This is the final installment (for now) in our “How to Remember Things” series. If you’ve been keeping up along the way, I trust I have presented a compelling case for how valuable memory is to communication.
And if you’re just joining us, welcome! You may want to take the time to review the first three posts in the series, since they provide important foundational principles regarding how to remember things using the right (in both senses of the word) side of your brain, rather than the left. Here are the fast links to those earlier posts, for your convenience:
Today, we’re going to learn how to remember information that must remain in a particular sequence in order to be valuable. In school, this took the form of remembering the presidents or the steps to solving long division problems. As adults, this becomes useful when you need a strategy for how to remember any new process at work. Leaders will also find it useful as a way to keep meeting or presentation points flowing without having to constantly refer to your notes (or lose your place in them).
As I did in each prior post in the series, I invite you (no, urge you) to treat this as a live experiment and get involved. By virtue of the fact that these are right-brained strategies, you will not remember them if you simply “read along.” (That’s the problem with your memory to begin with: our brains aren’t designed to quickly remember what we merely read or hear.)
I’ll tell you now that this post will take about 15 minutes to complete if you are taking part as intended. But isn’t that a small investment in exchange for a lifetime of superior memory skills? I’m glad you agree. So, grab a coffee or snack, kick back for a few minutes, take yourself a little less seriously and have fun. You won’t be sorry.
Let’s start with a full-on challenge. Don’t cheat! (You’re the only one you will be robbing if you do.) Here’s your first goal:
STOP HERE. DO NOT scroll down any further than the list you see below! Then, do whatever it is you’d normally do in order to memorize the following random shopping list items in order. You can use pen and paper or anything else you think will give you the best results. When you are finished, continue reading the post. Remember, it’s important that you memorize not only the items but the order in which they appear. Ready? Here’s your list (along with a disclaimer that the list is arbitrary, and appearance of an item on this list does not constitute an endorsement on the part of the author to purchase, use or ingest the item):
Do you feel you have memorized the list effectively and in order? If so, remove or hide any external lists you wrote or typed, and continue reading.
Before we go any further, I’m going to give you some additional tasks to complete first. It’s extremely important to our experiment here, and to your own learning, that you do these tasks as described.
Task 1: Count from 25 to 1 backward (you can do this mentally, as long as you mentally “say” each number in the sequence to yourself).
Task 2: List the first and last names of 10 people you know who are of the same gender as you.
Task 3: Read the following passage (the opening to David Copperfield by Charles Dickens), being sure you comprehend it as fully as you can:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.
In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.
I need say nothing here, on the first head, because nothing can show better than my history whether that prediction was verified or falsified by the result. On the second branch of the question, I will only remark, that unless I ran through that part of my inheritance while I was still a baby, I have not come into it yet. But I do not at all complain of having been kept out of this property; and if anybody else should be in the present enjoyment of it, he is heartily welcome to keep it.
And we’re back.
OK, ready? Write out or say aloud to yourself that shopping list you memorized earlier, in order. Go!
How’d you do? Scroll back up and check your answers against the original list.
If you remembered the entire list in order … well then, you are unusually brilliant and don’t need my help. Carry on and have a wonderful day.
If you didn’t (like most people), read on to learn how to remember sequential information in a fun way … forever.
See, the problem is, you most likely fell back on the way school taught you to learn: by saying or writing the list over and over until you “felt like” you remembered it. But you’ll recall from my popping bottle analogy that our left brain only tricks us into thinking we’re remembering things. (That’s why you used to study for hours and suddenly “go blank” during those test in school.) That’s precisely why I asked you to do all those random tasks before repeating the list: to use up your short-term memory with other things and show you just how volatile and unreliable it really is.
Now let’s get about learning that ordered list using your right brain the right way.
The key here is not to try to remember the words. Like we’ve done in all prior posts, the goal is to first convert each word into a clear mental image that represents that word. The right brain stores pictures, senses and non-verbal information immediately and indefinitely. It cannot store words or language. That’s why we need to be sure that every word (or concept) in the sequence is converted to a clear image.
