In this article I’m interviewing the two-time World Memory Champion: Jonas von Essen from Sweden.
You will learn:
- How to remember a name
- How to remember what you read
- How to remember new words in a foreign language
- How to remember numbers
- How to remember things you have no interest in (for school or work)
- The Method of Loci/Memory Palace technique
- Jonas favorite memory techniques
- The biggest memory mistakes most people make
How Jonas won the World Championships of Memory
Michael Frank: Jonas, take us through your journey from being a normal person with a normal memory, to winning the world championships of memory…
Jonas von Essen: Well I pretty much went through my whole time in school, just as a normal person and as a regular student. I studied a lot for tests, and then I usually forgot a lot after the tests.
Michael Frank: Did you cram and study a lot at the last moment as I did as many people do?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah, that was pretty much my strategy. I had a terrible study technique and it led to some bad results. So that’s what I did. I just didn’t know any better way of doing it. And when I finished high school I knew a lot less than I should have done, but then I found this book just by chance at a library, a book that said that anyone could improve their memory with certain techniques, and I thought that it sounded very interesting since I wasn’t very happy with my memory at a time.
So I started to read this book and then just after the first chapter trying out the basic memory techniques, I noticed that it was much easier than I thought, it was so much fun, and suddenly I could memorize a lot of things in a very short period of time. So I was really hooked almost immediately by this book, and then I found out later that there was competitions in memory and that there was a Swedish memory championships, and I got interested in this, and then I started to practice for this and I looked up the Swedish records and they weren’t that high. So it really, almost from the beginning, felt within reach.
Michael Frank: When you say the records were not that high, can you give me an example of what they were, because I’m sure to many people, they’re going to seem extremely high, but what kind of records are we talking about?
Jonas von Essen: Well, for example, there is one discipline where your memory is tested to see how many numbers you can remember in five minutes, and I think that the record was about 180 or something, and there is another discipline which is the same but with binary digits only ones and zeros, and then the record was probably around 405 digits, and there’s some other ones with names and faces for example, and I think the record was like 28 or 29 in five minutes. These of course are not common names, they’re names from all over the place, very unusual names, but still it didn’t sound like that much, and especially when you knew that these techniques existed and they seem so extremely promising, so I really felt that if I put a lot of effort into it during the summer, then that I can possibly beat these records and become the Swedish champion.
Michael Frank: Those numbers, I must be honest, sound really intimidating. One hundred and eighty numbers in five minutes?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah
Michael Frank: What was the name of the memory book you read by the way?
Jonas von Essen: It was a book by a Norwegian guy Oddbjør By, the book is called Memo. I think it also exists in English, but I’m not sure, but it’s popular in the Nordic countries.
Michael Frank: So when you had completed reading the book, prior to trying to break this Swedish record, approximately how many consecutive random numbers were you able to recall approximately?
Jonas von Essen: While I was reading through the book, I also did all the exercises, and I was practicing quite a bit on the techniques. I think when I was finished I could memorize at least, if I were lucky, maybe 100 digits in five minutes, and that was really without much training. Of course I did some training while reading the book and I got used to this system, but I felt that I had so much more potential in me.
Michael Frank: My jaw is hitting the floor. 100 digits in five minutes? And this is after just a couple of weeks reading the book? I think a regular person, like if you gave me random numbers, and I consider my memory to be better than average, nothing compared to yours but, I think I could probably recall maybe seven numbers, maybe ten.
Jonas von Essen: So of course I was really extremely motivated by having achieved such enormous progress in such a short amount of time, because of course for me it would have been impossible to remember hundreds of numbers without these techniques. So I was so fascinated about this and since I felt that these Swedish records were in reach, I started practicing a lot of hours everyday during the summer holidays, and I kept records and little progress bars to see my progress, and then I got closer and closer to the records, and then I beat one of the records and then another, and then another, and I felt so great, I really felt that I was on my way to becoming the new Swedish champion.
So I started breaking one record at a time, I wasn’t that concerned about beating it by a big margin, so maybe I raised the record from 180 to 200 or 400 binary digits to 500 binary digits or something like that, so I was just improving the records by a little bit, but then one month before the Swedish national championships I was contacted by the guy arranging the championships, and he told me that there was another guy who had also very recently started practicing memory techniques, and is going to take part who had these amazing records and could beat the world record in some disciplines, and I was very shocked because all the time in my head I just thought about beating this old Swedish champion who had already won the championships three times in a row, and I thought that it was very unlikely that someone else would also at the same time start with this and also get great results, so then I was very afraid that all this work that I put in would be, not for nothing of course, but I still wouldn’t get this victory that I felt quite confident about at this time.
