Most of us go through life unaware of what the mind is truly capable of. I’ve recently become interested in the photographic memory – how it works and whether it is something that can be developed. I did some research and came across an informative Ted Talk on this subject (https://youtu.be/LQMnMKREriM). What I discovered is that the brains of people who possess photographic memories are structurally and anatomically, no different from the average person. However, one difference is higher activity in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for spatial awareness and navigation. Ultimately, what I learned is that photographic memories are not necessarily innate, they can be learned, and I wanted to try this out for myself.
One of the most effective techniques for remembering content using visual imagery is ‘the method of loci’, or the ‘memory palace’. The method of loci/memory palace involves creating a visual narrative/journey in your mind in order to retain certain content. Personally, I think memory palaces are a lot like dreams – weird events connected by a narrative. I thought this sounded intriguing and decided to try it using the digits of pi. I was going to attempt to create a visual narrative and attach numbers to different events, objects, people and places. I initially predicted that it would take me an hour to memorise 50 digits and I had planned to learn around 10-20 per day. What I did not expect, was that I ended up being able to memorise 100 digits within 20 minutes. So far, I have been able to memorise 340 digits in around 75minutes. Just to prove that I actually can do this and I’m not just talking a load of rubbish, I decided to post (a highly embarrassing) video reciting these digits. It usually takes me around 3.30min to recite them, so I would advise you to look away now if you get bored easily.
Some of you might be wondering, how on earth did I do this? Basically, I caught onto the memory palace technique very quickly and discovered several factors that really made the technique a whole lot easier, which I will discuss below.
Break up the numbers
First of all, I broke the numbers up into chunks based on visual appeal. I then focused on one number chunk at a time and inserted it into my narrative. For example, let’s take the first 11 decimals “1415926535”, I broke this up into 1415, 9, 265, 35. I then sat in bed, closed my eyes and tried to attach each number chunk to people, objects and places in my mind. The less distraction there is around you, the easier it will be to focus and retain the information.
The weirder your narrative, the easier it will be to remember.
The more obscure your story line or journey is, the easier it will be to memorise. For instance, let’s take the digits “2317253594081284811745”. I broke this up into 231, 72, 535, 94, 081, 28, 48, 111, 745. I imagined looking up at this gigantic spaceship with the numbers 231 on it, I then entered the code 72 on a panel to access the spaceship lift, I put my key card in and the numbers 535 popped up on the monitor, I went up the lift and when the elevator doors opened I saw the number 94. There were so many rooms on this floor that I needed help, the number 081 came bouncing along and brought me to room number 28. When I opened the door, everything was pitch black apart from two hands. In one hand there was a blue pill with the number 48, and in the other hand was a red pill with the number 111. I ask who was there holding the pills, it was Morpheus (from the Matrix) with the number 745 written on his forehead. A rather bizarre storyline as you can see…
What I also found interesting was that most people who use the memory palace technique tend to use only one location to implant their information, i.e. in a familiar place like their old family home. However, I used many different locations. For instance, I used an underwater world, outer space, a tunnel, a big Indian palace, and a cave are just to name a few. This technique worked best for me because it kept the storyline interesting.
Using your senses
Using the five senses can also help to retain information. Obviously, the sense of sight is the one I used the most. However, I also used the sense of touch on several occasions. For instance, there is one event in my visual narrative where the number “628” is gravitating in the air and it is made out of water. I can remember splashing my hand through each digit, and this helped me to remember how the digit felt and what it looked like. Another example, is the number “62” which I represented as a number on a gold coin. I can remember running my fingers over this number, the texture of it helped me to store these digits in my mind. So far, I have not really used the sense of taste, smell and sound, but I will try to incorporate these more in my next lot of digits to see if they are as effective as the sense of sight and touch.
Eliciting an emotional response
Attaching emotion to your narrative can make it more memorable. The emotion of fear is one I have implanted in my narrative quite a few times. For instance, the number “8034” is this huge number in the ocean swimming after me, with chomping teeth inside the circles of 8 and 0, and I am trying to swim away from this. Or take the number “12”, these are ninja’s that are trying to catch me because I shot the number 446. It all sounds incredibly strange, but it works.
Using objects, places or people that you like should also help to create a memorable narrative. For instance, I like Elon Musk so I imagined the number 9 and 265 tattooed on him. Furthermore, I am fascinated with outer space and therefore used this location as one of my memory palaces. I found that the numbers in this memory palace were particularly memorable compared to my other memory palaces.
Using the same digits and representations
This can help to speed up recall. For instance, the number “82” is always represented as a door in my narrative; a door that opens up into a new world each time. At first, I found this problematic. The number 82 occurred several times in the first 200 digits and I initially had difficulty remembering which world I was stepping into. However, recurrent practice resolved this issue and it actually helped to speed up my recall. Although, I would suggest not using the same representations and numbers too often. Personally, I found that using them once or twice per 100 digits was effective.
I decided to look up the word rankings of pi and discovered that so far, with 340 digits memorised, this would place me 150th in the world (once I get to 500 I will stop…as its starting to get a little boring). However, what I find unfair about these rankings is that time is not taken into account. For instance, someone that can recite 350 digits in 4minutes is placed lower on the rankings list than someone that can recite 351 digits in 25minutes. Personally, I think recall time should count for something. Also, if you think 340 digits is impressive. It’s really not, Lu Chao from China currently holds first place and can recite 67,890 digits! I find it incredible just how much storage our minds can hold.
Now, some of you are probably thinking, WHY? Why on earth would someone spend time trying to remember the digits of pi? What is the point? Without trying to sound offensive, I find this to be an incredibly stupid question. Mastering the method of loci could completely transform the way that I learn and perceive the world. Instead of planting myself in front of the TV for an hour watching some mindless, counter-productive TV show, I would much rather spend a small amount of time each day, learning a technique that could benefit many different realms of my life. If I can apply this technique to a real-life context, like my University studies, this could help tremendously with my exams and recall ability. I believe this is actually a major problem with the education system today. School and University students are overloaded with content and information, yet aren’t taught the effective techniques to retain and recall this information. People spend hours upon hours re-writing content to try and get it to stick in their mind, yet don’t realise there are techniques out there that could significantly speed up the learning process. Overall, this method has made me realise that there must be so many other mind techniques out there that I am completely unaware of. Simply taking the time to actively learn these techniques could completely change the way we think and learn.
Anyway, if you have found this interesting and want to give it a go yourself, I challenge you to remember the first 10 digits of pi in five minutes. First break it up into chunks, i.e. “14, 15, 92, 65, 35”. Attach these number to a narrative and try to memorise it in under five minutes. If you manage to do this, that’s a great start! And with practice, this process will become faster and faster.