Tag Archives: Memory training

To have great recall you need great salt crystals

For a long time it frustrated me that some memories I had seemed to vanish shortly after hearing them while others persisted for a very long time.  Even during memory competitions where I seemingly applied the same techniques to information I was memorising, some things seemed to persist while other things just wouldn’t come back to me.

In memory competitions recall beyond an hour isn’t very important because you memorise information and then very shortly after (within an hour) you recall it again. In real life however, I wanted to be able to remember something once and then that memory to firmly crystalise itself in my mind for future recall.

I kept asking myself questions like, why can I recall some information and not others, and how can I improve the recall of the knowledge I have.  It took me a while to realise I was actually asking the wrong questions.  The issue wasn’t with my recall, the issue was with the insertion of the memory in the first place.

Thinking from my experience of memory competitions,  we utilize spatial memory quite heavily through journeys and mental networks. As I started to think about why some things came back to me much quicker than others I considered what these networks might represent neurologically.  I started doing a bit of reading about how nerve sells were connected and started to consider the parallels that existed between a network of nerves and the mental journey networks in my mind.

I was looking specifically at the individual items I’d remembered, where they were, what they were, and all the detail that surrounded them. Stating the obvious, the memories in my life and in competition which came back to me much easier were mental images (or experiences, whether it be feeling, a smell, a sound or all of them combined) which were very vivid or strong in my mind.  But why are they easier recall? I can see them more clearly, when I find them, but how does this help me find them in the first place?  Why doesn’t a dull, unemotional, silent, black and white image ping back into my mind?

It dawned on me that this was simply a question of probability! The stronger more vivid images had a greater number of other memories connected to them. They had an emotional connection, connections to familiar sounds, tactile connections,  These bundles of connections made them easier to recall on their own but also easier to connect to the journey or network.  Consider snowflakes with their fractal like arms falling together through the sky, catching onto one another (no reason, that was just for fun ;D).

As a result of this (not the snowflakes) I started re-engineering some of my networks. After all, a logical extension of this idea would mean that connecting to strong existing memories will allow greater probability of remembering new additions to your memory set.  I spent time, enhancing, and amending the networks and finding the dead zones where I seemed to frequently misplace items (and there were quite a few).  When I looked closely at these zones in the network, they were either places I’d been less frequently (in the case of those places I’d visited in real life), or simply boring objects chosen for pegs in networks I’d built using Google street view.

The kind of dead zone which is much more interesting

The above thinking seemed to be reinforced in my experience practicing spoken numbers (an event where you memorise spoken digits at a rate of 1/s). I used to find myself struggling to insert an image fast enough into my network.  Everything was too slow.  It took me too long to find my two digit image representation, too long to visualise my journey/network and too long to do the actual insertion.  I later started to notice that I got much better results/scores on the networks I used much more frequently.  I was able to see the pegs better and binding the images to the pegs seemed to be much clearer.  I also noticed that networks I’d created from places I’d actually been performed much better than those I created on the fly from Google maps.  Linking back to what I mentioned previously this makes complete sense.   Networks which are in places I’ve actually been are emotionally and physically (in an experience sense) much better connected to other senses, memories and therefore are easier and have more places to make a recall connection.  Its almost like the routes I’d been down more frequently offered less resistance neurologically because of these extra connections, or perhaps they just generate a much stronger nervous signal.

So what does this ultimately mean. Going back to the beginning, the problem of recall is not a problem of recall at all, its more a problem of insertion!  Get the insertion right and the recall will take care of itself.

I used to think of memories a bit like salt crystals.  If you get the conditions right (i.e get all the right associations/connections in place) you would form really nice large stable crystals.  Get the conditions wrong and you’d end up salt water mess and some crystals which dissolved as soon as they’d formed. So how do you create these wonderful salt crystals in a way which gets them to persist and be recalled more easily/quickly.  Well the classic way I learned at school was a method of simple repetition.  This does work, however its very dull and doesn’t allow you to use the full weight of your brain in its ability to make things memorable in a much more efficient way.  The best method and the latter I mentioned above is to connect that memory to an existing strong memory and give it as many other mnemonic connections as possible.  That’s why the type of advice you see in memory books of giving it emotion, sound, colour, smell, action etcera actually works! Also get creative.  You’ll be giving yourself a half decent mental workout doing it this way and if you connect it to enough of your existing neurons the chances of recall are much greater!


If you apply some basic memory techniques to the above then the chances of recall are even greater.  Aside from the enhanced experience (smell/colour/etc) you might place the memory into a network (another layer of familiar neurological connections) which further enhances the probability that when you attempt to recall because you know exactly where to look for it.