Michael Frank: Jonas, at that stage, how many hours a day were you practicing?
Jonas von Essen: I think at that stage I was practicing maybe three or four hours a day, sometimes less, sometimes more, if I really had a lot of time and there’s not much else to do, then I could sit for almost almost a whole day because it was so much fun, and like all the time in the beginning, almost every time I improved. So I knew if I just tried this discipline, maybe a few more times that I would probably beat my own records, so it was extremely motivating to do this and I got such a kick out of continuously improving these results and suddenly getting the highest scores.
Michael Frank: Were you practicing in the morning? In the afternoon? In the evening? When did you tend to practice?
Jonas von Essen: I think at this time I really spread it out over the day. Like sometimes because it was during the summer, then maybe we went swimming somewhere in the morning or in the middle of the day, and then I practiced later. Or sometimes we would do something and meet with some friends in the evening and then I practiced a little bit earlier, so I didn’t have a very clear strategy for this, I just practiced when I had time.
Michael Frank: Okay. So you’re going towards the Swedish national championships. Take us through your journey from breaking the national records to trying to win the championship.
Jonas von Essen: Yeah. So I think it was very important that I heard about this other person. His name is Marwin Wallonius he is also a very prominent mental athlete, but at this time he was also completely new, and hearing about him challenging my position as the Swedish number one, I didn’t know exactly what to do, because I thought that maybe I didn’t have a chance anymore, but I was still really determined to do everything I could to at least have some possibility of beating him. So at the time I started practicing a lot more, maybe five or six hours everyday, and I also practiced in a very new way, because as I said before, I was just happy or content to be able to beat the old records by a little bit, but now I realized that I had to really aim at the world records and try to get impossible scores to have any chance of beating Marwin.
So I started practicing and trying to get my speed up and I aimed at impossible scores and this really made me improve a lot quicker. So in the last month before the championships, I made really the biggest part of my improvement and I started to reach world standards in some disciplines. I was of course still apart from a world champion quality, but in some disciplines I got close to the world record, so this really made a big difference for me. And then I went to the Swedish championships and Marwin was also there, and of course both of us beat the old records by a big margin, but Marvin wasn’t quite as good as I had heard, or as the rumors went, so I managed to beat him, and of course it was very happy about it.
Michael Frank: Was Marvin breaking these Swedish records that you had set? What made you so afraid that he might beat you?
Jonas von Essen: I think what made me afraid was the guy arranging the championships. He told me that Marwin had told him that he had broken some of the world records during training, and so I was of course quite sure that he had extremely good scores, and I do think that he had some good scores, but he was also very unused to competing, and maybe in some of the disciplines he had trained not exactly as they are in a competition. And so when it was real he wasn’t as good, but he was still very good and he also broke many of the old Swedish records.
Michael Frank: So what did you need to do specifically to win the Swedish National Championships of Memory?
Jonas von Essen: These memory competitions are usually like a decathlon, they have ten different disciplines with different things to memorize. For example: numbers or names or words or playing cards, and when you memorize each particular thing for some time, say five minutes or 15 minutes, or if it’s in the world championships it can be up to one hour, then you get a score depending on how much you memorized and then you get your total score at the end, and then from all of the disciplines they decide who will be the winner.
Michael Frank: What were the hardest things you needed to do? How many binary digits did you need to remember? How many numbers did you need to recall? How many images or words or names did you have to remember?
Jonas von Essen: Usually you get more information then you can memorize so that you can just go for as much as you’d like. So for example, in binary digits I think you got maybe twelve hundred binary digits, and then you’re supposed to memorize as many as possible, and of course at this time I didn’t look at all of those twelve hundred digits, maybe I looked at, I don’t know, eight hundred, something like that, and then I forgot some, I think that my score was around 670 or something like that, so that was one thing. And there’s one discipline called abstract images where you’re supposed to memorize small dots of ink in sequence, and my score was I think about 280 or something like that in 15 minutes, and I also memorized a deck of playing cards in one minute, and these were the kinds of scores that I had to perform to win.
Michael Frank: These are insane stats. It’s amazing. So you win the Swedish National Championships, then you set your eyes on the prize, the World Championships of Memory, take us through that journey.
Jonas von Essen: Yeah. Of course it felt so great to win the Swedish National Championships, especially since I had aimed and hoped for it all summer, then I got this thing with Marwin and thought that maybe it wouldn’t work, but then it worked out anyway, and also the Marwin thing also made me improve a lot. So now I was suddenly quite high on the world ranking list. And before I had just thought that I would try to win the Swedish National Championships and then maybe I would write a book and then I will be happy just being the Swedish champion in something. But since it went so well I thought okay now I can maybe start competing in some international competitions, and I started to do this and it also went quite well and I started to meet other people and it was a lot of fun to compete with them, and I went to the World Memory Championships about three months later in London, and I was almost one of the favorites, or at least a big threat to most of the more experienced athletes. At this first championship I managed to get a bronze medal, and it felt really good to be able to compete with the best. I was still some distance from the very, very best, but at least I was on my way. And that made me very motivated to continue to practice and to compete in extreme matches the following year, and to prepare for the next years world memory championships.
