Teaching my kids how to remember

Learn to use your brain the way it likes to be used

As a parent, my job is to lift my kids up!

Yesterday, I was chatting with my kids over FaceTime. They are always being so silly, it makes me smile thinking about it. I was preparing them for seeing me tomorrow since I’m the proud owner of adult braces. They are sensitive to change since the divorce. Don’t get me wrong, they’re strong kids and I’m really proud of them.

My daughter, Emma, was struggling to study for her upcoming history test. She had all the signs of a brain turned off: “Dad, it’s seven pages!”, page after page filled with black text on a white background, so much information, her posture that of exhaustion, and her tone that of discouragement. I didn’t believe her brain was actually tired. She is tired of the internal fight. The fight to do a task that her mind doesn’t want to do. That task isn’t something well suited for our minds, rote memorization. She is having that internal conflict: I should do this but I don’t want to. We all experience this frustration.

Our recall is damn good

There’s a truth to hear though, you are not bad with names. You don’t have a poor memory. We simply aren’t focused on the right how to remember.

As a parent, you watch your kids, you see them trying tasks that are quite easy but somehow they make it extra hard, they force it, and eventually give up. For me, this is an interesting parental fork in the road, some parents teach willpower, keep going until you get it yet other parents lean more toward work smarter not harder. I’m in the second camp which is probably why I’m an engineer. I see value in both and I teach both but I often find myself saying:

If something seems really hard, slow down, step back, try finding a different approach.

I’m reminded of a quote from Jocko Willink, “There is no hack.” to which I find grievous faults while at the same time admiring his willpower. Willpower is the fuel of activity yet it’s woefully insufficient. We cannot willpower ourselves to Mars, that takes creativity, thoughtfulness, and even art.

How to remember everything

I’m going to suggest an old hack called elaborate encoding. It’s a simple “how” to memorize any kind of information. Our brains love pictures, stories, and feelings. Close your eyes, see your house in your mind's eye, walk around in it. Amazing! Try and remember a feeling, or a smell, or a joke. These things cling to our memories effortlessly.

The hack is quite simple:

  1. Take a boring piece of information you want to memorize.
  2. Turn it into a picture story.
  3. Store the picture somewhere in your mind.

Learn a Russian phrase and remember it

Here’s an example: The phrase, “you are the best”, in Russian is, “Ты самый лучший.” So when I want to compliment my Russian co-worker, how do I remember that phrase?

  1. Find a pronunciation guide where you can see and hear the phrase, “Ty samyy luchshiy” or an easier reading for me is “ta-soma-lu-chay” Google Translate is great for this.
  2. Break it down into syllables: “ta” + “soma” + “lu” + “chay”. It’s not a perfect pronunciation but it doesn’t have to be. We just need to be able to get “at” the information. We can improve it once we can access it in our minds.
  3. Create a silly picture story from each of the syllables. Picture a hill in a green meadow on a clear summer’s day. On top of this hill is a table. Standing on the table is Liu Kang from the Mortal Kombat video game. He’s celebrating, jumping into the air shouting, “YAY!”, his arms are in the shape of a C from the dance always performed while listening to YMCA by the Villiage People.
  4. The first syllable from the pictures maps to the first syllable of the Russian phrase. Table = ta, Summer = soma, Liu Kang = lu, and YAY! = yay but with C in front, because that’s the shape of his arms.
  5. Now you have all the information in a silly picture story you can remember forever.

Yeah, that’s a lot of work. Here’s the key, our brains love this kind of work. It’s at least more enjoyable than rote memorization. Are we learning about Russian language theory? Well, no. It doesn’t “feel” like learning should be fun but that’s the point. It’s engaging. You’ll memorize more in less time, more easily, and remember it for longer. How can rote memorization compete with that?

Memorization can be fun

Years back, I sat down with a friend and memorized random numbers for a couple of hours. It felt like a fun game. Even though it was probably 7+ years ago, I still remember some of the numbers simply because the sounds and visuals were so unforgettable. Tell me, do you have a prayer at memorizing random numbers and remembering them years later? No way! These were meaningless random numbers, how much more will you remember when it actually matters? That guy named, wait what was his name again, oh yeah, Brandon because I pictured a branding iron poking him in the chest. These things settle nicely into our minds effortlessly.

Side-note for people with Aphantasia

Some people have what’s called, Aphantasia, “a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery.” If you have this condition you’ll have to come up with your own creative ways to encode your information by using silly, absurd, gross, and even lewd stories.

An effort to be a slightly better parent

As parents, it’s our job to mold our children into competent highly-effective adults. In the picture above, I’m lifting my daughter up on my feet, that’s our jobs as parents. We should be learning how to teach as they learn how to learn. I’m including a few videos which will get you connected with more resources to learn more about elaborate encoding.

Enjoy working hard!

Part time mad computer scientist, full time lover of the extraordinary.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store