The Art of Memory

No time to waste with this long page?

  • If your ambitions are limited and you only want to become a little more efficient with most of the memory-related tasks you have to deal with, you can choose to ignore the rest of this page and only read this article explaining some Memorization 101 strategies.
  • If you want to prepare for a CMSA event as quickly as possible, you can do so by reading this article about basic competition strategies.
  • If you already know most of what you need to know and you’re in the mood for training, just use one of those sample disciplines and training tools.
  • If you’d prefer to learn about the art of memory using some other resource – or if you’re some kind of information junky – here are plenty of recommended websites, books and training websites.

If you’re a curious person, you’re not in too much of a hurry and you want to learn more about the fascinating world of the art of memory, keep reading. You’ve come to the right place.

The art of memory is one of the coolest, most amazing, most fun and most useful skill that you can choose to acquire. It truly is something anyone can do as long as you’re willing to invest some efforts for a little while. It’s a baffling scandal that so few people are currently aware of this. Unlike other complex skills like playing a musical instrument, under the right conditions, impressive results can be achieved almost overnight. Much more impressive results can be achieved within a few weeks or months of relatively short, daily-ish or weekly practice.

Friendly warning: I said that you can learn those skills if you want to. And I said that it won’t be too long before you manage to surprise yourself with your results. I did NOT say that it will necessarily be easy. You will need to put your cell phone away for a little while, focus as intensely as you can for a few moments and use your imagination. That may or may not be a problem for you. For all kinds of reasons (and it’s not necessarily your fault), the “focus and put your cell phone away for a little while” part can be very difficult for many people.

Some optional reading, just for fun: If you just want to learn a little more about this fascinating subject, here’s a compilation of some of the best articles, videos and news reports about the art of memory. I’m posting those links partly because I found them to be extremely interesting. And partly as an attempt to gain some credibility by referencing some usually credible sources. Checking some of those links might be interesting and informative and motivational, but you don’t necessarily have to open any of them. If you’re eager to start learning how to use the art of memory right now, just skip ahead to the “Recommended steps” section below.

How long does it take to learn?

Becoming comfortable with all the basic skills can be done surprisingly quickly, but it will of course take much longer if you’re aiming for some crazy high level. If you want to become a world-class memory champion and memorize a full deck of cards in about 20 seconds, you’ll need to spend at least 1 or 2 years (probably more) practicing intensely for about an hour a day. Here I’m speaking about a skill level that is way above mine. I’m not sure everyone can get there, even if they do everything right. And I’m not sure how many people should even bother trying. Depends on what your priorities are.

Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of that time is necessary to be able to enjoy using the wonderful art of memory. If all you want is to become a little more efficient with your day-to-day memory-related tasks, you can ignore this whole website and simply read this article while making an effort to implement its suggestions. If you want to experience building a memory palace and get a glimpse of its potential, you can do so in only maybe an hour. If you want to become what I would call “good enough”, meaning that you’re competent, confident, comfortable and autonomous when you need to memorize most types of difficult information, then I would recommend that you spend at least a month or two practicing about 4 days a week, for 10 or 20 minutes a day. That “good enough” level is what I think most people should aim for. I think it occupies a sweet spot right in between minimum time investment and maximum rewards. You’ll probably need slightly longer, though really not that much, if you want to be able to brag that you can memorize 100 digits of a full deck of cards in 5-minute or less.

And just to be extremely clear: if 30 minutes now or 2 hours over a few days is all you’re willing or able to invest, it’s still totally worth it.

Why you should (probably) learn to use the art of memory

I see tons of obvious and not-so-obvious possible reasons. Since you’re here already, you probably don’t need to be convinced and you should probably just head directly to some of the more important pages linked above. It’s only because I’ve been asked so many times some variation of the “what’s the point of memorizing” question that I feel the need to write a long rant about the subject. I’m absolutely flabbergasted at how often those questions are being asked. Doesn’t seem like a deep mystery to me! Anyway, you can click here if you’re curious to read my answer.

