Ask An Expert All About Memorisation Techniques

Ask an Expert: All About Memorisation Techniques

Can you train yourself to have a better memory? In certain ways, yes. You should treat "brain games" with a healthy amount of scepticism, but when it comes to memory, practising various techniques can actually help you increase your ability to recall.

Image by Keng Merry Mikey Melody (Shutterstock)

Just ask Nelson Dellis. Nelson is a three time winner of the USA Memory Championship (which includes such challenges as memorising 117 faces and names in 15 minutes), and is well-versed in memorisation techniques and brain health. It's not an inherent talent; Nelson started competing in memory contests in 2009 after watching his grandmother succumb to Alzheimer's disease, and believes anyone can improve their memory with practice. He also founded a nonprofit aimed at raising funds for Alzheimer's research.


I have a fairly good memory, but I can never seem to recall the information when I actually want it. It seems to have a life of its own, and comes out when it feels like it. What kind of things can we do to better recall information we may or may not realise we already know?

I think this is the case for most people. But don't worry! We can all improve on this. It really is a matter of "using it or losing it". If you work your memory often enough, it gets better. It gets wired to remember better with less effort. Try doing some memory exercises daily and you'll see that your ability to recall info when you want it will improve.


What techniques do you use? What books or web sites/resources have been most useful in learning and retention?

Best books:

  • "Quantum Memory Power" by Dominic O' Brien
  • "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer

Best websites:


What method would you recommend for students in general? I've heard method of Loci is a great technique, but I can't seem to make it work with subjects like Physics, Calculus or even Chemistry. I believe it's because those subjects aren't in the list format, but I might be mistaken.

It's a great technique, yes -- but sometimes difficult for subjects like math and physics. You can, however, still use them. The basics of everything is coming up with a mental image for the things you're trying to memorise. So try that. Once you have that, you can decide the best way to organise/structure all those images (memory palace, linked list, etc.).


I've tried a variety of techniques, but I cannot remember anyone's name. It's an acute mental block. I've tried word associations, re-picturing events with people, and just plain repeating the name a million times. Any suggestions? I don't want to take people's photo to store in my phone. That's just too creepy/pervy.

The way to do names is like this:

1. Focus: when you meet someone, it's easy to not do this. So do it. It makes a massive difference.

2. Choose a feature: pick something distinguishing about their face (big nose, big hair, mole, etc).

3. Turn the name into a picture: Ask for their name and turn it into a mental picture. Whatever it reminds you of.

4. Attach the two: imagine that picture for the name interacting with the feature. Be as creative as possible.

5. Repeat: repeat the name in your head or use it in a sentence out loud.


What's your advice for kids on memorising things? Trying to memorise a big block of text, like a famous speech or poem, can seem scary. What can kids do to remove that fear? What techniques would you recommend for them?

Memory for kids is easy, in my opinion. Since memory is all about imagination and coming up with visually exciting and silly imagery for whatever you are memorising, kids can have a blast with this. If I had to give some advice, it would be to encourage kids to imagine crazy and silly things as they try to memorise the words.


I'd love to do standup and sketch comedy, but I'm deathly afraid that I won't be able to memorise jokes, lines, monologues and the like. What methods do you recommend for this type of memorisation, where it's not numbers or sequences that need to be remembered, but actual words you need to recite (and eventually be able to deliver while acting and showing emotion)?

I'm not familiar with how comedy routines are figured out but I'm guessing its basically memorised and just performed really loosely as if it's all of the cuff. So, the first thing you have to do is commit the jokes to memory. Since you want a laid back delivery, it's probably not a huge deal to memorise the jokes word for word. In fact, that's probably a bad idea. You'll come off very stiff. So I would recommend using a memory palace and store a key image (or images) for each joke and place those images along a path through you palace. That will remind you of the order of the jokes you want to deliver. There is a great Josh Foer Ted talk about how he does this with speeches.


Do you use 'standard' techniques to memorise things or do you 'develop' you memory? I mean, do you think memory attribute can be enhanced or that we, instead, can benefit from techniques to better memorise while our capacity remains the same?

It's really a combo. I use memory techniques as a means to develop my memory. The techniques are a way to get info in my brain faster, but I train it every day and am able to get faster at it (like anything if you practise enough). I think that, in turn has developed my brain into what it is now.


When it comes to memorisation, how many times a week do you "sit and practice" or is this an ongoing daily routine of matching names with features, places with names, etc. What's your "method to the madness" of remembering everyday things?

Leading up to a memory competition I can spend up to 5 hours sitting and practising. For the everyday person, that's not necessary to improve your memory. I'm trying to win a championship, most people just want to remember their wife's birthday (haha). While I'm typically practising things that might be considered useless compared to daily things (I memorise a 300-digit number, or a pack of cards), practising those techniques so often helps me when it comes to normal stuff I encounter in daily life. So it's all related.


I recently saw a report about the benefits of nootropics on brain growth and memory retention and was interested. What is your take on these types of supplements? Have you looked into them?

Haven't really looked into them. I don't think anyone in the memory world really uses them. It's all practice and being healthy. I eat well and take my DHA Omega-3 and stay fit.

Maybe down the road when the memory sports world is more saturated, there might be a need for an extra edge. But I don't even know if they really help.


Do you think programs like Kwik Learning are worth it? It looks like it would work, as the demo videos are neat and look valuable, but $1000+ for videos seems expensive.

I actually had never heard of kiwklearning.com, which makes me cautious. I used to be a fan of sites like Lumosity, but they end up having very poor memory-related exercises. I'd have to check this one out before making a judgement. In general, I guess sites like these can help you get your daily memorisation in, but you can easily do it on your own if motivated enough.


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