The Wrong Way to Memorize a Long List

Got a long list to memorize? Don’t start with memory tricks. Start with letting the list take you to a different world.

My Long List to Memorize: 253 “Patterns” of Architecture

A few years ago, I decided to memorize a long list of 253 “patterns” of architecture from the famous book, A Pattern Language.

For instance, here are the patterns that “knit the inside of the building to the outside”:

  • 162 NORTH FACE

My plan was to learn these 253 patterns by heart. They’d become part of how I think. They would illumine both the landscapes I see, and the landscapes I hope to build.

My Mistake: I Started With the Words, Not the Ideas and Images

Unfortunately, I made a huge mistake. I tried to memorize these patterns before I thought about them.

I focused on the actual words of these short phrases. I made hundreds of visual or verbal “mnemonics” to trigger these phrases in my mind.

The problem? I was so caught up in the magic of mnemonics that I rarely thought about what these patterns meant. What they looked like. I had everything backwards.

Sometimes, especially as the months wore on, I forgot what certain phrases were even talking about.

Flashcard Review Worked Against Exploring the Meanings

But the last thing I wanted to do was stop my Anki review and go hunt up Pattern Language. Yes, it’s a gorgeous book – one of the high points of 1970s typesetting and atmosphere. It’s also enormous.

And even if the book were already on my lap, I still wouldn’t have wanted to stop reviewing, even to learn more about the card I just failed. As I’ve written elsewhere, flashcard review can become a video game. When you stop to do something else, you lose points.

I Should Have Started With Exploring These Patterns

In Pattern Language, each pattern is explained, in its own little chapter. As I said, it’s gorgeous. I like reading it. Some of the pictures, even though they’re tiny, and black and white, still seem to pierce into another world. The glimpses haunt you.

It’s one of those books you fall into. On my first read, I was actually staying at someone’s house. It was their copy. And it and I vanished for hours on end.

I don’t think this kind of compulsion has been adequately studied. Some books, at the first taste, seem to reveal an almost nutritional deficiency in the mind. Suddenly, satisfying this mental need makes all other priorities pale. This actually happens to people.

Anyhow, years later, when I decided to memorize the patterns, why did I resist re-entering this charmed world? These ideas had given me hours and hours of intellectual pleasure.

Did I think that thinking would take too long?

Not as long as trying, over and over, to make the list stick on its own. Because that’s what I tried, and it not only took “too long”, it didn’t even work.

The Patterns Are Windows, Not the Goal

Over several months, I discovered that my hundreds of mnemonics just would not stick. I had loved reading the book. But now, instead of making the pleasures of Pattern Language part of me, I spent tons of time doing something totally different. I was hardly thinking about the actual patterns at all. I was thinking about my random mnemonics, the words of the patterns, and how many times I’d gotten them wrong.

The patterns are only there to help you think about beautiful places. About people moving in spaces that help make them happy. If the patterns don’t take you to those places, you’re wasting your time.

Today, I see that this experience shows perfectly why reviewing should be thinking, not plowing through a flashcard video game. Flashcards do have major value, but it’s going to take serious thought to work out how to use them best in each situation.

Will I Ever Learn These Patterns?

I still hope to learn these patterns properly someday. But right now, I’m focusing on learning Spanish by Christmas and renewing my memories of the Gospel of Mark. Nothing kills memory work faster than over-committing.

When I do return to these patterns, I’ll still use flashcards to review them. But first, I’ll learn them, for real. I’ll work my way through the book, slowly, over many sessions. Instead of aiming to “memorize” the list as fast as possible, I’ll delve into this world, making as many mental images and connections as I can. It won’t take “too long”, because it’s the kind of thing worth doing for its own sake.

When I do begin reviews, they’ll be totally different. Instead of a game to beat, flashcards will be a way of setting aside time to revisit these lovely places. I’ll have the book close by. And I plan to savor my reviews.