You can do this mentally. Just be sure that you really see, feel and, where applicable, mentally experience the images you make fully. But for the sake of making sure we are all on the same page, I’m going to provide you with an image for each of the items on the shopping list; we’ll refer back to it as we go, so don’t do too much with it yet beyond looking at each item quickly and naming it to yourself (work from top left to bottom middle):
Notice how the image I chose for our brains to use in place of the words are vivid and concrete. Each is distinct. They are no longer ideas, they are real and tangible objects, which our brains can manipulate, smell, feel, and even taste. We will rely on that ability to experientially manipulate the objects in order to connect them into a sequence.
OK, let’s start by choosing a flat surface in front of you. This could be your desk, a table or counter, even the floor. We’re going to mentally build something together with the items from the shopping list.
First, mentally pick up that Saltine cracker. Run a finger over the top of it in your mind and feel the dryness and the salt. Place the Saltine on the surface you just chose for building our stacked items.
(Assume from here on out, for the sake of cutting down on words, that when I ask you to do something with one of our imaginary items, I mean “mentally” or “in your mind.” And when I say “table,” I mean whatever surface you chose to build this thing.)
Now, pick up the orange piece of cheese. It’s cold and a little clammy. Tear a triangular corner off of it and place it on top of the cracker you just laid down, so that three corners of the cheese are hanging off three edges of the cracker. In looking at our growing stack, you can see the cheese and also part of the cracker underneath.
Next, pick up a piece of that liver with your fingers. It’s squishy and cold and drippy. Place it on top of the cheese you just stacked. Imagine a little rivulet of brown juice running down a sloped side of the cheese onto the table.
Pick up a pinch of peanuts. Smell them. Can you smell that “peanutty” smell and the salt on them? Place your peanuts on top of the liver.
Pick up the Oreo. Take just the half that has the cream showing. (Remember when you were a kid and you used to scrape that frosting off with your bottom teeth? Relive that feeling and taste now.) Place the Oreo half, cream side down, onto the peanuts. Push it down a little into the stack. Now pick it back up and look at it. What do you see on the cream? A peanut or two stuck? Maybe some brown juice from the liver underneath that? Put the Oreo back on the stack, cream side down.
Next pick up the potato chip. It’s one perfect Pringle. It’s light. Run a finger over the surface of it and feel the texture. Balance the Pringle on top of the Oreo so that the two up-turned edges are still facing up. Use one finger to push down on one side of the Pringle, making a see-saw action. Let go. Watch it rock back and forth until it settles back into place on top of the Oreo.
Next, I want you to grab a metal can of whipped cream, the brand with the cow print around the canister and the bright pink nozzle on top. Squirt out some whipped cream on just ONE SIDE of the Pringle, pasting it into permanent see-saw-down position. Imagine your finger pressing against the plastic nozzle and the sound it makes as you swirl the whipped cream onto the potato chip, sticking it to the Oreo.
Now grab that can of Diet Coke. It’s cold. Open the pop tab. Slosh it around gently until some of the soda comes up and runs around the top of the can. This stack won’t hold a can of Diet Coke on top, so we’re going to put it on the table directly behind the weird food stack we’ve made so far, so close that it is touching the whipped cream. In fact, some of that whipped cream just toppled over and plopped onto the top of the Diet Coke can. See it?
Some of the Diet Coke has run down the side of the can and pooled at the base of it, on the table. Pick up one of those campfire marshmallows. Squish the sides gently. Feel it give way and then loosen up and feel it resume its full shape. Stand the marshmallow up in that little spill of Diet Coke right at the base of the can. Watch what happens as the marshmallow sits there in the fizzy soda spill. Is it soaking up some of the soda and staining brown on the bottom? It should be.
Last, take three of those colored toothpicks. One by one, push them into the top of the marshmallow. Feel the tension of each on the marshmallow’s surface, then the puncture and release as each toothpick point pierces the top of the marshmallow.
If you really participated, you have now visually and viscerally stored that list in order, using no language at all.
You may be thinking that I had to use a lot of words in order to step you through that process. And that is true: using language to describe pictures and senses always takes longer than simply seeing and sensing those things directly. In real time, especially with practice, that would all happen quickly in your own mind, and would take far less time than reviewing the list over and over (and, again, the right-brained imaging strategy actually works, whereas we’ve already proven that the rote repetition does not).
