Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Art of Memory - Linking System

Now that my fan base is expanding towards infinity (I'm sure you would need as much as two hands to count my fans, actually never mind, suggesting that you count on your fingers is an insult), I think I'll go on a rant about memory. Why? I like memory. I consider myself above average in things that have to do with memory (but then again, 80% of all people consider themselves above average, but then again, 91.7 % of all statistics are made up), and although I have never taken any active steps to improve or manipulate my memory, I was kind of forced to after reading a part of Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind (which you will find to the left in the amazing widget powered by Goodreads). I am terrible at creating suspense, so I am going to throw the climax of the story in your face, in medias res, just like that, without warning (apart from the fact that you have been amply warned by now). I memorised a list of 20 words in only a couple of minutes, and without further efforts managed to recite it from first to last, or last to first. Do you want to know how? There is no payment involved, and you don't have to subscribe to some sort of scam website, but I do require that you give me your credit card information (or not).
The technique is known as the linking system. You see once upon a time, in Ancient Greece (should I have capitalised that A?), The Art of Memory was part of the school syllabus. Mnemonics were viewed as an essential tool to facilitate the acquisition and retention of new information, which is understandable considering how knowledge was mostly recited orally, and had been for centuries. However, once the more silly versions of religion (don't worry, they're all silly) became fashionable, and witchery and devil-worship was no longer fashionable, The Art of Memory had to go.
Oh yeah, the linking system. Well, basically it's a way of organising information centered around your ability to visualise "things". It's particularly helpful for remembering long lists of words, but can also be developed to store large networks of information, so says the Gospel according to Derren Brown. For anyone out there reading this blog (yes, you - hello!) who has ever tried memorising a long list of words, for instance one of 20 words in length (I'm going to stick with that number), in under a minute, you might find that your first reaction would have gone something along these lines (yes, this is a hypothetical anecdote, so it will be privileged with the colour green). By the way, I used to have a blue car. OK let's move on, don't be silly.

"Uhm. OK, let's see here. 20 words per minute, that's what? 3 seconds for each word. This thought has taken 10 seconds to think, so that leaves me 50 seconds, or 2.5 seconds for each. Wait, I could go on like this forever and not remember a single word. Shut up, and start memorising! OK, first word is... Wait a second. How am I supposed to memorise these words? I'll try the first 5 and see if I can manage. Damnit, I forgot the first one. I'll spend a bit more time on that one, oh and there goes the third one as well. How many words were there again? 20? Right, well I have about 10 seconds left, so I guess I'll just have to take a glance at each word then pray to the deity I don't worship that I'll be able to remember more than just a few."

In psychology, there has been research done on our ability to memorise lists. Basically, if you are given a series of words appearing one by one, you are more likely to remember the first words (the primacy effect) and the last words (the recency effect), whereas the words in the middle are either mixed with other words that your wonderful reconstructional memory has placed there, or that you have just completely forgotten. So let's face it, we suck at memorising lists. We just screw it up at some point and panic. At best we might remember around 7 words out of 20, sometimes less, maybe sometimes more. In any case, our natural way of memorising lists is not only painful and stressing, but it is more importantly unreliable. Sure you can remember 6, or sometimes 7, but we need to achieve 20 words consistently if we are to disprove the silly psychologists treating us like lab rats.

I am going to type a list of 20 arbitrarily chosen words, then I will write a small paragraph connecting each set of neighbouring words as follows: 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, 4/5 and so on. All you need to do is to remember the first word, and the next word should come naturally. As you may recall, I mentioned visualising. Well yes, the process is simple, your task is to make a vivid, recognisable mental picture linking two words. Grab the first picture that comes to mind, as that is most likely the most natural picture you can get, which will be easiest to remember, and start decorating it with crazy details, bright colours etc. Make it stick, and make it as ridiculously absurd as possible. The more nonsensical, the better. You will find that you will remember it precisely because it is so ludicrous.

Well, this is what you are going to do in the future. What I just wrote is indeed pretty much the framework of the linking system in general, but what we are about to do now is an easy initiation ritual. I will take care of the crazy visualisation process for you. All you need to do is read my scenarios, and the list should come naturally. In fact, let's make this easy. 10 words, how is that? Good? OK. Here we go (no, I am just going to write the list, don't rush it).


Now, make sure you remember Jesus (no, I'm not advocating Christianity here), because if you forget Jesus, you won't be able to remember the next 9 words (nor am I referring to the decalogue or the Ten Commandments). Form a bright image of the following descriptions in your head. After each paragraph, close your eyes and take a look at the picture that has formed in your head for a few seconds, then move on.

Jesus is drying out on the cross. The Sun is shining bright, but the Sun is also in the shape of a cross. And it has sunglasses. So does Jesus. Jesus shouts "fuck the police!" and rips one hand from the cross, grabbing a cup of milk. The cup is massive, in fact it is larger than Jesus, so the cup ends up drinking Jesus instead.

A red-leafed tree is in the middle of the ocean, but instead of bearing fruit, millions and millions of cups are dangling from its branches. When the cups fall and touch the water, they turn into boats that row themselves towards land with a spoon instead of an oar. The cups become bigger and bigger, and the tree becomes smaller and smaller as it runs out of cups.

The previous tree having vanished, a new tree grows in the same place, this time carrying apples. But the apples all have a bite mark on the left side, and as they fall, they land in an Apple factory producing Mac laptops. The apples are used to form the laptops' logo.

The laptops decide to fly away, shaped as a set of wings, with no body. As they fly out of the factory, they immediately turn into mechanical owls eating computer mice.

