The story method, direct associations and other alternatives and complements to memory palaces

[This page is a rough and incomplete draft that I will have to review and finish later]

Memory palaces are almost unquestionably the most powerful memorization technique ever created, but that doesn’t mean you should limit yourself exclusively to this method. Other methods may be more suitable for other situations, or they may be simpler or easier to use. Or maybe you just want to try something new and introduce some variety to your learning practices? In any case, for most complex learning projects, you can and should use a combination of techniques. Not just one. Here are some of the most common and important methods you can choose to rely on.

Solely using retrieval practice (testing yourself) and spaced repetition

If you haven’t read what I wrote in this article and/or this one about the importance of constantly testing yourself (“retrieval practice”) and using spaced repetition, you should. For long-term learning and retention, those are probably the two most important practices that you need to implement, along with focus and regular sufficient sleep. I also recommend mnemonics because they’re extremely powerful and they’re freaking awesome, but it is sometimes possible to manage to do well without using them.

* Using flashcards and/or applications like Anki is a particularly efficient way to combine retrieval practice with spaced repetition.

Direct associations and stand-alone images

In a way, one could say that simply associating one thing with another in your mind is the basis of all memory techniques. I’m not sure which words or expressions I should use for what I’m about to describe, but this is a very common and very useful technique.

This process can take various forms and it can often be quite simple. For example, you can associate a historical character with something notorious he or she did. Or you can associate a concept with its definition or with an example of its application. When you understand what’s going on and you’re familiar enough with the various elements involved, mentally focussing on how A is similar to B and B is indirectly related to Z can be all you need to do. It will help if you can visualize those associations in some ways, but that’s not always necessary.

When at least one element is difficult to remember, various forms of images or memory tricks can (and often should) be used. You hear a new word or a new name, you figure out some way to remember it, you mentally associate what you’re trying to remember with your trick and voilà! If you were using a memory palace, you would then place your image inside some mental location, but here you’re simply choosing to ignore that step. This makes the process a little simpler and faster. The main downside is that, with no particular location involved, it will be somewhat easier for you to forget what you just memorized. However, with some focus, a semi-decent memory trick and enough reviews, you can probably still manage to remember that new information.

Some examples of direct associations or stand-alone images:

  • You meet someone named Darren and think of someone you know with the same or a similar name. Or you imagine a telephone standing on top of his bald head while making that “dring dring” sound. Or you think of a “door” or a “dragon” or of “Dr Dre”. Here let’s just say that you choose to imagine your new friend listening to “Dr. Dre” while bouncing his head and weaving his hands up the air. Using some direct associations like those is the most commonly used method to remember people’s names.
  • You want to remember that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. You associate your image for “63” with JFK. Here let’s pretend that your image for “63” is a puma, and that you choose to imagine poor JFK being attacked by the feline.
  • You want to remember that the Spanish word for chair is “silla”, so you imagine yourself sitting down on a chair while saying “see ya!” to your friends.
  • You want to remember where Switzerland appears on a map. You focus on what the borders look like and you imagine that it represents a bizarrely formed piece of Swiss cheese. You also notice how it’s positioned in between France, Germany and Italy.
  • You want to remember the four main types of teeth that you have in your mouth. You focus on their respective positions. You tell yourself that your “incisors” could be useful if you needed to cut something but you couldn’t find any “scissors”. If you were a dog (a canine) or a vampire, your “canines” teeth would leave some nice marks on whoever you wanted to bite. You imagine some floating “molecules” banding together at the back of your mouth to form your “molars”. And finally you remember that, of course, your “premolars” are simply before your “molars”.
  • You want to remember the word “aggressive” is spelled with two “g” and not just one, so you imagine those two letters being aggressive with one another.
  • You want to remember the definition of “confirmation bias”. You read it. You understand it. You think of the way your uncle will talk about [insert some controversial subject here] while ignoring or dismissing all contradictory facts. You associate “confirmation bias” with your uncle and with a simplified version of the definition. No wild memory tricks are involved here, just some focus and a form of direct association.

