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Why memorising can seem difficult

By Memrise Blog

What is ‘memory’?

The complex set of capacities we call ‘memory’ work to change your behaviour- your actions, thoughts, language and emotions- on the basis of previous experience. We are remembering not only when we recall a date or think about some past event, but also whenever we look, speak, plan, move or think. Every task a human performs that involves the brain is underwritten by our capacity to learn and the ‘memories’ that result from exercising this capacity.

What is a good memory?

A simple answer: what we call a good memory is a ready disposition to create highly differentiated ‘images’ in the mind (’representations’ in the brain) when we are confronted by different information. Images that are resilient- so survive- and salient- so are easily recalled are what we call ‘good memories’. If you react to a given piece of information- a number, for instance- with a forceful and precise thrust of mental activity, and if what happens to your mind is very different from what would happen if you were looking at a different number, then you’ll remember the information in question.

Since there are many different kinds of information, having a ‘good memory’ is actually the possession of an equivalently diverse number of context-specific skills. Nobody is good at remembering everything, but there are certain habits of memory that apply to all items one could wish to remember, and which thus earn for their owners the moniker ‘has a good memory’.

There are many causes of forgetting but they have one thing in common: people forget when their mind’s reaction to information is weak or indistinct relative to their reaction to different pieces of information. Memory techniques all aim to develop the mind’s ability to react clearly, decisively and distinctly to information. It’s very simple, really.

O.k- how about a more complex answer?

This can really wait for the lessons, and the theory parts of this website, but quickly:

The ability to remember relies on the simultaneous and balanced activity of mental movements we normally see as separate- attention, thought, emotion, imagination, association and perception.

Throughout history, different thinkers have wagered that memory depends particularly on one or other of these faculties:

Dr. Johnson said that ‘the art of memory is really the art of attention’.

The roman orator and writer Cicero believed that association was key to effective remembering.

Giordano Bruno saw a training in memory as an enhancement of perception.

Medieval monks- whose mastery of memory is unrivaled in the rest of history- were especially interested in the emotional element in remembering.

Eight times World Memory Champion Dominic O’Brien emphasizes Imagination in his many excellent books (he believes the World Memory Championships should be renamed the world imagination championships).

What’s the point in improving my memory?

‘Memory’ is involved in one way or another in everything that we do. Having a ‘good memory’- being able to learn enjoyably and efficiently- therefore hardly needs recommending.

Think of all the names, dates, birthdays, facts and things to do that you need to recall on a daily basis; think of the books, articles and websites you read, the ideas you have, the languages you have studied and the amusing jokes that the social world demands of you; think of your recollection of your own experiences that is an essential part of your relationship to yourself and to others.

Your life is a tissue of memories. In a sense, effective memory equates to effective living.

All that said, the main reason for improving your memory is that it is fun and simple to do so. Why not? you have to ask yourself…

I have a terrible memory- is there any hope for me?

About 95% of people seem to think that they have some kind of problem with their ‘memory’. For some reason, people seem to find it quite therapeutic to discuss just how useless their memories are. And doubts and worries about memory are very natural given how often it can fail us, and how mysterious and unsettling it can be- especially when we don’t know what might be done to improve the situation. But no amount of reasoning can conduct you from the observation that your memory is fallible and error-prone to the thought that it is intrinsically bad. There are more reasons than innate nature for a thing’s being as it is. No-one is born a tango dancer, one needs practice and instruction to possess that skill. And so it is with memory- a little guidance and a little practice bring immediate improvement, and poor performance is more often a question of inept technique or thoughtless application than it is a problem with the non-existent ‘memory module’.

If I had a child for every time someone had exclaimed ‘I could never do that’ on seeing me memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards only afterwards to learn to do it themselves, I’d be approximately as progenous as King Ramses II of Egypt- my boys would be numerous enough to provide a world-cup’s worth of cricket teams, and my girls would be able to fill the entire women’s doubles event at Wimbledon, and some.

Except in pathological cases, there are minimal differences in humans’ ability to remember information- one only needs to know how and to put a little (a lot, actually, but hey!) of effort in to rival the achievements of such heroes as Dr.Yip, of Malasia, who knows a 1700 page English Chinese dictionary verbatim. ‘Hello Dr. Yip’, one says to him, ‘what does graminivorous mean?’. Oooo, oooo, he says, page 618, column one, meaning ‘feeding on grass’, between graminaceous, which means ‘related to plants in the grass family’, and gramma, a vulgar word for ‘grandmother’… am I right? am I right? Yes! I’m right! Whoop!

Is it difficult getting a better memory?

Learning to remember is essentially very easy- much easier than learning to play the guitar well, or to do backward somersaults from a standing position.

As will become evident in the lessons part of this website, the mental sub-skills required- vigorous imagination, association and perception- are natural to everyone: without them, conversation and day-dreaming would be impossible. What’s more, these are the enjoyable uses to which one calls one’s brain, so that not only is learning to remember a comfortable pursuit, it is also rather enjoyable.

So what’s involved in improving memory?

There are, to cut a medium length story short, three steps:

1) Deeply perceive and thus ‘picture’ the item you need to remember 2) Vigorously and imaginatively associate it to a item/picture you already have in your head. 3) Repeat these mental acts a few times.

For the long story, peruse the memory course on this website. No- do, it’ll make you happy and popular.

How long does it take to improve my memory?

You will start seeing the benefits after a few minutes. About twenty hours, coupled with the practice you will constantly have in using your improved memory in your day to day life, is sufficient to transform your confidence and effectiveness in remembering, and to set you on the path to virtuosity, which will take many years, but will be a pleasurable adventure.

If I get really good at remembering, will I become less imaginative and free thinking?

This is a common worry. Because of various superstitions about the role of memory in mental life (such as the absurd thought that memory is a mental capacity independent of the others) people tend to believe that memory is somehow opposed to such admirable tgings as abstract thought and other forms of ‘creativity’. You often hear people saying ‘A-levels are just about memorizing information’, or ’she just regurgitates stuff she already knows, she doesn’t actually think’.

The truth is that A-levels indeed are, in the broad sense of the term, just about having and effectively deploying memories. But this is also true of writing good poetry, thinking deep thoughts and being a superb doctor or a leading lawyer. All mental skill-sets consist in a complex tissue of memories. The fashionable contrast between memory, on the one hand, and imagination, on the other, is confused- it makes no sense, which is to say that it is nonsense. Imagination and thought depend on memory, just as memory relies on imagination and thought- these capacities are deeply intertwined, not free modules. The appropriate question to ask is not whether a given mental task relies on memory, but how it does so. And there are indeed important differences between the memory involved in reciting the alphabet and that involved in search for the mot juste when penning a poem.

Suffice to say, though, that the memory techniques recommended here expressly develop the capacity to imagine and the capacity to manipulate the networks of associations in one’s mind (what is known as thinking). The effect of a training in memory is thus to invigorate the whole mind, not some grey sub-part devoted to mere data-storage.

Is it true that good memory relies on good forgetting?


But won’t my brain fill up if I learn too much?

Curiously, no. This is one of the flaws of the brain-is-a-filing-cabinet/storehouse metaphor. Paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, knowing lots already actually makes it easier, not more difficult, to learn more on top. Memories find their homes in webs of association, and the more associations one contains, the more nooks there are to house new memories.

When and where should I begin improving my memory?

Here, and now. Go to memrise.com and get started! Or, if not, soon. Or, if not, at some point in the future.