Learning Faster and Remembering More – How I Realized I Sucked at Learning and Had to Become Better

Let me start by saying while this post might be couched in my technical learning, it’s about learning everything faster computers or otherwise. I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been feverishly studying for my CCDP (Cisco Certified Design Professional) test. There are two half finished posts concerning how VPLS works and creating a Cisco EasyVPN, but I unfortunately haven’t finished either. So instead, I decided to write a short synopsis of how I relearned to study just about everything in my life.

Chances are if you’re studying for anything technical (computers or otherwise), you’ll have to remember a huge number of inane factoids about random technology X and my CCDP was no different. For example, do you happen to know offhand what bit in a MAC address is used to delineate whether it is a multicast or unicast address? It’s the I/G bit in case you were wondering, which is the least significant bit of the first byte of the address. Well, if you’re like I was you probably have no idea what the I/G bit is because honestly, how often does IP multicast come up for the average techy let alone the way it’s addressed?

Let me first tell you how I started studying for my CCDP and how I realized my tactics were failing miserably. I suspect a lot of people study the way I was. As with most certs, I prefer simply to read the official book and reference the internet when I want to deep dive something. However, this time I decided to go traditional. I took notes on anything I thought was important and it took FOREVER. My thinking was that by writing the information down I would retain it better and I would generate a useful way to review. Well, I got through about 5 chapters that way and realized I wasn’t remembering diddly squat. I didn’t remember a lot of major subtopics let alone the inane details I was expected to know within those subtopics.

It was at this point I set the book down and told myself this is just not working. That started a journey for me. How do I learn? How can I do it faster? How can I remember more information and more importantly recall it when I need it? What I realized is that the American education system does a fantastic job of teaching us information, particularly given the relatively small budget they receive (thanks to wonderful people like my friends Molly Waterworth and Ellen Anderson who voluntarily teach obnoxious little fiends like I was). However, in 16 years of schooling I never actually learned how to learn! How does the brain retain information? How can I feed it information in a way it likes to receive information?

I went looking for answers. That’s when I found a book called Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Joshua goes on a yearlong journey to go from average Joe to the United States memory champion performing such feats as memorizing an entire deck of cards in only a few seconds. This man isn’t special in any biological way. He is self admittedly in his book average Joe, but in a year becomes the United States memory champion. How? To understand, you first have to understand some simple human biology.

We didn’t evolve to remember random factoids and arbitrary information.  For example, if I gave you 20 minutes to walk through a new home and then afterwards asked you to verbally walk me through it you’d probably be pretty good at it right? However, if I gave you 20 minutes to memorize the first 40 numbers in pi and then asked you to recite them how would that go? Chances are most of us would be better at remembering the home. Why? What makes us better at remembering that, but not pi? The answer is evolution. Back in the caveman days we had to remember things such as how do I get to food? How do I return safely from getting my food? Where does the t-rex who is trying to eat me (don’t question the timeline here) live? Humans are fantastic at what is called spacial memory. We remember images, locations, actions, those sorts of things. Specifically, we tend to remember things in a hierarchical manner. What do I mean by that? If I told you to think about the layout of your home town you’d probably start with some major landmark. From there you would probably add in the next most memorable objects after the major landmark… then the next and the next and so on so forth. You might start to see where I’m going with this. How can we leverage spacial memory in a useful way?

Well funny enough, we use a technique that’s been around for centuries. It’s called a memory palace and it was originally pioneered by the Greeks and Romans. You may have also heard of it under the name the method of loci. In this case it may be easier to give you an example and then explain how it works.

I want you to imagine you are in your bed. You are fast asleep on one of those nights where your bed is particularly comfortable. You then are violently awoken by the sounds of a fight. You wake up. Through the dim room you make out Inspector Gadget brutally beating the snot out of a bloodied Doctor Claw who oddly enough is clutching a sandwich. Inspector Gadget screams, “JUST GIVE ME A BIT OF IT! JUST A TINY BIT”

Inspector Gadget = I/G
Him screaming, “Give me a bit” = bit

And now you know how I remembered I/G bit for my test. Here’s how the memory palace works. Take a place that you know really well. This next part you have some leeway on how you want to organize the information, but I would start by going room by room. The next part is the critical part. Take whatever you need to know and encode it into a scene/image that is memorable just like I did above. Then move on to the next piece of information and put it in the next room and so on and so forth. Here are some tips on how to come up with good palaces and images in no particular order.

