Monday, July 01, 2013

Elephant's Memory


Hypercard was a simple but ingenious software development program included free with every early Mac computer that single-handedly ushered in the hypertext revolution responsible for the internet and modern computing as we know them today.

10 years ago, one HyperCard stack called "Elephant's Memory" made quite a profound impression on me. Essentially, Elephant's Memory taught simple techniques that allowed readers to unlock a phenomenal ability to memorize and recall information. By taking the user through a few simple exercises, it showed that anyone can have a truly amazing memory by learning to employ basic memory association techniques that act as "hooks" on which to hang information.

Mnemonics (pronounced "new-MAWN-iks") are clever semantic associations that help a person remember something by linking it mentally to something else that's already in his permanent memory, or to a wild, humorous, "off the wall" (i.e. memorable) new image created specially for the occasion. Like using training wheels on a bike or crutches while a broken leg heals, memory devices like mnemonics act as a bridge between short and long term memory, a way to "get by" until true, permanent memory has been achieved. Often amazingly simple and yet unbelievably effective, these methods offer a welcome alternative to the slow, painful "brute force" memorization technique most people use to memorize uninteresting things like lists, formulas, etc.

For example:

Suppose you wanted to memorize the countries in Central America. You could do this by brute force, that is, by sitting down and repeating over and over again the names of these countries until you finally succeed in remembering them. Or, you could create and use a mnemonic, like this:


"Great Big Elephants Have Never Conned Pennsylvanians."

Now, with such a zany, unforgettable image in one's mind, it's easy to remember that the countries of Central America are (more or less north to south):

Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

Being from California, I always had a hard time remembering how to correctly place the states of New England on a map ... until I created the following mnemonic to help me get them straight once and for all:

"Most Newborn Vampires March in Correct Rows."

By conjuring up such an outlandish sentence that gives rise to an indelible mental picture (who could forget newly born vampire babies marching in neat, tidy little rows), it's easy to recall that these states are, (north to south):

Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

You can forever remember the first twenty digits of pi by using a "weird and silly story" as a memory device (similar to mnemonics, weird and silly stories make it fantastically easy to remember even very long lists of otherwise dissociated items):

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"THREE days ago, ONE panda bear went to make a phone call with FOUR giraffes. Each giraffe wore FIFTEEN scarves having NINETY-TWO stripes and SIXTY-FIVE polka dots. After THIRTY-FIVE minutes, EIGHT HUNDRED NINETY-SEVEN drops of lemonade rain fell and NINETY-THREE fairies flew out of the phone. TWENTY-THREE of them proceeded to sing the Star Spangled Banner EIGHT times, until FOUR of the fairies collapsed from exhaustion."

So, naturally:

π = 3.1415926535897932384...

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It would only take a bit more work to create five different stories such as the one above (or, five "chapters" of the same story) to easily enable the average person to repeat from memory the first 100 digits of π in just a short while, something most people would ordinarily consider impossible. By reviewing the linked stories, and practicing this feat several times, one could then permanently establish the ability to recall at will the first 100 digits of π (in general, memory devices like these need only be rehearsed successfully a handful of times to produce the desired result). Quite impressive at parties.

Mnemonics and memory stories are easy to make up on the fly, as you need them. Just remember to make them as outrageous, funny, and visually bizarre as possible.

Now ... go memorize something.

Have fun!

(For a short summary of simple memorization techniques, click here.)

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