator (There’s no calculator in Numbers, but it reminds you of “numbers.”)

A reminder of the sound of the book’s name (a bad pun)

Sometimes, all you can do is pick a mnemonic that sounds a little like the book’s name. The sound of the mnemonic will remind you of the word. I’ve put these sounds in italics.

BookMnemonic
Nehemiahbig knee
HoseaGarden hose

Of course, if any mnemonic doesn’t work for you, just make up your own.

Is this the only way to remember all these books?

Not at all. You could use a poem, or try putting each chunk of 5 names on a flashcard. But if you like visual mnemonics, these might help.

How am I supposed to keep track of 73 different mnemonics?

You’ll probably want to store the Old Testament books using the “loci method.”

For the New Testament books, I only need the three groups of epistles. So in each group, I use the first book as the base for the rest, and I don’t really need to bother with loci places.

For instance, for the first group, I imagine a Roman with the other four book mnemonics attached to him, from top to bottom. He’s hold two apple cores (1 & 2 Corinthians), he has a galaxy (Galatians) around his waist, he’s riding an elephant (Ephesians), and the elephant has a Phillips’ head screwdriver (Phillippians) in its trunk.

You can do the same sort of thing with the other two groups.

Spaced Repetition: Overview

Spaced Repetition is reviewing each fact just often enough so that you don't forget it.

If you don’t have a review program, you will forget almost everything you learn. For most of human history, people have used various ways to cycle through and renew their knowledge. Think of seasonal festivals or liturgical prayer. Spaced repetition is an exciting new way to review that may be the most efficient method yet.

Normally, when you use a deck of flashcards, you have no idea how often you should look at each card again. Either you don’t keep up with reviews, and forget everything all over again, or else you review the whole deck over and over again. And that gets old fast.

With spaced repetition, you review each fact just often enough so that you don’t forget it.

Why spaced repetition matters

Spaced repetition is long-term review. This is the exact opposite of the typical approach: one-time or infrequent tests and exams.

Quizzes and tests don’t really work.

A single quiz, test, or exam is only a snapshot. Your grade reflects only what you know on that date.

Imagine a summa cum laude senior retaking freshman finals. She would probably fail.

Real memory is ongoing, through your whole life

This is totally different from the “cram-for-the-test” ethic.

You must keep renewing your knowledge. Your brain changes. It’s alive, growing. If you don’t review, you lose what you’ve learned.

Your brain naturally forgets.

Your brain naturally forgets, and usually, this is good. Do you really want to remember the colors of everyone’s socks? Forever?

When you first learn a thing, you have a short time to convince your brain that, unlike sock color, this is important.

It can be as little as one hour. Otherwise, your brain tosses it.

But if you review at the right times, your brain will remember.

Every time you review, you can wait about twice as long before your next review.

This means a bunch of repetitions right at the beginning, and then far fewer later on.

A conservative spaced repetition schedule

There is no perfect schedule for spaced repetition. Researchers are still trying to fine-tune the algorithm. Personally, I doubt the same algorithm would work for all people or all material anyway.

But here is a basic schedule. These seem to be the intervals that will usually work.

First, repeat the fact a few times, until you feel like you remember it. For short facts, that’s enough, and you can wait for your next review.

For clusters of verses, or other complex material, you may want to repeat the material two or three times a day, over the next three days. This allows you to relax and take your time to make your initial memorization.

Once you feel like you know it, wait 4 days. Then review. Sometimes the fact will still be easy. Other times, remembering will be a lot harder than you thought. That’s the magic of spaced repetition. Four days ago, you felt like you’d remember this forever. But when you check up on it, you find out you need to review.

After that review, you can wait one week. The chart shows the rest of the intervals.

ReviewInterval
A1st day, 3–4x/day
B2nd day, 2–3x/day (only for texts, or other complex material)
C3rd day, 2–3x/day (only for texts, or other complex material)
D4th day, 2–3x/day (only for texts, or other complex material)
E4 days after you stopped reviewing
F1 week
G12 days
H3 weeks
I1 month
J2 months
K3 months
L5 months
M9 months
N6 months
O2 years
P6 years
Q11 years
R18 years

And so on. Many reviews at first. But once you get past that hurdle, you have far fewer reviews.

Again, notice how ordinary study habits are the exact opposite. In school, you learn something, then don’t see it again till the test, then wait even longer before the exam. With all that space between reviews, you have to relearn most of the material every time.

If you miss the answer, you basically go back and start over again. However, a computer program may look over your whole history with that card, and decide you can move back up the chain a little faster this time.

This is a conservative (repetitious) schedule. The flashcard program Anki uses even fewer repetitions.

You can use either computer flashcards or paper flashcards. Computer flashcards are a lot less work, as long as you’re already used to maintaining a computer — and backing up your data! Otherwise, you might prefer paper flashcards.

Remember Numbers

Numbers usually don't give us a strong mental image. So we use a **code**, where **consonants** stand for **numbers**. Now we can use words to "spell" numbers!

Each number can be spelled with a consonant. Here is the basic code:

Basic Code for Numbers

NumberConsonant SoundsWhy This Makes Sense (Maybe)
1t or dBoth letters have one vertical stroke
2nTwo vertical strokes
3mThree vertical strokes
4rLast letter of “four”
5lYour fingers and thumb make an L together.
6j, soft g or ch or shWell. A loopy J kind of looks like a 6?
7hard c, k, q or hard gThe angle in the k is a bit like a 7.
8f or vHmm. The “8” looks like a cursive “f”?
9b or pp is almost a backwards 9
0s or zz is for zero.

These letters are free: a, e, i, o, u, and also h, w, and y*. Since “x” combines sounds for two numbers (7 and 0), I avoid it.

Free letters don’t point to any number. You just use them to make the words.

Some numbers have more than one consonant: that means that either can mean the number. For instance, the word /pub/ translates to 99.

It’s pretty easy to memorize this code. Notice how the pairs of consonants have similar sounds. The letters t and d are a pair, as opposed to, say, t and s. When you notice this pairing, memorizing the code is much simpler.

Longer Numbers? Start Combining!

These are a great start, but how do you memorize any number above 9?

You could put them one after the other or combine them. For instance, for 91, you’d have “bee” and “tie”. You could imagine a bee wearing a tie.

But if you work a lot with numbers, you might want to invest in learning mnemonics for all the two-digit numbers from 00 to 99.

For instance, here are example mnemonics for 90 to 99:

NumMnemonic
90BuS
91BaT
92BoNe
93BuM
94BeaR
95BeLL
96BuS
97BuG
98BeeF
99BaBy

You can see how each word is “spelled” by the number consonants, and filled out with the vowels and other free letters.

If you have mnemonics for all the two-digit numbers, you can do some pretty amazing memory feats. You can combine your two-digit mnemonics to memorize four-digit and even six-digit numbers.

For instance, just using the mnemonics above, you could memorize:

  • 9,098 (A bus running over a huge slab of beef)
  • 9,991 (A baby flying around on a huge bat)
  • 295 (Noah ringing a huge bell)
  • 9,890 (A huge slab of beef crashing into a bus)
  • and many, many more.

Memorize 110 visual mnemonics, and you can leverage them to easily remember 10,000 separate numbers.

Some of these number mnemonics can be found in The Memory Book, by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. But they found some of their mnemonics in even older books (or at least I did).