Owls are sitting on a branch eating Danone Yoghurt, but the Yoghurt is far larger than any of the owls, who look ridiculous trying to handle a spoon with their beak, which ironically makes it impossible to take in any food without dropping the spoon. Some owls find this hilarious and fall off their branches into a carton containing Yoghurt.

A man answers the telephone while eating yoghurt, but instead of a voice coming out of the device, there is yoghurt running down onto the floor and into his ears. An army of telephones break into his house and start vomiting yoghurt everywhere. The man desperately tries to eat it all, but needs to phone an ambulance because he is lactose intolerant.

A man is writing an essay about the history of telephones on his iPhone. The phone rings and his essay is deleted because he forgot to save it. In rage and protest he throws his chair out of the window, and phones the local store to order a new chair.

You are taken hostage, and are strapped to a chair. Outside there is nothing but desert and camels. A terrorist is hitting you on the head with a chair, but suddenly a chair storms into the room and blows itself up in the name of some deity.

A terrorist has successfully blown himself up, and has been granted access to heaven, where he is given peanuts at the gates. In fact, the gates themselves are made of peanuts, and people are throwing peanuts at each other, trying to catch them in their mouths. Rivers are filled with terrorists blowing themselves up and exploding into a massive rain of peanuts, which the people nearby try to catch in their mouths as well.

Now close your eyes, and try to recall the list. If you can't remember the first word, it's not important. I'll help you out. Here, it's Jesus. Why are you still reading? Close your eyes and go through the list.

How did it go? Try it backwards. I'll help you out, although you will indubitably (Hei, Andreas) remember the last word. Peanuts! Go! I mean close your eyes. Now go.

Comment on this post telling me how much you love me, and how you would polish my shoes for free. No seriously, how did it go? I'll catch you in my next rant.


  1. damn I'm a fucking genius! remember all your words! :D
    i'm sorry, i should rephrase; thank you alex for making me a genuis :D

  2. It works, it works!!!! :)

  3. Det va kjempe lur metode. Funka fjell! :D

    1. Gjekk det baklengs og? Eg føle nesten det e lettere baklengs enn framlengs.

  4. I applied these clever methods to two 10 word lists. Then I connected them together remembering 20 words as easily as I'd remember two words (just an extra image to bind the last word of the first list to the first word of the second list).

    Comment on the method: I found remembering verbs, past participles and adjectives harder to remember. Do you have any methods of further strengthening the memory of such words?

    Side note: In programming this word list is called a doubly-linked list. You can access it only from the beginning or the end and can only maneuver from one node (word in this case) to the previous (unless you are at the beginning and there is no previous node) or to the next node (unless you are at the end).

    This is different from a singly-linked list to which one has only access to the first node and move from one node to the next, never to the previous one. These lists may be less practical but require much less memory for the computer. It is fascinating how humans apparently create doubly-linked lists by default.

  5. Derren Brown also mentioned that nouns are the easiest to remember, followed by simple adjectives and verbs. There are several systems you can develop on your own, which I will mention later on in the "peg system" (for numbers), which will sort of qualify the memory, or attach a bookmark to it. For instance, if you want "played football", you can attach some kind of bookmark that will let you know it is in the past, such as a clock whose hands move counter-clockwise (this will be your bookmark for all verbs in past tense). Sometimes this bookmark will not only help you understand what kind of memory you are dealing with, but also strengthen the memory in itself.

    "Played football"
    Man playing football in reverse, the ball is a clock whose hands go in the "wrong" direction. The picture focuses on the person as he kicks the ball, emphasising the fact that it is an action, but the kick in itself is in backwards motion, making it look like the person is just kicking the air behind him.

    As I said I'll write more about this stuff later on. You'd be surprised how well you can organise information once you make a system for it that you recognise instantaneously.

  6. Wow. I look forward to that!

  7. I was surprised at how well that worked. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been surprised as it would have made no sense for you, Derek Brown or anyone else to present a system that doesn't work.


    2. It's OK. I won't tell anyone. (Hi whoever else is reading this comment)

  8. DEREK ?!

    Did you manage both backwards and forwards?

  9. I actually found it easiest forwards... But managed both ways :)
    And was surprised about how well it worked!
    It will be interesting to get the follow up!

    1. Glad it worked. :) Keep in mind this is the first time you're doing it...

    2. Hehe yeah it would never had worked without your hints... When I first read them my mind was blank :P Not remembering words or making any attempt of making images of how to remember them :P

    3. The idea is to be aware of this technique and try it out for yourself at some point. It's really quite simple. Every time I write a list to someone else when teaching them the technique, I just learn the list at the same time. By getting used to this, the next steps in the system become far easier (and more fun)!

  10. Har du skopuss?

    -FooT BoNe

  11. Anonym med signatur? Troll!

    - 5762

  12. This is an excellent technique that works incredibly well. As a matter of fact, I have been using this technique every now on then, when I had to memorise things, though I did not know it was called the 'linking system'. I, personally, found doing it backwards slightly more difficult, then again I believe that'd be the case for everyone.
    Moreoever, I think I am going to read Derren Brown's book now.

    1. Thanks for reading. I mostly memorise things visually as well, but I tend to connect new words with words I already know, though not always in a 2 by 2 list as done in the linking system, which I am now using a lot.

      Derren Brown talks about other systems, that I will write about later, after writing some more about the linking system. The other systems will help you memorise very long numbers, or lists of words that you link to what number the word is in the list. For instance you can instantly jump to word number 7 without having to link your way through each of the previous 6 words. This is a horizontal way of linking words, as opposed to the vertical way used in the linking system.

    2. I am looking forward to that, then. Thanks, Alex. Also, don't take forever to post. Otherwise, I am going to buy the book and read it. =)