You say you can’t remember your own phone number? I can’t either. But we don’t need to know those strings of digits; remembering phone numbers is a job for our smartphones.
You don’t have to have a “good memory” (whatever that means) to fill your imagination with Scripture and knowledge about the Bible. By the time you finish this series you’ll have learned how to memorize lists (e.g., the Ten Commandments) and almost every key event that occurs in Genesis (that’s the first step in memorizing the entire narrative structure of the Bible, including details about hundreds of persons and events mentioned in the 66 books). But before you accomplish those amazing feats I have to convince you that the memory God gave you is sufficient for the task.
Later I’ll outline the ancient techniques and tips of memoria technica that were developed by the Ancient Greeks and perfected by the Europeans in the Middle Ages. For now the main thing you need to know is that the art of memory, as Ed Cooke explains in his book Remember, Remember, is the “art of making sure what you give your mind to remember is as bright and amusing and energetic and outrageous as possible.” In other words, you are unlikely to forget information when it has been associated with a vivid image.
In order to quickly and easily remember any new piece of information, associate it to something you already know or remember in some ridiculous way. Those last four words are essential to effective memorization—and they are also the reason why many people who have been taught memory techniques do not apply them. The technique seems silly because it is silly. For some reason unknown to us, God designed our brains to remember things that are absurd and unusual. This fact didn’t bother giants of the faith like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas so it shouldn’t bother you either. Use it, as they did, to honor the Creator of our imaginations.
Let’s put this concept into practice by memorizing these twenty items in sequence: Otter, Thor, Zeus, American, Idol, Weathervane, Ice Cream Sundae, Parents, Sleigh, Adult, Tree, Steel, Bear, False, Eyelashes, Watches, Wife, Ox, Butler, and Donkey.
While you may be able to find associations between some of these words (e.g., Thor and Zeus are both mythological gods and otter, bear, ox, and donkey are all animals) there isn’t any obvious connection that ties them together. You could use a brute force technique (e.g., reciting the words over and over until you can repeat them verbatim) but that is too time-consuming and not very effective. Instead, let’s try to associate them in some ridiculous way.
Let’s take the first five items— Otter, Thor, Zeus, American, Idol—and combine them into a ridiculous, but memorable, mental picture. Since most people are familiar with the music competition show American Idol, let’s combine those two words (American, Idol) as the basis of our first vivid image.
Instead of the usual panel of judges on the television show, picture the guest judges as an Otter, Thor, and Zeus. To make it easier to remember these items, give them an action: The Otter loves the singers and is enthusiastically clapping; Thor too appreciates the music and is banging his hammer (Mjölnir) on the desk in approval; Zeus, however, is displeased and is throwing a lightning bolt at the contestants. (To remember them in order, be sure to see each one in turn, creating a vivid picture of them before moving on to the next.)
Now follow Zeus’ lightening bolt as it misses the singers and hits the words American Idol in the logo behind the stage. The shocked duet that was singing are dressed as a Weathervane and an Ice Cream Sundae, but when you look closer you notice they are . . . your own Parents (or someone else’s parents if that makes it easier to picture).
Frightened by the Greek god’s action, the Parents look for an escape. To their surprise (and ours) Santa Claus comes to the rescue, beckoning them to jump into his Sleigh. As Santa rides off into the sky, the Sleigh crashes into a very tall Adult Tree (the children trees on either side are unhurt). Santa and your Parents fall out of the Sleigh, but before they crash to the ground they grab onto a Steel beam that is sticking out of the side of a building.
The Parents are barely hanging on by the tips of their fingers but, fortunately for them, underneath is huge Bear ready to catch them if they fall. The Bear is rather peculiar looking, though: he is wearing large False Eyelashes and two diamond-encrusted Rolex Watches, one on each arm. Coming toward the hero are his bear Wife riding an Ox, and his very human Butler (dressed as a proper English servant) riding a Donkey.
Now before you do anything else, close your eyes and try to remember each of the items—starting with Otter—by picturing them in the sequence of events. Chances are that you were not only able to remember at least ten out of the twenty but were also able to remember their order. That’s not bad for having merely read through the passage one time. If you spend an additional five to ten minutes reading through the list and sequence again, and create clear mental images of each (particularly the ones you missed) you’ll soon be able to recall all twenty perfectly.
The purpose of having you memorize this list of seemly random terms was mainly to have you prove to yourself that you could, using absurd visual images, quickly and easily remember new information as well as the sequence in which they are presented. But you might have also noticed that the terms weren’t chosen at random. Strung together they provide cues to remember the order of the Ten Commandments using terms that are the same or similar sounding:
1. “You shall have no other gods before me.” – No other (Otter) gods (Thor, Zeus)
2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” – No idols = American Idol
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” – Vain = Weathervane)
4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” – Sabbath = Sunday = Ice Cream Sundae
5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Honor your Parents
6. “You shall not murder.” Murder = slay = Sleigh
7. “You shall not commit adultery.” – Adultery = Adult Tree
8. “You shall not steal.” – Steal = Steel
9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” – Bear false witness = Bear False (Eyelashes) Watches
10. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” – Do not covet wife, servants, ox, donkey = Wife, Butler, ox, Donkey
If you are completely unfamiliar with the Ten Commandment then these cues are likely to be of no value. But if you have trouble remembering whether “You shall not steal” comes before or after “You shall not murder,” then it may help in learning the proper sequence.
Now that you know that you can memorize – and that it wasn’t as painful or difficult as you might have imagined – let’s look at few of the techniques we used in the exercise. In our next article you’ll learn four tips that will show you how to apply this process to remembering lists of items and how to store them in a “memory palace” so that you can instantly recall an extraordinary amount of information. Then, next week, we’ll put it all together so that you’ll memorize thirty key points in the book of Genesis.
In the meantime, practice memorizing a string of terms. Make a list of 10-20 words (preferabaly nouns), create an action-oriented images for each, and string them together in a simple story. Then test yourself to see how quickly you can memorize the words and how many you can remember by using your image-string-story technique.