Memory Techniques: An Introduction

by David Fadul
5/30/2017 – Have you ever read about some genius who seemingly had a memory reserved for movies or fiction? Have you ever wished you had some of that, even if you have a good memory now, or can barely remember the number of your mobile phone? The fact is that these seemingly impossible feats are well within the grasp of anyone, if they learn some basic techniques of memorization. Here is an introduction.

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Memory like magic

When one hears of feats such as the American grandmaster Timur Gareyev who, late in 2016, broke the world record for the most games in a blindfold simul — an amazing feat that lasted nearly 20 hours — by playing against 48 opponents, one has little choice but to think that those capable of such deeds must be some endowed with some very rare — almost magical — capability.

After all, not only did Timur need to be an accomplished player (which is expected from a grandmaster) but he also needed to be naturally gifted with a prodigious memory. Otherwise how could he possibly remember and keep track of nearly 50 boards at one time? While good players can play blindfolded, and the best known simul players can push the limits and play a dozen or more games at a time, Gareyev's accomplishment was singularly rare, as attested by Najdorf's 45-boards-record having stood for so many years. So, is Timur’s memory some gift bestowed upon him by divine dispensation?

Timur Gareyev during his World Record setting 48-board Blindfold Chess Simul (photo by Lennart Ootes)

Well, as Heraclitus wrote, ‘some of us see gods, others see men’. As those who researched Timur’s accomplishment will have discovered, his success owes more to incredibly hard work and almost obsessive preparation than to an innate prodigious memory. And that is not unusual; most — all, as far as I know — world memory champions achieved their proficiency by mastering and constantly practicing mnemonic techniques and tricks.

Timur Gareyev’s preparation spanned months (photo by Albert Silver)

Many people think of memory as an inalterable characteristic, akin to a person’s height or skin color — one has either good memory or bad memory and there is little to nothing that can be done to change that. But the truth is that, while some aspects of memory are indeed innate, mnemonic techniques exist that can be learnt and utilized by anyone and that can improve dramatically one’s capacity to remember.

Myself, I used to have something of a poor memory — nothing pathological, just the usual ‘I will forget that phone number if I stop repeating it till I write, plus I cannot remember dates’ deal — which, I believe, attracted me toward memory techniques. The first time I remember knowing that such things existed, was some 20 years ago, when I found Jonathan D. Spence’s book ‘the Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci’. While it was an interesting read – that I certainly recommend — the book, for some reason, did not kickstart my career as a practitioner of the memory arts; as a matter of fact, all I remember from the book are some of the historical exploits of the eponymous character. It took another year or two until I read Francis Yates’ ‘The Art of Memory’ — a compendium of how memory tricks and practices have been applied through history. While it moved me to attempt to apply some of the techniques, the book was far from a manual and my first attempts were very misguided. After a few fails I lucked upon a treasury: a Professor in my old college who had been a memory athlete and a mathemagician (a person who can perform difficult calculations in their heads). He described to me a number of techniques that served as a basis for my later development.

I was finishing my masters degree in Law by then, so I didn’t get to use my newfound powers as an undergrad. But it proved very useful when I took the bar exam — I had been practicing for months and was particularly proud not so much of the result, but of something that happened during the test: for some strange reason, people are not allowed to write down their answers, so I couldn’t check my score; except that I was able to memorize all 80 answers in the multiple choice test in a few minutes. That night I proudly showed that I could say exactly how I answered every question, curiously, no one but me seemed to care about anything beyond whether I had passed or not.

Since then I have put my memory to several tests: I memorized the atomic number of all the elements in the periodic table, the 100 first digits of Pi and e and, when I feel like showing off, I memorize the barcode of the items in my supermarket car. Since I read about Timur’s exploit I started looking for ways to apply this knowledge to chess, but I am jumping ahead. So, how did I graduate from a poor memory, to a decent (if I may say so myself) memorizer? To do that I had to master three techniques: the best known of which, by far, is the memory palace.