* With the name and the teeth and the map examples, one could argue that you’re simply using different forms of memory palaces: the person’s face, or your mouth and or the map of the region. Those would be fairly atypical forms of memory palaces, but the argument certainly has merit.

** I use direct associations and stand-alone images all the time! I like how simple they are to use. I’ll prefer memory palaces when I care about the order of the various items and/or when I want a greater degree of assurance that I will be able to remember everything, but otherwise I’m often happy to rely on some simpler improvised memory techniques.

Focussing solely or primarily on comprehension

There’s a whole lot of misleading nonsense being written about how memorization is an archaic concept. A dry and boring and useless and cruel imposition on innocent young students. Comprehension, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, creativity, flexibility and intuition are the only real deal! One can easily find various extremely smart people expressing similar ideas.

This type of thinking is unhelpful and largely untrue. When it’s done right, memorization will help comprehension and vice versa. I explain why in this optional complementary article: Why opposing “memorization” and “comprehension” is absurd and counterproductive.

All that being said, it is true that it is possible to focus myopically on memorization while neglecting comprehension. It’s also true that in some cases, focussing on comprehension can be (almost) all you need to remember something.

Generally speaking, memory techniques will be most useful when you are trying to memorize something that is particularly difficult to remember. In those cases, using the art of memory will almost always be your best bet. In other circumstances, if you are learning to use a new software or you want to understand how phenomenon X interacts with thing Y, this will not always be the case. For many real-world subjects and circumstances, it is often possible to remember something by paying close attention, by understanding its internal logic, by connecting in some way what you are learning with what you already know, and by frequently testing yourself in different ways. There’s nothing wrong with using those more direct approaches when you have the time and energy and opportunity to do so. Learners can choose to use memorization techniques when they seem useful or necessary or when they simply feel like it. The rest of the time, they may choose to ignore them or to use them in a more limited way, for what’s harder to remember. What’s “harder to remember” can be very little or a whole lot depending on the subject and depending on your goals.

* When you become moderately skilled with the art of memory, you might notice that memorizing something can often be much faster than “understanding” it. Memorizing a mathematical equation using memory techniques is a hell of a lot faster than understanding exactly why the equation work and how it came to be discovered. But of course, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to explore the origin and the logic of that equation or that phenomenon. If you have the time and the energy to do so, of course you should and of course it will lead to a deeper form of knowledge.

** Just to be clear: In general I don’t think you should be choosing whether you will focus on comprehension or memorization. Those two concepts shouldn’t be seen as being mutually exclusive. Sometimes you may only need one of the other, but most of the times you should be using both.

The linking method or story method

What’s called the linking method can serve as an alternative or a complement to memory palaces. It isn’t quite as powerful and useful as the memory palace, but it’s simpler. Basically every element is “linked” is some imaginative way to the previous and the following elements inside some short story. This story can be built with or without using a memory palace. Practicing the linking method can be a very good creativity exercise. Here’s a simple example of how it can work. Please note that stories you’ve built yourself should be much easier to remember than those built by others. I sometimes use that for songs and verbatim text memorization, using one image for one line or for up to 5 or 10 lines, depending on how easy or hard to remember I find the text to be.

Other forms of mnemonics

Acronyms, There are of course many other different kinds of mnemonics. They can all be useful in various circumstances. It will be up to you to decide if and when you prefer to use something different. More examples can be found here.

Some important notes:

  • There’s something potentially misleading about the format of this article and the words “alternatives to memory palaces” in its title. I’m using some neatly separated categories to (hopefully) facilitate comprehension, but in reality you will always be using some combination of various methods. Or at least you should!
  • Some forms of “direct associations” are always involved in all forms of learning.
  • I wrote this before but it’s still worth repeating: retrieval practice and spaced repetition should always be used in all situations where you care about long-term retention.
  • Building a memory palace will always involve a combination of various methods or mental faculties: focus, visualization, direct associations, images, stories and so on. Both your long-term and your short-term memory will be used. And unless you’re only practicing and you’re planning to forget everything as soon as possible, you should use both retrieval practice and spaced repetition when reviewing the content of your memory palaces.