If you could recall double the information, your life would be a lot easier.
You wouldn’t spend so much time googling, you’d only look at your shopping list half as much, and you’d have twice as many chances to deliver a great idea in a meeting.
With over 30,000 citations, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two is one of the most referenced papers in history. Published in 1956 by Harvard psychologist George Miller, it asserts humans can store seven objects in their short-term memory on average, with variations ranging from five to nine.
Since then, researchers have found that memory span is not constant, that capacity depends on the nature of chunks (are they numbers, letters, words?), and that sound also plays a role in how much we can retain.
What hasn’t changed is that most people would likely struggle if you asked them to quickly remember a list of ten objects. You can test yourself online, but surprisingly, we had a solution to this before we even knew the problem.
In 1918, memory artist David Roth published his book Roth Memory Course. He called it, “a simple and scientific method of improving the memory and increasing mental power.” The book is packed with examples and exercises, but one of the most powerful is the very first: combination pictures.
Combination pictures rely on three techniques that support memorization to help you easily remember ten or more objects: exaggeration, motion, and unusual associations. Let’s walk through Roth’s example.
Imagine a hen wearing a hat. It may be a top hat, a snapback, or a fedora, but make sure the hen wears a hat. The hen is standing tall and proud, wearing her hat.
Now, imagine the hen and a ham. There’s a large ham, lying on the floor, and the hen is running for it, jumping on it, almost attacking it as she feasts on the large, pink chunk of meat.
Take that same ham, and add to it a hare. The hare is inspecting the ham. He’s rolling it with great effort. The hare is sweating. He pushes the ham.
Next, let the hare run down a hill. As fast as he can, the hare sprints down the hill. Surrounded by grass, looking back over his shoulder for predators, the hare races towards the bottom of the hill.
Now, picture a massive, giant shoe dropping on the hill. The sky darkens. A huge, leathery boot approaches. With great thunder, it stomps on the hill and begins to slide down. You could live in this shoe. It’s huge, and it moves across the hill.
As it moves down the hill, the shoe kicks a cow. See a cow, grazing on the green pastures of the hill. Her eyes widen. She’s startled. The giant boot has kicked her in the butt. She’s scared. She kicks up her feet and starts running away.
Next, imagine the cow striking a hive. As the cow runs, she spots a bee hive. The hive is buzzing. Thousands of bees swarm around it. The cow is in rage, and so she charges at the hive, knocking it over with her horns.
Now, the ape spots the hive. The hive rolls around on the floor. An ape wanders by. He stops. The ape gazes at the rolling hive. He scratches his head.
Finally, let the ape monkey around in the woods. The ape trots off into the nearby forest. See him swinging from tree to tree, having fun. The ape is doing his thing in the woods.
Take a second. Let all of this sink in. You just went through nine combination pictures, each containing two elements. You imagined them. You saw them. They felt like real, moving beings.
Now, go back to the very first picture. What do you see? Name the two things.
Out of those two things, one will bring you to the next combination picture. You should have no problem recalling the next set of elements. Then, let that take you to the next, and the next, and the next.
You can name the objects in your mind, say them out loud, or write them down. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself floored by the end of it. You just easily remembered ten objects: hat, hen, ham, hare, hill, shoe, cow, hive, ape, woods. That was easy as 1–2–3, wasn’t it?
The reason David Roth’s combination picture technique works so perfectly is that you don’t remember “a list of things.” You memorize a story.
From one picture to the next, something is always happening. Things are in motion. The hen struts around in her hat, the hare rolls the ham, the shoe kicks the cow, and so on.
Motion is Roth’s first memory hack, and it makes the list much easier to recall than separate entities. You need only ask: How does the story continue?
The second trick is that Roth exaggerates. A hen doesn’t really strut, does she? Nor would she furiously attack the ham. Exaggeration is best seen in the giant shoe, however.
Generally, Roth says to imagine elements as bigger than usual. You could also make things small or transform them, for example by turning the boot into a sneaker or giving the cow four horns instead of two.
Finally, Roth’s story associates unusual objects with one another. Hens don’t wear hats, and cows rarely tackle bee hives. Ironically, the less sense your connections make, the easier they’ll be to remember.
Combination pictures are an incredible way to remember more, faster, and better. Try them in a simple scenario, like memorizing your grocery list, and then expand them into more important areas, like your work, relationships, and creative pursuits.
Science may never completely understand how our memory works, but for you and I, it’s enough to recognize what David Roth knew in 1918: The best way to remember something is to turn it into a good story.
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