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What Memory Champions Can’t Teach You About Studying

What Memory Champions Can’t Teach You About Studying

6 August, 2016

Mainstream news sources love to take memory competition champions and try to extrapolate advice for the average person looking to remember stuff.

They look into the study routines of these memory experts and try to look for the strategies that make them effective. Then, they assume, a regular person using that memory strategy will present similar results.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Memory champions are not your average person. It’s not only that though. Memory challenges are not the daily challenges for an average person’s memory. Studying for class isn’t the same thing as taking memory challenge. Just because a method is efficient for memorizing a long list of cards or numbers, it doesn’t mean it’s efficient at remembering complicated ideas for class.

A Gifted Breed

Taking memory advice from a memory champion is kind of like taking basketball advice from a professional basketball player. Sure, it has some value. That being said, you need to be careful with it.

Memory champions are like the tall guy in basketball giving advice. They do not have to play with the same tools as you do. As you look into memory competitors you’ll find that they use  various strategies to help remember things. That could mean any of a number of different things. That could mean there is no best method. It could mean there is a different best strategy for everyone.

Not all memory champions are particularly intelligent but there’s hesitation to call any of the major competitors anything less than gifted in memory. Memory competitions are unbelievably challenging. While an average person may be able to try and compete, to win this competition needs more than raw skill (in the same way winning a basketball game versus pros requires more than just skills.) It’s why we don’t see 5-foot basketball pros.

Invested In Memory

One of the most common pieces of advice journalists extrapolate from memory champions is the Loci method.

The loci method, sometimes called the memory palace, is an approach where you imagine you’re in a building going from room to room. In each room you imagine seeing weird things that represent the idea you’re trying to remember. Memory champions regularly use this strategy to win memory competitions. That does not mean it’s a smart strategy for the average person to use for studying.

The loci method is a pain in the ass for someone inexperienced with it. (Heck, it can be a pain in the ass for people with plenty of experience.) 99% of students that attempt to apply this approach give up before they even come close to seeing results. That is reasonable.

The loci method requires a ton of initial investment time. You need to practice it to get good at it. Most of the memory champions use it because they’re gifted enough to use it effectively.

Perhaps there is a time and a place it would be efficient for students to use the loci method.  There are much easier and quicker methods for regular students to use on a daily basis.

Short Term Trickery

Most memory competitions focus on relatively short periods of time. That means the methods used can end up being dramatically different.

The information they study two weeks before the test needs to stick. The information they study a week before the test needs to stick. Heck, the information they study the night before the test needs to stick. A memory competitor generally only needs their information to stick for a short period of time. The day after a competition they can forget absolutely everything.

This is a basic difference between memory competition strategies and study strategies. While it is recommend taking advantage of short term memory, most of studying comes down to getting information to stay in the long term memory. This focus on the long term memory changes the needed steps.

The short term memory is more effective at remembering small amounts of information than the long term memory. That means, if you study 15 minutes before your test, you’ll remember more when it comes test time than if you studied the same stuff a week earlier. That being said, once you increase the amount of information you’re trying to remember dramatically (like memory champions do) you’re looking at a greatly harder task than trying to remember the information using a long term approach.

Naturally, the discrepancy between short and long term memory is not very clear but the fundamental point to take away is that what they do isn’t what you need to do.

There are plenty of things to learn from memory champions. In fact, if you are highly disciplined and gifted then there are seriously powerful study methods you can learn but these are not strategies that the average person should waste any of their time worrying about. You don’t need the fancy memory strategies of the latest memory champion to do well. In more cases than not, that strategy will be unnecessarily complex.