I do and I understand. – Chinese proverb
Continuous learning is a requirement for success and the faster you learn the faster you can apply your new knowledge to improve your life. In this chapter we are going to look at five stages for accelerated learning: preparing, learning, understanding, reviewing and applying. By practicing these steps until they become habitual, you will greatly increase your ability to learn, remember and make use of information in your daily life.
The first step in accelerated learning is to prepare your mind and your environment. If possible, find yourself a quiet, comfortable, and relaxing studying environment with few distractions, so that you can focus single-mindedly on your studies. Avoid leaning back or lying down, since that makes us tired and diminishes our concentration. Instead sit upright with only your studying material in front of you.
Whenever you start studying something new, the first thing you should do is overview the entire subject that you are preparing to learn. Then, set a clear learning goal for yourself and schedule the time you believe it will take to achieve that goal. The clearer, more relevant and intensely desired your learning goal is, the more you will be motivated to achieve it.
The stronger your reason is for learning the subject, the more motivated you will be and the more you will remember. It is therefore important that you think about how the new knowledge will help you and visualize yourself using the information. A powerful way to do this is to imagine that you are going to be teaching a course on what you are learning, or that you will write a book on the subject. Then, as you are studying, think of how you would lay out the material and reorganize it to make it even easier to learn and understand. If you think about how you would teach what you are learning to other people, you will internalize it much faster than if you just think of learning it for yourself.
By turning your studies into an outcome-oriented event, you will be amazed at how much faster you learn. Once you have done your overview, done your goal setting and motivated yourself, you need to get into a learning state. Before we go into that however let us first look at how our memory works.
There are things in life that we experience only once and remember indefinitely. These memory peaks are invariably times when our entire brain is involved in the learning process – both left and right hemispheres and our limbic system. For example, we often learn songs without conscious effort because they involve the whole brain. The left brain attends to the words, the right brain attends to the music, and the limbic system – the emotional center – pays attention because it is emotionally relevant to us. By deliberately using all three of these processes, we can improve our memory for any learning experience.
- The left brain is associated with our reasoning and is responsible for words, numbers and language. It sees individual details one at a time and deals with order, facts and logical thinking.
- The right brain is the artist within us and handles symbols, images, melodies, patterns and spatial relationships. It sees the whole picture at once and uses parallel, imagistic and intuitive thinking.
- The limbic system plays an important part of our long-term memory. It decides if incoming information is relevant enough to be remembered, based on its emotional appeal. When what you are learning appeals positively to your emotions, through colors, pictures, games, challenges or musical accompaniment, you learn better and remember more easily.
There are four major types of brainwave patterns: beta (above 12 Hz), alpha (7-12 Hz), theta (4-7 Hz) and delta (under 4 Hz). When you are fully awake you are in beta. It is where we spend most of our time and is also where we learn the least efficiently. The peak learning wave is the alpha level and it increases our ability to concentrate and receive information dramatically. This means that to learn faster you need to slow down your brainwaves. You can reach alpha by relaxing, closing your eyes and breathing deeply and slowly 10 times. Ideally you want to be in a quiet room with no distractions. The alpha level is characterized by a relaxed, but alert state of consciousness and when you are there you will have a feeling of complete calm and peace of mind.
The best way to get into and stay in the alpha learning state is by using music. Music without vocals stimulates the emotional part of your brain, as well as the right hemisphere and also helps you to relax – which activates more alpha waves in the brain. It basically allows your whole brain to be involved in the learning process. Certain styles of music, especially relaxing classical or baroque music, are particularly effective for learning. The tempo of the music should be about 1 beat per second to get the brain into the relaxed alpha state. Environmental sounds, such as rain and waves, can also be used.
You have three primary ways of learning: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. We all have a preferred learning style, but we learn best using all three. The more you can combine them, the faster you will learn and the easier you can recall the information, because we have a separate memory for what we see, hear and do. You should deliberately create multisensory memories by presenting yourself the same information in a variety of ways. Simply listening or reading by itself is not enough, because it is too passive. While you are listening, reading or observing, you should always be doing something more to activate more parts of your memory. On average, a person remembers 20% of what they read, 30% of what they hear, 40% of what they see, 50% of what they say, 60% of what they do, and 90% of what they see, hear, say and do. The combination you choose depends on your learning preferences and requirements. Experiment to find the learning method you are most comfortable using to make the learning process faster and more enjoyable.
