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

If you’re not a student, you’re already well-established in your life and you don’t really care about remembering anything, then I will agree that you probably shouldn’t bother learning those crazy memory techniques. For everyone else however, for students, for people who want to remember what they learn or for those who just enjoy a fun challenge, I think the payoff can be huge.

What’s the point of memorizing a deck of cards? What’s the point of memorizing anything?

So many times I’ve been asked some variation of those questions. I happen to be absolutely flabbergasted by how often and how quickly they are being asked. In a more general sense, I think those types of “what’s the point” questions are unfairly and systematically thrown at people who train unusual skills. Meanwhile, similar questions are almost never asked for other much more common but at least equally “useless” activities. What’s the point of gathering in a group to watch a bunch of millionaires running after a soccer ball? What’s the point of TV watching, video games playing, alcohol drinking, random Internet surfing, shopping for non-necessary stuff, reading novels and practicing most forms of arts, most hobbies and most sports? What’s the point of spending 2 or 3 hours a day staring at your cell phone?

I’m not saying that those activities really are completely “useless”, I’m just saying that we could play the “what’s the point” game all day long with most of what most human beings spend their time doing. I’m not evading the question when it comes to the art of memory, I’m just putting it in perspective. As it turns out, I think memory training has all kinds of benefits. Many of those I think should be obvious to everyone:

  • You can remember the names of the people you meet. It’s one way to show that you care about them. That’s an especially useful skill if you’re a teacher or if you’re in a position where you have to network with a lot of people.
  • You can remember the content of a presentation you have to give.
  • You can remember all your passwords and credit card numbers. And you can remember a few important phone numbers in case you lose your phone and there’s some kind of emergency.
  • You won’t look completely clueless whenever you have to remember something for work.
  • And of course, you can have a much easier time preparing for exams if you’re a student! That’s countless hours that you can save in the long run.

That’s all in the “Duh!” category. But maybe you’re not interested in any of this if you’re out of school and you have no need or desire to remember anything. That’s completely fine if that’s the case, just understand the fact that others don’t share your perspective and your situation. There’s a minority of people who can see the “point” behind not obviously necessary forms of learning and behind the pursuit of unusual challenges. Turns out that beyond all the more or less obvious motives listed above, there are all kinds of other reasons you might want to learn to use the art of memory.

  • While rote learning is difficult and often painful, using the art of memory is something completely different. Believe it or not, it’s often just plain fun!
  • You train focus.
  • You train creativity.
  • You train visualization.
  • You will push yourself in different ways and you will learn that your brain is more powerful than you ever would have guessed. That’s part of the reason why I personally enjoy trying to memorize a deck of cards in less than a minute. Why I enjoy practicing the quick memorization of random digits, random words and images. And why sooner or later I want to tackle the Pi Matrix challenge. Many “memory athletes” either primarily or solely pursue those kinds of challenges. That might seem absurd, but it turns out that since they don’t require you to review long-term (except for the Pi Matrix of course), in many ways those activities are easier and more fun than the rest.

And finally of course, you can choose to remember long-term all kinds of cool, interesting, useful or necessary information. There was a time where there was no alternative to remembering. Neither Google nor writing was available and every single piece of knowledge needed to be memorized and passed on from one generation to the next. That’s most of human history. If you read a little bit about the rich and absolutely incredible history of the memory techniques used by all non-literate societies, you’ll be amazed. All those societies have had tons of people who were walking encyclopedia of useful and interesting knowledge. Memory techniques used to play a fundamental role in all human cultures.

“Cool, but what’s the point today when we have Google?”, you might ask. Well… It depends on how much you care (or not) about understanding the world and knowing stuff. As I’ve said, it’s fine if you don’t. There’s no “point” if you think you already know everything that you need or want to know. If you still want or need to learn more in your life, you should know that while Wikipedia and Google are indeed extremely useful tools, their value will be quite limited if every day you forget everything you read the day before. If you’re completely clueless about a subject, there’s a good chance that you won’t know where to look, you won’t fully understand what you find and you won’t be able to distinguish between reliable sources and all the junk that one can easily find online. To understand a complex subject or to create something new, you need some fundamental building blocks of knowledge already in your head. Even when the right information is immediately in front of you, you probably won’t be able to properly use it if everything is new to you. Would you want to listen to a “scientist” who’s just reading off Wikipedia? Would you want to be operated by a “surgeon” who’s holding a scalpel in one hand and his or her cell phone in the other?

You can choose to use the art of memory to remember difficult words and concepts. Or you can use it to remember the main points from books and articles you’ve read. Personally, I’m either using it or planning to use it for geography, history, sciences, languages, song lyrics, noteworthy quotes, jokes, birthdays, mental modelscognitive biases and all kinds of notes from books or articles I’ve read.

No I don’t absolutely “need” to do this, but I want to do it anyway. It enriches my life.

So that was the long rant that I needed to get this off my chest!

Addendum: Why opposing “memorization” and “comprehension” is absurd and counterproductive

One can easily find some extremely smart and well-meaning people, including some competent teachers and famous scientists, expressing something along those lines:

“Memorization is completely useless and backward. What matters is understanding.”

Again, it is mindblowing to me how common this sentiment is.

It is indeed possible to focus blindly on the memorization of facts while neglecting to understand the bigger picture. How could one possibly avoid this problem? Let me propose this revolutionary solution: Keep learning facts whenever it is necessary or useful or interesting, just make sure that’s not the only thing you’re doing!

Whenever it is possible and whenever time permits, I too encourage you to try to understand everything that can be understood. That’s great. Except that, as I will explain, understanding is not a building that can be constructed from scratch. In the vast majority of cases, it is absurd to want to oppose understanding with memorization. The two processes are in fact interrelated. One reinforces the other. To the extent that it is possible to separate them, memorization is largely a necessary condition for deeper understanding.

Understanding is a complex cognitive process that can hardly arise from nothing. Nothing prevents you from, for example, going right away to read the Wikipedia article on physics, but you probably won’t understand much of it if you don’t already have a good general knowledge of the subject. In order to understand a complex subject, you usually can’t jump directly to the “understanding” step. You need to have at least some basic knowledge already in your head.

Most of what you “understand” can ultimately be broken down into a series of simpler elements that, consciously or unconsciously, you have memorized. Memorization helps understanding, and vice versa. You can’t really “understand” an area if you don’t already have at least some elements in your head that you can link together. On the other hand, once you’re in a position to grasp the nature of those different logical links, a good part of the memorization work will be greatly facilitated. You can then, if you wish, keep the flashcards and memorization techniques mainly for facts and data that have no obvious logic and cannot be retained otherwise.

Is it better to simply memorize a math equation or to understand it? What about history or biology? Well, it is indeed better to understand those things. And that understanding will in turn facilitate long-term retention. But good luck getting there without involving your memory! Whether you want it or not, you will end up “memorizing” quite a lot, if only unconsciously. There’s no way around it. You can deny this and wait for the memorization to happen as an indirect consequence of spending a lot of time on a subject. Or you can embrace the process and use whatever combination of strategies that works.

If you know a thing or two about memory techniques and you don’t rely solely on mindless repetitions, you’ll find that you can memorize the math equations or the list of facts much faster than you can develop a deep understanding of it all. Simply memorizing without going any further isn’t ideal, but it’s certainly better than nothing. And once you have those facts in your mind, understanding them will become much easier.

* For some much more articulate and interesting thoughts on the usefulness of memorization in an educational context, check out the excellent “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham.