Write as if you, yourself, are a map. Interweave how you come to discover conclusions with the conclusions themselves. I’m reading a book that does this wonderfully.

People remember best in maps. This was the first and most important point of long-time coach David Rock when he spoke at the International Positive Psycholgy Conference last year. We remember best if we can touch it or walk it.

A lot of childhood learning is based on associating learning with body kinesthetics: sing a nursery rhyme and bounce the child up and down, and suddenly, the child learns the rhyme easily. There was a study done with children where researchers asked children to sit in front of a tv and watch a cartoon, and afterwards, the researchers asked the children to explain what happened in the cartoon. The children used their hands to demonstrate while they talked and talked and described the whole story. Then in the test group in same study, the researchers sat children down in front of a tv, and tied their hands to the sofa chair while they watched the cartoon. Afterwards, they asked the children to describe the cartoon (while still not being able to use their hands to gesture since the hands were tied down), and they found the children remembered very, very little of the content of the cartoon. Using the physical space, such as gesturing with hands – and even imagining using the physical space – allows us to remember better.

This is a trick that my friend (whom I sometimes call “the memory guy” because he competes in memory competitions) told me once. He uses this to remember long strings of words. Here, I’ll show you how this works. But first, let’s see how fast you can memorize something anyway.
1) Memorize this list in order fast (actually, get a watch with a second hand, or open up the Date and Time Properties on your computer. ) Keep looking at this list until you can repeat it, in order, without looking. Stop when you can repeat the list having turned your back to the computer and with your eyes closed. Highlight the following line with your cursor:
List (in order): lemon, teddy bear, watermelon, camel, rubik’s cube, rubber duck, baby pacifier, golf club

2) Now, let’s try it the mapping way. First, think of an apartment or house that you know well. Now, think of two specific rooms in the apartment. Now think of the four corners of the two rooms. When I show you the list, imagine walking into one room, looking at it and scanning clockwise each of the four corners, then going into the next room and scanning each of the four corners clockwise. Now, the way you’ll memorize this second list is in your head put one object each into each corner, so when you go to scan, you see that object there along with the other items that really exist in that corner. So, for example, if the first word were dinosaur, then you’d put a dinosaur in the first corner of the first room, setting the dinosaur in your head on top of your real bookshelf in that corner, and seeing him surrounded by those books. And keep setting objects around the corners of room. After the first room, you immediately go into the second room…
Ok, ready? Get ready to time it. Again, you can stop when you can repeat the list in order turned away from the computer and with your eyes closed. Here is the second list:
List (in order): water slide, yoyo, ice cream, white tshirt, strawberry, basketball, scissors, lollipop

Ok, which one did you do faster?
I would bet it’s the second one. Why? Because you used a map. You used the map of the two rooms. And you used your visual and memory processes together to remember the list in order. Associating learning with body kinesthethics.

Another map memory trick is to see in your head the route you take from your home to the grocery store (or any other frequent destination). Then, if you want to memorize a list of items, place those items along the road in your path to the grocery store: at turns and at stop signs. For example, you might place a huge oversized avocado at the corner gas station before you turn left, and three full red tomatoes perched on the following stoplight before you turn right, and so on.

I’m reading The Executive Brain by Elkhonon Goldberg. He’s a clinical neuropsychologist and cognitive neuroscientist. The last paragraph of his introduction is so simple and clear: it tells how he will be describing how he came to some conclusions at the same time as describing those conclusions. So, in essence, he gives us a map for following and understanding when and how he reaches his conclusions in neuroscience. And that map is the timeline of his life.

Goldberg says, “I believe that ideas are best understood when considered in the context in which they arise. Therefore, interwoven with the discussion of various topics of cognitive neuroscience are personal vignettes about my teachers, about my friends, about myself, and about the times in which we live.”

Enjoy mapping things out, and playing map-memory games with yourself whenever you have a four-item or eight-item grocery store list (you know, you could do non-multiples of four as well: just don’t fill every corner of each room). :)

And play with writing about ideas in the manner in which they had come to you – unpacking the way in which you figured something out – that story of how you figured it out is sometimes the driver of what it was that you figured out.

Take-away: Write as if you are a map, and as if you’re describing yourself.


  1. Posted Wednesday July 19, 2006 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Hey, the memory trick worked! Very cool :)

  2. Posted Wednesday July 19, 2006 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Wow! Very cool! I will try this more today! I have an awful memory, never thought that I could actually augment it like this!

  3. Posted Wednesday July 19, 2006 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    The memory tip is great, how do you do this on restricted time…often things are thrown at you quickly…and I find this technique takes a little too long? Maybe it is just me!

  4. Posted Wednesday July 19, 2006 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Hi Alvin, Dave, and Anna. Thanks for the thoughts, you guys.