Those who follow the British series Sherlock may remember that the detective, as well as one of his nemeses, has a memory palace (which he calls a ‘mind palace’) and uses it in several episodes — Granted the depiction of the technique is highly fictionalized. Also, Sherlock is far from the first example in the last decade in which memory palaces make their way into pop culture, so much so that this once arcane method of memorization is now often recognized, even if by name alone. Still, there are a lot of misconceptions and myths regarding the subject.

 

So, first things first: can you build your own memory palace? Absolutely. There is no special skill or innate gift necessary and almost all of us can do it. Now, should you invest your time and energy in doing so? That is a much harder question, and the answer obviously depends on your needs and interests. So that you can make an informed decision, let me tell you a few things about memory techniques.

First, while it is the most famous and has a very long and illustrious history, the memory palace is not the only memory technique available, in fact, by itself, it is not particularly powerful — despite its nifty name. Still, it deserves its reputation as the palace serves as a framework that potentiates other techniques.

Second, my experience with memorization methods is that you do reap what you sow — the more effort you put into their elaboration, the more efficient and powerful they become. If you choose to put even a modicum investment, you will be able to remember bar codes, phone numbers and passwords — not to mention grocery lists. If you are willing to put in some serious effort, you could memorize hundreds, or even thousands, of chess games (or chess openings) quite easily or play several blindfolded games simultaneously — assuming of course you can otherwise play several games simultaneously.

Now, I have to emphasize what a memory palace cannot do. It will not allow you to ‘see’ a chess board in your mind and play ‘as if you could see it’. If you can do that already, that is great, but that is not what the palace is about. Nor you will ‘remember’ the games stored in it. That may sound completely insane to anyone who is not familiar with mnemonics: what does that mean, not remembering the games I memorized? That is blatantly absurd! Well, to be specific, I should have said that you will not remember the games in the same way you would had you memorized them the old fashioned way. In order to illustrate the difference, let me tell you about the first real test to which I put my own memory palace (actually it was a combination of memory palace and peg system, but I will explain that later).

When I was first learning mnemonics, years ago, I decided that a good test of its efficiency would be memorizing the name and atomic number of all the elements on the periodic table. While I had no real use for this information, I thought that it would be, at least, an interesting process and that it would be a cool party trick (I was right about the former and very wrong about the latter).

Considering that I was building up my peg system concomitantly, I would say that I made a good time on that test — just shy of two weeks. To this day, given time, I can tell you the atomic number of any element or the element corresponding to any atomic number. I could tell you, for example that Tungsten’s atomic number is 74, but I could not, for the life of me, tell you what element is above it on the table.

That is because I do not ‘see’ the periodic table in any recognizable way when I accessed Tungsten’s atomic number — instead, I see a miniature car sinking on a glass of orange Tang over a table standing in front of a bookstore in my old college campus. The relation between a Tungsten 74 and that image is unlikely to be clear to anyone but me, but that is ultimately irrelevant, as long as the connection remains clear to me, I will remember.

 

I hope my example illustrates both the strength and weakness of the memory palace (and all memory techniques really): they operate by codifying information that is hard to remember into information that is easy to remember. This makes it much easier to retain it but codifying and decoding are active processes that demand time and effort to perform. What does that mean for chess games? If you are playing a game and realize that there is a position that is identical to the one you are facing right now (which is something that you must remember the old fashion way), then you will have to first navigate your memory palace to find the match and then decode the stored game until you find the position you want. Naturally, I am assuming that you had previously stored this particular game. The good news is that is much easier than it sounds, and even as a beginner you will be able to do all that in a few minutes, nothing that would stand out in a non-blitz game. The even better news is that it gets increasingly faster and easier the more you apply the techniques.

All that being said, I cannot pretend to be impartial when the subject is mnemonics; learning and applying these techniques has had a significant impact in both my academic and personal life. It goes from apparently little things such as not having to write down every bit of information into my smartphone (and trust me when I say that it does make a difference) to being able to quote the year of publication of any of a hundred sources you are quoting. That skill is particularly useful to me right now: as I am finishing my PhD in Epistemology: I can assure you that people are much more confident that you know what you are talking about if you can quote the year of publication of a book without checking your cell phone. As for chess, I believe that Timur’s amazing results speak for themselves. Finally, learning these techniques will permanently alter your memory and improve your capability to remember in the old fashioned way as well. So, making a long story short, I cannot recommend it strongly enough: learning to build your own Memory Palace will pay off handsomely the effort you put into it.

