American record-holding memory champ Joshua Foer explains how anyone with an average memory can significantly boost his or her memory by creating visual, spatial “memory palaces” to store information. He used these methods to memorise the order of a shuffled deck of cards in a minute and 41 seconds; you can use it for any number of more practical memory applications.
As he details at the New York Times, our spatial memories are significantly better at remembering things:
Like every other one of our biological faculties, our memories evolved through a process of natural selection in an environment that was quite different from the one we live in today. And much as our taste for sugar and fat may have served us well in a world of scarce nutrition but is maladaptive in a world of ubiquitous fast-food joints, our memories aren’t perfectly suited for our contemporary information age. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous.
…just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.
As such, storing spatial representations of things we want to remember can be extremely effective:
The point of memory techniques is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. [They create]memorable images for your palaces: the funnier, lewder and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.”
The article is a fascinating read and also a good introduction to visual memorisation techniques.
Secrets of a Mind Gamer [NYT]