Memory limitations: why can’t memorize?

Peo­ple are often unhappy with their mem­ory. They don’t like that they can’t mem­orize impor­tant infor­ma­tion from work or study. They are embar­rassed when they for­get a per­son’s name right after they meet them. They want to speak without a piece of paper and remem­ber what they read. They don’t want to cram hard and mean­ing­less

Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science

May 3, 2022

  1. First memory limitation
  2. Second memory limitation
  3. Conclusion
It’s impossible to memorize
An exam­ple of infor­ma­tion that can­not be mem­orized by ordi­nary mem­ory. Another exam­ple is some­thing I showed at a mas­ter­class on mem­ory improve­ment in the early 2010s. The audi­ence laid out sev­eral dozen iden­ti­cal coins. Then I would come up and mem­orize their sequence. Coins have only “heads” and “tails” (“0” and “1”) and it’s impos­si­ble to sim­ply mem­orize

If you are also sinning about your mem­ory, stop. Your mem­ory is fine. What we don’t like is its phys­i­ol­ogy. I’ve been help­ing peo­ple mem­orize infor­ma­tion for 17 years, and I know all about it. In this post, I’ll talk about the nat­u­ral lim­i­ta­tions of mem­ory: why peo­ple are equally bad at mem­oriz­ing com­plex infor­ma­tion.

It doesn’t mat­ter whether your mem­ory is nat­u­rally good or bad. No mat­ter how good your mem­ory is, it has phys­i­o­log­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions.

First memory limitation

We can’t remem­ber abs­tract infor­ma­tion: num­bers, con­cepts. Any­thing that can­not be felt.

There are, then, two kinds of mem­ory: one nat­u­ral, and the other the prod­uct of art. The nat­u­ral mem­ory is that mem­ory which is imbed­ded in our minds, born simul­ta­neously with thought. The arti­fi­cial mem­ory is that mem­ory which is strength­ened by a kind of train­ing and sys­tem of dis­ci­pline. But just as in every­thing else the merit of nat­u­ral excel­lence often rivals acquired learn­ing, and art, in its turn, rein­forces and devel­ops the nat­u­ral advan­tages, so does it hap­pen in this ins­tance

If some­one tells you that he has no com­plaints about his mem­ory, let him mem­orize a series of num­bers:

768149353640237904923504089220

5743058647422402428304013683525

4308532824533855009432890977893

1379954610078404570324025863682

867423879581192108551892217164833

But let’s say the per­son is tal­ented. He’s been cram­ming for a week and he’s learned it. Then give him this series of num­bers:

100101100011010100010101110100001

101100101110100100100100001011010

100011000010011001100011111001101

111001111010011001101110001001011011

0110011010111100010111001001011001

On the sur­face, it looks eas­ier—just two num­bers: “0” and “1”. But no mat­ter how much he crammed, he still wouldn’t remem­ber.

Here is the first lim­i­ta­tion of mem­ory. It is nat­u­ral for us because there is no abs­tract infor­ma­tion in nature. Our ances­tors had one mam­moth, two tigers, and three bananas instead of num­bers. Not the num­bers “1” or “2” or “3.” And of course, we are not equipped to remem­ber abs­trac­tions.

Second memory limitation

We are also not good at mem­oriz­ing sequences of infor­ma­tion.

Below you will see 10 sim­ple words. These are not for­eign words, not abs­tract con­cepts—the mean­ing of each word you know exactly. And it doesn’t seem dif­fi­cult to remem­ber them.

Read the words briskly and aloud, but only once. And try to sim­u­late lis­ten­ing com­pre­hen­sion. Don’t mem­orize visu­ally where each word is:

ice cream, hammer, hydrant, stopwatch, pepper, ball, soda, rose, bath, pumpkin

Now, without peek­ing, try to recon­struct these words on paper. It’s okay if you only name seven plus or minus two out of ten words. This is George Miller’s “mag­i­cal num­ber.”

The Mag­i­cal Num­ber Seven, Plus or Minus Two. It is often inter­preted to argue that the num­ber of objects an aver­age human can hold in short-term mem­ory is 7 ± 2. This has occa­sion­ally been referred to as Miller’s law

When one speaks of this phe­nomenon, one sel­dom pays atten­tion to the fact that there is no ques­tion of a cor­rect sequence here at all. It’s just a mat­ter of remem­ber­ing that “ball” and “pump­kin.” It doesn’t mat­ter where they were in the row.

But this is the most impor­tant thing. What’s the use if you mem­orized all the num­bers in the phone num­ber, but do not mem­orize their sequence. In stud­ies, work, and every­day life we need exactly in the right order to remem­ber the main ideas, the­ses of speeches, and the main points of books.

Conclusion

All are equal before the nat­u­ral lim­i­ta­tions of mem­ory: both those who sup­pos­edly have a good mem­ory and those who are used to com­plain­ing about their mem­ory.

Skip ahead to “How to Mem­orize Any­thing in the Right Order”: there I will tell you how peo­ple have tried to get around these lim­i­ta­tions and teach you how to mem­orize infor­ma­tion in the right order. You will prac­tice with sim­ple words and under­s­tand the gen­eral prin­ci­ple. And by that prin­ci­ple, you can then mem­orize the sequence of any infor­ma­tion you need: from talk­ing points to the main points of the books.

“If you already have ques­tions—mes­sage me on Insta­gram and I’ll answer you per­son­ally”

founder and memory trainer

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