How can I make my memory more exact?
May 22, 2010 10:29 PM   Subscribe

Homo sapiens can memorize The Iliad, and I can't be that far removed from my ancestors, right? How can I improve my ability to remember things very precisely? I'm particularly interested in textbook definitions, chemical formulas, and mathematical formulas.

So, my undergrad was spent getting a philosophy degree, during which time it was to my advantage to learn things in "broad strokes," and to "put my own spin on them." Creativity and insight were key, and it was hard to pretend to either if you weren't putting almost everything in your own words.

Now I'm in a post-bacc pre-med program, and creativity and insight have taken a back seat to memorizing as accurately as possible massive amounts of data. I expect more of the same for the next few years.

I've been on summer break a few weeks now, and already I feel like what I've learned in the last semester is slipping away, or getting fuzzy at best. As it stands, I just go over and over the textbook sections multiple times before a test, and do practice problems and exams multiple times before a test. This works okay, but I wonder if, as I study, I'm overlooking an obvious force-multiplying device somewhere. Example: I don't use flash cards very often, because I'm afraid to leave out information that will be important to me. If they're too detailed, they start becoming the book, and if they're too sparse, they might omit something.

Right now I feel like I could memorize small amounts of data very exactly via something like flash cards, but when it comes to larger memory tasks, I resort to absorbing it by scanning less precisely. Time is always of the essence during the semester, of course. Is there a way to improve my input volume without sacrificing detail or speed?

Thanks in advance!
posted by edguardo to Education (24 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Spaced repetition plus mnemonics for the win.

A tip that's helped me: make up stories to associate with whatever concept or item you are learning. The key is that they should be evocative, and bring up a memory of the item you are trying to memorize almost in spite of your efforts. If they are absurd that's fine--in fact it's preferable. Don't worry, the stories will fade away and only the item or concept will be left. This works. Combined with an SRS this is unbeatable.
posted by dubitable at 10:41 PM on May 22, 2010

Oh, also, re-reading your question I see you are having trouble with formatting of cards. I would suggest being minimal with the information on the "front," and having in depth info on the "back." The idea is to trigger the answer simply with minimal information, not distract yourself when you are trying to remember with scads of distractions. Do not worry yourself with leaving out information: you are ALWAYS leaving out information. Identify exactly what you need to memorize and break it down into the smallest meaningful units: divide and conquer.
posted by dubitable at 10:44 PM on May 22, 2010

This is the only thing I do really well so I'm trying to figure out what's going on when it's working well. Interest's the thing, I think. Were there ever pithy aphorisms in your philosophy classes that stuck in your brain? Or how about the first time you heard or read the parable of the cave? You can still see those poor souls shackled to stone, can't you?

The things I recall with most precision are those in which I have the greatest personal investment. Like the flawed argument I shoot back at my DH word-for-word in the middle of a spirited exchange.

I think this is part of why the other suggestion of stories and other devices work. They create personal associations to the material. Now, if Plato was right and the real purpose of philosophy is to live better then you're right on track with your studies. In this way each formula can be seen as a minute particular of the broadest stroke of all...your personal path to the best possible life for yourself.
posted by Pamelayne at 10:55 PM on May 22, 2010

I know this isn't really the thrust of your question, but people memorized The Illiad better than they do anatomy and physiology. The reason being that the epic was entertaining, and specifically designed to be memorized. What's more, it was almost certainly not the same speaker-to-speaker--it was probably substantially similar, though not identical, from telling to telling.

So, in order to tap into that sort of memorization you need to turn your data into images and stories. They need to be the sort of thing that you can fix in your head as an imagined memory, and then describe it each time. Sadly, I don't know that pre-med data lends itself to such a narrative approach.
posted by Netzapper at 12:12 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I read about the classical technique of building a memory palace via the Jonathan Spence book about early Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci - this apparently enabled him to succeed in prodigious feats of recall.
posted by Abiezer at 12:24 AM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can memorize long lists with the Roman Room technique (Google will help).

I had a high school teacher that was incredible with this. One day, for some reason he casually memorized a handful of things instead of writing them down. I thought this was odd and asked him about it. He told us he was very good at memorizing things, so we tested him.

By the end of the class, he had memorized 2 lists of 50 random words (from an online random word generator). We never gave him a copy of the list, just read it to him with about 5 seconds between words. The next day we asked him about it, and he was able to recite both lists forwards and backwards, and even to recite the two interlaced. The first elements of both lists, second of both lists, etc, with almost no delay.

He taught us how to do it, and we were all able to memorize 25 random words for the next day. But more than that and I think I would have had to have practiced the method a bit. It's a really powerful technique, at any rate.
posted by Precision at 12:53 AM on May 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

I've taken a lot of undergrad and grad biology courses. I started using this method last year, and it's led to the highest marks I've ever had in a science class (the only person who got higher marks then me spent all his free time studying).