Michael Frank: So this is back in 2012, correct?
Jonas von Essen: Yes.
Michael Frank: And so how long from when you had read that book until you’d come third in the world and won the bronze medal? How long was that process approximately?
Jonas von Essen: It was about seven or eight months.
Michael Frank: That’s ridiculous. So less than a year from having a regular memory to being third in the world.
Jonas von Essen: Yeah. So I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I was so motivated the whole time. First it was the Swedish records that were in reach, and then Marwin made me push myself to another level, then I always had a new competition to train for and some new records to try to beat, and I was always extremely motivated to keep on going. And then in the following year I was started to travel around, mostly in Europe to different memory competitions like the Italian open, Welsh open, UK open, things like that, and I won quite a lot of them. And I continued to improve my scores and climb even higher on the World ranking list. I think at this point I also even managed to break at least one world record, and then I was very excited about the World Memory Championships in 2013 because I had prepared so much, and I really thought that with some luck I could beat the previous world champion and maybe become the new one.
Michael Frank: So how did your training change from winning the bronze? Did you just do more of the same? Or did you change your daily routine? What changed in your training from winning the bronze medal to going for the gold?
Jonas von Essen: Well I think I was training more deliberately. I made a very clear schedule that I followed everyday, and I started to train these longer disciplines even more because as I said, at the Swedish championships, we had five minute and 15 minutes disciplines, but in the World Memory Championships, it’s 30 minutes or one hour disciplines. This of course is more difficult to practice and it takes more time and you need different kinds of skills for that.
So I started practicing a lot, and I also started very early on in the year, not just before the World Memory Championships, but during the whole year I practiced these long distance exercises and figured out the best strategies for getting high scores, and this of course takes a lot of time because if you have a five minute discipline you can practice it maybe ten or twenty times in one day and try different strategies and see which one works best. But if you have one hour disciplines then maybe you can only practice it once every day, and then it takes a lot of time to really find out what is the best way of doing it. So that’s one thing I did. But I think my biggest idea that I got was from talking to Marwin before the Swedish memory championships, and that’s when I knew that I had to really, really push myself, and not just to stare at the current records, or at my current records, but just aim for the impossible and always try to go faster than I could, and so I was continuously pushing myself. I think that was the best way for me to reach new levels.
Michael Frank: Are you and Marwin friends now? Or are you just rivals?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah we’re good friends now. We always had this rivalry and I was always a little bit ahead of him. He was also getting great results and it was a little bit sad for him that I was just a little bit better all the time because then I got a lot of attention in the media in Sweden and at the championships as well. Although he was also really amazing and also made this great improvement in a very short time, and then we competed together in the team championships and won a team gold for Sweden, and we also discussed strategies and things like that a lot. So we’re more friends than rivals.
Michael Frank: But the competition certainly made you sharper and hungrier and better.
Jonas von Essen: Yeah, definitely. And I think now because I’m not competing that much, I’m almost not competing at all at the moment, but Marwin has continued to compete and his scores are now really, really amazing. And I think it’s quite likely that he will also become the World Memory Champion sometime in the future.
Michael Frank: So you won the World Memory Championships in 2013 and 2014. What kind of tests did you have to pass? How many numbers did you need to recall? How many images, how many cards, how many names?
Jonas von Essen: It’s a lot of fun to talk about this, because it always sounds better when you talk about the World Memory Championships, because we have these long disciplines so you can really demonstrate how much is actually possible to memorize when you get a little bit more time. So for example, in the binary event, you get 30 minutes to memorize as many ones and zeros as possible. And for me I got too close to 4,000. I didn’t quite reach it, but I think my best was 3,841. And then in playing cards, they give you one hour to memorize as many playing cards as possible, shuffled decks of cards, and my record was about 25 decks of cards, about 1,400 playing cards shuffled. And then probably the one that sounds most impressive, is that we had this one discipline that I like a lot called spoken numbers. So instead of reading the numbers, you hear them read out to you at one per second. And I think this is one of the most extreme disciplines because in this discipline you have to really focus all the time and you only hear these digits once, and then you have to just memorize them, and then continue and continue and continue and if you just lose your focus for a few seconds then you’re out. So it’s an extremely challenging discipline. And at the World Memory Championships the last time I managed to memorize a little bit more than 300 spoken digits, so it’s five minutes of continuous spoken digits.
