Practice Memory, Practice Creativity

Here’s a fun trick for improving your creativity. It will take you a few minutes a day, for a few weeks. By the end, you’ll not only be more creative but have a useful trick for your daily life.

Remember the link between memory and creativity? Let’s turn this concept up a notch.

You may think you have a poor memory, envying those people you have heard about (or met) who seem to recall everything with such incredible detail. You may even be thinking about those lucky people with eidetic or photographic memory.

Here’s the thing: you have an excellent memory for images and locations. You also have an excellent memory for things that interest you. Your memory is weaker for boring or abstract things. This is our evolutionary legacy – if you had to remember where the best hunting grounds are or which of these two similar-looking berries is poisonous, you would have no problems. Recalling your bank account number or your new colleague’s name – skills far more useful in the modern world – are a struggle, because our brains aren’t wired that way.

What about people with excellent, even photographic, memories? Well, either by natural aptitude or deliberate training, most advanced memories employ simple tricks. Tricks that anyone can learn.

Photographic memory is a myth.

“…there is no scientific consensus regarding the nature, the proper definition, or even the very existence of eidetic imagery…

… reports of eidetic imagery are best understood merely as rather hyperbolic descriptions that are sometimes given, by some children (and, perhaps, the occasional uneducated and illiterate adult), of ordinary (though perhaps particularly vivid) visual memory imagery.”

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mental-imagery/quasi-perceptual.html

The secret lays in that last bit – ordinary, though vivid, visual memory imagery. You can remember an apple easily enough but struggle to retain a random number like 572. Why? Because you can visualise an apple. You can hold it in your mind’s eye. You can see the light bounce off the firm, waxy skin. You can feel the cold, smooth skin that offers light resistance as you pierce it with a fingernail. The flesh beneath is sticky and crunchy. You can smell its sweetness, a thick aroma you can taste at the back of your throat.

An apple engages the senses. You can imagine it. The number 572 is abstract, meaningless, hard to visualise.

The trick is to equate the two. If 572 is hard to imagine, associate it with something that’s easy and remember that instead.

There’s something I like to call a memory key. You create a list of whatever it is you want to be able to memorise – in this case, numbers, but you could use letters, playing cards, anything you can list – and associate each with the following:

  • Subject: a specific person, animal or entity.
  • Verb: an action or activity.
  • Object: a thing that the Subject is doing the Verb to.

For example, in the memory key I am working on, the number 8 corresponds to: Harry Potter heals hair. Subject-Verb-Object.

(As an aside: you might notice that my SVOs for 8 all start with H, the 8th letter. My memory key is, in fact, organised alphabetically. I doubt it makes it easier to remember – it just appeals to my OCD.)

This Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) pattern is how simple English sentences are structured: “The boy (S) kicked (V) the ball (O).” Being simple and concrete, they are easy to remember. This also allows you to piece them together to create vivid mental images.

The memory key I am working on has unique SVO sets for every number from 00 to 99. This lets me memorise random six-digit numbers as a single scene. For the first pair of numbers, I pick the corresponding subject; for the second two, the verb; for the last two, the object. I then visualise and remember the corresponding scene, rather than the number.

memory_key

This is a bit of work. Picking distinctive SVO sets for each number, then memorising them, takes a bit of time. Like I said, though, a few minutes a day for a few weeks will do the trick. They payoff for your memory is that six-digit numbers become visual and concrete. Which is easier to remember: the number 240856 or the image of Xena: Warrior Princess applying animal dung to her wounds? Both mean the same thing, thanks to my memory key.

(What if you need to remember a number that is a different length, say, 2408567? Well, since it’s the same number as above with a 7 on the end, I imagine the same thing next to a 7 – specifically, Xena rubbing dung on her scratches next to a ghost. A small ghost, to remind me the number is 7 and not 07. Simple.)

Learning Your Memory Key

I mentioned that you can learn your memory key in a few weeks for just a few minutes a day. That seems like a tall order – a memory key for the numbers 00-99 has 100 subjects, verbs and objects, plus the numbers they are associated with. But it’s easier than you think, so long as you take it slowly and practice often.

On the first day, start at 00. Visualise the subject for this number – make it vivid, distinctive and interesting. If possible, incorporate the number onto their body as a logo on their chest or pattern in their fur. Picture them performing the Verb – again, make it vivid and, again, incorporate the number. (How do you add a number to an action? Maybe someone is shouting the number as the verb happens.) Then imagine the object the same way. So you have the Subject Verbing the Object, with the corresponding number tattooed across the scene.

Do the same for 01, then 02. Stop after 04 and revise what you have covered.

Do the same for 05-09, then revise those, then revise 00-09.

And that’s all for the first day. This only takes a few minutes and gets faster with practice.

The next day, during some mental free time – say, on your commute or in the shower – run through your memory key. Make a note of where you are struggling. Consider changing your memory key for elements you just can’t get, but don’t go nuts – unlearning an association is harder than learning it in the first place.

Later this day, learn 10-19 the same way as above. The next day, run through the whole memory key in the shower again.

That will take you ten days – a week and a half – to cover the entire memory key. The only other thing you need to do is practice.

Practicing Your Memory Key

I encourage you to apply your memory key during your day. Convert numbers you come across using your memory key, then back again.

You might also benefit from truly random numbers, though – dates and times work well, for example, but don’t include higher numbers. There are websites that generate random numbers for you or, if you know programming, you could write a simple script. If you want to make your own simple random number generator without resorting to programming, you can do so in Microsoft Excel.

Write the following formula in three adjacent cells:

=RANDBETWEEN(0,99)

The RANDBETWEEN() function generates a random number between the first element (in this case, zero) and the second (99).

You might notice that occasionally this number is shorter than six digits. This is because it displays ‘8’ instead of ‘08’. We can fix that with custom formatting:

  1. With these three cells selected, press Ctrl-1. This brings up the Format Cells window.
  2. Under the Number tab, under Category, select Custom (at the bottom).
  3. In the Type field, enter ‘00’ (without the quotes). This forces Excel to display the number as two digits at all times.

And this is creative, how, exactly?

By now you have learned a neat little trick. While useful for remembering dates or phone numbers, it doesn’t help you be more creative.

Except of course it does. To do this well enough for it to work, you end up practicing visualising things. A lot. Really vividly, distinctively and interestingly. This exercise isn’t a memory exercise; that’s just a side effect. Rather, it’s an imagination exercise. Your ability to create depends a lot on your ability to mentally visualise things – at the end of this, that is something you can do much better.

Improving your creativity is fun, though a lot of hard work at times. The thing is, training your mind to be more creative makes it better at everything. A lot of people would doubt you if you said improving your creativity can improve your memory, but here we are, steadily improving both at the same time.

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