– For your first one, use whatever location you are MOST familiar with
– The hook is everything. The term hook refers to the memorable quality of an image/animation that triggers your mind to recall it. The more unique/novel the image is the more likely you are too remember it. For example, one of my images I actually recall by what I imagine the feel to be. I imagine 1+1=2 written on the ground in poop and I imagine stepping in it. It reminds me to summarize routing information outbound from the distribution layer. The hook in this example is the feel of what I imagine stepping in poo barefoot would be. Gross, but I don’t forget it.
– In line with the above, use multisensory images. Imagine how things smell, taste, feel, in addition to the visual depiction in your mind.
– The more unique the more memorable. As far as specific subjects, humans are very good at remembering lewd, funny, or extreme images. When I say extreme I mean something like extremely ugly or extremely beautiful.
– Any abstract thoughts you must memorize have to be converted to concrete objects in your mind first. For example when I was memorizing how VoIP phones connect to the network I had to memorize that the last step in the sequence was for them to poll the DHCP server. I remembered DHCP with a dish taking a sip from a sippy cup. It was a difficult abstract thought so I converted the way I sounded it out DH-CP = Dish-sip to a concrete object in order to recall it.
– Use rhyming words in conjunction with your image. For example, I remember that on the Cisco 6500 there is a software modularity function that provides memory protection. I imagined a man about to be stabbed on the bed in my parent’s room who at the last second is saved by another man shouting, “YOU ARE A MEMORY MALICE!” The man doing the saving is the memory protector, but I can always remember the terms “Memory Malice”
– Do not install multiple images in a space without a clear beginning and end in your mind. For example, if the area you use contains a huge grass field that looks the same I would only use the grass field for one object. When you revisit the location in your mind after a while you’ll have trouble recalling how many objects should be there. If you use zones with clear starts and beginnings you can more easily fill in the blanks.
– Use totally different locations for totally different subjects and use images as subject headers to mark them. For example, four of my memory palaces are: my current apartment, my childhood home, my middle school, and Zelda Ocarina of time. Each is a different subject. The Zelda Ocarina of time one begins in Link’s house and in his tree house is a spider web that begins to grow and then bursts through the walls and continues to grow more. The growing web symbolizes wide area networks so I know everything to follow in this palace pertains to wide area networks. Saria has a spider web tangled in her hair in such a way that it looks like a bonnet. This rhymes with SONET. I know everything up to the next major subject header pertain to SONET.
– Use cliches. They’re cliche for a reason and we remember them. That’s why old Greek stories were loaded with cliches. Greek stories were all passed orally and they were loaded  with cliches because it was easy for the story teller to remember.

Fun Fact: For those of you who have read the Odyssey did you ever notice they addressed certain characters frequently in strange ways? For example, they rarely just called Hermes Hermes. They called him, “Swift Footed Hermes”. The Odyssey was written during a time of oral tradition and only later put into text. These oral stories were remembered using memory palaces and something like “Swift footed hermes” made the image easier to place in a memory palace.

It was using this technique that I built a 561 object memory palace that I used to pass my CCDP. Here was my approach to studying for my CCDP anew:

  1. Read the chapter and create a memory palace for all the things I deem important. At this juncture, fulling understanding the material isn’t critical. This step creates a mental architecture for the material and organizes it in the mind laying the foundation for future understanding.
  2. At a later time reread the chapter at a normal pace. During this pass I review the memory palace in my mind and add to it as I see fit. What I realized is that with the memory palace in place it gave structure to the information and greatly enhanced my ability to remember it because it was organized in relation to the palace. Even if something wasn’t in my memory palace when I tried to remember it, I would remember it relative to a concept in my memory palace.
  3. Review complicated subjects as necessary and further build my memory palace.

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