The most common mistake people make when it comes to memory is to treat it as being something fixed; either you’re born with a brilliant memory or you’re not. Of course there are differences between individuals, but practice and the correct technique matter much more than talent. There are some really simple techniques you can use to remember things very efficiently.
Last week’s sensible character learning challenge is in full swing, but to really make the most of it, you need to know how to use the full capacity of your memory. If you’ve missed the challenge, you can still check it out and join the fun. This article is meant to explain the background to the challenge. Here are all the articles related to the challenge:
- Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
- You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
- Remembering is a skill you can learn (this article)
- Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
- How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
- Don’t use mnemonics for everything
First and foremost, I’d like to watch the following TED talk by Joshua Foer. I wish I could make every student watch this video and I’m going to start with you. It’s 20 minutes long, but those are 20 very well spent minutes. It is as informative as it is inspiring. In fact, this entire article can be viewed as an attempt to make you watch this video. Here’s the introduction on TED (my emphasis added):
There are people who can quickly memorize lists of thousands of numbers, the order of all the cards in a deck (or ten!), and much more. Science writer Joshua Foer describes the technique — called the memory palace — and shows off its most remarkable feature: anyone can learn how to use it, including him.
Now, let’s look at the video:
Here are some key points in his talk that you more or less have to understand if you want to boost your Chinese learning. Your only legitimate reason for skipping the above video is if you’re already very familiar with all of the below concepts:
- Good memory is the result of practice
- The history of human memory
- Most people could become memory champions
- Elaborate encoding (which is what the character challenge is about)
- Remembering meaningless things is very hard
- Introduction to the memory palace
- A small note on holistic learning
- Great memories are learnt
- You should hire a poet instead of a DJ to your next party
If you want to read more about Joshua Foer and his experience, check his article in the New York Times.
I have conducted a number of experiments with mnemonics in Swedish high-school, just to prove to students that their minds are actually quite powerful and that they’re just using the wrong methods. The memory technique I used is very similar to the one Joshua Foer used in the video above. It’s not the perfect method for anything in particular, but it works well to show how much better you can become at remembering things without practising that much. This technique will enable to you to complete almost any challenge involving “look at these objects for one minute and remember as many as you can”.
(By the way, did you actually watch the video? I’m serious, if you’re new to this, it will probably be the most important video you watch this year. Scroll up and watch it if you skipped it, keep reading if you’re already done.)
Step 1 – Benchmarking
First, I have students spend around one minute trying to memorise fifteen objects I’ve come up with more or less randomly. Try it out if you like! How many can you remember?
Step 2 – Understanding the result
Most students who do this without any specific method can remember between 5 and 9 objects, because that’s roughly how much you can keep in your working memory (this topic is actually very complicated, but the seven plus minus two rule is good enough). This knowledge will go out the window the second you need to focus on something else, though. Some people already use memory technique of some kind, such as linking together all the initial letters of all the words, which might enable them to remember a dozen objects or so.
Step 3 – Explaining the method
If presented with a list like this, the easiest way to remember the objects is to mentally store them in a location you’re very familiar with and then follow a logical path in that location and add the items you want to remember (just like Foer did in the TED talk). You need to create strong associations between the objects you want to remember and objects in the memory palace, otherwise you will forget them.
It takes some practice to be able to create these links quickly and effectively, but there are some basic principles you should follow. First and foremost, the objects have to interact with each other. This is so obvious that I sometimes forget to teach it. Linking is about combining two concepts. The combination can be done in many ways, but it has to be extreme in some sense. It can be absurd, shameful, disgusting, scary or funny, it doesn’t really matter, but it has to be memorable. The links you create must also be vivid, actually see what’s going on in your mind, feel it, hear it, smell it. I’ve written much more about this here.
Let’s look at the above list to give you some examples. I’m using my room as reference, walking around it clockwise.
- balloon – I imagine opening the door to my room and hundreds of balloons fill the entire space, I have to force my way through with a kitchen knife.
- cannon – On my desk, miniature artillery is lined up, firing on my computer screen, which breaks. Shards everywhere.
- sun – Something is smouldering under the blanket on my bed. I can feel the smell of burnt cloth. A sphere of fire is eating it’s way through the mattress.
- child – A small child is trying to escape from my room through the window, but he’s very fat and got stuck in the window, now wailing away, crying for his parents to come to the rescue.
- king – I picture king Arthur sitting on top of my second desk. The space is very small, so his crown keep getting tangled in the wire connecting the AC unit to the power supply.
