The Secrets of Memory Savants, for Trainers

Decision TreeA trainer’s job would be much simpler if her audience were all geniuses. Imagine, for example, the long lunch breaks you could take if every person you worked with had the recall capacity of savant Daniel Tammet, who holds a world record for reciting Pi from memory to 22,514 digits and who learned conversational Icelandic in just one week.

Of course, geniuses are geniuses because they lie so very far outside the norm on the extreme end of the distribution curve of human abilities. Meeting one is unlikely and rounding up a class full pretty close to impossible. But that doesn’t mean their extraordinary abilities can’t help you help those you train retain more information more quickly, according to creativity blog the 99% (the name comes from the famous recipe for creativity that calls for one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration).

Learn How to Learn

Most people learn by rote, but that’s only because they don’t know any other way, according to the blog:

It’s difficult to imagine a professional basketball player who was never instructed in how to dribble or shoot. Yet most people are never taught how to learn; instead, we are expected to just pick it up as we play.

Instead of relying on stultifying and difficult brute memorization to shove new facts into our brains, the post goes on to recommend tricks adopted from those with freakishly good learning abilities. Their secret, say the experts, all boil down to making creative connections between what they already know and what they need to remember.  There are two methods – metaphor and visual associations.

A metaphor is a connection between two ideas that aren’t actually related. ... Good metaphors and analogies aid in understanding because it forces you to really examine the idea. You can’t draw out similarities without understanding how a concept works. Metaphors also aid in memory because they make the ideas more vivid. Vivid imagery also appears to be an almost universally used tactic of brilliant thinkers.

Another way is to create visual associations. Memory works better storing pictures and places than facts and figures. By translating those abstract details into vivid mental pictures, you’re leveraging your brain’s strengths.

A good example of this is a technique Benny Lewis uses to remember vocabulary words. First he comes up with a picture for the definition of the word. Then he comes up with a picture for the foreign language word, by trying to pin it on what it “sounds like”. Finally, he blends the two up in a bizarre example to sear it into memory. The French word gare (train station) becomes GARfield running to the TRAIN STATION for a lasagna-eating contest.

A Couple of Caveats

There is evidence that while a great answer for straight memorization this technique of utilizing vivid examples may work less well when you’re trying to internalize general principles (like mathematical equations) that can be applied to a variety of situations. Studies have shown that learning abstract symbols in such situations may actually make it easier to apply the principle than if you learned the idea through concrete visualizations.

And of course, whatever you’re trying to learn (or train), don’t forget the basics like adequate sleep, believing in learners’ ability to grow their capacities (versus relying on inborn talent) and well-timed review to retain information.

London-based blogger Jessica Stillman covers generational issues and trends in the workforce for

(Image courtesy of Flickr user jdxyw, CC 2.0)

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