Michael Frank: That’s ridiculous Jonas! (Laughs) You can’t tune out for even a second, if your mind wanders, if you don’t concentrate and stay in the zone, then you’re out.
Jonas von Essen: Yeah exactly. The first digits you heard them five minutes ago but you can’t keep thinking about them, you just think about them very quickly, and it should be impossible, but through these memory techniques it’s possible to somehow push them very quickly into the long term memory so that you can still retrieve them.
Michael Frank: We’re gonna get to some of these memory techniques in a bit and I can’t wait to unpack them. But before we do: What would you say would be your most impressive memory feats?
Jonas von Essen: I think that probably my biggest memory feat so far was on this year’s Sweden’s got talent. I managed to get to the finals, and I really wanted to do something very, very big. So I memorized the first 50,000 decimals of Pi, and that felt very cool because when you see all of these numbers, it’s almost impossible to look at them all at the same time, it’s such a huge amount of information, and it would be completely impossible of course without these techniques, but with these techniques not only can you memorize them, but you also get a very high amount of control over them. So in this show, they tested me by just going in somewhere random in the sequence of 50,000 numbers and then reading nine digits somewhere, and then I had to recognize where in the sequence they were, and tell them what was before and after these particular nine digits. I think this was probably the coolest display of memory techniques that I’ve done so far.
Michael Frank: Do you get nervous before these championships? What do you do to calm your nerves when you’re competing to stay in the zone?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah, I definitely get nervous. Especially when it’s at the end of the championships when there’s so much at stake. I think my best way of dealing with it is mostly before the competition, just to prepare as much as possible, and to try to practice with the same settings as would be in the real championship, and to make it as real as possible so that I’m not surprised when I get to the championships. It shouldn’t feel like a new situation, but something that I’ve mentally prepared for months before. I think that’s the best way of preparing and that of course makes me less nervous because then I know exactly what to do, and I know exactly what I can expect from myself. I still obviously get nervous anyway to some extent and it’s sometimes hard to deal with, but I just try to completely focus on the things I’m going to memorize and really get into it. Because I think that once you get into it, when you get into this flow, and just go through it and memorize it, and then it’s very easy to keep focusing and then you usually don’t get distracted, but it’s before you get into that flow then it’s a bit risky.
Michael Frank: I’m not sure if this is a myth or not, but is it true that we remember everything, that we never forget anything, and that it’s just a matter of recall?
Jonas von Essen: I’m not sure. I’ve also heard about this, but in other places I’ve read that it’s not true. I’m not extremely knowledgeable about all the latest memory research unfortunately, but I think at least for all practical reasons, we can view it as not true, that we can’t remember everything because even if it’s true that we have it somewhere in our heads, we can’t reach it. And then of course it’s just as if it’s forgotten.
Why some people have better memories than others
Michael Frank: Why do you think some people just naturally seem to have better memories than others?
Jonas von Essen: I think there a lot of reasons for that. I think one reason is probably that they automatically, or through intuition, or just through sheer luck, have found some strategies or techniques for remembering that they use maybe without thinking about it, but that work well. Maybe they’re not doing it consciously, but they’re still doing it, while other people use worse strategies. So I think that’s one of the things that they’ve just been lucky to having started thinking in a certain way that has made them remember things better.
Another thing is that usually we remember things we’re very interested in a lot better than other stuff. So maybe some people are just generally more interested in things, and then of course they will remember those things more easily. So that’s one thing that makes it seem as if some people have much better memories than others. But in many cases, maybe they’re just more interested in it. So I think that these are possible explanations. Their might also of course be some structural brain differences, but I think that this is only a small part of the answer to your question.
Recalling words vs numbers
Michael Frank: Is it easier for the brain to recall words or numbers?
Jonas von Essen: I think it really depends a lot on the owner of the brain, because it has a lot to do with how you think. For someone very interested in numbers, say a mathematician for example, they probably see a lot of patterns in numbers so it’s not just random for them. When they see a number they can associate it to a lot of things and somehow it makes sense for them. And then of course it’s much easier to remember it. While for other people it’s much easier to remember words because words have a lot of meaning in them, and I think it really depends on the context, like what kind of numbers and what kinds of words are we talking about? Because the more meaningful it is for the one trying to memorize them, the better it will stick.
