Special to The Chronicle

I’ll say it quite bluntly: our brains are amazing. The about three pound organ has stumped and intrigued people with its complexity since antiquity, and we are still not even close to solving its mysteries. Although it may not always seem so (especially during finals week), our brains are perfectly created for human intelligence, and have the capacity to do nearly everything we need it to do. When you stare at a long test question without knowing the answer but thinking to yourself “I know I’ve written this one down,” the problem is not due to the inability of your brain; rather, it’s the way that you memorize information.

Although memory techniques have been regarded as a relic of ancient history used by ancient Greek scribes to memorize lengthy poems, the nearly purely anecdotal science has now gained increasing interest in the field of psychology. At Duke, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Roberto Cabeza, teaches students to employ these techniques to things like playing cards, faces and names.

“Memory techniques are very effective in enhancing memory for specific types of information and they could have an important role in modern society,” said Cabeza. “Everybody now has to remember many passwords for a variety of online services. Mnemonic techniques could help with that too.”

What exactly are memory techniques, and why do they work to memorize so much more than we think possible? Well, they are regarded by many as simple mnemonic tricks that allow your brain to have information “stick,” but, in the field of memory training, are regarded as an art form. The general technique, as taught in Cabeza’s course, is to group similar information into groups called “chunks,” make a visual image of the chunk and associate them with pre-learned cues.

In contrast to sitting around and staring at the same definitions and formulas, called rote memorization, these techniques allow for the unique encoding of information that helps us effortlessly recall them when we need them most.

“Rote memorization is a very bad learning method because it does not promote the organization and elaboration of new information, which is the key factor for long-term memory,” explained Cabeza.

In its essence, rote memorization is concerned with what you memorize, whereas mnemonic techniques focus on how you memorize.

The way our brain works is not by creating a computer sequenced order of information that uses complex algorithms to narrow the answer probability. Rather, we create incredible networks of information linked by association, which are then easily recalled when the correct cues are given. And, that’s exactly what memory trainers take advantage of. By creating vivid multi-sensory representations of information, finding connections between those representations and placing them in planned locations (what people often call a memory palace), your ability to recall information increases tremendously.

But, where’s the science behind it? Dr. John Seamon, professor of psychology at Wesleyan University has been attempting to find out what makes things stick in your mind. After studying a man who memorized all twelve books of Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost (and reciting it at the age of 76),

Seamon accounts for his exception ability to memorize and recall novel Milton prose in his use of deliberate practice theory, which is described in his 2010 study of the memorizing man: “expert performance is a time-extended process of skill acquisition that is only achieved after numerous, but not lengthy, daily sessions of deliberate practice.”[1]

In the 60’s psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner developed a three-step explanation for learning a new skill. As the first step, you are cognitively aware of the skill and devote a lot of energy to learning it. In the second step, you start associating information around you with it, and develop your own unique changes to the process. Finally, you automate the process, and can perform it almost effortlessly. Although it’s not as easy as it sounds, routine practice allows you to, after a while, apply these techniques to all branches of academia, something that Freshman Chris Streiffer is trying hard to do. Using what’s called the major system, which allows you to convert numbers into words, Streiffer is trying to apply these techniques in his engineering studies.

“It’s easy to apply them to mathematical formulas and turn the numbers into words,” said Streiffer, “but I’m not even close to being good at it.”

There are a lot of places that talk about this information, I don’t know which one to choose to cite so that it’s credible. Here are a few:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/201207/interview-world-memory-champion-boris-nikolai-konrad

My piece of advice concerning the topic is as follows: This is an amazing skill to have, but it won’t come easy. If you’re actually thinking of trying it, don’t cram like you would for a final. Instead, practice, practice, practice routinely!