- Visually – We apply our visual memory when we read a book, watch a seminar, see demonstrations, take notes or make visualizations. Whether you are learning from a book, audio program or seminar you should always take notes to engage both your visual and kinesthetic memory. You should also stop occasionally and try to picture how what you are learning fits together as a whole. If you are learning a skill from another person, it can be a good idea to ask them to demonstrate using it and then to model them. If you cannot immediately apply what you are learning, you should instead visualize yourself using the information.
- Auditory – We engage our auditory memory when we listen to audio programs, seminars, talk out loud or speak to ourselves. If you are reading or listening to audio programs, you can repeat the important sections or ideas out loud to reinforce the information in your auditory memory. If you are at a seminar or otherwise unable to repeat out loud, then repeat the important information in your mind. However, bear in mind that we remember approximately twice as much when we say something out loud. You can also make an effort to paraphrase the material you repeat in your own words, to further increase your understanding of it. To stimulate your emotional center, you can speak with a funny or foreign accent, whisper it or read it dramatically – with enthusiasm and interest. You can also explain the whole subject to a friend, which will further increase your ability to remember.
- Kinesthetically – We engage our kinesthetic memory when we are actively involved in the learning process – for example by modeling others, taking notes or underlining text. This means that neither books, audio programs or seminars use our kinesthetic memory automatically. Therefore it is important to study with a pen in your hand, to rewrite and summarize the important parts in your notes. If possible, also try to take action and use what you learn immediately, rather than just passively looking at it.
- Combining all three – Best of all, of course, is to combine all three senses into the learning experience. For example, if you are learning a foreign language you could read the words for visual memory, speak them out loud for auditory memory and write sentences with them for physical memory. You could then vividly imagine yourself using the words or sentences in real-life situations.
While you are learning, it is important to take regular breaks every 20-30 minutes to accommodate our natural attention span. Your breaks should last for about 5 minutes, during which time you should take your mind off your studies and do something completely different. Even though you are resting, your brain will still be organizing the information you have just learned. Taking breaks also keeps our concentration high and gives us lots of beginnings and endings, which are the times when we tend to remember the most.
There is a difference between knowing something and understanding it, and for learning to be effective we need to acquire both. In step 2 we learned how to create multisensory memories primarily for information retention, but to understand a subject in depth we need to know how the details we have learned relate to each other. Without becoming involved in a memory structure, our new memories will quickly become passive. This means that we will still be able to recognize the information, but will not be able to bring it out without a leading question or such. In this third step we develop deep understanding by turning our passive memory into active memory, so that we can use, call upon and speak about what we have learned freely. To do this we have to use the information in some way – for example by explaining it to someone, organizing it or summarizing it. The three methods we are going to look at – note taking, mind maps and memory trees – can all be done in parallel with step 2 during your learning.
When you are taking notes you should rephrase them into your own words. The more you paraphrase what you are learning, the more you have to think deeply about it and the better you will understand. The words of others are never as easy to remember as your own, and it is not until you can describe an idea in your own words that you have truly understood it. Another great way to aid your understanding is to summarize the material in order of importance. When you have to find and organize the most important points about a subject you need to think about it in depth.
If you need to memorize your notes you can read them out loud a couple of times to store the information in your auditory memory as well as in your visual memory. You can then practice recreating them from memory on another piece of paper. It is a good idea to number the key ideas you need to remember, because that way you will know if any one of them has been forgotten. You can also try to organize the information into meaningful lists, groups or sequences that you give title keywords, which can be used as a trigger to more easily recall what the groups contain. You then convert these keywords into a mind map.
A mind map provides a quick way to summarize an entire subject, book, audio program or seminar in a single easily remembered form. To create one, write the main topic in the center of a sheet of paper. Around this topic, write out keywords for the major categories and then connect them with lines branching out from the topic. Continue down the hierarchy by adding more categories and keywords that relate to each main category until you have all the keywords you need. The keywords are the information-rich words that allow you to recall the whole idea. They are usually nouns, since it is much easier to remember things than abstract concepts. As you draw, you should use lots of different colors, shapes, symbols and pictures to involve more centers of your brain. The colors and symbols use the right brain and have emotional appeal, while the keywords engage the left brain.
To memorize a mind map, read it over and then look away and try to redraw it from memory. Compare your copy with the original and notice any gaps in your knowledge. Do this a couple of times until your new copy is the same as the original, and the map will be in your memory permanently. You will now be able to visualize it in your mind whenever you need the information.
Another way to use mind maps is to arrange ideas for writing, for example when writing a book, exam paper or letter. You can begin by brainstorming keywords from your subject on a piece of paper. Then, create a mind map on another paper from your keywords and draw the theme, headings, subheadings and connections you want. Once the mind map is complete, prioritize your keywords or headings and number them in the order they will appear in the document. As you write out the content of each heading you can tick them off from your mind map. Other uses of mind maps include preparing speeches, goals setting, planning, problem solving or any other form of creative work.