Michael Frank: Emotional things seem to lock into our brains. For example, if someone has a traumatic experience, that seems to lock into the brain. Do we know why emotional events seem to be retained more than others?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah, I think that there’s quite a consensus about that because it’s also evolutionary. Of course, if something really dramatic happens to you, then it’s probably quite a big event and it’s something that will affect you, and it also might affect you sometime in the future, and so it’s very good for you if you remember that this happened and you can adjust to it later on. So it’s simply that this is something that your brain is programmed to really take very seriously and it really stores it so that you can use it later, while everyday small things might be less useful or less meaningful to retain for a long time. So it’s sort of like a filter in the brain.
How diet affects memory
Michael Frank: How does Diet affect Memory? Do you change your diet and eat healthier when you’re entering the world champs?
Jonas von Essen: Not particularly while I’m entering the world champs, but in general I think I eat quite healthy. I’ve been a Vegan since I started with the memory techniques actually, but it’s not related. It wasn’t that I thought that I would get a better memory by becoming a Vegan, but of course I can’t say that it’s not the case. I don’t know. I became the world memory champion after that, but probably it was mostly because of all of the training. I think of course generally, if you’re healthy and you feel well, then your brain will also be healthier and you will probably remember things a little more recently. But I think compared to the effect of have the right techniques and strategies, I think that diet has only a small effect. Of course it can have a lot of other great effects on your wellbeing. But I think memory wise it’s something that people can experiment with if they like, and I would be happy to see a lot of people going Vegan, but I think that if you’re going to focus on one thing, I think I would advise you to focus more on the strategies and techniques.
Michael Frank: Is there a limit to how much we can remember? I imagine the brain as having a limited amount of storage space. It might be an incredibly huge amount of storage space, but is there a limit to how much we can recall?
Jonas von Essen: I think that it can sometimes probably feel as if there is a limit, and I think that this is usually because you’re trying to memorize a lot of things in a short period of time, and this is something you can’t do, then there really exists a limit because you can’t push too much in the brain in a certain time period. It’s always better to spread it out as much as possible. But I think that given an infinite time period, it would actually be possible to memorize almost infinitely much. Of course, since our brains don’t consist of infinitely many neurons, it’s by definition not possible to memorize infinitely much, but I think that the limit of how much we can store is so far away that even if you lived for like a billion years, I think that you would still have storage space left.
How to remember names
Michael Frank: Okay. Let’s get into the specific techniques. I think the first thing that comes to mind for me is that for me at least, and I’d say for a lot of people, we never forget a face, but it’s so easy to forget a name. You look at somebody like, I’ve met this person, I know this guy or girl, but I can’t remember the name. What’s the best way to remember a name? Especially, I guess on the first day of a new job where you might meet twenty or thirty people? How do you remember names?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah I think that’s one part where memory techniques are very useful, and this particular technique, it might take some time to get used to it, but once you get it, it’s really possible to memorize names so much more easily than before, and then you don’t have to worry about forgetting them anymore. So the idea is that because names are quite abstract and haven’t been around for such a long time in human history, the brain isn’t really made for memorizing names. So here’s one of these situations where you instead use your visual memory.
So the idea is that you listen to the name, and then you try to associate it to an image of some kind, and it might be that you think that the name sounds like something you can visualize, or for some reason it just makes you think about some particular image, so just have some association from the name to an image, and then you take this image and then you try to see it together with the person in question. Somehow maybe you mentally place this image in the persons face, like make it stick out of his or her nose or ears or put it on the person’s head or something like that, and once you’ve really visualized this then it will usually stick there for quite a long time. So the next time you see the person, you see the image as well, and then it reminds you of the name.
Michael Frank: What if it’s an unusual name?
Jonas von Essen: Then usually it’s a little bit more tricky. But after some training it’s no problem. You have to be a little bit more creative about the image, but you can still take something that you think the name sounds like, maybe if it’s a long name, you have to break it down into smaller parts and make two or three images, but usually after sometime it’s not that difficult.
Michael Frank: Let’s use as an example. How would you go about remembering the surname of my childhood hero “Schwarzenegger”?
Jonas von Essen: So Schwarzenegger, there is a watch company called “Schwartz”. So I would see a Schwartz watch. And then with “enegger”, it sounds like “an egg”, so maybe I see a Schwartz watch with an egg, and instead of showing the time it just shows a big egg. And then I would imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing this watch with an egg, and then I know okay it’s a Schwartz watch and then an egg, and that would be enough to give the hint of Schwarzenegger.
Michael Frank: So you’ll break the name down into the syllables and create an image for each of the syllables.
Jonas von Essen: Yeah, if it’s a longer name like this and uncommon then probably I would do it. For most names however it’s enough to just have one image that somehow remains you a little bit of the name.
Michael Frank: What about a name like Beyoncé?
