Doubling Your Short Term Memory Capacity with this Simple Memory Hack

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Take the next 1-2 minutes to memorize this list of random words:

Grandmother, pen, cup, business card, coffee beans, chocolate, door, guitar, wrist watch, restaurant, salmon, Bill Clinton, stethoscope, bed, Ferrari, backpack, credit card, sandals, rifle, couch.

Now look away and starting with salmon, recite the list backwards. Or come back in an hour and try again.

In 1 minute of practice, this task seems impossible. Psychologists have taught us that in general, people have difficulty memorizing more than seven items at a time, which explains why phone numbers are seven digits long.

This is based on the premise that each item in a list is independent of each other, and all humans – apart from maybe memory savants – are incapable of exerting conscious control on this storage process. This example probably holds true for the list above. “Business card” and “coffee beans” are two seemingly unrelated terms to the average person. Except, for example, a coffee bean business. If a salesman has the words “coffee beans” written on their business card, these two words in the above list would be easy to memorize, both forwards and backwards.

This highlights the underlying principle that is key to memorizing lists of random items of nearly limitless length.

Connecting Two Unrelated Items

The secret to remembering this list is to visualize an exaggerated and extreme version of each element and incorporate them into a progressive story. When this is done properly, each item will remind you of the next in the story, connecting each unrelated item to the next with a memorable fable.

With this in mind, now try memorizing this story:

“The morbidly obese grandmother uses a pen to draw pictures of her cup sitting in seductive poses. The cup then gives the grandmother her business card, and goes home and eats coffee beans and chocolate in a dark room off of her door because she can’t afford a table yet….

As you go through the story, close your eyes and visualize in vivid detail each character or item. With practice, memorizing large lists will become rather simple, enabling you to use this technique in all walks on life. It is exceptionally good for memorizing lists of drugs, exams to perform in order of the physical exam, and so on.

Now, do you remember what came after Grandmother?

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Larry Istrail is a medical student and entrepreneur that is passionate about the intersection between medicine, technology, and innovation. He is the co-founder of PhotoCalorie, a photographic food journal that allows you, your friends or your physician to literally see what you’ve been eating. He is also the founder of the Ancestral Weight Loss Registry, a crowdsourced weight loss research service with data from over 50 countries around the world. You can follow him on tumblr.