Order Matters

Did you notice how 9,098 and 9,890 reverse each other? When combining, make sure you’re clear which number comes first. Since I read left to right and top to bottom, that’s how I order my mnemonics. The first number is on top and/or to the left, the second is on the bottom and/or to the right.

So a bus running over a slab of beef is totally different from that same slab of beef creaming the bus from above.

Spelling and Sound

Did you notice how “bell” actually has two L’s? If we were going strictly by spelling, this wouldn’t mean “95”, it would mean “955”.

Most people who use this “Major” system (apparently it’s named after some Major) focus on the sounds rather than the spelling. Since “bell” has only two sounds, it only represents two numbers.

Officially, the Major system seems to focus entirely on sound, such that a word like “dough”, with its silent “g”, would only mean “1”, not “17” or “16”.

Myself, I see word spellings very clearly (I’m a writer, go figure), so it confuses me if the spelling of my mnemonic contradicts the sound too much. I can handle “bell”, because it’s just an extra L, but “dough” would make me anxious.

So as you choose your mnemonics, try to choose words that come most naturally and make sense to you. I suggest leaning towards the sound, rather than the spelling, since that seems to work for others, but if the spelling distracts you, consider another choice.

Choose Your Own Mnemonics

I could copy-paste a full list of mnemonics for 00 to 99 here, but I’m not going to. Here’s why:

  • You might not be into numbers, and even if you are, you’ll probably glaze over the list and keep reading for now anyway.

  • The Internet has tons of these lists. The Wikipedia article for “mnemonic major system” currently has three mnemonics for each two-digit number!

  • You’ll need to review your list and choose better mnemonics for the ones that don’t make sense or don’t interest you. That’s really important.

Use these mnemonics to build more

Once you’re comfortable with these mnemonics, you can use them to remember 3-digit numbers, and even years.

Remember Years

When you study history, you have many years to remember. How can you memorize 4-digit years? Here are some options.

Try a flashcard first

The first option for finding a year mnemonic is: don’t. Make a flashcard, and see if the year sticks in your mind. Often, it will snap into place after a few reviews.

You should only use a year mnemonic after you’ve tried to remember it with flashcards, and the year keeps slipping your mind.

Learn 3-digit prompts as you need them

Before you keep reading, make sure you know the basic number code. We’ll use that code to build our codes for years.

Years are (usually) 3- or 4-digit numbers. You can build words for most of them easily enough. For instance, take 753 B.C., the Founding of Rome. 753 could be a clam.

I have a list of mnemonics for 000 to 999. However, memorizing a thousand year mnemonics might not be the best use of your time. You could use that list to learn prompts as you need them..

Here are some example prompts for major years.

YearMnemonic
100tissue
200Ness
300moss
400Ross
500lasso
150towels
250nails
350moles
450reels
550lilies
600jazz
700kiss
800fuzzy
900bass
650gels
750coils
850files
950bowls

But, I’m not sure this is the best way to learn years.

Group all years in the same century

If you were studying 20th century literature, you could store all your dates in the same room. For 1954, you’d only need to store the 54, not the 19.

Transform the 2-digit prompts into 3-digit promets

This may be the quickest. For instance, for 753, you take the 53 (lime), and change it so that you know it’s not only 53, but 753. Using the chart below, you would color this lime khaki (tan) and drape it with huge chains.

A color and a change for each century

Once you learn these ten colors and changes, you can make up prompts for years as you need them. Each prompt is unique: a khaki lime with chains looks different from an ordinary lime. But each prompt is also easy to figure out. (You already know that lime means 53.)

CenturyColorTransformation
1turquoisethorny
2orangenachos
3mintmoldy
4redrotten
5yellowshining
6greenglued
7khakichains
8violetfire or flowers
9bluebroken
0silversilvered

You can drop the millennium. You’ll know if you mean 753 or 1753.

“Mint” is a very light green, so you can distinguish it from “green”, a dark green (but not too dark). You can also use “magenta” for 3, if you prefer.

Don’t only use color. It’s easy for colors to “vanish.” You don’t want to be unsure what color that lime is. By using a color and changing the shape of the prompt, you’ll remember the new prompt much better.

These colors and changes aren’t random. They use the sounds of the numbers. Since 1 is T or D, the color is turquoise, and the change is thorny. The only trick was 2, but at least orange has an N. And if you splatter your prompt with nachos, the cheese is a (slightly frightening) orange. So it works out.

Don’t forget to try a flashcard first

As you can see, these various methods can be a bit tedious. They can be quite effective, though — I have a collection of years which I can look up, and it’s pretty neat. But again, try the flashcard first. Look carefully at the year as you do those first “failing” reviews. The shapes of the actual numerals may begin to stick in your mind more readily.

Rhyme and Rhythm: Overview

"Rhyme and rhythm" may be the easiest way to remember things. But did you know that the **rhythm** can be even more important than the **rhyme**?

Rhyme and rhythm are amazing. A simple rhyme can condense lots of information. You probably already know and use a few mnemonic rhymes.

For instance, which months have 30 days? Here’s an old mnemonic rhyme you may already know.

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November.

Consider a chart of the same data:

MonthDays
Jan31
Feb28/29
March31
April30
May31
Jun30
Jul31
Aug31
Sep30
Oct31
Nov30
Dec31

Which would you rather memorize?

Computers love charts. Brains ignore them.

History rhymes

In the late 19th and early 20th century, mnemonic rhymes were quite popular. Especially (as far as I can tell) for memorizing history. In the last few years, many of these old books have been digitized and put online. You can find poems covering the whole history of England or America (at least, up to the late 19th century). Even the years are worked in.

The great Julius Caesar, B.C. fifty-five,
Having conquered the Gauls, came with Britons to strive.
He returned the next year with more soldiers from Rome,
But they fought him so well, he made peace and went home.
No further attempt at invasion we see,
Till the Emperor Claudius, A.D. forty-three.1

Although they sometimes smell a bit of 19th century tastes and prejudices (which can make for inaccurate history), you might still find these useful. Remember, you should cross-check these facts against your other studies. Mnemonics remind you of what you’re learning elsewhere. They’re no substitute for solid studies.

Rhythm Alone: Recitative Style

Rhyme is great, but the rhythm can actually be more important. You can break up a text into short pieces that rhythmically play against each other. In The Oral Style, French priest Marcel Jousse found such rhythms in the Gospel of St. Mark. We’re used to thinking of a text like the Bible as solid blocks of text. The Bible is even broken up into verses and numbered. But underneath all this, it has rhythm.

Compare these two renderings of Mark 2:16

Standard block of text

And the scribes and the Pharisees, seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners, said to his disciples, “Why does your master eat and drink with publicans and sinners?”

Oral rhythms

And the scribes and the Pharisees,
    seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners,
said to his disciples,
    “Why does your master eat and drink
       with publicans and sinners?”

The “recitative” version is far more memorable.

Instead of a solid blob, you can see the main parts of this verse, and how they fit together. The indentation shows the back and forth rhythm. The first two lines are a pair, the next three are a trio.

Say them out loud, and you’ll hear the rhythm. Each first thought creates an expectation which is satisfied by the second thought. “Why does your master eat and drink…” Now what? “…with tax collectors and sinners.”

The rhythm is in the meaning of the phrases. You can’t just break up any old text (such as the phone book) and get rhythm. But in the Bible, you can find these pairs and trios.

