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Why sexual imagery can be helpful for remembering things

It’s a recurring theme on this blog that happy remembering always, and without exception, involves finding things interesting and meaningful. This can mean many things: knowing enough about the domain that you’re remembering from that everything is automatically imbued with meaning; and the other extreme, knowing so little that you need all the help you can get to engage with the material.

It’s at this extreme that sexual imagery can be useful for remembering. When you really have no emotoinal relationship with the material you are trying to absorb, you have to bring it to life by means of the imagination. And of course, the sexual imagination has an unusual power to bring things to life.

I was recently approached by Tracy Clark-Florey of salon.com to give my thoughts on the subject. The resultant interview begins with a very pleasing, and somewhat misleading, intro:

“I went to Cooke for a deeper understanding of how sexy images helped him and Foer become reigning memory champs — and how you can put that dirty mind of yours to better use.”

In any case, for your convenience, here is the interview whole:

Why do sexual thoughts and images help with memory?

Most of the difficulties people have with memory are not that they forget completely, but that they find memories difficult to find. The key to finding a memory is to make it bright and attention-grabbing in the first place. Sex, of course, tends to grab our attention.

In this way, it can very useful to add a little bit of sexual imagery to whatever one is trying to remember, since it will make the resultant memories more attention-grabbing, and easier to find.

As an example, if you are trying to remember that the French word “interloqué” means “taken aback”, it may be useful to imagine being taken aback when your dining companion interlocks her fingers round your thigh. The link between the French word and what it sounds like in English is given just enough personality by the hint of sexuality here, that it will stick in one’s mind far better than a mere repetition.

How would you go about training someone to incorporate sexual images in their memorization routine?

Shockingly, it doesn’t take a lot of training to get people to have dirty thoughts. That said, reminding yourself that your imagination is a zone without laws or restrictions can be liberating: no-one else knows or cares about the details of your mental life, so you may as well let your imagination go while learning things, especially if it helps you have fun, learn faster, and remember longer.

The trick is to notice when what you are trying to learn is boring you and to re-inject interest with the choice addition of some sexual imagery. Find chemical formulae difficult? Re-imagine them as elaborate sexual configurations. Find your pin number — for example, 3198 — difficult to grasp? Re-imagine it as a 31 year old man with his 98 year old lover. With a little bit of freedom of mind, almost any piece of information can be recast in sexual form, greatly increasing its chances of being remembered.

Are certain kinds of sexual images more helpful than others? What elements are most critical?

This is a whatever-floats-your-boat situation– the incorporation of eunuchs to imagery would work for Emperor Nero but might not be the thing for you. Or maybe it is? Again, no judging. For my part, I like my sexual imagery suggestive rather than explicit. But remember that the point of this sexual imagery is to encode useful information. The critical thing is that your image, whatever it is, helps you recall whatever you are trying to learn.

Is there a point at which the imagery can distract from the thing being memorized? Do the images have to be kept in check so that they don’t overwhelm?

It does occasionally happen that an outrageous or unpleasant image gets in the way of recall. For instance, I once learned that the French word “saucer” means to “wipe with a piece of bread” by imagining my saucy lover wiping me with a piece of bread. When it came in conversation to trying to use this word, though, I was distracted by the weirdness of the image and stuttered. On rare occasions, this effect can be extreme. In the finals of the World Memory Championship one time, it so happened that in the course of the spontaneous imagery I was using to help remember a pack of cards, the sight of Frank Sinatra receiving fellatio from a cow caused me to choke on my coffee. I cursed the four of spades that day.

In terms of assisting in memory exercises, how does erotic imagery measure up with other sorts of edgy and taboo material?

An excellent question. Variety is the spice of life, so one always wants a good range of imagery to excite and energize one’s mind in the course of memorizing something. Violence is of course very memorable, as is (for the English, at least) queue-barging, anything expensive or illegal, Germans, humor, and items of exceptional beauty or ugliness. The sexual imagination is just one small part of the gift we have for making the world more vivid, interesting and memorable.

Would you mind sharing an example of a sexual scene that could be used in a memory exercise?

Good god no. Make your own sexual images!

Discussion

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