- Linking items
- Remembering the first item on the list
- Tips and pitfalls
- Memory duration
- Reversing the list
To memorize a list, link each item to whatever comes next. This is just like learning to memorize pairs, except all of the items in the middle of the list are used in two pairs; if the list is A, B, C, D, … then the pairs are A-B, B-C, C-D, …
Start by using the first item as the cue and the second item as the response; associate the first and second items using the most vivid mental picture possible. Make the two items interact in your mental image.
Then the second item on the list becomes the cue and the third item becomes the response. Without thinking about the first thing in the list, link together the second and third items with a different mental image.
When you want to recall the list, think of the first item and the second will almost instantly come into your head. The second item will remind you of the third, and so on.
And…actually, that’s basically it. There are a few tips and things to watch out for, but you now know how to memorize really long lists, as long as you can picture everything in the list.
Until you try it, it might not seem like you just learned something that will let you remember—right now—a list of twenty items after going through it just one time. So I think it’s time to try it out.
We need a random list to use for practice. Everything on this list was chosen to be an item that can be easily pictured.
- garden hose
- light bulb
- chain-link fence
- chocolate syrup
- ice cream
- dumbbell weight
- oven mitt
- ice cube
- boxing glove
Now the goal is to connect purse to TV using a mental picture of the two things interacting. Next connect TV with garden hose, then garden hose with light bulb, and so on.
The following are possible ways to link each pair of items in the list using a mental image. I’m not going to give different examples for how to connect each pair of items because you should only have one image in your head for each pair. But keep in mind that the example mental images are definitely not the only thing that could be used; they might not be what you would come up with, and that’s fine.
- purse → TV
Imagine a heavy purse, and imagine that heavy purse being swung hard enough so that it breaks through a TV screen.
- TV → garden hose
Think of the TV and then wrap a garden hose around it. Wrap it so many times that you can no longer see the screen.
- garden hose → light bulb
Screw a light bulb into the end of the garden hose.
- light bulb → chain-link fence
Take the light bulb and shove it through a hole in the chain-link fence. Imagine the awful noise as the bulb scrapes on the metal.
- chain-link fence → hammer
Imagine prying of the chain-link from the posts using the claw on the hammer.
- hammer → waterfall
An endless stream of hammers float in a river approaching a waterfall. They tumble down, shattering on the rocks below.
Now you should learn the rest of the list and practice your new skill! Connect waterfall to chocolate syrup, chocolate syrup to grill, and keep going.
When you finish, just start with the first item. What happened with the purse? Right, it smashed the TV. And the TV had a hose wrapped around it, and the hose had a light bulb screwed in…. Chances are, you will recall the whole list on your first try.
Remembering the first item on the list
Using this technique to memorize lists works because each item reminds you of the next. But how do you remember the first item on the list? Most lists aren’t thought of as “some list that starts with purse”. More likely they are “My Grocery List” or “My To-Do List”.
To remember the first item in a list, just link it to an image that stands for the subject of the list. For example, I remember grocery lists by always linking a shopping cart to the first item on the grocery list. I remember my short term to-do list by linking the first item with a clipboard.
If your friend is just making up a list to see if you really can memorize a list of 50 things, form a mental picture with the first item interacting with your friend. It’s slightly embarrassing to tell someone that you can memorize a list with 50 things and then not be able to remember the first item. I mean, I can imagine that it would be embarrassing…
Tips and pitfalls
It’s a simple technique, but there are few things to keep in mind so that you retain your new memory for as long as possible.
Focus on the mental image
The easiest things to forget are the things that seem to have obvious links to the previous item. For example, if you need to link tennis racquet to ball, it’s easy to see the natural relationship and just continue without actually forming a picture of the two things interacting and capturing that picture in your mind.
When you form a mental picture to link two items, be sure to see it in your mind before moving on. Usualy it isn’t helpful to dwell on it for a long time because you’ll start thinking of different mental pictures that you could make; just be sure to actually imagine the picture for a moment before starting to think about the next item. Lock it into your mind, and involve emotions, taste, sound, and smell in the link if possible.
Put both items into the mental image
If you had to link screwdriver to hammer it may be tempting to imagine using a screwdriver in the place of a hammer, by making a mental image where the screwdriver is pounding in a nail. At first this may help in remembering the list, but as time goes by only the images that you made will stay in your mind, not what the images represented.
When recalling this list you might think that screwdriver is linked to nail instead of hammer; since nail is not linked to anything else, the rest of the list will be forgotten.
To prevent this problem, always use mental pictures that link the actual items in the list rather than substituting one item for another.
Only picture two things at a time
When reading and learning a list quickly, it’s sometimes hard to avoid making a picture with three items instead of two. In the example list, garden hose was linked to light bulb which was linked to chain-link fence. After linking the light bulb to the hose by screwing it in, you need to think of a different picture with the light bulb and a fence. You might be tempted to imagine pulling the hose through the fence and to keep pulling until the light bulb is forced through the fence.
This can cause trouble in two ways. First, as time goes by you might associate the cue garden hose with the image of the hose going through the fence, pulling on a light bulb. It’s not clear that the order of the items was hose, bulb, fence, and you might think the list was hose, fence, bulb.
Second, after more time goes by you might eventually only remember the hose going through the fence, and the link between hose and light bulb is lost completely.
To avoid these problems, only link an item with the one item that immediately follows it. In this example, link garden hose with light bulb and then continue without thinking about a hose at all.
Use unrelated mental images
Suppose light bulb, hammer, and window are next to each other in a list. It’s hard to resist using the hammer to smash both the light bulb and the window. However, if the same or similar picture is used to link the hammer to both things, recalling the list will become more confusing.
If possible, form very different mental images when linking to and from a particular item. In this example, you could link light bulb to hammer by using a hammer to pry out a light bulb from its socket, maybe getting electrocuted in the process. Then use the hammer to smash the window.
Now that you’ve read some more and have been distracted, it’s a good time to check if you can still remember the list that you learned. Staring with purse, can you remember all of the items? Hopefully you can, or are at least doing a lot better than you would have without mental images. With practice you should be able to consistently remember everything.
This is one of the greatest advantages of using mental images. The list that you memorized is (for better or worse) actually stored in your brain, at least for now. It’s not just floating around in your short-term memory the way lists normally do until you write it down. Without using mnemonic techniques, most people can only remember a list of about 6–8 things, and only for a short period of time. It’s sort of amazing to be able to expand that to 30 or 50 things after only thinking about each of them one time. And you can usually remember that list for at least several hours without having to review it.
If you didn’t remember everything on the list, or if things were hard to remember, go back to the images that you made for those things and evaluate if you should have done something differently. Did the mental image show the item interacting with the next item on the list? Did you actually focus on the mental image, instead of just thinking of a connection between the items?
Reversing the list
There’s one last thing to point out: you probably also know that practice list backwards. Starting from candle, you can use the same mental images that you already formed to go through the list starting from the end.
Link items on lists by using each item as the cue for the next item on the list. Make vivid images of the two things interacting.
Now it’s time to learn to put more things into your lists—things that can’t be visualized easily. You can read all about it in the section on substitution.