I use Anki, which is a free spaced repetition flashcard program, to learn every fact that I think I should know. The program basically lets you rate how well you know each "fact", and then presents it to you again before you forget it. The intervals get longer and longer. The important thing about spaced repetition is that you have to do it every day for it to work, but it only take 15-30 minutes per day. By the time exams (or the start of the new semester) roll around, you barely need to review anything because the program has made sure that you know it.

I've pulled out a few cards to show you the format that I use. Unlike dubitable, I make the question part of the flashcard as complicated and necessary for the answer to be very short. There should only be one possible answer to your flashcard question.

Front -> Anat: The mucosa of the respiratory tract is largely [...] epithelia.
Back -> pseudostratified columnar

Front -> Anat: Which type of papillae of the tongue doesn't have taste receptors?
Back -> Filiform

Front -> Hamate Unlabelled X-ray picture of the wrist
Back -> Labelled x-ray picture of the wrist

Front -> Immuno: NK secrete large amounts of IFN-[...].
Back -> gamma

Front -> Phys: What is the Lewis definition of an acid?
Back -> A molecule that is a potential electron pair acceptor.

For a semester's worth of biology classes I had about 1600 flashcards. At the end of each semester I go through and delete the ones that I don't want/need to remember.

Oh and last thing: I used to take notes in class and make flashcards after. This took ages, so I started making my flashcards in class instead of taking notes. Obviously this only works when the lecturer isn't on speed and you have a textbook to refer to if you're confused, but it drastically cut down my study time.
posted by snoogles at 1:45 AM on May 23, 2010 [8 favorites]

You can also work on techniques on retrieving information more efficiently (as opposed to storing it more efficiently), e.g. priming.
posted by zanni at 2:52 AM on May 23, 2010

Anki is great. Spaced repetition is proven to work, and it's sort of magic: it works more effectively than just reviewing the material every day. For example, reviewing at day 1, day 3, day 7, day 21 etc. is more effective than reviewing the material every day for twenty-one days. You're looking at the material less often but learn it better.

Do have a look at some of the advice out there on how best to write flashcards, though. With anatomy, you may like to have a picture with a pin and put the name body part in question on the reverse of the card. He's a rather laborious writer, but Piotr Woźniak did pioneer a lot of the automation of spaced repetition so it would be worth reading his advice on writing flashcards.

By the same token, testing your memory also strengthens it. In experiments comparing learning techniques, two groups are shown pairs of words to learn. In a second round, the group is split into two: one group is given the word pairs again for ten seconds per pair, but the other group is given one word alone for five seconds and then both words for five seconds.

The second group—despite having seen the thing they needed to learn for half as much time as the first group—knew it better. It's all here.
posted by henryaj at 3:03 AM on May 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

I second spaced-recognition. I use Anki for memorising literally thousands of facts. You can customise all the cards too - cards with "three or more" sides are also possible, so too is audio.
posted by thesailor at 3:10 AM on May 23, 2010

The Tony Buzan book 'use your head' seems to be a very good introduction to this, and he has one specifically on memory as well if you need to go more detailed.
posted by Not Supplied at 3:47 AM on May 23, 2010

The method of loci mentioned above is the go-to method. One variation which I have found useful is to construct my memory palace around a vivid childhood memory. I use my walk to middle school. The front door of my house, the first intersection, the first stoplight, the walkway over the interstate, the park, the lake, outside the park, the next stoplight, the sidewalk outside the school, the door, the stairwell, my locker, &c. The three blocks between the park and the school seem to have been a Wonderland.

When we are young, many of us have more neurological plasticity in constructing enduring visual memories.
posted by bukvich at 5:42 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Memorising facts is essentially a solved problem; with a little practice, anyone can pretty much memorise and retain whatever they want to. I have no idea why the techniques to do so aren't more common knowledge; I suspect it's because it sounds too implausible that it's so easy to carry around in your head sixty of your favourite poems, all of your appointments for next month, all of the definitions in a textbook, or all of the phone numbers you dial.

Harry Lorayne wrote a very approachable and easy to use book, that's very inexpensive. That's a great place to start.

For more recent innovations, and a great method for handling digits and numbers, Dominic O'Brien's work is fantastic, but perhaps not as good a starting place.
posted by surenoproblem at 6:18 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could also get just about any textbook of cognitive psychology (if you are at a college or university, I would google the psych department, then email the cognitive psychologist). They probably have an extra textbook (or five or ten) of cognitive psychology, which they would be happy to part with, all of which will have a chapter on memory, and will generally all include a helpful few hints (including, but not limited to the suggestions offered above). Many recent intro psychology textbooks also offer helpful ways to study and memorize.
posted by cogpsychprof at 6:43 AM on May 23, 2010

Nthing Anki.
posted by Nattie at 7:10 AM on May 23, 2010

I found out that I remembered complicated physical equations easier if I wrote them down. Doing it once or twice, sometimetimes more, was sufficient for them to be etched into my long-term memory.
posted by Hilbert at 7:19 AM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Med school can be a tremendous exercise in memory and learning by rote. Someone was told me that it was like having tube of fixed length with no stoppers in either end. You spend your time putting ping-pong balls in one end, and picking them up from the floor as they fall out the other. The trick is to get to the exams with the right balls in the tube.

