Truth #1: You Have a Photographic Memory

For college students, memorizing information is a necessary evil.  Whether it’s main points for a textbook chapter, an outline for an essay exam, or case law for the law student, memorizing is just a part of everyday life. Below, I will share a step-by-step process with you  of how I memorized large amounts of information with an accuracy rate to the tune of 98% – 100%.

How Good Are You?

Below is a list of twenty things that I took (more or less) from a cassette program called Mega Memory.  Yes, I said cassette, and yes, I’m a dork.  When you are ready for the test, I want to you to get out a set a timer for 1 minute and begin memorizing the list below.  After the minute is up, get out a piece of paper, napkin, whatever and write down – from memory – any and all of the items you were able to recall.  Ready? Set? Go…

  1. Tree
  2. Light switch
  3. Stool
  4. Car
  5. Glove
  6. Gun
  7. Dice
  8. Skate
  9. Cat
  10. Bowling Ball
  11. Goal Post
  12. Eggs
  13. Witch
  14. Heart
  15. Dollar
  16. Candle
  17. Magazine
  18. Voting Booth
  19. Golf Ball
  20. Cigarette

How did you do?  If you got 14 or less, don’t feel bad, most people don’t get too far.  But, now I want you to review the list again.  However, this time, I’ve put some notes next to each item to help you recall them quickly.

  1. Tree – the trunk of a tree looks like the number 1.
  2. Light switch – Has 2 positions – on/off or up/down.
  3. Stool – A stool has 3 legs.
  4. Car – Has 4 doors, 4 wheels, etc.
  5. Glove – Has 5 fingers.
  6. Gun – Has 6 bullets, 6 chambers, etc.
  7. Dice – Roll a lucky number 7!
  8. Skate – Rhymes with 8.
  9. Cat – 9 lives.
  10. Bowling Ball – 10 frames, 10 pins, 10 lb. ball, etc.
  11. Goal Post – The two uprights look like the number 11.
  12. Eggs – Sold by the dozen.
  13. Witch – Unlucky number 13, Friday the 13th, etc.
  14. Heart – February 14th is Valentines day.
  15. Dollar – Tax day is April 15th.
  16. Candle – 16 candles.
  17. Magazine – 17 magazine
  18. Voting Booth – 18 years old to vote.
  19. Golf Ball – the 19th hole (refers to the bar where you get drinks after the 18th hole :0)
  20. Cigarette – 20 cigarettes per pack.

Now that I’ve given you some cues to remember how each item connects to their number on the list, on the back of your napkin, number 1 through 20 and see how many you can remember.

 The Peg List and Your Photographic Memory

I am willing to bet that you scored substantially better the second time around.  And, if you review the list a third time, you will probably be flawless.  What you have developed over the last few minutes is called a Peg List.  It is a classic way to memorize large amounts of information quickly.  But, how does it work?

What You Know…

We all have large amounts of stuff that we’ve already committed to memory.  In our example, the numbers 1 through 20 served as our foundation to peg or hang what we didn’t know (the random list of objects).  Think of the numbers 1 through 20 like coat hooks, and the list of objects like new coats.  We hang then things we don’t know on the things that we do know.

Even now, we’ve added the list of random objects to the things that you do know.  Congrats!  But, why in the wide world of sports do you need to know this tree list?  Because now you can hang things on the objects.  Let me show you.  However, for brevity’s sake, I am going to limit my list to the first 5 things and we are going to hang a short grocery list on them.  Here are the first five items:

  1. Tree
  2. Light switch
  3. Stool
  4. Car
  5. Glove

This is what we know, so let’s add what we don’t know – our grocery list:

  1. Tree – Milk
  2. Light switch – Flour
  3. Stool – Sugar
  4. Car – Yogurt
  5. Glove – Bottled Water

 What You Don’t Know…

This is where the rubber meets the road.  There are a few things that we can do to help us link or peg items to our list quickly and with easy recall.  For example:

  1. Using pictures that are vibrant and colorful pictures.  We remember things that are unusually colorful, explosive, vibrant, and exciting.  If I want to remember where my keys are, when I set them down on the counter or table, I will imagine the table exploding or collapsing under the weight of the keys.  Weird? yes…but that’s what works.
  2. Using pictures that are unusual.  We remember things that are unusual or shocking.  Most of us remember where we were on September 11th, 2001 because it was shocking and unusual.  We can use this to our advantage when memorizing new things.
  3. Using pictures that evoke strong emotions – especially unpleasant ones like fear, anxiety, or worry.  Strong emotions of happiness will work too – just stay away from ordinary.  We don’t remember ordinary things.

Here’s how I would memorize the grocery list:

  1. Tree – Milk – I would imagine a tree with jugs of milk hanging off its branches like fruit.  Or maybe a tree drinking milk and turning white (I told you they had to be weird and colorful!  Trust me, you won’t forget this!)
  2. Light switch – Flour – I would imagine flipping a light switch and having a bag of flour falling on my head.  Or perhaps a light switch made of flour that keeps falling apart every time I try to turn the light on.
  3. Stool – Sugar.  Imagine what it would be like to sit on a stool made of sugar?  Or trying to build a stool out of sugar cubes…
  4. Car – Yogurt – What would it be like to be driving and suddenly have your car start filling up with yogurt?  What would you do?  What would it look like pouring out the windows?
  5. Glove – Bottled Water – Imagine if you made gloves out of bottled water bottles, what would that feel like?  Or maybe you picture bottles of water wearing gloves on their hands.

Whatever you decide to memorize, review it three times in your mind before you need to use it (on a test or at the grocery store) to reinforce the links.  If you find that there are certain items that you can’t remember, it is probably because your link isn’t vivid enough or is too normal.  Simply come up with a new mind picture for the item and reinforce it.

The Results

When I was in graduate school, I took a class on New Testament theology.  One of the things we had to do as students is memorize one key verse of the Bible for every chapter in the New Testament.  That amounts to 260 verses.  Being Mr. Brilliant, I decided to wait until the week before finals to start memorizing the verses (I wouldn’t recommend this).  Luckily, I was familiar with using Peg lists and began building Peg lists by using rooms of my house.  I would go clockwise around my kitchen, and peg verses to the microwave, sink, toaster, and so forth.  I was able to memorize all 260 verses in about 4 days and I only missed two on the final exam because I ran out of time.

The key here is: practice and trust.  I am sure you’ve heard it said that memory is a muscle – if you don’t use it, you lose it.  Start by memorizing things that don’t matter much – grocery lists, items on your to do list, or maybe the names of people you meet.  As you build confidence in your memory, you can move onto bigger and more complex things.


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