Mnemonics 2.0 – Remembering Better

Memory is an often-used tool, however if understood one can use it in ways that are incredibly effective. I want to help you use your memory in directly actionable ways by using mnemonic techniques, which will be a little bit easier if you know how your brain works.

Your brain uses existing structures to assimilate information

Mnemonic techniques are just ways for your brain to creatively code information for retention. In general, your brain is very good at remembering the following things:

  • Images
  • Exciting Things (absurd, atypical, sexy)
  • Things That Stand Out
  • Spaces & Physical Layout

Thus, one of the best things you can do is to code things that your brain isn’t very good at remembering (phone numbers, birthdays), into extravagant images laid out across mind palaces for short and long term retention.

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Why is my brain good at remembering some things and not others?

One of the jobs your brain has to do is decide what information is important. We remember things that are supposedly high-priority and forget mundane things that are worth forgetting. This helps us move through dynamic landscapes without bogging us down with the task of remembering every single thing that occurs, especially if the information doesn’t help us in any way. Because most of us walk around and see things, our brain gets very good at remembering whether or not we have been a certain place and whether or not we have seen something before.

If you want to remember an abstract piece of information, turn it into a unique image and associate it with a physical location.

This concept isn’t new and there is a wealth of literature on the topic of memory hacks (I’ll list some below). Basically, if you want to remember your shopping list, imagine the items places on a path around your home, engaged in dynamic activities. This is standard practice for most mnemonic techniques and the majority of people can do this without any problems. 

One area that is less explored is how you, as an individual, have already spent time studying things you are interested in. For example, I listen to a lot of hip hop and played drums for a lot of k-12 life. This left me with a knack for remembering rhythms. As a result, I usually code phone numbers, lists, tasks, and other useful information into rhythm patterns in my brain for easy retention.

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My actor friends have stated that at a certain point of doing theater for a while, they can remember lines very quickly and easily. It’s because your brain has realized that your lines are important. Since you use this information frequently and need to access it easily, your brain adjusts to store and deliver oft used information.

So, if you are a sports person, it might be helpful to remember abstract terms in relation to sports (using the numbers of players to help remember phone numbers). If you are a baker, you can use measurements or cook times to help you remember your bank account numbers.

By creating a functional memory, you can essentially hack your way around to easily remembering things. The end note here is that your brain forgets what it thinks is unimportant. This is an important distinction, because shouldn’t remembering where your keys went be important? The stuff we access and actively use and think about ends up being the data that our brain plays with. Since we usually are thinking about something else when we put down our keys, we are often going to lose them, while we will never forget the same of a cute stranger that we met once (debatable, but more on this later). We forget what we don’t actively use, which is a survival mechanism, but if you need to work around this you now have the tools to do so.


Two places to start for more information on memory:

  • Moonwalking With Einstein. Foer. 2011.
  • Mind Performance Hacks. Hale-Evans. 2006.
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