You can also highlight key words, and emphasize them when you recite the text. One key phrase here might be publicans and sinners, since it’s unique and repeated here.

You can find underlying rhythms in many texts

The Bible was composed at a time when people were used to speaking and listening for rhythm. So it’s pretty easy to find those rhythms, once you start looking. But you can sometimes find some rhythm even in modern definitions.

Standard block

The Holy Spirit proceeds eternally and without beginning from the Father and equally from the Son, as from one principle, not through two, through a process called inspiration.

Oral rhythms

The Holy Spirit proceeds
    eternally and without beginning
from the Father
    and equally from the Son,
as from one principle,
    not through two,
through a process called
    inspiration

It would take a long time to try to make that definition rhyme. But finding a rhythm, even a weak rhythm, is quite fast, and can make the meaning and flow much more clear. Try to find rhythms in your definitions, and rewrite them in this style. You may be surprised at how much easier they are to understand — and remember.


  1. From The History of England in Rhyme, by Robert C. Adams, 1880. 

Verbal Mnemonics: Overview

A **verbal** mnemonic relies on **words** to help you remember. Here are the basic verbal mnemonics.

Use Each First Letter from a List of Words

Often, you have to memorize a list of words or phrases. You can take the first letter of each one, and make those first letters into something else.

A Phrase or Sentence

Perhaps the easiest verbal mnemonic to make is a phrase or sentence. Take the first letter of each word you want to remember, and make those letters into a sentence. (This is usually for lists, but you could also select a list of key words from a text.)

  • The Planets: My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies.
PlanetMnemonic
MercuryMy
VenusVery
EarthExcellent
MarsMother
JupiterJust
SaturnServed
UranusUs
NeptuneNine
PlutoPies
  • Mnemonic Word → First Letter → Fact Word

Apparently, Pluto was recently demoted and lost its planet status. Perhaps the mother should serve “Nachos” instead of “Nine Pies,” at least until the astronomers are in a better mood.

An Acrostic

Sometimes, you can combine the first letters into a single “word” or phrase. This is usually easiest if order doesn’t matter, so you can rearrange the letters.

Gifts of the Holy Spirit: PUFFWCK

GiftMnemonic
PietyP
UnderstandingU
FortitudeF
Fear of the LordF
WisdomW
CounselC
KnowledgeK

Colors of the spectrum: ROY G. BIV.

A classic mnemonic: this one even preserves the order of the spectrum.

ColorMnemonic
RedR
OrangeO
YellowY
GreenG
BlueB
IndigoI
VioletV

If needed, you can visualize these for an added visual mnemonic.

  • PUFFWCK: I imagine “puff wick,” a candle getting snuffed.

So when I ask, “What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit?” I find that image of the candle being snuffed. I could even store this on a loci if I needed to, but I don’t.

Use each first syllable

What if only the first letter is not enough? You can also try making a nonsense word (or words) using the first syllable.

For instance, Aristotle described three kinds of science: Natural Science, Mathematics, and Metaphysics. How about a new nonsense word: NatMatMet. True, it doesn’t mean anything, but if you chant it a few times, it may stick.

Spelling

Remembering how to spell words can be particularly tough. Often, the correct spelling hinges on a few key letters in the word.

How do you spell souvenir? “In the South, sir, I got a souvenir.”

The key letters there are sou and ir, so this mnemonic focuses on them.

Another problem is when two (or more!) words sound the same. Take principle and principal. How do you know which is which? Their meanings can give you a clue.

WordMnemonic
principleA principle is a rule.
principalThe principal of a school is your pal (or not)

If you like spelling mnemonics, you’re in luck. There are tons of them out there, at least for English.

Rhyme and Rhythm

The most memorable mnemonics are probably short verses with rhyme and rhythm. There are many excellent books and sites that can give you rhymes that others have already made up. But since making up your own can be a little more work, we’ll cover them separately.

Comparing Verbal Mnemonics

MnemonicMaking: Speed and EaseUsage, and Potential Problems
AcrosticFair to FastLists. What if you forget what the letter stands for?
PhraseFastLists. Same as acrostic..
First SyllableFastLists. Nonsense words sometimes “fall apart”.
Rhyme and rhythmSlow to FairLists, chunks of text. May need visual mnemonics.
Rhythm onlyFair to FastLists, chunks of text. Not as memorable with no rhyme.

Three Study Habits for Memorizing

If you're used to cramming, you'll need to form some new habits for your spaced repetition. Check out these three simple study habits.

Basically, with memorizing, you don’t want to study too much, or too little. That sounds obvious, but in real life, it takes discipline.

Review in short sessions.

Your brain tires easily. Many short study sessions are better than a marathon cramming session. If you have a lot to review today, do more than one session. (And if you’re already tired, get some rest and review later. You need to be alert.)

How short is short? It depends on the material. You should be able to tell when you’re too tired, or your mind just feels “full”.

How do you know when you’re too tired? When you realize you’ve been staring at the same question for over a minute, thinking about something totally different.

Add a few new cards each day.

Don’t learn too many new cards at once. You’ll set up huge reviews for tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. You won’t be as excited as you are right now.

The exact number of new cards depends on the subject. You might learn ten or twenty new vocab words in a day, but only three or four verses. Whenever you feel yourself getting tired, you’ve probably learned enough new cards for now. If you’re a full-time student, these numbers will be higher, of course.

On the flip side, do try to add a few new cards every day. They’re like planting seedlings. As time goes by, you’ll suddenly realize you’re starting to get a lot of fruit.

Review every day!

You can skip one day a week, like Sunday, but otherwise, do try to review every day. If you don’t, bad things happen:

  • Cards pile up. Every day you wait will make it harder to catch up.

  • You have to redo your newest cards. Because you didn’t get to them in time, they fell out the back of your head. Now you have to start over.

What happens if (when) you do miss several days? You’ll have a big “stack” of overdue cards. Don’t feel you have to get through the whole stack to “catch up.” Spend a little extra time each day, and you’ll soon be caught up.

Summary: Don’t study too much, or too little

  • Review in short sessions.
  • Add a few new cards each day.
  • Review every day (except Sunday).

Beginner pains in memorizing, and how to cope

As you learn to memorize, you'll probably experience some unpleasant new feelings. Once you understand them, they're no big deal. Some are actually good news.

Test hangups

Tests are probably your least favorite part of school (and maybe life). But with spaced repetition, you have to test yourself on your memory cards almost every day. Is this a recipe for self-torture?

Not at all. Reviewing cards is quite different from taking a test. When you miss a question on a test, bad things happen. You get a bad grade. You never get another chance to get the question right, except maybe on a final. Your report card sags.

When you miss a memory card, good things happen. You see the card again very soon. And soon after that, too. All this means that when you do take a test, you’ll get this right. So even though reviewing cards can feel like a test, it isn’t.

Test panic. I can’t remember the answer!

All that being said, reviewing can feel like a test. Especially that horrid feeling of test panic. You stare at a question and your mind is blank. Your stomach churns. Now what?

Now you wait. And often, the answer will come.

Remember, we try to schedule these cards so that you don’t look at each card until you need to. This is very efficient, because you spend less time studying. On the other hand, it means you’re actually trying to almost forget! You’re trying to get test panic!

If you really hate this feeling, you can simply review your cards a little more often. But you’ll probably get used to it. Once you realize no grade is plummeting, it’s no big deal. Besides, the answer often comes.