Jonas von Essen: Then probably I would just think that it sounds like “beyond”, and then I would come up with some image that captures this concept of beyond, maybe like a spaceship, something that is traveling beyond the galaxy. So then I would imagine her maybe sitting in a spaceship, or in an astronaut suit, or something like that, and of course beyond is not exactly Beyoncé, but most often it’s enough of a hint to make you remember that it was Beyoncé.
Michael Frank: So the image doesn’t need to be exact. It just needs to be a hint or a pointer to remind you.
Jonas von Essen: Yes exactly. I think that’s also a common thing that when we don’t think that we remember something, then usually when we hear it, then we think “yeah that was it”. Like somehow we still recognize it. So that’s why you don’t have to memorize it exactly, because your normal memory usually at least has remembered the name a little bit, so if you can just give it a hint, it will be enough to get it.
Michael Frank: How long does it take for you at this stage to create these images and associate them to a name? Can you do that within a second or two? Does it take you five seconds? How long does it take you?
Jonas von Essen: I’d say that it’s almost immediate, maybe if it’s a very complicated name then maybe a few seconds, but usually it almost comes to mind immediately because I’ve practiced it so much and I always use it when I meet new people, and especially if it’s common name then I don’t have to think anymore. I just use my regular images, but even if it’s a new name I can almost immediately make up the image and place it and then I don’t have to think about it.
Michael Frank: So the same names get the same images? So for example, my name “Michael” you’ll associate I’m guessing to a microphone or something like that?
Jonas von Essen: Yes exactly.
Michael Frank: All Michael’s are microphones?
Jonas von Essen: Yes exactly, that’s exactly right. It fits very well.
Michael Frank: re: associating an image with a name, is there a standard where everybody uses the same images? Or do competitors tend to use different images? Does everyone use the same image for the names Brian or Rachel for example?
Jonas von Essen: I think generally people use different images, because it’s very much dependent on your personal background and your personal associations. So it’s difficult to tell people to use certain images because maybe they don’t associate it with the same things that you do. So it’s very personal, and it’s also dependent on which country you’re from. I might use some Swedish things that I associated to the list names, while someone from England or Mongolia might have completely different associations. So generally people use very different images.
How to remember what you read
Michael Frank: What’s the best way to remember what you read?
Jonas von Essen: I think there are a lot of different strategies that work really well, and I think that the best way is to combine them into one super strategy, and one of the things that really work well for remembering almost any fact for a long time is to use the concept of spaced repetition.
Michael Frank: Can you talk us through that?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah. So usually when you try to remember something, maybe you read it a few times, or maybe five or six times if you’d like to really make it stick, and then you think okay now I’ve repeated it a lot of times hopefully it will stick and I will remember it. And sometimes you do remember it for some time, and sometimes you still forget it after just a few days. So it’s quite random. You’re not sure what you’re going to remember and for how long you’ll remember it. So the idea of spaced repetition is that you can see that in the beginning when not too much time has passed after you have read or learnt something, that you will remember a lot of it. But after a few days you will have forgotten some or most of it, and if you don’t repeat it, you will continue to remember less and less.
So what you do is experiment with small repetitions, and you put in a repetition sometime before you have forgotten too much, so that you will remember it a little bit longer because you have then strengthened the memory, and then you can wait a little longer until the next repetition because you will forget a bit more slowly this time. And then you repeat and strengthen it again.
So the idea is that you space those repetitions with longer and longer time intervals in between, so that after just a few repetitions, maybe the next repetition will be in a year or more, and then you will basically have it in your long term memory. So this is the basic idea and now there exists great apps and computer software for applying these repetitions of patterns. So you just put in anything you want to remember in these apps and then they will keep track of when you have to repeat it. So that with minimum effort, you will remember everything you put in there.
Michael Frank: I want you to give me some approximate timing. After I read a new book, to do spaced repetition, approximately when should I be reviewing? The next day and then one week later and then one month later? What do you recommend? What’s the ideal frequency for spaced repetition?
Jonas von Essen: I think it’s approximately like you said, that you should repeat it the next day, maybe even the same evening if you have time, and then the next day, and then maybe after four or five days, then a few weeks, a month, then several months. But it’s difficult to say exactly when to repeat because of course it depends a little bit on what kind of information it is and how well you know it, and how much you knew about the field before. So that’s also where these apps are great because then every time you repeat something you can tell the app how well you knew it, it’s like you rate how well you knew it, and then the app uses this information to decide when you should repeat it the next time. So it’s not the same for everything that you put in there, but you can adjust it to how well you know this particular fact.
