If you’ve been anywhere near a computer screen recently, you’ve likely seen the ads to “supercharge your brain” using these 5 simple memory tricks. The truth is, these memory hacks don’t actually work, otherwise they wouldn’t be hacks, and they’d just be the norm – everyone would be using them. I’ll show you what actually works, and more importantly, when and how to use each memorization technique depending on the content that you’re studying.
When you’re learning information in college or in medical school, there’s a lot to go through. Some information makes intuitive sense, and because it’s easy to understand, your probability of remembering it is quite high. As often as possible, you should try to understand why things occur in a certain way, as this will reduce the need for special memory techniques. Most information, however, will require an intentional strategy and technique to accelerate memorization. We want to strike that optimal balance of understanding and intuition with memory techniques. None of these techniques are fully generalizable to all learning scenarios, and practicing a deliberate strategy with when and how you use each one will serve you well.
The goal in using these techniques is to get to the point where you no longer need them. The images may fade with time, as you no longer practice them, but the underlying information that you need to know will remain. For example, I used mnemonics or memory palaces to memorize particularly challenging anatomy concepts, but now I no longer need to, as I simply know the anatomy.
Not all memory techniques are created equal. Therefore, it’s important to understand their relative strengths and weaknesses, and know when to use each one, based on the information you’re trying to memorize and the reason that you’re struggling with it.
1 | Memory Palace (Method of Loci)
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite, the memory palace, also known as method of loci. “Loci” is simply the plural form of “locus”, and it references the technique in using spatial memory to quickly and efficiently recall information. We’ll use multiple loci, or locations, to help us string together important bits of information.
It’s a great technique, and I used it extensively as a medical student, but this technique is abused by self-help gurus who like to show off by memorizing a list of names or random objects. While this is a useful technique, it’s not some magical mystical secret that will instantly earn you perfect grades.
This is the most advanced memory tool and I save it for pieces of information that are not sticking by traditional means. I don’t use it for everything I come across, and I recommend you also use it sparingly. I relied on this primarily to encode bits of information that weren’t sticking via flashcards and didn’t always fit well with mnemonics, such as the constellation of adverse effects from a medication.
The memory palace technique has a few distinct advantages, namely that it facilitates organization and sequencing. For example, if you were to choose your school’s courtyard as the exclusive area for memorizing the forms of nephrotic syndrome, then you can choose spatial areas within or closely related to this to further organize subtopics, like other renal pathologies. Additionally, proper use of the memory palace helps you chunk information, meaning dividing a large set of information into smaller bits that are each individually easier to memorize. For example, if you want to memorize a phone number, it’s much easier as 391-490-9429 versus 3914909429.
If the order of a set of items is important, the memory palace serves additional utility as it naturally orders events in a properly mapped out locus. Spatially, you move from A to B to C and can therefore memorize the order of your items accordingly.
If you’d like me to make a dedicated post on the steps in creating a memory palace, and walk you through a real life example, let me know with a comment down below. Otherwise, I’ll leave you with this truncated version here.
First, consider what comes up initially when you first hear about a topic. Pay attention to the words and concepts, and see if they remind you or have associations with specific ideas, objects, or areas. Using a locus that you more naturally associate with the topic will strengthen your palace. This memory hook is how you will retrieve the palace when you think about the concept. For example, for Wilson’s disease, you may use the memory palace on the beach, with a volleyball named Wilson from the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks.
As you move through this familiar space, imagine a variety of events happening, each of which represents a piece of information that you’re trying to memorize. Going back to Wilson’s disease, I imagine walking up to a Mazda 787B race car that’s stranded on the beach, to remind me that a mutation in the ATP7B gene is the cause of Wilson’s disease. Tom Hanks is laying on top, vomiting over the side with a distended abdomen and yellow skin, reminding me of some of the liver-related symptoms. And so on. The more ridiculous, obnoxious, and shocking your imagery is, the more likely it is to stick. That being said, if you’re not a car enthusiast, and the Mazda 787B race car isn’t iconic to you, then obviously don’t use it. Find what is personally relevant and memorable to you.
Don’t be too reliant on memory palaces. In medicine, and in many classes, you need to recall information from multiple domains, and then synthesize and apply said information to solve a problem. If all the information were located in memory palaces, it gets tedious to visit multiple separate loci to extract the information you need.
I recommend you reserve this for information that you’re struggling with and that isn’t well suited for flashcards or simple mnemonics.
2 | Mnemonics
Everyone loves mnemonics. If you ever learned about PEMDAS in grade school, then you’ve used mnemonics as well. Mnemonics include memory aids that can be rhymes, poems, acronyms, images, or other tools.
Let’s start with images, as these share some common DNA with the memory palace. Think of an image based mnemonic as simply a less intricate form of the method of loci. For example, for the drug tamoxifen, I had difficulty memorizing the adverse effects. For that reason, I imagined my friend’s sister, Tammy, with a variety of strange physical findings to remind me of the side effects. Normally, with the method of loci, we’re using multiple images in a single space. However, even in this image based mnemonic with a single image, placing it in a location helps us to strengthen the association with an additional anchor.
I find that mnemonics are best suited for information that doesn’t make intuitive sense, such as an ordered list of items. For example, memorizing the branches of the external carotid. My mnemonic went like this: Some Anatomists Like Fking, Others Prefer S&M. From there, I could remember the order and names of the branches without issue.
Which brings me to the next point – how memorable is your mnemonic? Just like the memory palace, using a vulgar, obscene, or ridiculous mnemonic is much more likely to be memorable. There are several pre-made mnemonics you’ll come across, especially for anatomy. Choose the one that resonates the most with you or even create your own. The inappropriate dirty ones were particularly memorable for me, like the branches of the external carotid.
3 | Anki Flashcards
Anki is a flashcard app, using principles of spaced repetition and active recall to rapidly accelerate memory consolidation. This is the default for most information that I try to memorize. Over 90% goes into Anki, and the particularly challenging bits of information are redirected to the more advanced memory techniques of mnemonics and memory palace.
Most people who start off using Anki don’t use it properly, and end up getting burned out or finding little utility in it. It took me a couple years until I was making good Anki flashcards. I have an article that’ll give you the best Anki practices as well as a whole playlist on our YouTube channel. We start from the basics on how to use Anki and work up to advanced concepts such as how to actually create good flashcards.
What I want to focus on here is that it’s important you use Anki to review your mnemonics and memory palaces. After creating a mnemonic or memory palace, you won’t magically remember it forever. The way I recommend you approach this is to insert your mnemonic or a summary of your memory palace into the Extra or Answer field of your Anki card for that relevant topic.
For example, let’s say you have an Anki card for a component of nephrotic syndrome. On the answer side, you’ll have a reference to the mnemonic or memory palace that includes the fact you were testing yourself on. This is a seamless way to encourage reviewing the memory device at the right frequency – not too much and not too little. I recommend you have a tag, like “mnemonic” in Anki, so that you can quickly reference or edit your cards or even do a custom study session just reviewing your mnemonics and palaces.
I also have a Master Mnemonic & Memory Palace List as a note in Evernote. Any time I felt a certain mnemonic or palace was fuzzy, I could reference this list and brush up on it.
Lastly, teaching your friends during study sessions what your memorization tools are can help you not only consolidate the information by teaching them, but also help out your friends in the process. Talk about a win-win.