Recommended steps

Want to discover what your brain can do? Follow some of the recommended steps below, ideally in the order presented. If you only go through step 1 and stop afterward, it will still be a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Step 1: Read this article

Here I quickly go through all the basics. It’s memorization 101 in just one not-too-long article. Some uncomplicated and yet extremely efficient steps that you can start applying right now. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think you have a “bad memory”. The advice you’ll find there will be useful even if you decide that you’re not interested in using techniques based on stories or images.

If you only read one article on this website, it should probably be this one.

Step 2: Go through this 5-day training program

If memory techniques are completely new to you, you don’t know where to start and you want a step-by-step guide, check out this very short 5-day, 20 minutes a day training program that I believe will help you spectacularly improve your ability to remember difficult information. You’ll need to focus intensely for a short while on 5 different occasions during the next week (or the near future), but I promise that it will be time and energy well spent.

* If you’re already familiar with memory techniques and/or if you’re in a hurry to tackle some more difficult tasks, you may or may not want to skip over directly to the next step.

Step 3: Read those articles

  • How to remember something forever“. I have already briefly covered this subject in the step 1 article, but it’s still worth repeating and going a little deeper.
  • How to create more memorable images, deal with difficulties and improve your skills“. It’s a somewhat long read, but I arrogantly think it will help a lot. I even think you should re-read it at some point in the future. There are many pieces of advice there that are important and worth reading no matter how experimented you currently are. However, many of the later sections of that article probably aren’t relevant to you right now. Skip those for now and come back later if and when you want and/or need to.

By now you already know most of what you absolutely need to know, and you’ve done at least a few exercises. Congratulations on getting that far! But there’s still a whole lot more that you can do if you’re somewhat motivated.

Step 4: Keep training until you’re “good enough”

You don’t need to learn to memorize a deck of cards in under a minute, but I do think you should keep training some of the most basic skills for at least a few more weeks. Knowing how memory techniques work and how to use them is an extremely useful and important first step, but you still need to keep training for a while before using them can become easy. Or easy enough. Sorry. Training will speed up the neuroplastic changes allowing you to become significantly faster and more efficient at this new skill. If you’re not interested in going through that kind of training, it’s ok, it’s just that the process of using memory technique will (probably) too often remain difficult, slow and uncomfortable. And your progress going forward will be much slower.

Of all the different kinds of training, I think random words is the most important and the most useful. Almost all forms of training can be worth doing, but random words is what will best prepare for the art of memorizing in the messy real world. It’s possible to completely ignore this discipline, focus solely on other forms of training and still manage to become quite good, but I don’t recommend it.

It would be great if you can do that for about 15 minutes a day, 4 days a week for 6 weeks. You can use time-based goals (X number of minutes) or accomplishment-based goals (X number of words in this particular session). It should be enough for some significant neuroplastic change to occur in your brain. Of course, don’t hesitate to do more if you’re motivated.

* Can you go through such a program? Will you? It’s an hour a week for 6 weeks. Not exactly the most intensive training program ever, but it’s still not an insignificant commitment. If you think you’re too tired or too busy or not motivated enough, I understand. If you start and give up after a few days, that’s very normal and human. You can of course choose to start again in the near future, or the far future. All that being said, I do strongly encourage you to go through the whole thing without procrastinating.

** Aiming for some intense training sessions that are at least 15 minutes long (including recall and short breaks) will probably lead to more significant improvements. However, if quickly memorizing 20 words before moving on with the rest of your day is all that you’re willing to do in some circumstances, it’s still significantly better than nothing.

*** After you’re done with about 6 weeks of that not-to-intensive training program, you can decide that you’re “good enough”, stop the word memorization exercises and focus on other projects. The most significant improvements will come during the first 3 weeks or so. It’s not a tragedy if you choose to stop at that point, but I do think that keeping up with the program for 6 weeks or more will be time well spent.

But why bother training with useless data? Why not just train using what you have to remember for school, for that learning project or for that language you’re trying to learn?

