Imagine you have a big yellow lemon in your hand. Give it a squeeze. Is it firm, or squishy? Take the lemon in front of you, and using an imaginary knife in your other hand, cut the lemon in half. Notice the juice running through your fingers. Take one half of the lemon, and push your nose right into the wet, squishy skin on the inside of the lemon. What does it smell like? Now take your tongue, and push it all the way into the sour flesh on the inside of the lemon so that you can taste the sour juice on the back of your tongue.
You may have noticed that for a moment, you actually smelled, and/or tasted lemon. Maybe you even scrunched up your face as if you had actually tasted something sour.
This phenomenon occurs because the human mind works in visual images. In fact—as you may have just experienced—sometimes your mind will actually confuse the images that exist inside your head with the ones that exist outside of it. This is the reason why so many athletes visualize their success before they perform. If you create a strong enough image in your mind, you’re actually preparing yourself to re-enact this scenario in the real world.
This leads me to one of the most useful mind-hacks I’ve ever learned. During exam season one year in University, I was procrastinating, trying to find a more effective way of studying. I came across Ron White’s “Improve Your Memory in Just 30 Days” course—a downloadable document of 30 fifteen-minute exercises—that by the end, claimed to teach you how to memorize number sequences up to 1,000.
One of the first exercises I encountered was to get a friend to write a list of 20 random things—they could be as simple as “pencil” or as arbitrary as “The French Revolution”—and after a minute of review, you attempt to write out the list in perfect order from memory. Although it seems easy enough, if you try this, I guarantee most attempts will result in miserable failure (as did mine). However, after reading the simple memory technique for this exercise, I tried again and was instantly able to recite the entire list forwards and backwards. A few exercises later, I could do the same exercise with 50 random words.
The technique is simple. If you want to remember something, visualize it. For example, if you wanted to remember the name Baker, you’d have a much easier time if you pictured an actual baker—you know, with white clothes and a silly hat. The larger and more ridiculous the image is, the easier it will be to remember.
Next, create a sort of filing system in your mind. This means, take something familiar to you–body parts, the furniture in each one of your rooms at home, or maybe landmarks you see everyday on your way to work—and organize it into a list of 20.
The easiest way to start is with body parts. Create the list by starting at the top of your head, and moving down to your feet, designating a number to each body part.
1. Top of your head
And so on until you have 20 body parts. Then, take your list, and one by one assign a visual image for each item to an individual body part.
For example, if your list started off:
Then in your mind, you would imagine:
1. A giant cat sitting on the top of your head
2. Money pouring out of your eyes,
3. Pens coming out of your nostrils
Remember, the larger and more ridiculous the imagery, the better this technique will work.
After taking a minute to assign the images to each of your 20 body parts, put the list away and try once more to recite all the items from 1 to 20. Go through each one of your body parts, and remember the images visualized.
How did you do? Chances are you’re now able to recite the entire list in perfect order, forwards and backwards.
This simple yet effective technique of visual memorization can be a godsend for many reasons. For example, if you have trouble remembering people’s names, just connect a visual imagery to their name. If their name is Rob maybe you’ll imagine them in a robber’s mask with a bag of money in their hands. If their name is Julian, maybe you’ll imagine them dripping with fantastic jewelry.
Joshua Foer gives an incredible TED talk on this technique and the larger implications of practicing your visual memory.
What you can take away from this is much larger than the ability to memorize faces, phone numbers, speeches, stories and poetry—although these are extraordinarily useful byproducts of this technique. What it really comes down to, is engaging your memory and imagination into everything you do, think, and experience. Not only for the purpose of living a more creative life, but also for the sake of retaining more of your life.
All images are copyright of Mark Tedin ©