Michael Frank: Do you have any recommendations for which memory apps to use?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah. Personally, I use an app called Anki which is really great. I think it’s probably the biggest spaced repetition app out there and it’s completely free for android. It does cost a bit for iPhone, but there are also free versions, like Anki app for iPhone. It’s also free for the computer so it’s very easy to get, and then you just have to put some things into it, and then get used to just looking through it a bit every day, and that will really revolutionize the way you remember things.
How to remember new words when you’re learning a foreign language
Michael Frank: What do you feel is the best way to remember words when you’re learning a new language? If you’re unfamiliar with the language, how do you go about learning it? Is it the same technique with the images or do you tweak the technique somehow?
Jonas von Essen: It’s quite similar. I definitely use Anki a lot because it’s very easy, and you can add a lot of words into it and get a certain amount of new words every day. But I also combine it with these visual techniques quite a lot, like the names I would take an image representing the word, like if it’s a noun for example, then I can just think about it and visualize it somewhere, and then I would make another image representing the sound or the pronunciation or the spelling. Like for names I associate it to something that it sounds like, then I associate this new word image to the meaning. The image from the meaning of the word. And it’s quite simple once you get used to it, and it’s also very effective because when you think about the word you see the image of this word, then you will see the word itself.
Michael Frank: Give me a couple of words where you’ve done that as an example.
Jonas von Essen: So most of my associations are of course in Swedish, but maybe in Spanish for example, there’s a word emparedado which means sandwich. “Empare” sounds and looks a lot like “empire”, and “dado” sounds like dad. So I would first imagine a sandwich and then “empire Dad”, it makes me think of Darth Vader, so then I would just imagine Darth Vader inside this sandwich. And then when I see the sandwich, I think, okay, it’s “empire Dad”, that’s emparedado.
How to remember numbers
Michael Frank: It’s funny, I like it. What about numbers? What are the best ways to recall numbers?
Jonas von Essen: There are a lot of techniques for converting numbers into images, which I think is the best approach, and some are more complicated than others. I would say that if you intend on using this for the rest of your life, then the best thing would be to learn something called the Major System which is basically that you memorize a small alphabet, but with digits instead of letters, it’s like a normal alphabet where every letter has a sound connected to it, but you do the same with numbers, so every digit from zero to nine, gets one or a few consonant sounds associated to it. And then once you’ve learned this, you can sort of read lines of digits or sequences of digits as words, and then you can see these words as images, and then you can very easily convert long numbers into sequences of images than memorize almost as many numbers as you’d like, and in a way that is really much easier than before.
Michael Frank: So the major system is your number one recommendation to remember numbers?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah definitely. It takes a little bit of time to get used to it and to memorize this small table with the digits to the letters or the sounds, and then get used to it, but it’s like learning how to ride a bike, maybe you fall off a few times at the beginning, but once you’ve done it it’s really worth it because then you can use it all the rest of your life in a lot of situations.
How to remember things you have no interest in
Michael Frank: How do you go about remembering things when you don’t have an interest in the subject? Something you find really boring at school. You’re not interested in it. You don’t care. How do you go about recalling those things?
Jonas von Essen: I think that’s probably the area where memory techniques make the most sense and are most useful, because the whole idea of these visual techniques is that you convert whatever you want to memorize into images and usually these images are in themselves a lot of fun to remember. And also since they’re so easy to remember, it also makes it a lot more fun. So I think that just using these techniques will make it fun even if the subject in itself isn’t that much fun. And also using the Anki app where you put things there and you know that you will remember it for a long time. That also makes it a lot more motivating because usually when you learn something, and it’s not just that it’s boring, or that you maybe don’t want to know it, but also that you know that even if you learn it now you will forget it in a few months and then you will have to learn again. But if you put it into Anki you will actually remember it your whole life and then of course it feels a lot more useful and meaningful and it might come in handy later.
Preview books before reading them
Michael Frank: So in addition to spaced repetition and the Major System, what are some of your other favorite memory techniques?
Jonas von Essen: I think that if you read a book or if you have just started some new subject, that you don’t just start from the beginning of the book and then read through it, but you begin by getting an overview overview of what’s coming. So maybe you just quickly flick through the book and read all the headlines so that you sort of get an idea about what the book is about before you dive into the details. I think this is something that really helps a lot because then you’re prepared for what’s coming and you’re not surprised every time you turn the page, but you sort of know in a more holistic sense what it’s about. So I think that’s generally a good idea, to start from the whole, and then go into the details.
Michael Frank: So skim the book before reading it so that you’re giving your mind a preview of what’s to come.