Well, as soon as you’re willing and able to, you can and should indeed start using memory techniques for school and for whatever learning project you’re pursuing. However, if you do nothing but that, your progress will be more difficult and slower than it could have been. And if you’re unprepared in an important context – like for that difficult exam that is coming up tomorrow – you may end up running face-first into a wall. I explain below why I think it’s unwise to try to skip over all the most “basic” forms of training.

  • If you have an exam tomorrow and memory techniques are still semi-mysterious for you, it’s possible that at this point, designing a memory palace wouldn’t be a wise use of your limited amount of time and energy. It’s usually better to train your basic skills for a little while before you start using them in a high-stake context. Just like a boxer should spend some time training his body and his techniques before stepping into the ring for a fight. Meanwhile, you can see the memorization of random words as a fun game as well as a useful form of training. And since it’s just a game, it’s ok if you mess up.
  • Although memorizing lists of random words can sometimes seem difficult, overall it still remains an uncomplicated and straightforward task. The goal is completely clear. And you can go through the whole thing from start to finish in just a few minutes. It’s easier in that context to identify what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.
  • Memorizing for a biology exam (or for most other complex learning projects) is often a complicated, difficult and time-consuming task. It won’t always be clear what you should focus on. It won’t always be clear what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. It will take days or at least hours before you know for sure whether or not you did a good job.
  • Most importantly, long-term learning projects typically involve spending a lot of time reviewing what you’ve learned previously. And spending some time finding and/or designing new memory palaces. It means that a smaller percentage of your studying time will be spent training the art of transforming difficult-to-remember information into memorable stories and images.
  • Random words training allow you to reuse the same few memory palaces over and over. You memorize, you recall, you let the images fade, you start over. No need for spaced repetition to no need to remember anything long-term. You will spend much of your time transforming random unpredictable words into memorable stories and images. This is the main skill you want to spend time practicing right now.

Other fun and/or useful projects you can start while you’re going step 4, or soon after:

You don’t have to wait until you’re done with the random word training program before you start tackling some other project related to the wonderful world of the art of memory.

If one of the ideas below seems exciting to you, you can start tomorrow if you want. Just make sure that you still keep some time and energy for those word drills that will help you improve faster.

Try some other forms of training

I think all forms of “memory sports” training can be useful and can be worth doing. But of course, there’s a million things in life that are “worth doing” and we can’t do them all regularly. One has to prioritize and make some difficult choices. It will be up to you to figure out which forms of training seem to be worth your time and energy.

  • In my opinion, after random words, the second most important form of training would be names and faces. It’s hard, but it’s a very useful skill to develop.
  • Numbers would come in third place (I see playing cards as just a variation of numbers). Personally, numbers and cards is what I most enjoy doing. After a while, it can become the easiest form of memorization. And the one that leads to the most seemingly impressive feats.
  • You can also choose to train the memorization of series of images. There are two different variations: IAM images and Memory League images. You can choose to completely ignore those and your overall level of skills won’t suffer all. However, the great thing about the memorization of images is that they’re very simple and they can be very fun. They’re a great way for complete novices to get a glimpse of the power of memory techniques.  After I gave them some very quick explanations, I’ve seen some 7-year-old kids with zero previous training or experience manage to memorize about 90 IAM images in 5 minutes. Isn’t that amazing? I think you should try them at least once at some point. If it’s fun for you, keep trying them afterward once a while. If it’s not fun, or if you have other priorities, just don’t bother.
  • There’s also “the exam”, that discipline I made up for those CMSA competitions I’ve been organizing since 2018. Nobody trains that regularly. But I do think at least one of those would be worth attempting at some point in the future. You can see this as a kind of final boss that you will have to face later on to see whether or not your training has paid off.

*It’s ok sometimes to let those other forms of training act as a substitute to your random word training. As long as you don’t completely neglect random words forever.

Study for your exams, or start some long-term memorization project

Complex learning projects can be… well… complex. There’s a lot to say about how to do them right. In many ways, preparing adequately for a science exam is much more difficult and unpredictable than memorizing a deck of cards. However, it doesn’t mean that you should wait forever before you start using memory techniques for school or for whatever subject you want to learn about. You can start now if you want, as long as you proceed carefully. Until I can finish writing a much more complete article on the subject, here are some bullet points to get you started.

