The art of memory has been going downhill for centuries.
A thousand years or so ago, books were expensive. Of course they were. Forget the raw materials, which can’t have been cheap – someone had to write them out by hand.
If you owned books, you were rich.
If you had a library, you must have been a like a modern billionaire.
This meant you couldn’t buy a book for a couple of dollars on Amazon. If you were literate, good books were rare and precious resources.
Which meant you were more likely to borrow someone else’s book than own your own.
Which, in turn, meant you had to make the most of it. You had to extract all its wisdom, knowing you wouldn’t be able to look it up again later.
You had to have an excellent memory, in other words.
Then the printing press came along. Folk no longer had to write books by hand, so the price of them plummeted.
Then computers came along, making it easier to store and retrieve data.
And with the internet, that became even easier.
Now there’s not as much need to memorise anything – not when you can simply look it up.
I won’t pretend there aren’t real and amazing benefits to this.
But since we don’t rely on memory as much, we don’t practice it.
Even though a good memory is a valuable asset to have, even today.
There are obvious benefits to having a better memory. Everything from complex business principles to birthdays needs you to memorise and recall information. Having the information at hand in your mind makes you faster, smarter and more effective.
More than that, though – memory exercises are great for your mind. They strengthen connections in your brain and improve your overall performance.
Even if we had cybernetic implants that stored all our memories for us, I’d still recommend memory training for this reason alone.
How do you train your memory?
Here’s the most common technique – a favourite of everyone from ancient scholars to modern mental athletes:
The mind palace.
The idea is simple enough. You think of a place you know really well. It could be your childhood home, your favourite park or the office where you work. I like to use my grandparents’ home, which for some reason is especially clear to me. As long as you can imagine it, it’s fine.
Then you think about what you want to remember, whether it’s a shopping list or a complicated mathematical procedure.
The next step is to place these items – or something that reminds you of them – in your mind palace. Walk around your location and leave these clues for yourself.
When you want to retrieve them, simply retrace your steps through your mind palace.
Now, this takes practice. Placing items in your mind palace is a skill. Retrieving them later is a separate skill. Figuring out how to represent abstract ideas in clear ways is another.
But with practice, and a few handy systems, you could memorise anything from shuffled playing cards to random digits.
You don’t have to go that far, though. Simply memorising simple things (like your shopping list) is enough to sharpen your mind.
So that’s one way to enhance your life.
But if self-improvement really interests you, what would you do with more techniques than you can use?
Like, say, 60 of them?
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