Want Better Memory? Don't Just Learn Facts, Learn Context

Verbal or Visual?

Here's what's wrong with your memory retention. Rapid memorization is a prolific mental sport. There are world tournaments filled with highly skilled individuals who memorize an astounding assortment of facts in a short window of time. Here are a few records set by the 2020 World Champion, Emma Alams: 

Of course, for the average person, memorizing 218 names in 15 minutes is not a realistic achievement without years of training. However, the techniques used are practical and valuable, but not one is taught in school. 

The primary approach to rapid memorization is visual memory, and in school, verbal memory is what gets ingrained in us through science, history, and other classes. The school system involves memorizing unfamiliar names, dates, and locations without emphasizing the string of understanding that connects it all. They try to, but for lack of time, they can't. So instead, they pack your brain full of facts and send you on your way. This methodology fails you in three ways:

  1. Everything you learn will be forgotten the following term/semester.
  2. It does very little to develop your comprehensive understanding of the subject.
  3. It teaches you to place a high value on memorizing lots of facts instead of understanding subjects deeply.  

Context Matters

One way to counter the habit of memorizing verbally is by placing value on the context behind events and information. This turns random pieces of information into a linear sequence of events - a story. Stories have been used for centuries to chunk up information and transfer it to new generations of children. Stories allow us to utilize visual memory.

Knowing the date D-Day (WW2) took place is an exciting fact but will be forgotten if you don't attach some meaning to it. It's also not very useful by itself. If, instead you know the loose sequence of events leading up to D-Day and why the Allies had to take the beach, it will be far more meaningful, and the specifics of the event (like the date) will naturally stick to your complete understanding of the storyline. 

Remember these two things:

  1. Stories offer our brains something to visualize.
  2. Contextual meaning improves our brains' ability to memorize.

The added benefit is when you seek context, your understanding of the subject is enhanced as well.

Try This: Context Activates Visual Memory

Suppose you had to memorize the following sentence in 15 seconds. 

That would take you at least a few minutes to memorize unless you competed in the 2020 Memory Championships but if we provided just a little bit of context and linearity to the sentence, everything changes:

Not only can you memorize more words altogether, but you do it in far less time. Memorization champions use the technique of creating artificial context to random sequences of information so that they can visualize it.

Understanding the Flow 

"Memorizing in an indication that you don't understand" - Naval

We learn best when we develop an understanding for the flow of events, ideas, or formulas underlying a subject or event. If we build context around the subject first, then memorizing the specific details will become a side effect. You won't need to waste time on memorizing individual facts and whatever you do learn, will stick. 

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