Some bullet-points for last-minute students:

  • If you haven’t yet done so, go read some sections of the “Step 1” article I linked to before on this page. All the most important concepts are summarized. You can ignore any paragraphs that, in your current situation, seem less likely to be immediately useful. You can also ignore the rest of this site for now. Learning about memory and study skills is very useful in the longer term, but don’t fall into the trap of using this as a form of procrastination.
  • Provided that you slept well enough during the previous 24 hours, you can choose to cut back on sleep the night before an exam. However, it is imperative that you recover as quickly as possible. If your sleep deficit is too great, it will be impossible or nearly impossible to memorize anything. It’s better to study effectively for a much shorter period of time than to spend 12 hours like a zombie looking at your notes without remembering anything. If a full night’s sleep isn’t in the realm of possibilities right now, know that a 15 or 20 or 90 minute nap can at least allow you to regain a significant amount of your energy and focus. A 45-minute nap, or half a sleep cycle, however, is likely to leave you feeling confused and tired for a long time.
  • Prioritize, prioritize and prioritize again. Not all activities and information are of equal value. It is often easy to waste our precious time on activities that make us feel productive, but should not be considered a priority. Focus on the 20%, 5% or even 2% of activities and information that will lead to over 80% of the desired results. Quickly skip over everything else or even ignore it completely. The vast majority of students do not need to do all their reading. To distinguish between what is really important and what is less important, you can use the course outline as a guide, ask yourself what topics have come up most often in class, ask former students, or rely on your own intuition. You can also ask your teachers directly. If you can access past exams or attend review sessions, it is definitely worth taking advantage of these opportunities.
  • For any pieces of information that you identify as being of absolute priority, study them by formulating short questions that you will practice answering without looking at your notes. Ideally, there should be some delay between looking at your notes and answering questions about the topic. If you saw the answer just a few seconds earlier, it’s too easy to answer correctly with little or no retention. If you need to, just make up questions in your head, list them up in a document or a piece of paper and practice answering them. You can look at your notes and books whenever it’s useful or necessary, but remember that anything that isn’t reviewed using a questions-answers format is likely to be forgotten at any time.
  • For those pieces of information that seem slightly lower priority, you can speed through them and hope you don’t forget anything too crucial. As for anything that seems to be of medium or low importance, it’s best to ignore it completely and save your precious time for what matters most. We do the best we can under the circumstances!
  • If you don’t already have some experience with the subject, the day before an exam is probably not the best time to learn how to use memory palaces. For now at least, the question and answer format is likely to be much simpler and more effective.
  • However, as long as doing so doesn’t slow you down, you can and should use various forms of improvised mnemonics. Particularly what I call “direct associations and stand-alone images” as well as the story method. I explain how to use those methods in this important article.
  • Take frequent breaks to regain some energy, but avoid using those breaks for anything that might capture your attention. Stay as far away as possible from cell phones, e-mail, the Internet and other unnecessary distractions! If possible, leave your cell phone on another continent or in a parallel dimension. Even when it’s turned off, its mere presence is enough to significantly affect your concentration.
  • Do the best you can, but be at peace with whatever may come. Take regular deep breaths and remember that there is nothing absolutely vital or irreversible that will play out on the exam.

For students who want to start using memory palaces

If you have already invested the few efforts necessary to become relatively comfortable with the idea of creating a memory palace, there is nothing to stop you from starting to experiment with their use in a school setting now. There are many ways in which complex concepts can be represented in the form of images and stories. Unfortunately, since all courses and subjects are different, it is not easy for me to explain how to do this in just a few sentences. A simpler method I can recommend to start with would be the following:

