The Black Hole of Memory

 Posted by on 27 July 2006 at 7:55 am  Uncategorized
Jul 272006

My memory is desperately in need of an overhaul: it’s not adequately performing its basic function of remembering particulars.

I keep myself reasonably well-organized in my tasks and appointments, largely thanks to the good advice of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. The essence of his technique is to dump the mass of stuff that you’re trying to remember to do out of your memory and into an external organizer like Outlook. That way, you can be confident of using your time well, since you’re actually aware of all that you’re choosing not to do at any given moment. So I use at little memory as possible to keep myself organized.

Mostly, I desperately need to increase my retention of intellectual material, particularly of the multitude of books and articles I read. Often, I’ll write about some particularly interesting bit of a book, whether in my “musings” file or on NoodleFood, precisely so that I’ll remember it. I’m also far more likely to remember topics discussed with Paul, so I deliberately do that with interesting tidbits too. With lectures, I’ll often note interesting ideas on my digital recorder, then transcribe those comments into my “musings” file later.

However, that’s not enough: I’m still losing way too much down the black hole of memory.

In an attempt to increase my retention of the basic ideas in my readings, I just started writing one-sentence chapter summaries of books. (That technique was suggested by Jean Moroney, if I recall correctly.) After I finish a chapter, I look it over, distill it down to an essential theme, then write that at the start of the chapter. Once I’m finished with the book, I’ll type all those chapter headings into a “books” file, not only so that they’re reviewable and searchable, but also so as to further solidify them into memory.

I’ve already noticed an interesting benefit to that technique: as I read a chapter, I’m far more aware of the relationship between the various parts of the material. Knowing that I’ll need to condense the chapter, I ask myself: How does this point fit with what was discussed earlier? How it is related to the subject of the chapter? In other words, I’m consciously integrating the material as I read.

I think I’ll be able to use this technique retroactively. I plan to skim the books that I’ve read over the past year and some, essentializing each chapter, then typing it into a file. In general, I probably also ought to take notes of interesting points (e.g. examples of philosophic principles) on my digital recorder as I read. I can include those in the same file as my chapter summaries.

I’d also like to strengthen my capacity for rote memorizing. I need to more easily memorize the names of my students, key dates, places, and people in history, and vocabulary and grammar in foreign languages. Right now, I suck at all of that — and I’m sure some clever techniques would help me retain that material.

Oh, and in my teaching and lecturing, I’d like to be able to rely less upon notes than I currently do. For example, this comment upon memorization from Steve Pavlina intrigued me:

These techniques [i.e. the visualization techniques of pegging and chaining] will allow you to memorize information very rapidly. For example, with pegging I could usually memorize a list of 20 items in about 90 seconds with perfect recall even weeks later. Experts at this are faster. Anyone can do it — it’s just a matter of training yourself.

I still use these techniques today. Chaining allows me to memorize my speeches visually. When I give a speech, my imagination runs through the visual movie I’ve created while I select words on the fly to fit the images. It’s like narrating a movie. My speech isn’t memorized word for word, so it sounds natural and spontaneous and can be adapted on the fly to fit the situation. Memorizing visually is much faster and more robust than trying to memorize words. If you memorize a speech word for word and forget a line, it can really throw you off. But with a series of images, it’s easier to jump ahead to the next frame if make a mistake.

Intriguingly, those techniques sound very similar to those used by the mnemonist in Aleksandr Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist. To learn them, Mr. Pavlina recommends The Memory Book. Since that’s also very highly rated on Amazon, I’ve already bought that; it’s on its way. (He also recommends this “Memory Master” site. I haven’t looked at that yet.)

However, I’d be interested to hear any suggestions that my readers might have for increasing the efficiency and capacity of memory. Since The Memory Book seems to deal mostly with rote memorization, I’d be particularly interested in techniques for remembering conceptual material.

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