Speaking of Memory – Why Don’t We Remember?

The human mind is a fascinating subject that one can immerse into for an entire lifetime and only manage to scratch the surface. Yet, that is when you look at it from the outside.

Interestingly, we each have a personal exhibit of this immensely challenging topic, that we can study intently — using the mind to analyse itself.

One of the more spoken about topics of the human mind is the way the human memory operates. While various well-established theories exist, it is a given that we mostly remember what we wish to and forget those that we don’t think important enough.

The Memory Model

There are of course a couple of exceptions to this: that we remember those things that we wish not to (especially unpleasant and painful memories) and tend to forget most those thoughts that we think to forget. In fact ‘Think to Forget’ may be the single most reason to why we are so forgetful in life — we programme ourselves knowingly (or not) to forget!

There are ways around the forgetfulness that is human nature; tools and tricks to train the mind to remember things. The most effective tool of memory remains in the interest and willingness to remember. The ability manifests itself and amazes us when we remember accurately facts and figures seemingly without any effort.

Then there are time-tested tricks to memorisation: the most popular being what are called the “Link Method” and the “Peg Method”. Both these methods leverage the inherent ability of the human mind to remember things by association.

The Link Method of Memory

The link method enables one to remember things, even abstract unconnected objects at that — by linking two of them at a time in a funny, outlandish way. For e.g. If you have eight things to remember, you would link the first object in the list to the second object, then you would link the second object to the third one, and so on progressively. Each of these associations are done with just two of these objects at a time, in as funny, weird or magnified way possible.

When you wish to recollect the memorised list, thinking of the first object will remind you if the second one, the second one will remind you of the third one, and so on. This link method is a good way to memorise a list in serial order.

The Peg Method of Memory

The Peg method of memory on the other hand enables one to remember as many things as needed in numbered order and non-linear fashion. For e.g. if you had a list of 10 chores, you would be able to remember each of them at their numbered position, say the 9th and 4th object on the list.

This powerful method employs the use of pre-associated mnemonic pegs for every number — from 1 to 100 and beyond — that can be used to associate anything that needs to be remembered. The trick here too is to make the association visual, funny, and even preposterous.

The pegs themselves may also be remembered using rhyming, e.g., one is gun, two is shoe, … When you want to remember an object at a particular order, you only need to associate that object to the visual you have of the peg. Remembering the peg, will remind you of the associated object.

A variant of this method is to use a list of friends and family as the pre-associated pegs instead of the mnemonic words. The advantage of the Peg method though is that you can use the mnemonics to create and add as many variants to the list as needed, giving you the ability to memorise multiple lists.

Leverage Memory with Association

There are other ways in which this power of association works too, most notably the Memory Palace — a way to remember most anything using a mental image of a house or building and the various rooms and objects therein. Like the classic peg method, here the visual image of the palace or house acts as the peg or trigger for association.

An equally effective method of memory — but one that is not quite as prominently discussed — is the use of music or songs to remember things. In fact after a couple of attempts of using this consciously, one wonders why we did not use this method much before.

Indeed, this method of memorising using a musical tune appears most natural in use. Think back to the way the mathematical tables were remembered by rote. There was a persistent drawl or even a tune in the way you repeated the tables: seven eight zaa …?

Think back to the nursery rhymes. Some of them we learnt in the first couple of years our early schooling days and did not revisit them much since. Yet hearing the words “Humpty Dumpty” reminds you the tune for the rhyme, and the words if the rhyme fall into perfect place as if you have sung it every day of your life!

Think too to the songs of the golden era of Bollywood. Think back to a song by Mohd Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, or any other that you grew up listening to? Perhaps you can even think back to the KL Sehgal era? If these singers and songs were way before your time, just think to some of the more obscure songs that have held fort some years back.

Think of a song that you really liked, but have not thought of in a while. Yeah! That one will work just fine.

Now sing the song and experience how the words fall into place, as the mind recovers these words from the deepest memory triggered by the tune. Notice how you hum the tune when the lyrics are not very clear, and the mind recovers the exact words to set the song right.

Clearly, this is a method we have employed repeatedly over the years, without quite giving it conscious attention. How about changing that now, and employing the way of melody to remember all that we want to?

This works best with some emotions thrown in — adding in overemphasised emotions to a thought you want remembered. Yet just employing a musical tone works effectively too.

Give it a spin. As they say, it’s all in the mind. And music after all rules the mind!

Note: For more information on Link, Peg, and other methods of memory, see books on memory by Harry Lorayne and Tony Buzan.

First published in November 2014 issue of Popular Science India as “Memory Games”.
Posted online on December 8, 2014 at medium.com/@nakulshenoy