  • Prioritize the methods already explained above. Identify the information that seems particularly important and priority. First and foremost, try to understand what there is to understand and be able to briefly explain the main points. Spend as much time as necessary in “I ask myself short questions and check what I can reproduce from memory” mode.
  • Imagine for a moment that your teacher has allowed you to bring a page of notes to the exam. What should you write on that page? Probably not the unimportant stuff. Certainly not the stuff you already know and don’t mind forgetting. What you should write is a series of keywords that will allow you to reactivate as much of your knowledge as possible. These keywords won’t be very useful if you haven’t taken the course, but otherwise they have the potential to be extremely helpful. What are the 10 points you want to address in this or that long answer question you anticipate? What are the three most important things to understand about this or that fundamental concept? That kind of stuff. Again, prioritize as much as possible to keep only the essentials. Identifying the key words in question may already be particularly helpful to your memorization process. Taking the trouble to handwrite these keywords on a piece of paper may be even more helpful. I know you are not allowed to bring this sheet to the exam, but it is still relevant to write it down anyway!
  • Once you have identified all the keywords you want to remember, memorize them using a memory palace. This is done in much the same way as if it were a list of random words (see the relevant link posted before on this page).
  • Your keyword memory palace can be carefully pre-planned, but it doesn’t have to be. Skipping the pre-planning phase can be a very efficient way to save some valuable time. You can just start placing things related to some subject in some section and things located to some other subject in some other section, and then come back and add details as needed. Or you can just pick a starting place – that shop that you vaguely remember for example, and start placing images around while improvising the layout.
  • Review the memory palace as often as necessary to make sure you remember everything. If your exam is tomorrow, in most cases, three revisions should be enough.
  • Once you’ve memorized all the most important elements, if we are motivated, we can choose to add many more key words to our memory palace. It’s amazing how there is no real limit (other than time and effort of concentration) to what we can manage to store in this way.
  • Pass the exam while laughing ( :
  • Once you’re done with the exam, you can then let some or most or all of the stored images disappear. For whatever you want to keep in memory indefinitely, review the associated images sporadically using spaced repetition.
  • For long-term memorization, I will note down both the information memorized and (super briefly) the mnemonics used in another word document. It will be useful later on if I neglect to review them (bad habit) and need to relearn many parts.

What memory palaces should you use?

  • Personally, I like to keep the majority of my best-known places (apartments and workplaces and so on) for training and/or for short-term uses. For long-term memorization, optimizing speed and efficiency don’t matter nearly as much and I’ll use just about anything. The place can be real or it can be partly imaginary. It can be a place I’ve visited a thousand times or just once or twice while traveling years ago. Google street view or Matterport or almost any random photo or artwork can provide a practically infinite amount of potential new palaces. A common fear among beginners is to assume that they will quickly run out of possible memory palaces. I can assure you that this fear is unfounded. Once you stop limiting yourself to those first few places that quickly pop to your mind, it’s not that hard to find more viable memory palaces that you could possibly need.
  • When creating new palaces, it’s not necessary but sometimes I like to take pictures of them, put those pictures in a power-point document (use the “insert multiple pictures to multiple slides” feature) and maybe add numbers to the specific locations that I will use. 

An important precision:

For complex subjects that aren’t purely based on the memorization of not-very-meaningful facts, you don’t want to rely solely on memory techniques. When possible, use logic and understanding and retrieval practice and your natural memory for most things and use images for what’s more difficult to remember. What is “difficult to remember” to remember will vary a lot depending on the type of project you’re pursuing. For your mixology memorization project, most of what you want to remember should be encoded into images placed into one or more memory palaces. For the main points of some book, you can use memory palace for key words, key concepts, some names and some statistics. But most of the memorizing/understanding/remembering/explaining work will be done using more “normal” forms of learning.

Last messy precisions

This page is a mess I know! Sorry if I don’t have time to fix it / clarify it / review it / complete it / simplify it for now. I’m hoping I will soon enough find the time and energy to do so.

* I’ve been asked a bunch of questions about all the different “types of memory” and the different ways one can improve them. There’s a lot here that the average reader doesn’t necessarily “need” to know, but if you’re curious, here are my answers.

** Do you speak French? My instructional website is much more complete than this one.