A memory tree is a way of summarizing information into smaller and smaller pieces. When you read a book or some other material, start by first summarizing each page or paragraph in one sentence and write it down. You can get summary sentences of a whole chapter onto a single page. Do this for each chapter, then review your pages and write one sentence summarizing each of them onto a final page. You now have a concise summary of the book in the form of a memory tree. The final page is the trunk of the tree, the other pages are the branches and the sentences on them are the twigs. By creating the memory tree you repeat the material each time you summarize, which helps you to not only understand but also to recall it easily.
If something’s worth learning, it is also worth reviewing a few times to retain it permanently. Your review must take place before you forget what you have learned – so that you do not have to relearn it from scratch. To review, you should summarize the key facts to yourself at the end of each study period, the next day, the next week, the next month and after 6 months. By following this simple sequence of reviews we can recall 80% or more of the material after 6 months. In contrast, without any reviews we typically forget fully 70% of the material after just 24 hours. A great way to keep the review schedule is to write down what you have learned at the end of each day in your journal. You then start your daily study period by reviewing what you learned the day before, last week, last month and 6 months ago. You can also review during spare time that would otherwise be wasted, while you are doing something that does not require a lot of concentration.
Each review should only take a very short time, just a minute or two for every hour studied. The form of your review should be to recreate your summary from memory, rather than just rereading it. For example, you can summarize the mind map out loud, picture it in your mind and then redraw it. In this way you will have reviewed it visually, auditory and physically. Of course, the best kind of reviewing is to actually use the material, which is the purpose for learning it in the first place.
Your learning success is measured not only in terms of what you understand and remember, but most importantly by how much you will use the information in the future. There is little reason to learn something unless you are going to apply that knowledge or skill. Before we apply our new knowledge however, it is a good idea to test yourself to ensure that you have understood what you have learned. You can for example redraw your mind map or notes from memory, or explain the subject to someone else in your own words. If it is instead a skill you have learned you should practice it first to build confidence and improve your performance. One way to do this is to use mental rehearsal by visualizing yourself applying what you have learned. When you have tested your knowledge or practiced your skill it is then time to apply what you have learned in real life situations to make the knowledge your own. Make an effort to seek out occasions for you to use your new knowledge or skill repeatedly until you master it.
There is no limit to the quantity of information you can remember. In fact, the more you learn, the more space you make available to memorize more information. As an example, if you learn a new language it becomes easier to learn another. The three keys for developing a tremendous memory are: association, imagination and location. The essence of memory is to form associations between new information and already existing information. We remember things that have meaning for us and things have meaning when we can associate them with what we already know.
Developing an excellent memory is simply a matter of using your imagination to create a good number of associations, especially visual associations, with the new material. Your imagination turns dull, unintelligible, abstract concepts into meaningful, colorful, memorable representations, such as images or objects. The last key is location, which is the place you look to access everything you have stored. For example, to remember what you did yesterday in order you would need to think of the places you were at, because that is what keeps the sequence.
With these three keys in mind, let us go through some memory techniques that will make it easier for you to make full use of your memory. Like any other set of skills they must be practiced to gain speed and proficiency. By training yourself in these techniques, your overall memory ability will improve.
We remember pictures several times better than words, so an important part of memorization is to find ways to associate pictures or objects with what we are learning. The more specific or concrete you can make an abstract word, idea, concept or fact, the easier it is for your mind to hold onto it. For example, with the abstract word “time” you could visualize an hourglass. When you have found an association between an abstract concept and something concrete, there are several more things you can do to make your visualization even more memorable:
- Make it vivid – Visualize the images using all your senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
- Make it active – Include movement, action and bring the information to life by animating it or making it interact with something.
- Make it interesting – Add humor, exaggerations and positive emotions. Make the scenes bright, colorful, unusual, bizarre, dramatic or amusing.
- Make it meaningful – Use logic, patterns and structure to organize the images.
This is a powerful technique that allows you to memorize literally thousands of items in rapid succession. It is based on the realization that our minds are extremely good at remembering the route between locations, as opposed to unconnected facts and figures. Basically, we create a journey with a number of definite steps and then associate each step with one or more pieces of information that we wish to remember.
The first thing you need to do is to prepare a journey. You can start small with just one journey of 10 steps, but it is a good idea to establish a few journeys that altogether contain perhaps 100 steps so you will have more storage space. Keep in mind that you can reuse the journeys as many times as you want since it is easy to distinguish between them.
