Stop Forgetting Your Anniversary With These Tips From A Memory Grand Master

He memorizes decks of cards for fun.

by Jonathan Stern
Originally Published: 

Quick, what did you have for lunch last Tuesday? When is your anniversary? How many kids do you have? If you can’t remember, you’re varying degrees of screwed (by the way, it was a salad, tomorrow, and 2). Ed Cooke is the Grand Master of Memory and founder of Memrise, an online learning tool that helps train your brain to remember things like French — or where you left your keys.

Cooke got into building up his mental dexterity when he was laid up in a hospital for 3 months with nothing better to do. After he recovered he continued to pursue these memory games, eventually getting good enough to compete in the World Memory Championships and earning some respectable finishes. Cooke stresses that fact that people don’t have a “bad” memory, and the guys that he competes against don’t necessarily have “good” memories. Instead, everyone has areas of focus that they’re better at than others, and none of it is beyond improvement.

“American males will remember baseball averages without having a notion the quantity of information is equivalent to a medical degree,” he says. Here are Cooke’s techniques to help you remember everything like you remember the names of the guys in the 500 home run club.

Music Structures Information Differently

It’s shameful that you can’t do simple addition in your head, but you can bust out all the words to the “Humpty Dance.” There’s a good reason grade school math allowed Digital Underground to “bump thee.” “Melodies are one example of imposing a structural narrative to fit the mind better,” says Cooke.

Every nursery rhyme that you kid is learning right now does this, from the ABC Song to each episode of Daniel Tiger where he turns the central lesson into a melody. Because, you’ve probably found that while reading words or repeating a phrase does nothing to make it stick in your mind, the minute you hear it in a jingle, it’s there. Forever!

Connect A Foreign Idea To a Familiar One

Memories are connected to each other. One of the best ways to make sure your brain doesn’t have to go digging through the memory bank is to connect it to something you already know.

“You have to think through metaphor and form a visual story,” says Cooke. “There’s a name I failed to remember recently. It was the inventor of the G-Shock watch. It was a Japanese guy, Kikuo Ibe. When I pay attention to the name, it sounds like kicking someone and Ibe has a similarity to Ive, the Apple designer. That’s a kind of connection. Geniuses both. So, I imagine something like I’m sending a kik message to Jonny Ive.” Just make sure those mnemonic devices don’t get too convoluted.

Pay Attention

“You get most of the way [to remembering] by paying attention,” says Cooke. He says you should think of distractions in life like 1000 radios on all at once (remember, metaphors are good for learning), and you need to turn off 999 to focus. Even if you get it down to 10 on in the background, you’re not going to be able to concentrate on one. To really train his mind to do this “radical amplification,” where one signal stands out amongst the thousand, Cooke used a non-metaphorical radio.

“Listen to the radio and set a timer to go off once a minute,” he says. “Pay complete attention for a minute. Then turn your attention off. On and off. It teaches you a meta ability to notice when you’re paying attention, because you don’t really notice when you’re not paying attention. When there’s a contrast, you can control it on a general level.”

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Spend 10 minutes in the evening running through the events of the day to help you sort out what’s important to remember. One of the big reasons people skip picking up the dry cleaning, or picking their kids up from school, isn’t because they forgot (at least that what you tell your wife), it’s because they failed to think of the right thing at the appropriate moment. After all, you know your kid is standing in the bus lot — you just didn’t make that connection until an hour after dismissal.

Once you’ve identified the important things, repeat them out loud. It’s what’s known as active association. You’ll notice that vocalizing a name like Kikuo Ibe is a lot different than scanning it with your eyes, as you did a second ago. “Memory has 2 different parts; the content and the ability,” says Cooke. The content, or those letters that make up the name, is one thing. But sound and context of that name is something else. Put them together and you won’t forget.

Write To Remember

There was actually a reason that your teachers assigned book reports, and it’s not because they wanted your insights into Yertle The Turtle. It’s because writing a summary after reading (or listening) is an effective memory tool. “It’s that immediate organization of the memory that everyone wants, and it’s a general habit that’s achievable,” says Cooke. “Just make sure that ties into narrative and connects what you know.”

Stop Getting Mixed Up

Sometimes you don’t necessarily forget a person, but you conflate them. “I have interviewed about 500 job applicants over the last 3 months and got to the point where I was like ‘Who is that person?’,” says Cooke. “I find out a details, like it’s the guy who was a former ballet dancer. It’s a vivid memory that everything can be organized around.”

Cooke says that he’s started to write a one line note for each candidate that he can use the next time they comes in. So rather than a 100 Python developers who all wore plaid and Warby Parker glasses, he has one piece of landmark information that has its own space. Failing that, you can just put a little bit of nail-polish on their backs to tell them apart.

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