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

I’ve already answered the “what’s the point of memorizing” question here and in various other places. If you are here, chances you don’t need to be convinced of the value of knowing stuff and remembering them. But there are still some more logical questions you may be asking yourself and that I’ll try to answer here.

Why do I need to train my memory? Can’t I just directly try to learn and remember new stuff?

There’s nothing stopping you from “just learning new stuff” right now. And no, you don’t necessarily “need” to train your memory. With some patience and some discipline, you can manage memorize thousands of pieces of data more or less forever by just reviewing correctly, at the right time, while using retrieval practice and spaced repetition. However, if you also want to become good at the art of rapidly encoding large amounts of data, with some level of ease, I do think you should spend some time developing at least some basic level of competence with that particular skill. And to do so, you don’t just need some theoretical knowledge. You also need to train some basic skills, at least for a little while. Like most other difficult forms of training, doing so will literally physically transform parts of your brain. See also this Scientific American article for more details about how training the art of memory will rewire some small parts of your brain.

Ok I get it. But why bother training with useless data? With bother memorizing stupid lists or random words, random names or random digits? Why not just train with I have to remember for school? Or with vocabulary from that language I’m trying to learn? Or with any other kind of interesting, meaningful and useful stuff?

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.

  • Long-term learning projects typically involve spending a lot of time reviewing what you’ve learned previously. It can also involve a lot of time reading, understanding what you’ve just read, carefully selecting what you should memorize and what’s it’s ok to forget. You’ll also have to spend some time finding and/or designing some new memory palaces. It means that a much smaller percentage of your studying time will be spent training the art of transforming difficult-to-remember information into memorable stories and images.
  • 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 might take days or at least hours before you know for sure whether or not you did a good job.
  • 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. The memorization is only temporary. There’s no need for spaced repetition over days and weeks and months and there’s 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.
  • 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 much easier in that context to identify what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.
  • If you have an exam tomorrow and memory techniques are still semi-mysterious for you, I can’t possibly tell you whether or not you should try storing some of your notes inside a memory palace. Maybe everything will go well and you’ll be amazed at how easily you can store and recall various pieces of information. Or maybe not. Maybe the process will seem exhausting and complicated. 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. That’s one reason why I think 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.