How long should you wait? I’ve read 10 seconds — this is longer than you think. For a long time I thought that waiting “only” 10 seconds defeated the purpose of spaced repetition, but that led to some long delays. I thought they’d go away, but no, I was “configuring” those cards to always take about that long to recall.

Basically, you should wait as long as you want to have to wait to remember the fact. And 10 seconds is probably plenty.

Failure! I keep missing cards.

No matter how long you wait, sometimes the answer doesn’t come. You’ll probably miss cards fairly often. And that’s okay. Reviewing isn’t a test. This is a whole new kind of “wrong” answer. The kind that helps you out.

Yes, in real life, I still hate missing cards sometimes. But I have an entire schooling career of self-loathing to get over here. In another ten years, who knows? I might hardly notice when I miss.

If you really hate missing a particular card, the card is probably too long. Try breaking it up.

New skill hangups

Memorizing is a skill, and any new skill can have bad feelings just because it’s new.

Imagining is hard!

When you first start imagining, you’ll probably imagine too small. When you try to imagine bigger and brighter, you may actually feel it takes effort. It can be hard, like squinting into the distance. Or doing math in you head. Or doing pushups.

But imagining will get easier. It’s like a muscle. With exercise, you’ll get stronger.

Boredom! I know this already!

Boredom is the opposite of test panic. Sometimes, when you see a card’s question, you’ll know the answer so well you can actually feel it.

Have you ever finished a book, and then flipped right back to the front and read through it again? Or watched a movie, and then watched it again within a couple days? You get this sensation of boredom. I know all this! Show me something new!

Well, listen to that feeling. What’s it telling you? You know this. That means all this review is working! Congratulations.

It also means you can wait a little longer before you review it again.

Discouragement! All this extra work! Is it all worth it?

Reviewing and memorizing can definitely be more work than the average study habits.

But let’s face it, the average study habits give pretty average results.

And memorizing will save you work as you continue to study. If you keep forgetting stuff, you’ll have tons of work ahead as you keep relearning what you’ve forgotten. But if you memorize, you won’t have to relearn the basics you forgot from last year.

Even better, memorizing will increase your understanding. The more you know, the more new things you can learn, faster.

Summary of these beginner pains, and their solutions

Test panic. I can’t remember!
It’s okay. Hesitation is good. You need this renewal. Wait for the answer.
Failure! I missed a card!
This isn’t a final exam. Good thing you’ll see the card tomorrow.
Imagination is hard!
Good! You’re getting a workout. You’ll get stronger.
Boredom!
This strange new sensation means you know this material. Relish it.
Discouragement! Extra work!
It’s much less work than forgetting it all, then learning it over again.

Remember Months and Letters of the Alphabet

If you have to remember a particular **month** or **letter of the alphabet**, have a look at these visual mnemonics.

Mnemonics for months

Many memory books have lists of mnemonics for months; you may recognize a few here.

MonthMnemonic
JanuaryNew Year’s Hat
Februaryvalentine
MarchMarch hare
Aprilsprinkler (April Showers)
Mayspring blossom
Junesummer sandal
Julyfirecracker
Augusthay bale
Septemberbinder (back to school)
OctoberJack O’Lantern
Novemberturkey
DecemberChristmas tree

Mnemonics for the letters of the alphabet

Here is a series using animals.

LetterMnemonicLetterMnemonic
AanteaterNnewt or narwhal
BbearOoctopus
CcrocodilePpig
DdolphinQquail
EelephantRraccoon
FfrogSsnake
GgiraffeTtiger
HhyenaUunicorn
IiguanaVvampire bat
JjellyfishWwalrus
KkangarooXfoX
LleopardYyak
MmonkeyZzebra

A narwhal is a small whale with tusks.

The alphabet mnemonics had some inspiration from Animalia by Graeme Base.

Amazing Ancient (and Modern) Memories

Ordinary people have memorized whole books, hundreds of thousands of words, both in ancient times and today.

It’s tempting to conclude that memorizing, say, a Gospel, is simply impossible. The human brain is great at Thanksgiving etiquette, lousy at Gospels. And that’s that.

But the evidence says otherwise.

  • In medieval times, many monasteries and convents wouldn’t let you take your vows until you’d learned the entire Psalter, all 153 Psalms. In English, that’s over 2400 verses–about 47,000 words. Some scholars (not only the superstars) knew the entire New Testament.

  • But in the time of Jesus, many ordinary boys memorized the entire Pentateuch. That’s Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–about 5800 verses and 150,000 words. The “smart” kids (as opposed to the B students who maxed out on the mere Pentateuch) would continue and memorize more.

Pretty impressive. But that was in the Golden Days, right? Back when the fairies sprinkled mnemonic pixie dust in every stream? Not so fast. Modern people can memorize too.

  • In Africa, many villages still have a griot, a bard who can recite epics and local genealogies. When Alex Haley wrote his family history in Roots, he traveled to Africa to meet with a griot.

  • There are many, many Muslims today who have memorized the entire Qur’an. The Qur’an is over 6,000 verses and over 77,000 words.

  • There are also Christians who have memorized all of Mark and other whole books of the Bible. Some even have a club: the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NOBS).

  • And the founder of NOBS, Tom Boomershine, mentions in his book Story Journey that even today, many young Hasidic Jews have memorized all of Genesis and Exodus, in Hebrew, by the ripe old age of … four.

How long is Mark? 678 verses and about 15,000 words. No sweat.

We don’t have many modern memorizers in Western culture, but they do exist. And they’d be the first to admit that they be may be smart, but they don’t have photographic memories or any exotic superpower. Just the usual superpower: an average memory.

Anki: Quickstart Guide

My favorite flashcard program is Anki. It's open source and free, and here are the basics you need to know to start using it right know.

Anki is a free program you can use to keep track of your flashcards. Anki uses spaced repetition to make sure you wait the right amount of time between reviews. Each card is scheduled separately. If a card is hard for you, you’ll see it more often. If it’s easy, you’ll wait longer between reviews.

You can tell Anki how many new cards you want to add each day, how long you want to study each day, and more. All you have to do is check each day to see which cards are due for review. Anki takes care of the rest.

Download Anki

You can download Anki here.

Anki is easy to install. Make sure you select the right download for your computer (Linux, Macintosh, or Windows).

Anki also offers mobile versions, for phones and various other devices. The instructions here are for the main, desktop version. The mobile versions have a similar interface, but also reduced functionality. Basically, you do the complicated stuff on the desktop version, and use the mobile version to review.

NOTE: I originally wrote this guide years ago, so some of the info and screenshots below have become out-of-date. I’ll be revising it soon, but in the meantime, check out the full Anki docs.

Start your first deck

Anki works with decks. A deck is a file which holds your flashcards. First, begin your new personal deck by going to File on the menu, and then New. You can see the File menu in this first picture.

After you get your new file, go to the File menu again, and choose Save. This saves your new personal deck file.

Add Cards

Entering cards in Anki is easy. Click the big green plus sign to get started.

![Anki: Add Cards]((/wp-content/uploads/(/wp-content/uploads/images/anki/make-deck/anki-enter-card.png)

Click Add after each card. After you add your last card, click Close.

Shared Deck

There’s also a huge selection of free decks which are contributed by other Anki users. To get those, you do File -> Download -> Shared deck.

Main Screen

Anki: Main Screen

The “main screen” gives you an overview of your decks. It can be handy to divide cards into a few decks, but don’t have too many. Switching decks gets to be a pain.