The journey will preserve the sequence of the information so make sure that each step logically follows the next. Try to make each stop interesting and fairly unique. If it helps you should write down the stages or close your eyes and imagine yourself flying along your journey several times to firmly establish it. This way you can start at any place on the journey and move either backward or forward. Some example journeys could be: a walk through the park, your own house, your road to work, a school trip or a tour around town. If you think you do not have enough good places you can just as well use imaginary settings, such as locations from books, stories, movies, games or pure fantasy.
When you have prepared the steps, you are ready to put down some information using your imagination. What you do is move gradually through each step and simply add vivid images at the location representing what you want to remember. So to remember an item, or a group of associated items, make it concrete and place it at the location.
As an example of using the journey method, let us pretend you want to memorize a deck of cards. You would first need to associate each card with a specific picture, object or character. For instance, you could translate each suit with friends, relatives, movie stars and fictional characters. You then practice those associations until you can automatically see the person as you deal their card. Next, you create a journey of 52 stages and as you deal each card, you walk that journey and place your character at each step.
To make it even easier, you can combine two objects at every location so you would only need 26 steps in the journey. Go through all the cards again and this time give each character a tool to hold. You would then give the tool of every second card to the character on the first card for each step of the journey. Once you have finished the whole journey you can survey it by looking down on the area all at once in your imagination.
You can use this method to store anything, such as a to-do list, a journal, a calendar or even the periodic table. The more you practice the journey method, the faster you will be able to use it.
The memory room is similar to the journey method in that it utilizes the three keys of memory: association, imagination and location. It works best for storing information for which order does not matter, while the journey method is better for storing ordered information. To create a memory room you can imagine a room that you already know, complete with objects, and then walk around the room and place images representing the information you want to memorize on the objects in the room.
Another way is to create an empty room in your mind and then to fill it with your own objects representing the information itself that you want to remember. Either way to recall the information you simply walk around the room in your mind seeing the objects and letting them remind you of their associations. You can, for example, use this method to build rooms for people you know in order to store information about them, such as birth dates, hobbies, likes and dislikes. Another usage is to have rooms to store reminders of quotes, memos or jokes. There is no restriction in the size of the room and you can build extensions to your rooms as you need more space. To keep your memory rooms organized, you can group them together by placing them inside a memory palace, which is a mental building containing memory rooms.
The peg system is useful for remembering any short list of numbers or items. To use it you first need to associate the numbers 0-9 with symbols, for example with their nearest everyday look-alike shape such as: 0 ball – 1 candle – 2 swan – 3 gull – 4 sailboat – 5 seahorse – 6 elephant – 7 boomerang – 8 snowman – 9 balloon with string. We do this because objects are far easier to remember than numbers. To remember a short list of up to 10 ordered items, you then associate each item in your list directly with the number shape. For example, if the first item is a badminton racket, you could imagine a candle bouncing on the racket. That way when you want the first item on your list you just need to think of the candle and it will remind you of the racket.
Another usage of the peg system is for remembering a short sequence of numbers. You simply create a quick vivid, direct link of one number shape interacting with the next. So, to get the number 10 you could imagine smoke from a candle swirling around a ball. For longer numbers you should replace the direct linking with a journey to make it more memorable. This increases the applications of the journey and memory room methods to anything involving numbers – for example: telephone numbers, appointments, statistics, dates, measures, birthdays and codes.
One of the simplest ways of making a good impression with new people is by remembering their name. To remember a name you need to create a strong association between the person’s name and face. First, observe the person carefully by looking closely at them and concentrating very hard on the details of their face. Look at their eyes, hair, nose, mouth, eyebrows and their whole body, and you will find an incredible number of distinguishing features.
The next step is to link the face and the name of the person. For starters quickly repeat the person’s name at least six times to yourself immediately, while looking thoroughly at their face. Then visualize the person’s name printed on their forehead. If you know someone else with the same name picture the two of them interacting together.
Finally, make a decision to recall the name when you next meet the person. The real reason we forget names is because we make very little effort to try to remember them. Start by deciding to remember. Make a habit of remembering the names of all new people you meet from now on and your capacity and speed for remembering names will increase dramatically.
- Prepare your mind and environment before studying and set a clear learning goal.
- Draw upon both sides of the brain as you learn and give the information emotional meaning.
- Study using two or more learning styles.
- Make notes, mind maps or memory trees to deeply understand the material.
- Test, practice and use what you learn in real life situations.
- The keys to memory are association, location and imagination.
Dominic O'Brien - Quantum Memory Power (audio)
Handbook of Success