"How I memorized an entire chapter from Moby Dick"

(Josh Cohen) #1

Here’s a video about Dean Peterson, who memorized a chapter of Moby Dick (verbatim) with a memory palace.

I always thought I was born with a bad memory. I could never remember multiplication tables, I’m so bad with names, and I honestly couldn’t tell you what I ate for lunch two days ago. Yet I found a way to memorize an entire chapter of Moby Dick in less than four days. It turns out I was going about memorizing things all wrong.

The way most people are taught to memorize is by making flash cards and just repeating the information over and over again until it sticks. This is terribly ineffective, really frustrating, and the reason nobody can tell you what 8 times 12 is.

A much better technique is the “memory palace,” an idea that Joshua Foer explores in his book Moonwalking With Einstein. A memory palace is a mnemonic technique that allows you to more easily memorize information by creating corresponding visual images that you mentally place along a path in a familiar location.

From a comment on the video:

I memorized 65 lines of The Iliad in Greek for a test using this method. i did it in 6 hours, got the highest score on the test. So this works.

There’s a also a write-up here:

(Mike Crowl) #2

While I agree with your method for dealing with the learning of text, I have to take issue with the blanket statement “and the reason nobody can tell you what 8 times 12 is”, since it’s untrue. And the reason it’s untrue is that there IS a place for rote memory work. The times table which I learned as a child in school nearly seventy years ago is still with me today. The reason people don’t remember what 8 times 12 is, is that they’re never been made to learn it in any way in school.
Secondly, while the memory palace/strong image technique works, you still have to have the text down accurately if you’re going to recite it back, and often the only way to do this is by some measure of repetition. Certain lines will stick easily, others - more complex ones - will take considerable work to get into your head.
What I’m basically saying is that we shouldn’t reject certain forms of learning in order to promote others. Rote has its place (and not just with times table) because it uses rhythm, in itself a useful memory tool. Repetition is necessary for complex sentences, especially as you get older. And some sentences - even when you’re young - just will not stick unless they’re ingrained on the memory by forceful repetition. I can tell you from experience that once these sentences are there, they are often recalled - over many years - far more readily than sentences that have been memorized only with images.


Excellent comments @mcrowl

Personally, I reject the characterization of rote vs mnemonic type memorization. Even the best “mnemonic” type techniques have an element of rote. Rote is simply practice and practice is essential.

(ba) #4

He spent 16 hours (3-4 hours a day for 4 days) to memorize 38 sentences. That’s a lot of time. Is the method slow because of his inexperience?

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Yes, I believe it is because he is new. Word for word text is challenging. It is easier to spend a little time on one sentence per day - working from the end of the text to the beginning. i.e. backwards - one sentence at a time. It is a trick that I learned from a piano teacher once and it has served me well.


Welcome to the forum!

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Blockquote He spent 16 hours (3-4 hours a day for 4 days) to memorize 38 sentences. That’s a lot of time. Is the method slow because of his inexperience?

Speaking from experience, I think that is the case. In my own experience, when first starting out mnemonics are less efficient than your natural memory. This changes with time, however, and I have noticed that my natural memory has improved significantly over these last 2-3 years.

(ba) #7

I’ll try that next time I memorize a poem, and thanks, glad to be here :slight_smile:

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I’d like to point out that mnemonics are nothing but your natural memory, actually, but used in a more efficient, useful, elegant, and original way. At least, this is so for the instinct of spatial orientation on which they rely.

A good example, because it showcases the process excellently, step by step, and demonstrates any paragraph can be memorized.

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Curious can you go into detail about the rationalization of why the paint teacher taught you that way?


The idea is when you practice things, no matter how you structure your practice, one tends to over practice the beginning and under practice the end.

Say you are memorizing a 10 minute classical piece on piano. Every time you practice the piece in full - you start at the beginning and play as far as you know or until you make a mistake.

Most people start learning the piece at the beginning. So basically they play measures 1 - 10 then 1 - 20 then 1 - 30 etc.

If you start at the end and work backwards you are practicing the brand new material more often. i.e. measures 90 - 100, 80 - 100, 70 - 100.

In theory, this should not make much of a difference. You may think it only leads to over practicing the end of the piece instead of over practicing the beginning. Or you might say why not just be balanced and not over practice one part of the piece over another.

However, in practice I have found it makes a huge difference.

I once had another piano teacher who was hostile to this method and gave me a bad grade just for being enthusiastic about it. I am still bitter about that.