This screen gives you quick information. For each deck, you can see how many cards are due for review today, and how many new cards you plan to learn.

You can only open one deck at a time. When you open a deck, you see the Study Options screen in the next picture.

Study options

Anki: Study Options

Note: The most current version of Anki may have a slightly reorganized Study Options screen. But the functionality is basically the same.

When you open a deck, you see this Study Options screen. At first, you can skip this screen. Just press Start Reviewing, and you’ll start studying the cards. After awhile, Anki will tell you you’re done. Tomorrow, you’ll come back and see which cards are due.

But once you’re used to Anki, you might want to tweak these options. You can set:

  • how many new cards to learn each day
  • how long to study this deck before Anki closes the deck, or
  • how many cards to study before Anki closes the deck

For instance, set Session Limit (minutes) to 15, for 15 minutes. Leave the session limit for (questions) at 0. Now, when Anki says you’re finished, you’ve studied 15 minutes.

Grading Yourself

Anki: Grading Cards

Here’s an Anki flashcard just after showing the answer. At the bottom of the card are four buttons:

  • Again: You got the card wrong. You’ll see it again this session.
  • Hard: You really had a hard time getting this right. Or, sometimes Anki outlines this button. That means you recently got this wrong, and should see it soon.
  • Good: You hesitated a little bit, but then got the right answer.
  • Easy: You got it right away!

The green + button on the top toolbar is to add a new card. The white box button next it lets you edit the current card. That should be enough to get you started. Don’t forget to back up your Anki deck files!

Advanced Anki

The Anki docs are detailed and excellent. When you get curious about advanced features, they’re worth reading.

Paper flashcards: Overview

If you don't like computers, you can track your facts with paper flashcards.

If you really want to keep what you learn, you need to commit to a daily program of spaced repetition. But if you’re not excited about all that extra time in front of a computer, take heart. Research on spaced repetition began in the 19th century, so obviously, it’s possible to do this with paper flashcards.

Personally, I used paper flashcards for many months. It wasn’t so bad, but since I use computers for so many other things, I eventually gravitated towards a flashcard program.

The big downside of paper flashcards is that you need to track them yourself. Here’s how I did it.

Make paper flashcards with index cards, or cut computer printouts into cards.

Normal printer paper works fine. You could also try perforated card stock, but it’s pricey.

Track the cards with small sticky notes.

Attach a sticky note to each “batch” of cards you review together.

You could do this for every single card, but I found that I could do batches of cards, and it was a lot faster. (On the flip side, if you do record the tracking data on each card, you won’t lose your work if you drop the cards and they get shuffled.)

You can use letters to indicate which review you’re on. The first review is A, the second B, etc. See the schedule of reviews. Each batch needs both the current review, and the current due date.

After you review a batch of cards, cross out the letter and the due date on the note.

Usually, that date is today’s date, unless you’re behind.

You calculate the letter and date for the next review.

If you just did B, the next review is C, the 3rd review. You check the schedule for the 3rd review, and find that it is “1 week”.

So you write a C, and the date for one week from today. That’s the next due date.

Note that instead of grading on Again to Easy, like in Anki, you only grade right or wrong. I mean, you could try to calculate different review intervals, but I was way too lazy for that.

If you get a card wrong, you simply keep that card at the front, and refile the rest of the batch. Now the card you need to see again will be waiting at your next review, and you can add it to your next batch of new cards.

Refile this batch in the row of cards, at its new due date

Since the row is ordered by date, it’s easy to find the place to file it. Put the batch between the cards dated before it and the cards dated after it.

The newest cards are first. So the batches due are always at the front.

So the basic routine: review the cards, grade yourself, re-date them, and refile them.

Paper flashcards may be more work (and hard to back up), but they have some advantages

  • You can carry them anywhere, and they don’t depend on computers.
  • It’s easier to rearrange them, and highlight or draw on them.
  • You can also try both ways, and see which you prefer.

Possible catastrophes?

I never did figure out how to back up my paper cards. In general, paper data is probably much safer than electronic data that isn’t backed up, but that’s not absolute.

What I really worried about was knocking over the whole case of cards. Only the first card of each batch would have its attached sticky note. But with a good case, that’s not really that likely. I used an excellent old metal case I found at a library book sale.

In theory, you could lay out all the cards on a table every month or so and photograph the lot. But really, using paper flashcards is a commitment to the paper way of doing things — you trade off easy backups for other advantages. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

Computer Flashcards: Overview

A computer flashcard program may be the most efficient tool out there for managing your memorized facts. But computers have their issues, too. Here are some tips.

A computer is amazing, but it’s also a highly specialized tool. Before you start storing weeks, months and years of memory work on a computer, make sure you consider how to avoid potential problems.

First, use computers responsibly.

Unfortunately, there are severe problems with the computer industry, such as sweatshops, poisons, and pollution.

Since you’re probably reading this on a computer, you may already be familiar with these issues. Personally, I used computers for many years without even thinking about how they were made, and what happened to them after they became “trash”.

It’s actually pretty grim. See the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition for some disturbing facts and photos.

So let’s use this tool as responsibly as we can. Here are some ideas; let me know if you have others.

Buying computers

Try to buy used. This may not be possible, especially for mobile devices, or if you do a lot of graphic or video editing. But you’d be surprised how often you can get a good deal on a used box.

If you must buy new, you can at least look for a company that’s making an effort.

For instance, look for the RoHS-compliant symbol. (Restriction of Hazardous Substances.)

Some companies will also take back your computer when it dies, to recycle it responsibly.

Using computers

Make your computer last as long as possible.

Avoid bloated software that makes your computer feel slow.

If something breaks, replace parts rather than buying a whole new computer. Again, probably not an option for many mobile devices, but sometimes you can do this with a tower, or even a laptop. I once replaced a laptop keyboard for under $30.

If you’ve never taken apart you’re computer before, don’t be frightened. Once you learn a few basic concepts, swapping in a new part is fairly easy. The parts themselves are incredibly complex, but they’re designed to be easy to plug or screw in.

Ending computers

When the computer dies, recycle this toxic waste responsibly

This may be the most important step of all, really. “Free” recyclers often ship this toxic waste to foreign sweatshops.

Check the Basel Action Network for a responsible recycler. If you don’t think this matters, you should really take a quick look at these photos.

Then, use a free Flashcard Program to track your facts.

So, you’ve got your computer. There are several flashcard programs out there that use spaced repetition.

I recommend Anki. Anki is open source and free. There are versions for mobile devices, too. See my Anki: Quickstart Guide for the essentials.

Even if you use a different program, the basic idea will be the same. Each fact is a card. Cards are stored in files, often called decks.

You can add cards yourself. Or download free decks. Or both.

Every day, the program shows you the cards which are due for review today.

How does it decide which card to show? The program tracks each card separately. Each card has a due date, based on:

  • how many times you’ve reviewed it
  • how well you knew it last time you reviewed it

You look at the card prompt, think or say the answer, and then view the answer to see if you were right. You rate yourself on how well you know the answer. The program stores this rating, and uses it to schedule the next time you’ll see the card.

If you review every day, you’ll soon build up a collection of hundreds, then thousands of facts. Most of them will have very long intervals between reviews. For a minimum of effort, you will maintain a huge collection of knowledge, and gradually strengthen it in your mind.