Another thing I’ve started doing which is particularly useful if you work in a busy office environment is to have a group of networks already setup specifically for general purpose memory.  Things you need to remember throughout the day can be bundled onto well established pegs and you can keep the networks nice and fresh by jumping through them each morning and rotating their use over different days to avoid ghost images.

So,  get that habit of insersion right and great recall should be a logical conclusion. :)

Happy memorising.




Sleepy memory

Given the last few days of flights, and cramped seating it seemed particularly fitting to write a little post about the effects of sleep on memory.  I am currently en route to the World Memory Championships in Haikou, China, flying via Istanbul and Hong Kong.  Its quite a long winded set of flights and despite my ability to sleep anywhere I have found myself quite tired from the ordeal thus far. With that tiredness has come a significant drop in the performance of my memory.

Sleepy dog

Sleepy dog

Over the years I’ve trained in the gym and playing various sports I’ve noticed the significant difference sufficient sleep makes to my performance.  Whether it was during training for an amature strong man event, hitting a pb back squat after two weeks on an all inclusive holiday, or nailing 3 pointer after 3 pointer on the basketball court, good sleep seemed to be key.


I’ve also noticed the significant difference sleep has had on me mentally. Years ago after I finished uni, I worked a manual job as a bank note processor on a rotating shift pattern from 6am-2pm one week to 2pm-10pm the next.  I did this for 2 years while saving to do my masters and whilst I had to endure appalling sleep during the majority of that time, it did teach me a valuable lesson.  At the time I lived off Red bull, turning up to work late, feeling grumpy and finding myself in a state of day dreams half the day and wanting to sleep the rest. I struggling through the day as best I could but it wasn’t until I had a short holiday where I started getting 9 hours sleep every night that things improved.  I carried through the 9hrs sleep to my working week, forcing myself to go to bed early on the early shift and at a normal time on the late shift. The transformation was significant.  My mood improved, my performance at work improved, even my outlook on life changed. Since then I’ve tried to discipline myself to pay closer attention to my sleep and avoid caffeine in my normal routine.



What does this mean in terms of memory? Well, there seems to be plenty of evidence detailing the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance so I guess its no surprise that memory is also affected.  I think of sleep as being at least in part analogous to a house keeping process in computer software.  These processes tend to run while there is limited or no user interaction where resources can be devoted to tidying, organising, and preparing the system for the next day or the next point of user interaction.  In the analogy the user interaction would be your conscious mind, and the house keeping process your sleep. Overnight your brain is compiling events through the day, storing them in an efficient format subconsciously, attaching meaning, resolving issues that arose etcetera.  Without this process, or limiting the time of its running, the system (your mind) would become slow, messy and inefficient.



In the case of memory training your focus becomes disrupted because your minds conscious thread of mental imagery that is used to code up and store the information gets derailed by day dreams (an attempt by your subconscious to catch up on some of that processing it didn’t get time to resolve the previous night) and you lose focus.

So what can we do about it?  Everyone suffers a bad nights sleep occasionally but still needs to perform at their best.  I’ve found a few things have helped.

  1. Power sleeping.  Its no substitute for proper deep sleep but I’ve found this has significantly improved my focus after a series of bad nights sleep.  Even a couple of minutes with your eyes shut seems to help if you’re really stuck for time.  There’s quite a lot of information out there about power sleeping and power naps so I won’t waffle on here.
  2. Memory training generally. Doing memory training (becoming mentally fitter) is similar to coming home from work after a long day and going to the gym.  If you’re already a relatively fit individual its far less of a struggle to get those sets done than if you’ve never seen a set of weights before.  Its like having a higher base line of mental fitness which as you bring it up even higher supports you even when you’re mentally fatigued/tired.
  3. If you’re truly desperate for focus and have no other options the last thing I can suggest is caffeine.  Many people reading this will barely see this as news given the amount of coffee that’s drunk on an average working day in the office but if you avoid it for the most part like I do, when you do need it, its effects are much more significant.


Without getting too deep into chemistry an over simplified version of the normal process of the day involves adenosine accumulating in the adenosine receptors on your nerve cells and make you drowsy until you sleep. Caffeine works because it bonds with those same receptors without having the impact of drowsiness. More simply put it disrupts your ultradian rhythms of wakefulness and daydreaming throughout the day.  If you’re really struggling for focus caffeine can be a kind of get out of jail card for your mind, but be careful not to use it too frequently.

Anyway, its about time I got some memory training done and threw in a few power sleeps along the way.  I wish you all a good nights sleep.

Happy memorising.