Many of my students try to remember a “marker” of just one word. This is a hard and counterproductive exercise. A word without any context is abstract. Remembering a chunk of multiple words in the same context is actually an easier task. In some sense the “random words” exercise is much harder than remembering actual texts. So if your memory fails you with random tasks, you may try to memorize something less random.
Why any words are abstract
For example, a set of 5 random words: “ship baseball crew application cinema”. By itself this set is meaningless. The words are random. I did not take any article or try to create a set specifically for this example. There are many questions.
What kind of ship? Big or small, metal or wooden, European or exotic. Anything from an aircraft carrier to Inuit umiak may work. Baseball is abstract in a different way: is it a player, a bat, a ball, or an adjective (like baseball cap)? “Crew” sounds ambiguous. Can I replace it with a team or a squad? “Application” immediately sends us to a mobile device. However, we can also apply one object to another. This is less immediate but equally potent. Cinema can be a building, a reference to a camera, or maybe some movie.
Atomic visualization: PAO
Creating a story from all of this introduces a lot of messy connections. However, we can try to generate just one visualization. PAOs are the immediate suspect. There are many options. I choose the first I could think of. Person “ship baseball”. Action “Apply”. Object “cinema crew”. A sailor (outfit) “applies “a baseball bat to the camera and audio boom of a cinema crew. To make the word apply stronger, I dual code it by adding an apple logo to the bat. So the word apply got 2 different visualizations as disambiguation.
Alternative visualization: Chessboard
If regular PAO does not work for you, there are many options. For example take a chessboard and assign figures and roles. White king: sailor with baseball cap. Black book: cinema application of mobile device (Cinema HD logo). And what about “crew”? I do not want to leave it standalone. Since a chessboard can be very complex, we can probably add another 20 words just for it. And also add some ways the figures work with each other: attacking, defending, blocking.
PAO is one of the simplest and most direct atomic visualizations. It is also the most widely used. But you can create other combinations. More complex atomic visualizations are harder to create, but they will be very specific and unforgettable.
When we encode text we have a lot of details. Usually, we visualize sections: from a couple of sentences to a couple of pages based on the complexity of the text. For a section, we can choose 5 strong keywords, and can also choose 20 “optional” keywords that add details. The optional keywords may also come from the way we understand the section.
These “optional” details fill in the blanks in visualization. There are always blanks available: color schemes, sizes, dynamics of action, textures and substances, time and location.
Additionally, there are some keywords that simply work well together, disambiguating the visualizations and answering the questions.
In addition to the details specific to a section, there is a larger context of the entire article or the research field. This larger context usually dictates the mental landscapes where the visualizations are placed: mindmaps, mental palaces, or something entirely different.
For example, in a flowchart, you can easily encode via logical markers the relations between the visualizations: causality, equivalence, limitation, and belonging to a set. You can put mental palaces in blocks of flowcharts, and put flowcharts on walls of memory palaces. In theory, this nesting can be done as much as you need.
Again, adding more context and relations appears to be complicating the setup. But ask you this: how will I recall the specific memory object? If it is not interacting with other mental structures, you need to do a lot of hard work.
Personal life as a context
When there is no context in the text we read, we try to find context in our own experience: autobiographic memory, pop culture, mythology. It does not matter if we used a particular object in our own life or in MMORG video game. It is not based on the text you read, and it is not entirely out of the blue – it is a part of your experience.
You do not have to invent something entirely new or use something entirely personal or autobigraphical. Simply, your personal experiences provide the details for the visualization. A ship is a Titanic from the movie you loved, and a baseball is a team you are a fan of, and so on.
Real details via unsupported details
It is best to take the details from the text. The more we remember from the text the better. Not all texts easily support memorization, say in PAO form. For example, organic chemistry texts can be notoriously hard to memorize.
Adding metadata as details is another good idea. There is a risk of mixing our own judgment with the ideas expressed in the text. It is best to choose the same metadata for all the texts, as there is a lower level of mixup. For example, you can add coloring the text according to its functionality (green for innovation, blue for methodology, and so on). Materials can also be used. Metal for marketing, stone for science, wood for the life itself. Not all details can be encoded this way.
Taking details from our personal experience theoretically enables easy separation of original and added data. If we remember how the original object looked like, and how it looked after visualization – we can separate the added details vs the original.
Adding extra details just to create a memorable story is not a very good idea, as we cannot separate the original data vs the data we added. This way the memorized content is contaminated.
The worst idea is using blanks?
If you simply do not want to remember something, use boring generic featureless visualizations. Once I had a car from the company where I worked, and I forget where it parked. I had to find a gray toyota corolla in a parking lot with another 1000 gray toyotas using the car number. Took me two hours. If it was in my memory and not the parking lot – I might not find it ever.
The unique specific nature of visualizations comes from combinatorics: a one-of-a-kind combination of otherwise not very rare words. This requires a chunk, usually between three and five keywords. Sure, you can hack this using visualization and details from personal experience. This is potentially harder, slower and less effective: how do you make it unique?
Yet the worst idea is guessing and memorizing wrong information. Once someone fed you wrong information and you memorized it successfully, undoing the process is extremely hard. When adding details that are not there, you risk visualizing a wrong concept. And this is a bad idea.