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How to learn how to learn?

“What did I just see?”

It was December, 2009. I finished attending a seminar on soft skills at an institute on a Sunday afternoon. While leaving the hall, I was thinking about a presentation I was told to give in class the next day. I was about to take the stairs to the parking lot when I overheard two people talking about a seminar on memory training that was supposed to start in the same hall in a few minutes. I was hesitant to spend time on another seminar. But then I thought, “why not give it a try? It might help me.”

And help me it did.

In fact, it did more than that. It changed a part of my life forever.

I entered the hall once again. There were only about 50 people in the hall. About half of them were parents and the rest were students of my age. A couple of minutes later, a man clad in a suit entered the hall. He introduced himself as a memory trainer and told us that he was here to give us a demo on memory training. He said he wanted to gather students between classes 6 and 10 for his memory training school.

He started the demonstration by asking us to give him 50 words – in any language, of any length. He claimed that he would remember all of them, no matter how big or confusing they might be, and would repeat them in the right order. “Well, this is interesting”, I thought. He asked a girl in the front row to write the 50 words told by the audience on a sheet of paper to test him at the end. He asked us to pause for 5 seconds after each word.

Now the game started.

All kinds of words were thrown at him – Czechoslovakia, Sanskara, and what not. When it was my turn, I said Mademoiselle, which means ‘woman’ in French (I really wanted to test him). After we were done giving him words, he said he needed a minute to go through them once again.

Time’s up. And he started saying the 50 words, first in the right order and then in reverse.  Then the audience asked him, “What’s the word number 17? Number 9? Number 33? What’s the number of the word, Medulla Oblongata?”

He answered all the questions correctly!

My eyebrows rose and my jaw dropped. So did everybody’s.

“What did I just see?”

The audience, still recovering from the amazement, gave a huge round of applause. Most of the parents in the audience were now convinced enough to send their kids to his training school. and, most of the students were pleading him to enroll them in.  But, I just came out of the hall and went home.

On my way home I couldn’t help but think, “how in the world did he do that? Well, whatever he was doing, if he can do it, so can I.”

“If he can do it, so can I.”

As soon as I got home, I turned on my computer and Googled ‘memory techniques’. I spent the next few hours researching and reading about them and completely forgot that I had a presentation due the next day.

I entered a world of creativity and imagination. Thanks to Google, I came to know that some people, called memory athletes, train themselves to perform these astonishing feats. I also learnt that a competition called the World Memory Championship is entirely dedicated to these kinds of mental sports.

Now, I started wondering.

Why don’t schools teach these memory techniques to their students?

If these techniques work so well, how come these aren’t popular?

It is very easy to be inquisitive here.

More than 2,000 years ago, before there was ink, paper or any other tool to store information, people relied on their memories. They had to, because it was a necessity. Also, a trained memory was an essential attribute of a scholarly mind. Then came ink and paper, the printing press, books, computers, and now, the Internet. We have become so dependent on these devices that we have forgotten how to remember.

In the next few days, I found many sources on the Internet to help me improve my memory. I also found the secret behind that memory trainer’s super sharp memory. He was using a powerful memory technique called the ‘journey method’. It is fun and surprisingly easy.

“So that’s how he pulled it off!”

The technique goes like this. The journey method is based on using landmarks on a journey that you know well. For example, consider the journey from your home to your school. Note down as many landmarks as you can remember on that way. Let’s start from your house. This is landmark number 1. On your way to school there might be a supermarket or a bookstore. This is landmark number 2. Now, continuing your journey, you might see a park. This one is landmark number 3. Similarly, you must create as many landmarks as you can in order to form a journey in your mind.

Let me use a popular example, or rather a popular journey. Take the journey from Mercury to Pluto along the nine planets of the solar system. So the journey from Mercury towards Pluto would be like this:

Mercury-Venus-Earth-Mars-Jupiter-Saturn-Uranus-Neptune-Pluto

Now, let us say that we have a list of nine words to remember.

Wallet, football, book, chart, torch, pencil, road, computer and dog.

Let us use the journey from Mercury to Pluto to remember the above list of words. The trick is to associate every word in the list to the corresponding landmark in the journey. In other words, associate the word ‘wallet’ with the planet Mercury, ‘football’ with Venus, ‘book’ with Earth and so on.

Now how to associate the two words?

This is where your imagination runs wild! Let us now associate ‘wallet’ with Mercury. Imagine billions of wallets raining down on the planet Mercury. Wallets flying around everywhere on Mercury. That is a really bizarre image in reality but there is nothing bizarre in the world of imagination. The more bizarre your imagination, the stronger the link between the word and the corresponding landmark. Why you ask? Research shows that our brains remember colorful and stimulating images or events much better than boring and uninteresting ones. We easily remember incidents that are eventful. That is why it is easier to remember where you were during the moments when India won the ICC Cricket World Cup in April 2011 than what you had for breakfast last Monday.

Now, just the way you associated ‘wallet’ with Mercury, associate the remaining eight words with the corresponding landmarks. Use all your senses, color, and humor – anything to strengthen the link between the word and its landmark. How do you link ‘dog’ with Pluto? How about the dog Pluto from the Disney cartoons? That’s the hook.

After forming associations for every word, read the list twice. Then repeat the list without seeing. Whatever I explain to you, your brain can process that in seconds. Congratulations! You just remembered the entire list. Forwards or backwards, you got it. The associations you just made are as strong as concrete. Read it again tomorrow. Read it a week later. Then you will remember it for life.

Create your own journeys and practice this technique with a different set of words. It works wonders.

“So that’s how he pulled it off!”

“If he can do it, so can you.”

I’ve used this technique as an experiment in my college studies. But the experiment went haywire. I ended up remembering the entire periodic table! Yes, I created a journey of over 100 landmarks and linked every element of the periodic table with the corresponding landmark in my journey.

The ‘journey method’ is just one of the many memory techniques available online. You are just a Google search away from learning these powerful methods. There are techniques to make yourself a walking calendar; you can tell the day of any date of any year of any century. There are techniques to remember names and faces of everybody you meet in your life. These are the same techniques which made Dominic O’Brien an eight-time World Memory Champion. I recommend Quantum Memory Power: Learn to Improve Your Memory with the World Memory Champion! by Dominic O’Brien to get you started.

Regular use of these techniques can make you more imaginative. Also, your stress levels will go down, your horizon will broaden, and your creativity will push its boundaries.

This is not an exclusive path with access granted only to those who have special learning gifts. It does not matter if you sit on the first bench or the last. It does not matter if you are the class topper or somebody who barely passes his/her exams. These techniques are put in a platter exclusively for you. You have to take them in and digest them. Keep practicing these techniques and surprise yourself.

And this is how to learn how to learn.

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