Now, fair is fair. So let’s do three tasks, to use up our short-term memory. (No worries, your “picture list” won’t go anywhere):
Task 1: Count from 3 to 30 by threes.
Task 2: Name 5 animals that start with the letter ‘A’ and five more that start with the letter ‘B.’
Task 3: Read the following passage (continuing from David Copperfield), again being sure you comprehend it:
I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas. Whether sea-going people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don’t know; all I know is, that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill-broking business, who offered two pounds in cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowning on any higher bargain. Consequently the advertisement was withdrawn at a dead loss – for as to sherry, my poor dear mother’s own sherry was in the market then – and ten years afterwards, the caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to fifty members at half-a-crown a head, the winner to spend five shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket, who, very reluctantly, produced from it the stipulated five shillings, all in halfpence, and twopence halfpenny short – as it took an immense time and a great waste of arithmetic, to endeavour without any effect to prove to her. It is a fact which will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two. I have understood that it was, to the last, her proudest boast, that she never had been on the water in her life, except upon a bridge; and that over her tea (to which she was extremely partial) she, to the last, expressed her indignation at the impiety of mariners and others, who had the presumption to go ‘meandering’ about the world. It was in vain to represent to her that some conveniences, tea perhaps included, resulted from this objectionable practice. She always returned, with greater emphasis and with an instinctive knowledge of the strength of her objection, ‘Let us have no meandering.’
Not to meander myself, at present, I will go back to my birth.
Ready to repeat that list? Just look at the surface we “built” our creation on. What went down first? Write out the list, in order, relying on your right brained visual and experiential memory. That right-brained image will easily give you the right words to list, by reaching over into the left brain and grabbing them for you.
Done? Refer to the original list above. How’d you do?
If you had any rough spots, it’s because you didn’t take the time to really mentally “live” the image. Just start at the trouble spot and be sure you really mentally experience the connection once more.
Want to see something even cooler? Rattle off that list BACKWARD. No need to write it out; just say it to yourself, following the image from last item to first. If you get stuck, start anywhere close and work your way forward to where you got stuck, then keep going.
You see, not only is right-brained memory fast and strong, it also has another advantage. Where the left brain must have the same information repeated the same way over and over to store anything in long-term memory, the right brain is flexible. We can move around in our image, and start anywhere we want.
This is particularly useful when you’ve started a process and gotten interrupted. Or if you’ve gotten into a presentation and had an unexpected bout of questions in between. No problem! Just start where you left off. Need to back up two points, when someone mentioned a vague reference like, “a couple of points ago you said …”? You won’t forget what was a couple of points ago. You can easily just step backward in your connected image and jog your communication partner’s memory: “You mean ___________?”
In short, this is what we just did:
- We transformed all words or concepts into a clear and concrete mental image.
- We connected each part of the image with the next image in a tangible way, making sure there is a physical connection between each part (e.g., on top of, next to, touching, etc.)
Now, that’s all well and good for a nonsense shopping list. But how about that presentation? It’s exactly the same principle and process no matter what you are trying to remember or how long the sequence.
“Go over July’s budget” becomes a mental image of a red-white-and-blue accountant’s calculator (mine has the white paper roll at the top). Red, white and blue reminds me of July (4th), and the calculator will stand for “budget.”
“Introduce new team members” becomes miniature gold statues (gold makes me think “new” and the statues make me think “people”). If I want to cover introductions after budget – I just mentally place the little gold statues on my calculator in my mental image.
Want to talk about policy changes next? How about mentally stamping a piece of paper with an official-looking rubber stamp symbol in red and folding it oddly. This will now represent “policy” and “changes,” and I’ll just put it behind the calculator and tap one of my statues off the calculator so that it falls onto the folded policy paper behind the calculator.
Be creative. There’s no “right” image, only a right method. Stop trying to rote memorize by repetition. Rely solely on your magical right-brained memory, and you’ll find yourself … well, memorable for your superior memory.
Still got questions about how to best apply your new memory skills? Feel free to ask in the Comments section below.