Friday, November 7, 2014

CPR for a Great Memory
The ancients memorized entire texts. In the days before the printing press, books were difficult if not impossible to duplicate. A scholar went home with a head full of knowledge, no textbooks. The Bible was among the early books  passed on by memory. But there were many other books in the sciences, history and genealogy that were passed down orally. Scholars memorized the material.
So how did ancient scholars do it?  They had three  techniques. I don't know what they were called then, but I call them CPR.


Say I have a list to memorize. Perhaps it is a to-do list or a grocery list. Perhaps my instructor expects me to know all 44 presidents of the United States in order or he wants me to memorize the periodic table.
If I  want to use chaining, I  tell myself a ridiculous story and chain the elements of what I need to memorize into the story.  
Say I have the following items on my errand  list.

Buy lettuce, Pepsi, paper towels, dog food and ketchup. 
Pay the light bill.

Here is one way I could chain them together and remember them.

I imagine myself  waking  up in the morning and it is snowing lettuce. Big heads of lettuce are falling out  of the sky. (Make the story as exaggerated and as ridiculous as possible so you will remember it.) The  lettuce is pounding on the roof of my home and piling up outside, so I can't even see out my bedroom window anymore.  I roll over in bed and there is a huge bottle of Pepsi lying in the bed beside me. I am so startled that I kick the bottle and break it. There is Pepsi all over. I get out the paper towels and start mopping it up.  The dog runs over to help.  But he starts eating the Pepsi- saturated paper towels.  “You need dog food,”  I tell him. “What kind should I get you?  Alpo?” The dog runs to get his bowl, but he brings back a bottle of ketchup instead.   Yuk, The ketchup is dripping. there is Pepsi and dog food and paper toweling in the ketchup.  And it is all in my bed. Disgusting. 
The lights start blinking on and off. I have to pay the light bill.

And there are hundreds of other stories I can make up with the items in the list.  After I make up my story I visualize the scene .  What color are my sheets and bedspread? How do they look soaked in Pepsi? What kind of a dog is it? I have a beagle, but when you tell your story, you will have your own details.  Specific details will make the story more memorable. 
Repetition helps so I  go over the story a few times.  It is raining heads of lettuce, the Pepsi is in my bed, I get paper towels. the dog food is in the ketchup bottle and the lights are blinking on and off.
Practice chaining for about a week. Make up a new grocery or errand list each day and memorize it.  Practice whenever you can. Perhaps you already know a list.  How would you chain a list of your five best friends?
The more you practice the easier it will be when you have to make up a more difficult list.

Ready for something a little more challenging? And more fun.
Make yourself a longer list to memorize.  Perhaps the names of the  thirteen original colonies.  Maybe you want to memorize state capitals or the names of the kings and queens of England. 
In my next blog, we chain the U.S. presidents.

After that we will get to pegging.


Can we learn faster and with less effort?  Can we discover smarter ways of doing things? We live in a world where new information constantly assails us. New technology often requires retraining.  Our children come to us with help with their school work. Do we remember the algebra, the history, the chemistry?
Can we learn faster? The answer is yes. We can learn more, learn it faster and keep up longer and we can enjoy the learning.
For many years, I taught study skills. Many of of my students already had  difficult experiences in school, and some felt they could not become good learners.  But all they needed was to learn a few simple techniques.  They also needed to believe that they could learn.  Our self confidence is often shaken in school. We sometimes learn more about how difficult it is, when learning is really easy. Even the toughest subjects can come faster and easier.
The techniques I showed my students and that I will show my readers  were used by ancient scholars who needed to memorize every word and detail of some very complicated material. 
When books were rare and very expensive to reproduce, knowledge was handed down orally by poet singers.  History, science, literature, mathematics and all branches of learning were shared by memorization.
The Bible, the Illiad, the Odyssey and much of ancient history and astrology came down to us because people memorized it.
The best teachers including Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, advised against using textbooks.  They wanted their students to have the knowledge in their heads, not on a piece of paper.   These teachers also knew how easy learning could be.
Over the years, however, we have learned to depend on books to supplement and preserve our knowledge. Books and online databases seemingly have made it easier to access information. This is not learning.
We still need to put some of this knowledge in our heads and keep it there. We must also know how to access that knowledge from our heads when we need it.  The book or database may not always be available. 
How many of us can list the presidents of the United States in order, recite the state capitals or recite pi to tenth?  Do we know the order of the planets from the sun or the classification of animals and plants?
It is a shame not to learn when learning is so easy.
Real learning means not only knowing what book or website to go to  to look up the answers.  If we are going to be respected in our fields, we also have to have many facts in our heads. We can all have encyclopedic minds if we want them.
Memorization is still the core of learning. But too many people think it is tedious and boring. The only method some students have for memorization is repetition. And while some repetition is necessary, it is not the only memorization technique.  It is just the only technique that most people can name.  
Not knowing that there are other techniques, we are forced to over use repetition which many of us hate.
Yet senators in Rome were able to memorize long speeches with very little effort or repetition.  I can show you how they did it.  Remember when you were a preschooler. Learning was fun then, and it can be fun again.
The ancients knew lots of great tricks.  When it came to learning, they were practically magicians. But the ancients were not the only ones who showed an interest in learning faster. and easier.  
Some of today’s top scientists studied accelerated learning techniques. They discovered, for instance, that playing baroque music, doing deep breathing exercises and using positive self talk could boost learning speed.
Other scientists studied hundreds of the world’s greatest geniuses including Leonardo Da Vinci, Mark Twain, and even Vince Lombardi and Walt Disney.  One thing that all these people had in common was that they kept diaries.  I will even write a column about  keeping a diary and how it can assist in learning and  creativity.
Who knew there were so many ways to learn faster and think better?
The techniques themselves are all simple. Kindergarteners can learn them. And those who want to keep or rediscover the  the joy of learning should want to know them.
Of course, not all of us are in school. Some of us are looking for a job, learning a new job or working to keep up with the job or hobby that we already have.  I can give you some tips here. Learning is a lifelong activity and the more we know about how to do it and the more we believe that we can do it, the better off we will be.

I hope that students of all ages will let me help them learn better and with less effort.