Back up your facts!

Computers save work, but they also make work. Back up your deck files! Every day. In theory, computer flashcards are far easier to back up than paper flashcards. But many people who rely on computers every day seem to have no idea that the hard drive could break at any moment. If you think losing a report is bad, try losing years of memory work.

If you’re going to use a computer to study, you absolutely must commit to daily, or at least weekly, backups of your deck files. You want your data safe on a medium that is offline and not plugged in, except when you’re backing the data up. If lightning strikes, your data is safe.

You’ll also need to keep the software up-to-date. Old software is much, much more open to invasion by viruses and other malicious attacks. Probably, the main dangers will lie more with your underlying operating system or web browser than with some (obscure) flashcard program. But if your computer is compromised by any program, it can affect every program, and more importantly, your data.

It’s wonderful that you want to start the habit of review. Don’t be too lazy to learn the basics of maintaining your software and backing up your data. Even if you start small, with a single USB stick backup, this is much, much better than just using your computer and hoping for the best.

And if you’re going to review decks on your phone … you’re not even going to think about skipping backups. Right?

Learn the Two Basics of Memorizing in Five Minutes

Want to remember what you learn? Learn the two basics of memorizing--and why typical studying doesn't work--in five minutes.

Do you keep forgetting what you try to learn? Great–I’ve got good news for you. You do not have a “bad memory.” You’re memory’s perfectly fine, even amazing, or else you would’t understand these little squiggles called letters.

So why do you forget the things you want to know? Because you haven’t heard of these two simple methods.

First, Talk to Your Memory in Its Own Language

If this post was in ancient Sanskrit, you wouldn’t understand it. (Probably.) I need to speak your language.

Well, your memory listens to its own language too. Your memory understands things like bright colors, strong rhythms, and unique shapes.

Your memory is probably much less interested in streams of numbers and chunks of indigestible text. In general, these are the exact kinds of information that people today are paid most highly to master. Rats.

But let’s say you really want to read a play written in ancient Sanskrit. You can do it right now–if someone translates it for you. Your memory’s the same way. If you translate that string of numbers into something interesting, you can remember it.

This “memory translation” is called a mnemonic. A mnemonic is something easy to remember that reminds you of something hard to remember.

If you’ve already searched around online for memory techniques, you’ve seen this point before. The vast majority of memory sites and books out there seem to focus on mnemonics. And mnemonics are splendid.

But if you only use mnemonics, you’ll still forget most of what you learn. That’s why you need this second method.

Second, Do Smart Reviews

Most of the time, mnemonics can actually get in the way. Mnemonics are expensive, both making and using them. Sometimes, they’re essential, but often, you’re better off using a fill-in-the-blank, or finding the underlying rhythm, or just imagining the fact more vividly in the first place. Your memory understands these methods too, and they can be much faster than mnemonics.

But whatever you do, you still need to review.

This seems to be a huge secret. I hardly ever see it in memory books, and I don’t know why. If you don’t review, you forget. Period. Mnemonics can help you remember a little longer, and they might even make a few things permanent. But if you don’t review them, mnemonics are basically toys. If you’re serious about your mental work, you need to review.

Review means flashcards. But don’t panic! Let me finish. Review means a system of flashcards that is smarter than you ever dreamed was possible.

That’s a big claim. But it’s true. It’s only in the 19th century that academics began to work out this system, and it is completely different from just working your way through a stack of flashcards.

It’s called spaced repetition, and it works like this.

  • Every time you review something, you can actually wait a little longer until you review it again. Crazy but true.
  • If you wait too long, though, you start to forget it.
  • So at the beginning, you have to review several times over short intervals. This is the part that everyone skips, causing worldwide grief and dismay.
  • But once you get past that first burst of reviews, you can wait weeks, months, and then years between reviews!
  • And every single card is tracked individually. So easy cards scoot ahead to the long skips between reviews. You gain huge efficiency; you’re not reviewing the whole deck every time.

You can do spaced repetition with paper cards, but there are amazing, free flashcard programs that will track everything for you. Every day, you just fire up the program and review the cards that are due that day. In theory, the computer shows them to you just before you’d forget them. In practice, the timing isn’t exactly perfect — but it’s usually pretty close.

Were you using these methods? If not, try them.

So there you go. The two basics of memorization (or at least the two basics that aren’t common knowledge), in five minutes. You weren’t doing these, were you?

If you’ve never used either mnemonics or spaced repetition, this could seriously be a huge day for you. You have an exciting time ahead.

But if you’ve tried mnemonics for awhile and been frustrated, this is almost a bigger day. Spaced repetition is key. Now you know why mnemonics alone don’t seem to work, despite all the hype.

What’s next? You’ve got this whole site to explore! But to help you get started, I’ve set up a “book” of basic articles. You can move forward and backward in the “book” using the links at the bottom of each article, or in the sidebar. These articles cover the basic concepts that will help the rest of the site make sense.

Bible rhythms: Verses as real *verses*

Hear Scripture verses as _verses_, with a back-and-forth rhythm. Rhythm links phrases, and turns paragraphs into poetry. Learning becomes _much_ easier.

When I began memorizing Mark, I broke the text into verses. As a side benefit, I noticed that each verse had its own shape, instead of the usual solid Bible column.

But some verses were still too long. I’d get rolling on a long stretch, and get lost. Or skip chunks.

Then I found The Oral Style by Marcel Jousse. This French priest eagerly explained how the best human learning happens with rhythm and gesture. And he wrote this in 1925.

Jousse grew up among peasants who couldn’t read, but who had memorized rhythmic versions of huge portions of the Bible. As with all the children in his village, he’d begun hearing French Bible songs even as he rocked in his cradle. When he grew up and became a Jesuit, he pursued these rhythms in the original texts and languages of the Bible. And he found them.

Even in translation, you can find the hidden rhythms in the Gospels.

Jousse showed me a whole new way to listen to these verses. Take Mark 2:16.

And the scribes and the Pharisees, seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners, said to his disciples, “Why does your master eat and drink with publicans and sinners?”

At first glance, and first listen, this verse is long and has little rhythm. If anything, it feels flabby; why do we have to repeat that whole bit about eating with publicans and sinners? Couldn’t they just have said, “Why does your master do that?”

But let’s look at that verse in a new way.

And the scribes and the Pharisees,
seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners,
said to his disciples,
“Why does your master eat and drink
with publicans and sinners?”

Wow. That unwieldy string of text is now several small, meaningful chunks. This Bible “verse” actually looks like verse, like poetry.

But that’s only the beginning. These chunks may look like a stanza, but they also look like a list. We don’t talk in lists. We talk in rhythm. Can we show that rhythm here?

And the scribes and the Pharisees,
    seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners,
said to his disciples,
    “Why does your master eat and drink
       with publicans and sinners?”

What is rhythm? Back and forth, to and fro, up and down, rise and fall, ebb and flow. Rhythm is like tossing a rock into the air. We feel tension, expectation—what goes up must come down. When the rock returns, we feel satisfaction and completion.

Jousse showed that, even in translation, Mark and other texts show this back-and-forth rhythm between phrases.

These phrases can come in a pair:

And the scribes and the Pharisees,
    seeing that he ate with publicans and sinners,

Or in a trio:

said to his disciples,
    “Why does your master eat and drink
       with publicans and sinners?”

