Memory system for History

by Sam

How can I memorize history paragraphs like:

As Roman Empire started to become weaker, Bulgars established First Bulgarian Empire next to the north-eastern border of the Roman Empire, and Germanic peoples established kingdoms in territories north to the Empire.

Doug's Reply. Great question, Sam. One way would be using the Story System of memory. Another might be the Link System. Either way, you'd probably want to use the Substitute Word method to create the mental images.

What I am talking about, of course, is using mental images to memorize and link together the abstract facts in that paragraph. This works because most people find it much easier to remember images than abstract facts.

Imagine the rooms in your house. I'm sure you can picture every piece of furniture and exactly where it is located in the particular room. Without really trying!

The trick to memorizing a paragraph like that is to turn abstract facts into images you can remember. An effective way to do this is to think of unusual, memorable images that represent the sound of the word.

With the Story System, you literally think of a little story that strings the images together.

With the Link System, you think of paired scenes - images that link only two of the images together at a time. The links form a chain because you make sure to include one image from the previous pair in the scene with the next pair that you create.

Keep in mind, images that you create yourself will be more memorable than images given to you by someone else. Also, while it may take me a few paragraphs to explain the method, it actually goes quite fast when you do it mentally and after you've had some practice the techniques.

Having said that, here's how I would go about memorizing the history paragraph you asked about, using the Story System:

1. As the Roman Empire started to become weaker...

The key words here are "Roman Empire" and "weaker". For Roman Empire, you might think of a "roaming umpire" (notice how it sounds similar, but does not have to sound exactly like, Roman Empire). In my mind, I see a baseball umpire roaming around a field by himself.

Or, you could even decide on a symbol that represents the Roman Empire to you. For instance, the Coliseum at Rome or maybe the image of a Roman soldier.

Next, an image for the word "weaker". So, I imagine a roaming baseball umpired walking around in circles on the field, getting weaker and weaker - and finally falling down from weakness.

2. ...Bulgars established First Bulgarian Empire next to the north-eastern border of the Roman Empire...

The key words here are "Bulgars", "First Bulgarian Empire", "north-eastern border".

First, we can ignore the "Bulgars" part. If we remember First Bulgarian Empire, we'll know it was the Bulgars who established it. I might create an image of First Bulgarian Empire by thinking of "fist + bulging + umpire".

Recall, our weak Roman Empire (weak roaming umpire) has collapsed in the middle of the field. So, we can combine that with the Bulgar information to now imagine that a bulging (fat) umpire runs up to the collapsed roaming umpire from the 2:00 o'clock position on the field (the north-east direction) with his fist raised to hit the downed umpire and wake him up!

For the last part, I might think of a substitute word for German - maybe "germ+man", a man-sized bacteria. We also need an image for "kingdoms" so to avoid confusion with the empires. Perhaps a man-sized germ wearing a kingly crown would do!

Here's the final picture-story in my mind:

A roaming umpire grows weak. A bulging umpire, with fist raised, runs toward him from the 2:00 o'clock (north-east) direction to rouse him. From the 12:00 o'clock position (north), a Germ-Man wearing a crown next runs to the motionless weak umpire, to also help wake him.

After reviewing this strange story a few times in my mind, I will certainly recall the facts of the paragraph. All of the key details are encoded in the images.

For most people, this crazy story about umpires and germs would be quite memorable - because it is so odd, and because it is based on images, not on abstract words.

Some thoughts about this image-based technique:

  • If in reading this, you think it's the craziest way to memorize something you've ever heard of, you're right - but it works!

    Image-based memorization methods are over 2,000 years old. The Rhetorica Ad Herennium, written in 90 B.C., has an entire chapter on using such methods to memorize speeches.

  • As I mentioned above, the technique is not nearly as time consuming as you might think. With a little practice, you can easily think of such scenes on the go, literally as you read along through the history book (or any other type of book).

  • The point of this technique is to create mental "hooks" that allow you to do two things: 1) achieve Original Awareness of the material, to really see and absorb the facts, and 2) to provide you with a handle to retrieve the information later from your memory.

    Most problems with recall aren't due to the encoding or storage phases of memory - they happen due to failures of retrieval. The crazy images, links, and stories create a filing system in your brain, so you can more easily locate the information when you need to retrieve it (such as during an exam).

I hope these ideas helped. Good luck!

Best regards,

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