Take a look at this list of objects: lamp, sock, door, dog, screwdriver, tulip, brownie, tree, airplane, milk, and frog. If you had two minutes to memorize that list, how many objects do you think you could recall, and how many could you recall in order? The average person remembers five or six. But after learning one or two special memory tricks, you could triple the number of items you retain in the same amount of time.
Skeptical? Just ask the expert: Dave Farrow, a two-time Guinness World Record Holder for greatest memory. These aren’t just vague claims; Farrow’s “brain hacks” have been tested in double-blind neuroscience studies. (A double-blind study is one in which nobody — neither participants nor researchers — knows which of the study’s treatment options each participant receives.)
Here’s how it all works: Farrow uses a variety of tricks to engage different areas of his brain. These not only help him memorize swaths of words quickly and read at high speeds, but also strengthen his cognitive abilities.
And before you ask, he wasn’t “born this way” — he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia at 14, and struggled to stay focused and absorb information.
“This is not a dig against teachers, but I felt as though the system had really let me down,” he tells First. “There were no real tools that were working … but I felt like I had to figure this out myself or I was screwed … And I thought unless I figure out how my brain really works, then I don’t have any opportunities in life.”
Farrow began to research different study skills and soon took a particular interest in memory techniques. He’s shared a couple of his favorites for us to try, the first of which will help you memorize that long list of words up above. For an in-depth guide to master memory and focus, check out his new book, Brainhacker (Pre-order on Amazon, $26.95) or try the audiobook, 3x Your Memory in One Hour (Buy on Amazon, $12.47).
To Memorize Lists: Use a Memory Palace
Though many memory tricks are a dime a dozen, Farrow finds that this skill will boost your recollection in just five minutes. It’s called the memory palace, and legend has it that the Ancient Greek poet Simonides invented it.
Here’s how it goes: Pick a room in your house that is very familiar to you and visualize it. Then, look at the list of words you’re trying to memorize. Mentally place each object in a specific part of the room in sequence. And get inventive — the stranger the positioning of the object, the more likely you’ll remember it.
For example, the first three words in our long list above are lamp, sock, and door. To begin memorizing them, I might mentally glue an electric blue lamp to the ceiling of my bedroom, right above the door frame. Then I’ll turn left and nail a fuzzy purple sock into the wall. Finally, I’ll place an ancient, orange door on the floor like a mat, and walk over it.
I would continue mentally placing objects around the room until I completed the whole list. (For longer lists, you might expand your mental room to a house or palace.) After a quick review — one or two run-throughs of the sequence, completing different actions around the room — I should be able to recite the list of objects in order, forwards and backwards.
“It’s just a little imagination game,” says Farrow. “And it’s not that I’m so amazing. It’s your brain, capable of doing this. It’s the same mechanism that allows us to watch a movie and then recall a plot to a friend … as long as it’s in the form of these visual images, or something that has action, something that ignites the senses.”
“[You] can at least triple what the average person can accomplish on these memory tests, without any training,” he adds. “That’s where we get the term ‘triple your memory.'”
To Read More Quickly and Still Retain Info: Speed Read
This trick might not appeal to you at first. Why rush something that’s often meant to be leisurely? Learning how to speed read, however, can improve your cognitive abilities over time and come in handy when you least expect it.
“Although I don’t pretend to be an expert on dyslexia, I found that speed reading was easier than regular reading because when you speed read, you actually read words in blocks, and the reversing of letters doesn’t mean as much,” says Farrow. “You don’t sound out the words.”
But how in the world do you do it? “To start off, you [have to] think of sounding out words as a habit you have to break,” he explains. “You can already recognize words by sight, you just haven’t trained yourself into the habit.” Here are the two main exercises to try:
- Guide your eyes with your hands. “While reading, put your hand on the page, and pull your fingers in front of the words that you’re reading. This helps guide your eyes … If you try to speed up your eyes [without using your hands], you tend to skip whole sections … Your eyes really love to follow movement … As long as you’re reading with your hand on the page, you’ll never get eye strain.”
- Begin increasing your speed with a technique called “overwhelm.” During this second phase, “Use your hand as a guide again and try to pull your eyes past the words, far faster than you’re comfortable reading. I’m talking like twice as fast.” Try this for only a minute or so, give yourself a little break, and try again for another minute.
After a week or two of these exercises, Farrow says, you’ll notice an improvement in your reading speed.
“Most people, after just a few sessions, will find that they start sight reading some words, where they’ll understand what the word means. And they’ll realize they didn’t sound it out in their head. And it’s this amazing feeling.”
To be clear, Farrow does not believe that sight reading 100 percent of the time is realistic. “Even me as a speed reader, I still sound out some words,” he admits.
For a Quick Boost: Brush Your Teeth With the Wrong Hand
If you’re looking to improve not just your memory but your overall cognition, changing up your routine can help. “There are some very simple things we can do to kick [our brains] back into gear,” he says. “One of the things I suggest is to try for a week — or as long as you can — to brush your teeth with the opposite hand. This sort of motor skill, opposite to what you’re used to, is fantastic for the brain.”
Picking up a new hobby can have similarly positive effects, especially if it requires you to use your motor skills differently. Learning to juggle, hula hoop, or yo-yo can all strengthen your cognitive function. “Even just standing on one foot during a commercial [works],” Farrow says. “But the key is, it has to be something you’re not comfortable with. It [has to be] new to you.”
It sounds like the perfect excuse to pick up a new hobby, don’t you agree? A day out of the ordinary is great for keeping our minds sharp, so don’t be afraid to try new things — all in the name of memory.
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