Jousse thought that these twos and threes were a basic pattern that would get repeated over and over as the performer spoke. He called them propositional gestes, which goes beyond spoken rhythm to include actual movement. He thought that true learning meant expressing and feeling this rhythm in your whole body, moving back and forth as you chanted.

In fact, he found that children in oral cultures would physically rock back and forth as they recited their lessons. They would feel the rhythm in their whole bodies.

I personally haven’t gotten the hang of rocking back and forth. I do try sometimes.

But saying “back and forth” has made all the difference. Long verses used to feel like paragraphs. Now they feel like poetry.

Rhythm is so strong. What happens if you say:

Thirty days hath September,

… and just stop? You can’t stop. You have to finish it, even in your head.

    April, June, and November.

We’re used to this with nursery rhymes (and corporate jingles). But it’s another “ordinary” mental feature that ought to astound us. Rhythm links things. It’s a tool for knowledge. Mark used it, and so should we. Search for rhythms in Mark. When you say the first phrase, the second will follow.

Your Memory’s Amazing Already

Your memory is already amazing! Before you can scale that last peak of information you crave, you need to understand and appreciate the mountain of "ordinary" stuff you've already mastered.

Your memory is amazing. Right now. It’s amazing.

Even if you’ve lost the keys twelve times this week, missed your spouse’s birthday five years running, and haven’t remembered someone’s name the first time around since freshman Orientation.

How do I know your memory is amazing? Because you’re reading this.

You Remember How to Talk

No, strike that, even if you can’t read and someone’s reading this to you, it’s still true.

Think about it. What happens when you hear a word, say, “banana”? First off, you’re probably hearing all sorts of other background noises: chirping birds, traffic, your own internal monologue. Even after you filter these out and isolate the voice, it’s still a stream of sound …hearawordsaybananafirstoff

By the time you’re analyzing “banana”, you’ve already taken several steps. Instantly.

Then what? You suddenly see a banana! You might even smell it, taste it, or see someone peeling it. You might gallop away into associative visions of apples or monkeys or crescent moons or bowls of cereal. All based on a few sounds — bah-nah-nah — which you recognized out of tens of thousands of alternatives.

Impressed yet?

No? How about taking those sounds, then attaching them to arbitrary squiggles? Then arranging those squiggles into words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, novels, wedding invitations, insurance bills, Declarations of Independence?

You Remember How to Eat

And why stop with the miracles of language and writing? Eventually you’ll have to stop browsing the Internet. Suppose you get a sudden awareness of a dull pain in your stomach. What do you do? You think, “Aha! This pain will go away if I stuff dead animal and plant matter into my mouth.”

Not content with this diagnosis, you get out of your chair (with the muscular tension precisely in the range between falling back and smashing into the desk). You walk to the kitchen (navigating your floor plan and balancing upright on two stilt-like appendages). And (confronting an array of small doors, mostly alike) you find some food and eat it.

Don’t tell me all this doesn’t count as your “memory.” True, all of this (except maybe browsing the Internet) is in the skill set of the average seven-year-old. But that just means we humans start out amazing.

You Remember How to Live

Besides, how about:

  • frying eggs
  • organizing a party
  • driving a car
  • the people you know, with their thousands of discrete “facts”: their tones of voice, facial expressions, habits, and quirks
  • the myriads of shades of behavior these people expect in your voice, vocabulary, and body language
  • which vary according to hundreds of social situations (which often clash)

Even a mediocre bore has to remember hundreds of thousands of things to function. An annoying coworker has to embark on an epic quest, both externally through the wide world and internally through mountains of data, just to get to work on Monday, find your desk, and explain to you how drunk he got over the weekend.

We tend to denigrate anything that any idiot can do. But this perspective is backwards. The tragedy of real memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s, illuminates the precious worth of our “bad” memories. We remember so much.

But You Can Remember Even More

So quit bad-mouthing your good memory. Obviously you’re great at memorizing all kinds of information. You’re probably only here because you want to learn more, but your memory doesn’t seem to cooperate. I’m glad you’re here! This whole site is here to help you remember precisely those things the memory naturally tends to forget.

The memory is a muscle and can be trained, but only to improve what it already does well. We’re not trying to thrash your memory into something new. Instead, you can learn how to speak to your memory in its own “language.”

Test: Do You Remember Your House?

Take this extremely short test for your “bad” memory, and find out you remember plenty of things. All over your house.How bad is your memory? I guarantee that if you’re reading this, your memory is astounding, but let’s take a simple example. Imagine your bedroom. What does your bed look like?

You may not remember whether you made it or not, or even the color sheets right now. But you remember what your bed looks like, and exactly where it is in your room.

Now move around your bedroom. Take your time; even if you get a blank at first, you will quickly pick out all sorts of details.

Your “Bad” Memory Remembers Your Whole House

Move out of your bedroom. You know exactly whether it opens into a hallway or another room. You can move into other rooms, all around the house. You know where they all are. Look around, and you’ll see more and more details. If you want to, you can imagine and pick out details for the rest of the day.

“Mundane” details, perhaps. But the original Latin mundus doesn’t mean “boring.” It means “world.” You remember the world.

And that’s it. That’s the test. All done. You remember thousands of details, without even trying.

Did you have to cram for that test? Did that feel like repeating a phone number so you don’t forget it? Not at all. Those are short-term memory. Moving around your house is long-term memory. It’s more like seeing.

While you’ve been busy living your life, your memory has quietly memorized all kinds of things. You never even knew.

Now you can use that power to memorize deliberately.

Your Memory Listens to its Own Language

Your memory is naturally excellent, but you need to speak to it in its own language. You can translate numbers and similar difficult data into memorable images and sounds.

Your memory is amazing, but it’s possible you often tell it stuff in the wrong language. How would you like it if your best friend started e-mailing you in ancient Celtic runes? And then got upset when you didn’t write back?

But we expect to remember things like:

  • Take I-95N to exit 91 (595W), then take exit 179 and bear left onto Route 126.
  • The American economy suffered major recessions beginning in 1797, 1807, 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893.
  • username: furbledoo71, password: zFa92xJ1

… and then get upset at our “bad” memories.

Yet your “bad” memory remembers your whole house. (Don’t believe me? Test yourself.) How can you know the exact location of hundreds of items throughout your house, but not be able to keep track of seven years?

Simple. Exit numbers, years, and passwords are not in the language your memory listens to. You might as well be telling it Celtic runes. Once you understand the language of your memory, you can tell it whatever you like.

Your Memory: Designed for Surviving the Physical World

Our memories seem designed to help us navigate and survive the physical world. There were no exit numbers in the Garden of Eden. Lions on the prowl are strangely impervious to passwords.

We encounter the physical world not through numbers, but through the senses. We see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. And that’s the language the memory speaks. When those sensations are unique and repeated (or dramatic), we remember them.

For instance, most of us navigate by sight. The ordinary human way to get back to your cave or your penthouse is to see your way home. In your memory. The first time or so, you might check the map. But on a routine trip, even in a maze of streets, we go into “autopilot.”

If we see a lion or a lunatic heading our way, we get out of the way. Why? Because they stir up a flurry of unpleasant images and sounds. You may even smell the fetid breath and feel the feline teeth. Our memories excel at this sort of thing.

Speak Your Memory’s Language of the Senses

But they struggle with 1797, 1807, 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893. Why can you memorize tens of thousands of unique rooms, places, people, animals, things, but not a few numbers? (Okay, in this society, a lot of numbers.)

