Build. Hack. Play. It's just what we do.

How The Human Memory Really Works (And How You Can Use It)

Elementary, Middle, High School, and College: "Study with flashcards. Quiz yourselves. Make up a song about the concept and sing it again and again until it sticks."

This is what we've been taught about memory, along with some other mnemonic tricks.


Memorization may not be all there is to learning but it's definitely an important piece of the pie. If we learn how to use our memories properly, they also serve us better than our favorite reminder apps. Just think of how much quicker trips to the grocery store would be if you knew both everything you wanted without having to keep looking back at Evernote and you knew which aisles all of those items were in. Alternatively, think about how much worse lawyers and surgeons would be if they couldn't remember the details of their tasks at hand while in the courtroom/O.R.

Memory is important, and we've all been using it wrong. Here's how it really works.

The Process

"Everyone learns differently"

Everyone has a different style of comprehension, which is a major part of learning, but all of our memories use the exact same process of encoding (understanding), storage, and retrieval. So in a way, we're not all as different as we originally thought. If you want to become a memory superstar and save yourself mountains of trouble and time in the future, you need to get down with this process.



When you're encoding information you're just putting it into a language that you can easily comprehend, also known as your own words. This is important because it's really difficult to accurately remember information if you have a shady understanding of it to begin with. That's when you start remembering details out of order, and mixing things up. So the first thing you need to do is develop a clear understanding of anything you want to remember.


Storage (With Images)

How much easier is it to remember what you had for breakfast two days ago than it is to remember a phone number someone told you 5 minutes ago? You're much likelier to remember the breakfast. This is because when you recall breakfast, you're recalling an image, but when you try to recall the phone number, you're attempting to recall a random string of sounds, which is the absolute most difficult thing to remember. This is why it's difficult to remember conversations that don't involve much imagery, and why it's more difficult to remember song lyrics accurately than it is to remember movie plots. It's all images versus sounds.


So the second step is to apply an image to anything that was originally just a sound. This works with just about anything non-numerical (I'm working on the numbers part). Want to learn a different language? Picture everything you say. Want to learn how to code? Visualize what each line does. Want to learn medical terminology? You get the point. Think visually.

But what happens when the words don't come with an image that you can attach to it easily? That's when you start to just make stuff up (seriously).


Introducing The Lobes.


These are the four lobes of the brain (brought to you by The Brain, from Pinky and The Brain). These words didn't bring visuals to mind at first, so I found a way to link them to words I could use to create a visual. I haven't forgotten them since.

It takes some practice, but once you get the hang of this, it eliminates the majority of your repetition.



If you pay attention you'll begin to realize that every thought that comes into your brain was triggered by something else. This is your memory performing the retrieval process, and it happens through triggers, or 'retrieval cues'. If you really want to be able to recall something, you need to make sure that the image you create for it can be easily triggered into action.


Two examples of poor triggers:

"What word am I thinking of? It's on the tip of my tongue!"

"I got milk, eggs, bread, but I know I'm forgetting something."

You're not really forgetting. The memory's there, it's just not being triggered properly. You create proper triggers by thinking ahead. When will you need this information? What will be happening at that moment? How can you make sure that when that event is taking place, the image will pop into your head?


For starters, you can put something from that particular event in your image. If you need to remind your wife to call the doctor but your phone is dead (and Any.Do along with it) then you may perhaps envision yourself walking in the door after work to your wife dressed up in doc-wear and talking on the phone, because, you know, a nurse's outfit may send the wrong message. But this way you're picturing the event and leaving clues in the image as to what should be happening, but you're also providing a trigger, so that when you walk through the door, this image will come to mind.

Secondly, when you're remembering a list, you want to use something called a Memory Palace (see: Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer). A memory palace is just a visual way to link items on a list together. It can be a visual story, or just an item that holds all of your items in one place. For instance, a grocery list: I come home and grab the mail, in the mailbox is a jar of mayo, I walk up my car and realize I left my can of Mountain Dew on top, so I throw it in the trash can, where an empty bag of dog food is hiding. If you create a Memory Palace for a list, you'll be 10x more likely to remember the entire list with ease.


And that's it. Where should you start? With this list, of course. Remember how to use your memory so you never forget.

Share This Story