The Art of Memory

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.

If, for whatever reasons, you don’t want to spend too much time with this long page, here are some links you might prefer exploring instead:

  • 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. The CMSA is a small volunteer-led organization based in Canada organizing memory and mental math in-person competitions and online “honorary challenges”. Those “honorary challenges” are free and unofficial. Their main goal is to provide a simple way for anyone around the world to motivate him or herself to develop or improve their skills.
  • 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’re not a fan of this particular website and 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 back after a while and you’re searching for a particular page, you can click here to find links to All currently online pages on this website]

Can anyone learn to use the art of memory?

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 (almost) anyone can do as long as they are 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 actions” 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.

Some recommended actions for all beginners and people eager to improve their skills

Want to discover what your brain can do? Follow some of the recommended steps below. The order presented would make sense, but you can temporarily skip ahead if you’re interested in a particular aspect of the art of memory.

If you only try a few things and stop afterward, it will still be a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Read this article about basic Memorization 101 strategies

Here I quickly go through all the basics in just one 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. That is, if you are interested in long term memorization and in using your memory in a more efficient way generally. If you’re mainly interested in learning to use memory palaces and learning to perform seemingly impressive memory feats, you can focus first on some of the other links below.

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.

Read those articles

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.

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. 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. 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.

Click here for everything you should know about the “basic training” step of your learning process

(Included here: Instructions on how to start training and for how long. Link to instructions about to build efficient memory palaces, memorize random words, names and faces, numbers and cards and more.)

Important sidenote: At any point of your training, if you need some goal to motivate yourself? Try taking part in an online “Honorary Memory Challenge”. Those challenges are free and easily available for anyone anywhere in the world. In the “Regular section”, you only need to know the basics of memory techniques to possibly manage to perform well.

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.

There are various other reasons why I think it’s unwise to try to skip over al the most “basic” forms of training. Of course you don’t have to do those drills if you don’t want, but I do think it would be time well spent. At least for most students, most ambitious learners and most people who enjoy an intellectual challenge. If you’re still on the fence and you want to hear what more do I have to say about this subject you can click on the optional article below.

Why should you waste your time with those silly “memory sports” exercises?

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

There’s a lot to know about this complex and multidimensional subject. And there’s a lot that I have yet to write about. In the meantime, here are some hopefully very useful general principles to get you started.

Some bullet-points for exams or learning projects

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 some learning 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 keywords, 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.