Because 1797, 1807, 1819, et al. give you nothing to memorize. For most of us (with some exceptions), numbers give us little to see and nothing to smell, hear, taste, or touch.

So we translate them.

For instance, we translate numbers into more vivid things to see. You might remember the “91” in exit 91 as a “bat.” What does a bat have to do with “91”? Logically, nothing. (Well, almost nothing.)

But what does the sound “bat” have to do with a long wooden stick anyway? “Bate,” “racquette,” and “der Schläger” seem to work just as well for other people.

With a little repetition, your memory will happily clamp “91” to the long wooden stick for you. Then, if you can remember a bat, you can remember exit 91.

But sight isn’t all. Your memory’s hearing is also excellent. Rhythm, rhyme, and other oral techniques can turn unwieldy ideas into wise proverbs (or pernicious jingles).

Much of this site is geared towards helping you translate information into your memory’s language. You’ll find many techniques to remember:

  • numbers
  • years
  • individual letters (as in a password or license plate)
  • names
  • lists
  • poetry
  • Bible verses
  • and more, even whole books!

No information is too “hard” for your memory. It just needs to be translated.

Store Memories Where You Can Find Them: The Loci Method

"Forgotten" memories often get lost, not erased. With this ancient "loci" method, you can turn ordinary household items into places to keep your memories safe.

Why did ancient educated Greeks and Romans have such amazing memories? They translated information into images their mind could remember. Then they stored these mnemonic images in mental “places” so they could find them again. The Latin word for places is loci, so we call this the loci method.

So what is a “memory place”?

A memory place is … well … a place you remember. Like your house. Have you ever tried thinking about walking around your house? You can move from room to room, and see each room clearly. If you test yourself, you’ll be surprised at how much you remember.

Begin in the Kitchen

For instance, if I imagine walking clockwise around my kitchen, I see:

  • a stove
  • a toaster
  • a dishwasher
  • a sink
  • a refrigerator

Not the loveliest possible place to imagine, I suppose. But I do remember it. Are your appliances in a different order? Ah. Then you remember your kitchen too.

Pick Some Mnemonics (Reminders)

Now suppose you’re leading a seminar on the first five novels by Charles Dickens:

  • Pickwick Papers
  • Oliver Twist
  • Nicholas Nickleby
  • Old Curiosity Shop
  • Barnaby Rudge

In real life, you’d probably need to much remember more than a list of titles. Don’t worry. You can. We’re just starting with the basics.

First, we translate each title into a mnemonic image.

Dickens crafts such striking characters that you might just use the hero of each book. Or, you might happen to know people named Oliver, Nicholas, and Barnaby. And Pickwick.

But let’s try:

  • Pickwick Papers: picnic basket
  • Oliver Twist: gigantic green olive
  • Nicholas Nickleby: huge nickel
  • Old Curiosity Shop: dead cat (killed by curiosity)
  • Barnaby Rudge: huge barn made of light fudge

If you don’t like any of these mnemonic images, that’s fine. Your own mnemonics will always be better than any suggestions.

But having a set of mnemonics isn’t enough. You might remember the enormous olive, but not the dead cat. Or vice versa. And if chronological order matters, you’re doomed.

Put the Mnemonics Where You’ll Find Them

Now, this is the fun part. You can “put” these mnemonics onto something in your memory place, just by imagining them together. Once you’ve made this connection, when you remember that place, you’ll remember the mnemonic.

For instance, you can imagine:

  • the picnic basket burning on the stove
  • the gigantic green olive jammed into the toaster
  • the huge nickel crammed into the open dishwasher
  • the dead cat in the sink (ugh)
  • the huge barn of fudge shoved into the open refrigerator, smashing the shelves.

Yes, at first glance, it’s pretty weird. But the “weirdness” is precisely its power.

The images are weird because they’re arbitrary. Olives have no logical connection with toasters. And yet, if you imagine cramming a gigantic olive into a particular toaster, they become connected. Snap! Your amazing mind has made another connection.

If you couldn’t imagine anything weird, you couldn’t imagine anything new. What is creativity, if not new mental connections?

(Besides, they’re funny. And no, your head won’t get all full of weirdness. Think of all the weird things you could remember but don’t.)

When you think of that toaster now, you’ll see the gigantic olive. And you’ll remember Oliver Twist.

If you’d chosen any old toaster, this would just be another new pair of socks tossed into the memory closet. But you chose a toaster in a locus, a place you already remember.

You can already find your kitchen toaster at a moment’s notice. Now, you can find whatever you mentally put there.

You can walk around your kitchen, and remember the first five novels of Charles Dickens. In order. That’s the loci method.

Going Further. Much Further.

Think about all the rooms and places you know, right now. All the hundreds, even thousands of things that are already bolted securely into your mind. Waiting to be recycled. Augmented. Adorned.

Do you have a lot to remember?

Go to it.

No, wait, don’t! Not just yet. Some books and sites will get you roughly this far, then shove you out the door and send you on your way.

But we’ve only gotten started. You could memorize the years of those novels, plots, whole passages. Not that we’re only interested in novels. We have all kinds of techniques for all kinds of data.

And in fact, the loci method isn’t even always your first choice. Exciting as it is, it takes a lot of work; you should always try just using flashcards or even a poem first.

Sometimes, though, loci are perfect for the job.

Forget Everyday Junk, Remember the Good Stuff

Sure, you _can_ memorize every last appointment on your calendar. But you'll have less time for what you really want to know.

I use a paper calendar.

For a guy who writes about memorizing entire Gospels, that might sound like a confession. Hypocrisy, even. How can all this stuff work, you might think, if this guy can’t even memorize when his library books are due?

Well, I didn’t say I can’t. Sure, I could set up 12 loci, one for each month, and populate them with enough locus objects and parts for each day of each month. Then I could choose mnemonic images for each kind of appointment and deadline, and attach them to the correct days in my mnemonic schedule. When needed, I could add mnemonics for the time.

Now that I say it, it does sound kind of neat. I wouldn’t have to worry about my papers getting lost or cut into princesses by creative children. The need to review would naturally keep things in my mind. The scheme definitely has its good points.

But life is short, and you have to choose your memories carefully. Do I really need to go to all that trouble?

My paper calendar seems to work just fine. I can fit eight weeks at once on a letter sheet. (I use pdfcalendar; it’s free, and you can customize your calendar.) I keep sheets handy for the next few months, with the current sheet on top. The whole stack lives on my desk, in the folder pocket of what used to be the back cover of a binder. Adding a deadline or getting an overview of the current month or so is quite fast. At least as fast as a PDA or calendar program would be, if not faster.

Of course, I do use all sorts of computer trickery (and other papers) to manage my projects and Get Things Done. Man, I could memorize all this stuff too.

But I don’t think I will. The systems I have already work. The information’s there when I need it. When I don’t need it anymore, I’m glad to forget it.

Memorizing all this would take more time. And that time could be better spent elsewhere.

Just because you can memorize something doesn’t mean you need to, or even that you ought to. In my case, at least, paper and computers really are better tools for managing these daily details.

If civilization collapses and paper costs two cows a sheet, I can always reconsider. (And I mean collapse. Medieval civilization didn’t charge anything near that price for good, reusable parchment.)

Right now, with civilization at full throttle, I have better things to remember. What I remember becomes my worldview. I’d rather not take up space with library due dates.