I have always had a serious problem with remembering things.
I forget people’s names after I meet them. I could never memorize any vocabulary in foreign language classes. I forgot to do my homework. I forget everyone’s birthday. Sometimes, I walk into a room and can’t even remember why I went in there in the first place.
It’s kind of a big problem.
Or at least, it was a big problem until I figured out a nice little trick to chisel anything I need to remember into my brain, with only a half-second of effort. Now, I can read a vocab word, hear someone’s name or be presented with an interesting bit of information just once and never forget it.
So what’s the big trick?
Tapping Into Emotional Memory with Memory Hooks
What does emotional memory mean? To simplify it a bit in order to not get too bogged down in psychology and neurology stuff, there are several ‘levels’ to our brains. To generalize a bit, the really analytical stuff, math, logic, language etc. all happens in the higher, newer levels of your brain. All of the more subconscious stuff, emotions, impulses, desires, heart and breathing regulation & long-term memory, for example, are down on the lower, more primal levels of your brain.
Now, if you’re like me in the past, you try to memorize something by activating those higher levels of the brain. Usually by sitting and repeating it over, and over, and over until it is drilled into your brain. The problem is our brains don’t really like that.
Our brains may be built to hold a lot of information, but when it comes to living things efficiency is always the rule. This is one reason people like taking the path of least resistance. Our brains are no different, they don’t want to just suck up every last tidbit of information and store it forever, that would be inefficient. Your brain only likes to store things that matter.
Sure, to you, all those words on your vocab list do matter. To your brain though, not so much. Your brain really only wants to store information in the long term that it knows will really impact your life. For instance, it’s not necessary to remember for twenty years that there were exactly 134 tiles in the back-splash of your parents’ kitchen when you were a child. It is important to remember that planting your hand firmly on the burner of a hot stove is a stupendously bad idea.
How does your brain tell which one of these things is important to file away for life? By the emotional response the event triggers.
Counting the number of tiles in your parents kitchen is likely to elicit no real emotional response – other than boredom which is anathema to our brains. Slapping your hand down on a hot burner, however, will trigger lots of emotions – pain, fear, excitement, possibly confusion. All of these emotions trigger the release of lots of chemicals in your brain, it knows it’s something really important and it remembers it.
Here’s a good test, which is easier to remember – an exciting, wonderful or traumatic event from your childhood, or what you ate for breakfast last Tuesday? Which memory is more vivid?
Unless you have a very unique brain, or a car crashed through your wall while you were having breakfast last Tuesday, the childhood memory is probably way easier to recall, even though it was so much farther in the past.
This is the reason why the old-school, repeat-it-10,000-times rote memorization method just doesn’t work. There’s no emotional attachment, other than boredom, so your brain just doesn’t want to hang on to that information.
The trick then is to find a way to make your brain form an emotional attachment to the information.
Hooking Up Your Memory
What’s the best way to form an emotion attachment to the info? Memory hooks.
A memory hook is a strong visualization of some kind that hooks a strong emotion into the memory of whatever information you’re trying to store. Essentially, you take whatever information it is, a name, a vocab word, a definition, whatever, and then come up with some kind of visual that reminds you of that piece of information.
The visual can be anything, though it needs to be as vivid and detailed as you can come up with, and needs to have some kind of emotion tied to it. Any emotion will work, although I usually go for humor since coming up with ridiculous situations is easier for me. Longer, more involved action sequences also tend to work better than isolated mental images too.
Rather than try to explain the process, I think it’s a little easier to just walk you through one I used during our Korean challenge to memorize the phrase ‘chalmokkesumnida‘.
Now, chalmokkesumnida is a phrase used to begin a meal, similar to ittedakimasu in Japanese on bon appetite in French. Since that was the case, I wanted to have some kind of mental image that tied into meals.
When I say ‘chalmokke’, to me it kind of sounds like ‘Chow Monkey’ in English. Now a Chow Monkey would obviously be some kind of monkey that brings chow. Alright, so far I’ve got a monkey bringing food to someone or something.
Next, the ‘sumnida’ part kind of sounds like ‘Suupa da’ or ‘It’s super’ in Japanese. So now, the people the monkey is bringing the food to speak Japanese. From there, I figure if anything is going to be super, it’s chow monkey. Ok. He’s now a food delivering monkey superhero, complete with a cape, mask, and big ‘C’ emblazoned on his chest delivering food to hungry people everywhere, or at least in Japan.
Now, we take it one step further. You have a hungry family all sitting around their breakfast table in Japan one morning, a father, mother, and two kids. There’s no food on the table, and one of the childrens’ stomachs growls loudly. Suddenly, Chow Monkey blasts through the wall like a furry, simian Kool-Aid Man and dumps a breakfast feast onto the table. There’s food from everywhere, it’s like all the buffets of the world rolled into a giant katamari of breakfast-deliciousness. Their eyes glistening in hunger, everyone at the table shouts ‘Chow Monkey suupa da!’ with joy and dives into the food as Chow Monkey soars away to save another hungry family.
Is that ridiculous? Sure. But now every time I sit down to eat, I think of Chow Monkey and ‘Chow Monkey suupa da’. From there ‘chalmokkesumnida’ flows right out.
Now, written out like this, it makes it look like an extremely involved process. Really though, all of this happens in a split second. Your brain comes pre-installed with a fantastic imagination, and it doesn’t take much thought to come up with something goofy like this. Chow Monkey was born a few seconds after sitting down to eat with some Korean friends.
It may seem silly, but next time you need to remember something give it a try. Before you realize it, whatever you were trying to memorize will be burned into your mind like the Banana Phone song. Just see if you don’t think ‘chalmokkesumnida’ next time you sit down to eat.
Have you had any success with this technique? Share some of your mental images and memory hooks in the comments!
Update: If you’re interested in learning more about memory hooks I discuss them and the above example in more detail along with other memory strategies in my book How to Learn 1,000 Words in 30 Days on Amazon Kindle.