Actually my advice would be to try and understand rather than memorise. For most subjects in premed understanding will allow you to recall what you need, and will stand you in much better stead for the rest of your career. It's even possible to apply this to anatomy to a degree. If you can visualise the structures they become much easier to describe from memory. It takes some practice but is definitely more rewarding, and much more useful. I remember answering one question by drawing a cross-section through the neck that I'd never actually seen but which was how I understood the structures to relate to one another (and I did pass). We used to imagine we WERE the carotid artery emerging from the base of the skull and described what we saw around us as we passed down the neck... you get the idea.


posted by bister at 10:47 AM on May 23, 2010

Also, Posit Science has been shown to increase your actual IQ. It was developed by a neuroscientist named Michael Merzenich, a giant in the field of neuroplasticity. It's pricey, and you need to dedicate about an hour a day for seven straight weeks, but apparently it just plain increases your ability to learn. I think I might try it later this summer.
posted by sunnichka at 12:03 PM on May 23, 2010

My trick for memorizing something is to read it last thing before I go to bed at night, then first thing when I wake up in the morning. I have no idea if there's anything behind the technique - or if it really helps me (it could just be confirmation bias) - but it seems to help with anything from memorizing lines for a play to facts for a science class.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:52 PM on May 23, 2010

I'm in a similar situation: former English major now in a post-bacc pre-pharmacy program. My method hasn't involved flash cards, it's been more about spreadsheets. For a lot of anatomy & physiology stuff, at least, the main problem is one of organization. I try to get to the point where I understand the information just well enough to come up with a good scheme for organizing it. And then I organize away.

Also, in just the past couple weeks I've been using Brain Workshop's dual n-back game which, it's claimed, is proven to increase working memory -- i.e., the number of things you can keep in mind at once as you problem solve. It may be worth a try since it's free.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 1:51 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was studying for the bar exam, I made a pretty comprehensive set of flash cards for given issues, and walked around while reading them aloud. I might walk a few kilometers around my neighborhood on any given session. I did the same in law school as well, wandering the hallways of the university's medical library (open 24 hours, unlike our law library) and the attached hospital.

Also-- and perhaps very idiosyncratic-- I found it more effective if I read them to myself in a South African accent (I am an East Coast US native speaker of English). No idea why that would work, but it helped me.
posted by holterbarbour at 7:53 PM on May 23, 2010

Spaced Repetition, with software like supermemo or mnemosyne.
posted by phrontist at 10:52 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just coming in to nth Anki as well. I've learned 1200 French words in the last month or two and will be continuing until I have a 4000 word vocabulary or so. It's an amazing program.

I'm a classical singer, and so for my job I need to be able to memorize 3 hour operas, and in the case of operas in languages I don't speak, I need to memorize pronunciation and meaning in addition to words and music. The only trick I've found for rote memorization like that is to do it backwards. Say the last word of the text, then cover it up and say the last two words. Now cover the last two words and say the last three words. It works like magic.

For memorzing numbers, there's not much better out there than a phonetic mnemonic system (1 is t or d, 2 is n, 3 is m, making "doom" 13 and "mind" 321. It's a lot easier to remember "mind" and decode it than a three digit number. More info around the Internet on that.
posted by sdis at 10:03 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just a quick note on Anki and spaced repetition: it takes time. That's really important—start early! Four or five repetitions of a fact is enough to remember it for a decade or more, but those repetitions are logarithmically spaced (so there might be six months or more between first and sixth, say).

This is for learning stuff, not cramming it. Cramming (many repetitions close together) is for cramming, but ain't long-term: you rapidly forget what you've crammed.

As you're a medic, edguardo, this is great for you as you'll presumably draw on all your learning in the future, but if there's an exam in a fortnight that you really need to pass, Anki won't have time to work its magic.

Spaced repetition also relies on you being consistent about reviewing your cards (i.e. using Anki) every day. It only takes ten minutes or so, but don't do it when you're about to collapse from exhaustion and try to avoid missing days as it sets your learning back a long way. You mention wanting to learn in great volume; that's easy with spaced repetition as the repetitions are staggered. Breaking down the material into tiny chunks is tedious but only need be done once; from then on, you only do a few minutes' worth a day. It doesn't feel like you're reviewing a lot of material; that's because you aren't—you only see the same card a few times over a few months before you know it for half a lifetime.
posted by henryaj at 10:44 AM on May 24, 2010

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