    Alvin: Yes, it’s so simple! Isn’t it crazy that it works just like that!?

    Dave: There’s a lot of interest lately in brain exercises. So much brain functioning seems to be augmentable! I’ll put some ideas up about this very soon.

    Anna: Right, that’s so true – about any new technique you’re trying to pick up: that you want to get to the point of it being a habit. I bet the goal is to have it such a part of your arsenal that you can call on it anytime. If you’re used to putting objects around the corners of your house, then you can do it faster. Also, you’ve probably heard that the more outrageous the connections between objects, the more likely they are to stick in your mind. (I think this is why Dr. Seuss books are so popular with kids – the ideas are so crazy that they stay!)

    Anna, here’s something fun: those folks that compete in memory competitions often need to remember strings of numbers and what they do is create words from those numbers, and then string together a story about the words. All the words are nouns and you can fill in the verbs between them. For example, 345 210 32 900 71 could be these words according to this site: “Merrill nodes man pizzazz kite. ” So a sentence might be “Merrill had his nodes removed, and the man felt pizzazz and flew a kite.” Pretty crazy.

    There are many ways to do this. This is just one of them! (So, in summary, you could turn any technique into a habit if it’s useful enough to you to have it as a habit. This could lead to a very deep discussion because Aristotle says that the more great habits a person creates (and the less that person has to use his creative energies on daily activities), the more it leaves him open to use his creative energies to pursue a truly meaningful interesting life.)


  5. Lila
    Posted Wednesday July 19, 2006 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    This looks to me like a lot of the memory tricks I’ve read about — it pins some additional nonrandom information onto the random stuff you’re trying to learn, which in turn helps you learn it. Like mnemonics.

    Bonus points, Sen, if you can figure out — or remember, if I told you back then — what this crazy mnemonic I made up soph or jr year is for:
    Katie Carrie Scary Tiara Viara “Crazy, Man!” Fear Covets Ni! Copper Zinc.

    Ah the power of mnemonics. I still remember it (now useless info) 12 or 13 years later. And yes, Viara knows — or did — that she was part of my mnemonic. Here’s another one I made up for the same course: Can Sin Get Sun? Probably.

    I have a crummy memory for things I hear — as my husband would attest to. But I know people who have said they can remember something better if they hear it than if they read it, or better if they see it than if they read it, or better if it’s in color than in black and white. This may be why so many people used “premed pens” in college, with the four colors. Imagine another experiment akin to yours — give us the list with each word in a different color, and see if that affects our memory time.

    I know that for me, I remember things much better if I write them down than if I read, hear, see them. Maybe for me, another version of your experiment would be just to write the list out rather than just reading it!

  6. Posted Thursday July 20, 2006 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    “Katie Carrie …”
    Lila gave me a hint over email about that phrase – two of the words in the phrase aren’t pneumonics. Go to it! See if you can get it! :) (bragging: I just got it)

    “Can Sin Get Sun? Probably”
    Got it!!! But why that one was important to you, I don’t know!

    This is cool, I feel like I’m solving the pneumonics da vinci code!

  7. Posted Thursday July 20, 2006 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Lila, it’s so true that people think in different ways. Here are just a few different ways that people think:
    * Hearing vs. Seeing (some add “vs. Touching” here)
    * B/W vs. Color (yes! those pre-med pens vs. babies who supposedly love b/w)
    * Seeing vs. Reading vs. Writing
    * Left vs. Right
    (For example, Lila, you suggested give the words in different colors, and that’s actually a cool idea! I should do that in a future post. Even then, I’d have to give several examples because people prefer left to right or vice versa. Just like when I was writing this post, it took so much control for me to give directions about the room being “clockwise” because “counterclockwise” is more natural for me – in terms of looking around a room – strange, right, that there’s such a perference? And some people are better at the earlier words in the string of words vs. the later words.)
    * Earlier vs. Later (First vs. Last)
    * Morning vs. Evening (when it’s better to remember)
    * Few Breaks vs. Frequent Breaks (some people like to study or work on a project for several consecutive hours without interruption in order to focus, and others like to move between projects because they get the most done when in those first minutes when they’re fresh to the project.)
    * With Music vs. Without
    * With Distractions (such as phone, email for breaks) vs. Without Distractions
    * Top to Bottom (Big Picture to Small Details) or Bottom to Top (Small Details to Big Picture)

    What else? What other different ways do people remember and do people learn differently? :)
    Update 7-24-06: Please see this post for more ideas on thinking styles.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By senia.com » Thinking Styles: “You Talkin’ to Me?!” on Monday July 24, 2006 at 11:54 pm

    […] Lila mentioned in her comments here that different people have different ways of remember things. For example, she said, for best retention, some people need to see a list of items while others need to hear them. True that, double true. […]

  2. By senia.com » on Monday July 31, 2006 at 2:18 pm

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