Memorising cards

A couple of weeks ago I saw a Robert Winston documentary on the human mind. In it he talked about how we form memories by strengthening neural pathways. He mentioned that having multiple pathways will create more enduring memories i.e. if you meet a person who’s name is John you’ll have a better chance of remembering his name if you associate it to a person you already know well who’s called John.

I’d always been impressed by people who could memorise things and so I decided to give it a go and set myself the goal of being able to memorise a shuffled deck of 52 cards. It took me eight days but I can now have someone shuffle a deck of cards, spend five minutes or so looking at them and be able to recite them in order (forwards or backwards) and also be able to say what card is at a specific position in the pack (i.e. card # 34) .

I’ve since learnt that there are different ways to do this and that mine might not be the best way but here’s how I did it:

  1. Separate a pack of cards into suits and gradually associate each card with an object. Preferably an object that makes you feel something (like a puppy or vomit or a mousetrap).
  2. Once you have strong object/card associations for the whole pack try mixing them up and make sure you’ve still got those associations.
  3. Starting from somewhere in your house (I chose my bed) go on a linear mental journey through each room and outside to the letterbox. Break this up into 52 memorable places (cupboards, sinks, tables, etc) and try to flag the locations at 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 as important (i.e. I have 10, 20 and 30 as sinks).
  4. Once you have a strong picture of these locations try taking, say, 10 random cards and put the objects associated with them into the first 10 locations. Try to feel something for the object/card/location association – for example, if you have a puppy in the hallway you could feel nervous that it’s going to pee on the carpet.
  5. Repeat until you are able to fill up all 52 locations with object/card associations.
  6. Now you should be able to recite a shuffled deck of cards backward and forwards and be able to easily say what card is at a given location (i.e. at position 23 for me would be three locations on from the laundry sink).

The science behind this is fairly simple: most of our evolutionary ancestors have benefited in some way by being good at remembering objects and locations. We’ve inherited their genes. Only (relatively) recently has there been abstract things like numbers and we’re not really all that good at it because it’s never really been a survival issue. If you forge a relationship between abstract numbers and recognisable objects and imagine them in familiar locations it makes it easier to remember them.

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