PAO is a visualization of a person performing an action with an object. I argue that PAO is a fast and comfortable way to visualize 5 words in one visualization.
Do not use PAO just for numbers
The basic mistake of many of my students: they think PAO is just for numbers. There is a reason for it. PAO is extremely good for numbers and memory masters use it in championships, constantly measured for their skill of remembering numbers. It is quite clear that PAO is often discussed in this context.
However, I use PAO to remember pretty much everything. It is very intuitive, very fast, and memorable. Moreover, the resulting visualizations can easily fit other memory structures.
PAO is like a story
The easiest way to remember something is to create and tell a story about it. This will not make you a memory champion, but for a newbie, it s a very simple and effective solution.
What does any story look like? A person does something somewhere with some object. Then he moves elsewhere and does something else. Often there are several people moving on different itineraries, occasionally crossing each other’s paths. This is a typical PAO put in a mental palace.
The main difference is simplicity. We want our itineraries to be simple and linear. Usually, we do not have multiple itineraries crossing each other. We do not need surprises or suspense in our mental palace. We still want to see engaging and colorful characters doing strange things in our palace.
How do we encode a PAO
Actions are less distinct than people. Objects may have more details. Typically a PAO is 5 words. In mental sports, fixed tables are used. With more training, larger tables may be available, but smaller tables allow faster access. So simple PAO is 2 digits for a person, 1 digit per action, and 2 digits per object. Learning larger tables and visualizing more detailed actions is hard. Some masters report using 3 digits person, 2 digits action, and 4 digits object. The chunking for this operation is a 3×3 matrix.
Now, we are not memory masters. So we do not need to remember numbers and cannot practice 8 hours a day to remember them. In a basic design, we have a person with one additional detail, an action, and an object with two details. This provides for six words. We will usually need only five to facilitate chunking. So one detail will be omitted.
Why is chunking so tricky
How does this chunking work? Basically, we read a section and select 5 words to remind us of the entire section. Less than five keywords rarely suffice for complex ideas. More than five keywords mess up the working memory which is required for comprehension. Masters can use bigrams and trigrams as atomic units. So keeping a 3×3 matrix for an expert is like keeping 3 words for a novice. I occasionally use a 5×5 matrix, but I really hate the experience. It messes up my head and I get tired really fast. 5 words chunks for a novice and 3×3 matrix for an expert usually do the trick.
Speedreading, visualizing, and memorizing at the same time can get tricky. The focus is on automatic processing during the reading of each section and corrective steps between sections. If for some reason no keywords were present, the section may be reread or skipped. When there is too much information, the section can be reread in smaller chunks. If visualization was not created automatically it can be created with a conscious effort. And it has to be placed in a mental palace. For me, the entire scope of corrective action is about 200 msec – just enough time for my eyes to move to the next section. If it takes you more, do not worry about it. I have been speedreading for decades.
I was asked by a student to demonstrate memorization of 20 random words. Random words are usually much harder to remember than what we see in an article, as random words are out of context. Moreover some of these words are not informative – if you put them in Google search you will not get a better answer. Anyway, here is his random selection:
And here is my processing:
Things to notice in the example above
- The actual order of the words in the chunk does not matter. It is OK to rearrange them.
- If the chunk did not provide sufficiently good visualization, you may want to read one more paragraph and improve.
- If a word in the chunk does not belong – do not force it. It may belong to a different chunk, or you may decide that you do not need it.
- It is normal to start from a person. A person is the most memorable part of the visualization. However, if the action or the object generates a good association, you may change the order.
- Objects usually are easy to visualize, so they end up encoding the least comfortable words.
- Sometimes a PAO is not good enough, and you need to add some new object or accessory. Do not force it to happen, but if it happened you should be happy.
- If you use a 3×3 chunking, some of your rows will be one or two words long. This is fine.
I hope this example made your PAOs a bit less abstract. If your PAOs are shorter and simpler, just one word per person, action, and object, make sure there are at least some specific details. Otherwise you will end up with something generic and hard to remember.