And so on. Using this method, I could easily remember all 15 words in order and it took me little more than 30 seconds, providing that I already had a reasonably well-defined memory palace. You could use any space, actually, like levels of first-person shooters (I use Quake levels sometimes) or the way you drive to work everyday. Six days have passed since I created the above list for this post and I checked how many I could remember now. I actually forgot the last one, water, probably because I a bit too eager to finish quickly, but I remembered the rest easily.
Practice makes perfect
Creating good associations isn’t easy, so practising is essential. If these objects aren’t enough, you can get more from this random noun generator. You could also practice directly on Chinese characters, but that means you have to either know the components or look them up. Also, I suggest you start with objects, because they are much easier to remember than abstract things. You can also check out how this can be applied to numbers or more abstract things such as pronunciation.
I have conducted this experiment in several Swedish high-school English classes and in general, people improve quite a lot between the first and second try; I’ve seen many go from 50% to close to 100% with only 10-15 minutes of practice after the principles have been explained. If you’re not used to coming up with crazy ideas out of the blue, it will take more time than that. If you find it boring, you should probably try something else, but if you just find it hard, practise more! I personally find it quite fun to come up with cool associations, making my studying much more enjoyable. Still, no method is worthwhile if you find it boring. This month is #mnemonicmonth on Twitter and we’re discussing more mnemonics than usual on Facebook, join us!
A similar method more suitable for character learning
Although the principles remain the same, simply associating the objects to each other might be quicker. That’s also what I do for character learning most of the time (i.e. I don’t associate them with familiar places as such, but I create combinations of the components that make up a characters that are so special I don’t forget them). Here’s what the first five words of the list above might be associated:
- balloon – cannon (I picture an air battle between cannons lifted up by festive balloons)
- cannon – sun (the fight takes place on the sun, so cannons fall into a sea of fire and melt)
- sun – child (on the fiery surface of the sun, I can see a small child swimming in the flames)
- child – king (king Arthur is standing on top of the swimming child’s face, pushing him deeper into the fire)
Characters usually contain only a few parts, so it’s often possible to combine them into one single picture. For instance, I imagine the balloon-powered cannons locked in battle above the surface of the sun, but instead of making it a long story, I simply picture a child (my niece, perhaps) being the admiral controlling the guns on one side and king Arthur being her adversary on the other. This is a complete picture involving five elements, which is much more than the typical Chinese character.
My previous articles about using mnemonics to learn Chinese
This is all very cool, but how do we apply it to learning Chinese? Have a look at these articles:
- Creating a powerful toolkit: Individual characters
- Learning Chinese words really fast
- Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning
- Extending mnemonics: Tones and pronunciation
How I got into mnemonics and what I learnt from it
I became interested in memory and mnemonics for a somewhat unusual reason: Rubik’s cube. I had been able to solve the cube for quite some time (this is not as hard as you think if you get help with the last layer), but then I learnt that some people could solve the cube blindfolded. That blew my mind. I could not imagine how that was possible. I drew the following conclusion.
People who can memorise and solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded must be freaks of nature with inhuman memories and visualisation ability
After looking around for a bit, I found Shotaro Makisumi’s guide to 3-cycle blindfolded 3x3x3 cubing. In the introduction, he says that someone who is reasonable familiar with the cube (can solve it about a minute, which doesn’t take that much practice once you know the basics), it takes roughly a week to learn how to solve it blindfolded using his method.
Something I thought inhuman could actually be accomplished in a week
At that time, I happened to be roughly at the level he described and decided to give it a try. I to took me eight days, spending perhaps three or four hours a day before I did my first successful blindfolded solve. It felt unreal. Other people still seem to think it’s done by magic (it’s called 魔术方块/魔術方塊, “magic cube”, in Chinese after all).
Of course, there are two components to blindfolded cubing. First, you need to know how to manipulate the cube. Second, you need to memorise the state of the cube. For Chinese learners, only the second is relevant. The desire to know how people could solve ten, twenty or even fifty cubes blindfolded propelled me into the larger world of mnemonics and memory techniques. I was especially intrigued by this thread on a cubing forum, discussing memory techniques.
There is a whole world out there
If you’re interested, the resources about memory and mnemonics on the internet are almost limitless. If you have no idea where to start, here are a few sites you can check out:
- The article on mnemonics at Wikiepdia.org
- Memory methods at ChangingMinds.org
- Memory improvement on MindTools.com
- Develop Perfect Memory With the Memory Palace Technique
- The memory methods thread on Speedsolving.com
Don’t forget to share anything cool you happen to stumble upon! We’re all students and should learn from each other.
Stuck at home? Want to learn Chinese or improve your learning? The code "jia1you2" will give you 50% off all courses! Learn more about courses for beginners and more advanced students here.
Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox
I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!