One of the aggravating things about memory is that it is indiscriminate about what it gathers. Annoying advertising jingles (You’ll wonder where the yellow went — you brushed your teeth with Pepsodent!), strange lines from old pop songs (Someone left the cake out in the rain . . .), and random bits from first grade folk songs (Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree . . .), all stick. You may not have racket blasting in your home, but the minute you step out out into a public space, it’s waiting for you. Go grocery shopping, and you could come home humming a catchy but horrid line from the latest top 50.

In an effort to combat the general racket, I am focusing this year on memorizing good things. Since I’ve passed the half-century mark, it’s not as easy as it used to be, but with a couple of good methods, I’m making progress. In case you’d like to create your own Memory Project, I’ll share my favorite memorization methods and resources here.


First Letter Memorization Method

The first-letter method of memorization for both prose and poetry is a highly effective method of memorization. You can use it to learn two lines per day. Here is how to do it:

  • Listen to a well-done reading of the selection, or read it aloud yourself.
  • Copy the assigned selection in its entirety. This step is most effective when done by hand with pen or pencil on paper. Do not copy and paste on the computer. The act of hand copying (even typing) engages multiple senses and helps with recollection and understanding of the text. A lengthy selection may be copied over several days to prevent hand fatigue and discouragement.
  • On a separate piece of paper, write the first letter of each word, capitalizing and punctuating in exactly the same way as the original. (Example: W t p o t U S, i O t f a m p U, e J, i d T, p f t c d, p t g W, a s t B o L t o a o P, d o a e t C f t U S o A.)
  • Before looking at the end of this post for the answer, can you figure out what document that line is from?
  • Read aloud the first sentence, line, stanza, or paragraph you will be memorizing.
  • Set aside the text, and refer to the first-letter clues to begin memorizing. Beginning with the first phrase, try to recite the selection by looking only at the first letters.
  • Repeat the phrase until you can recite it from memory. When it has been mastered, do the same thing with the second phrase, and so on, for a total practice time of no more than 5-15 minutes a day.
  • Finish each practice session by reciting all the new lines learned, and review one or two memorized texts each week.


Method of Loci Memorization

When I was in college, a guest speaker came to talk about reading and memory, and after only a single afternoon in that college auditorium, I went away with the “method of loci,” a memory system that has been helpful through the years. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was an ancient classical method, used and written about by Cicero, Quintilian, and others. I just remembered it as the “memory house.”

This method seems best suited for memorizing lists of things. To use the method of loci, visualize a location—your house or an imaginary house works well—and imagine a scenario that allows you to focus on a series of details. When you need to memorize something such as the states and capitals or the beatitudes, use your imagination to connect each item to an item in your visualized house.

For example, in the college workshop I attended, the speaker told the audience to imagine they were at home getting ready to catch a bus for work. He painted a vivid mental image of the items you would see as you moved from the entry hall of your home, and onto the bus. Here is the list of specific locations as I remember them:

  • front hall
  • back of door
  • open door
  • front step
  • front walk
  • front gate
  • mailbox
  • front of bus
  • bus door
  • bus steps
  • bus seat
  • bus window

To memorize a series of things, create a visual image for each item in the series, and attach it to one of the locations. If I were trying to memorize a list of Shakespeare’s tragedies in chronological order,* I would begin by listing each play’s title beside a location. Titus Andronicus (my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays) would be in the front hall; a painting of a scene from Romeo and Juliet on the back of the door; Julius Caesar waiting on the front step, and so forth.

You can use the method of loci for almost any series of objects or events in any discipline. With a bit of imagination, it’s possible to attach mental images of anything—the parts of a flower, the ten commandments, or the major battles of the Revolutionary war—to your memorized series of locations. This method take a little time, but items memorized in this way tend to stick.


More About Memory

New research shed’s light on how children’s brains memorize facts: Although this study from the Stanford University School of Medicine is focused on math, it offers interesting insights on the physical changes that take place with learning.

Here is a report on a scientific study of why students who take notes with pen and paper remember more and understand better than students who take notes on a laptop.

The Art of Manliness blog offers some excellent reasons for memorizing, plus the “brute force memorization method.”

Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) recorded amazing feats of memory in the ancient world.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer is the story of his yearlong quest to improve his memory, ultimately competing in the United States Memory Championship.


Memory Project Report

It ended up taking more than just January to memorize “Pied Beauty” and Psalm 8, the first items on my Memory Project list, because I ended up adding a book-writing project (Model-Based Writing — available soon) to the month. If you have been memorizing, how has it gone? What did you memorize?

*Arguable List of Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Titus Andronicus (1591–1593)
Romeo and Juliet (1594-1595)
Julius Caesar (1599-1600)
Hamlet (1600–1601)
Troilus and Cressida (1601-1602)
Othello (1604–1605)
King Lear (1605–1606)
Macbeth (1605-1606)
Timon of Athens (1605–1608)
Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607)
Cymbeline (1609–1611)


Reposted with permission from Janice Campbell