So if you are willing to follow in this enterprise, in the forthcoming articles I will provide a simple step-by-step tutorial on how to build a Memory Palace and show you the major and peg systems. These can all be used independently, but are far more efficient when combined.

More importantly, I will make sure you avoid some of the pitfalls that cost me months of frustration — and believe me when I say that this is the most important thing that I can offer you. As the Professor — the one who taught me about mnemonics — once told me, there is nothing particularly hard about mnemonics (on the contrary, it is quite easy!). What leads some who attempt it to give up on their goal is that they are often ‘stuck’ by applying the techniques improperly. Luckily, it is easy to avoid that; all that it takes is to patiently follow the steps in order. If you are willing to do that –there are no limits to how far your memory skill can go.



David graduated in Law in Brazil in the early 2000's. During his college years, he was introduced to memory techniques and its applications under the tutelage of one of his professors. He is currently a PhD candidate in Epistemology, with a focus on analytical philosophy.
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genem genem 6/2/2017 09:29
Decades ago I bought the "The Memory Book" by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. I learned the memorization techniques of (a) imagery for people's names, (b) the endless chaining by imagery overlap of two-element images, (c) mapping lists onto physical structures I know well such as the rooms in my house, (d) and the encoding of each digit into an English phoneme from which unusual words and phrases can be constructed and later decoded back into digits.

I practiced enough that I could memorize everyone's name on the first day of a college class, in real time as each person said his/her name to the class. And I could use all the other techniques too. But it always took a concentrated effort, so I never reached the point of memorizing unimportant items just for the heck of it. And I never found these techniques worked well for a complex chain of careful reasoning, or for the nuances of tax law etc.

Memorizing every move of a given chess game is something I happen to be writing about these days (not yet published).
JamesJM8 JamesJM8 6/2/2017 07:02
I've known about these memory techniques for many years but have been too lazy to get stuck in and learn and apply them. Also I've tried envisaging, unsuccessfully, how they might be used to memorize opening theory with all it's sub-trees, rather than just simple game scores, - if you have managed to do that and can explain how that would be fantastic
deepestgreen deepestgreen 6/1/2017 11:18
All i have to do is remember to come back and look for the subsequent articles.
pocketknife pocketknife 6/1/2017 03:29
Cool! Let's begin!
weerogue weerogue 5/31/2017 02:06
Great article, looking forward to the rest.
Avoid Knightmares Avoid Knightmares 5/31/2017 01:39
The memory palace never worked for me. I learned 500 digits of pi without it.
phoenician phoenician 5/31/2017 12:45
I also look forward to the subsequent articles. Of course memory has a lot to do with chess success. Thanks for the article.
kenard kenard 5/31/2017 04:15
Excellent! I was planning on working with my memory skills... hmm, now what was I looking for before I clicked on this? Hmm... I'll get back to you.
blueflare blueflare 5/31/2017 03:35
you magnified and displayed the atom but if I remember correctly an atom has protons and electrons
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 5/30/2017 11:58
What is this article doing on a chess site? The author does not mention if he is able to remember chess games, this should have been mentioned in the first article. His elo rating? Also, without discussing with GM Gareev, what techniques he is using is speculation.

I memorized pi to 150 digits. Maybe I should be writing the article...
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 5/30/2017 08:34
What is the name of Sherlock's nemesis who also uses a mind palace? Oh yes, Magnussen I think.
rubinsteinak rubinsteinak 5/30/2017 07:33
Most likely a form of the method of loci.
mcplayerus mcplayerus 5/30/2017 03:03
Thanks for a very interesting introduction on ... mmhh ... what was the topic ??
psamant psamant 5/30/2017 01:38
Very interesting... I am signing up to following this series and taking the effort to improve my memory!
SchackAhlen SchackAhlen 5/30/2017 10:03
Thank you, this is really interesting. I am already looking forward to the continuation :)
Since, memory of already played games and schemes are benefitial to the performance in chess I wonder if these techniques could also improve my own results? Or perhaps, thats not within the scope of this (these) techniques?!
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