Jonas von Essen: Yeah. Also another thing, I think one of the really simplest and best ways of making learning easier, is that if you’re going to learn something that you just spread it out over as long a time period as you can afford. So instead of just trying to learn everything in one day, or cramming for tests at the last moment, try to really plan well ahead. Of course it’s not always easy, but I think it makes it a lot better in the end. You retain a lot more information by simply just spreading it out and learning whatever you want to learn during a longer time periods, so that the brain gets time to adjust to it, and also gets a signal that this is something useful, it’s not just a something that you read this particular day, but something that you study for a long time, so it’s probably something that will be useful to know later.
Michael Frank: Okay. What else?
Jonas von Essen: Well, I think today a big problem is that people try to multitask a lot. Virtually all science says that this is a very bad idea because even if it sometimes feels as if you’re learning more, or getting more things done while you’re multitasking, it’s a very disturbing process for the brain and it makes really deep learning sometimes impossible. You can’t really understand or grasp complicated concepts if you’re trying to multitask and don’t have a lot of focus because these things really take a lot of focus and creating really good memories, that also takes a lot of focus. So I think this is something that would also make people more productive and make memorizing and learning easier, that you when you learn something, that you really focus on this and you put your phone on flight mode and you turn off the television and the radio. So that you’re really making sure that you’re really focusing on what you’re going to do at this point, and then you can take a break and do all the other things, but don’t mix everything up because that is not good for the brain.
The Memory Palace
Michael Frank: So no multitasking and no distractions. What about the famous, I don’t know a great deal about it, but the method of Loci or the Memory Palace technique, how does that work and what is that used for?
Jonas von Essen: It’s strange that I didn’t mention it yet. I sort of included it in these visual techniques, and it’s a really great thing for when you want to memorize a lot of information at the same time, or a lot of information that somehow hangs together like chapters in a book for example, or a long sequence of things. What you do is that you imagine a place that you know, maybe your house or a local store or just some park in the town where you live, just any place that you know well, and then you imagine yourself walking through this place. And then you place the things that you want to memorize on different locations along this walk in the shape of images. So it’s like the thing with the names and the words vocabulary, but instead of just associating everything to like the name image to a person, you associate everything to a particular place or something on this walk or journey that you visualize.
Michael Frank: How long does it take to become competent with this technique?
Jonas von Essen: It’s not difficult to start using it. I think that if you read a book on memory techniques or look it up on the Internet, then when you see an example for the first time, then it will work quite well for you. Like if someone guides you through it and says: “Okay try to imagine this picture here, this picture here etc.” then it works almost immediately. Of course it’s a little bit difficult to take the next step to actually making up the images yourself and then putting them in your own memory palace, but it’s not that difficult. I think anyone trying it out for a few days will be quite good with it. And then you can expand it and easily memorize hundreds of things without much effort.
Michael Frank: Can you talk us through mnemonics. What are they, and what are some of your favorite mnemonics tips and tricks. I’ve heard that acronyms and rhymes are quite good tools to aid memory?
Jonas von Essen: Yeah. Mnemonics are like a less developed version of these visual memory techniques. It’s sort of the same idea that you take the things that you want to memorize that are not so easy like the complex or abstract, and then you turn them into something easier like acronyms for example, for example like the Great Lakes in the United States. Maybe you know the names of them, but it’s difficult to remember all of them. What you would do if you’re asked to list all five of them, is to take the initial letter of every lake and put it together, then you can, if you’re lucky, create a word out of it, in the case of the Great Lakes, you can for example make the word “HOMES” and then you can use this acronym to extract these five lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. So small tricks like that can of course be very useful and many teachers use them when teaching kids, and usually they work quite well. But I’d say that their weaknesses is that they’re quite specific. Like for example, with “HOMES” it’s just luck that it’s possible to make a word that fits quite well to these lakes. And in many cases it’s not always easy to come up with some rhyme that makes you remember the spelling of a certain word, and it’s not something that you can generally and very effectively use for everything you want to remember, and I think that’s where the visual memory techniques are so much more powerful because you can use them to memorize really anything you want to remember and also in a very systematic and effective way, and also much quicker. So I think mnemonics are good, but if you know about visual techniques then you shouldn’t have to use the more simple mnemonics.
What if you have difficulty visualizing?
Michael Frank: A lot of the memory techniques and exercises require visualization. But what if you have difficulty visualizing? What do you do then? What about people that say “I can’t visualize” or “I have difficulty with visualization” or “I don’t have an active imagination” etc. What’s your advice there?
Jonas von Essen: Yes of course that can be a problem. And I think that you have to divide these people into different groups, because most people find it quite difficult in the beginning to visualize things and to use their imagination to come up with these memory aids, but I think that it’s just because they’re not used to it, it’s because we don’t usually associate random images to things we want to remember. So I think that for most people it’s just about practicing it more and more and getting more and more used to it, and then just trying not to think too much about it. And not judging yourself too much in the beginning, but just trying to get into it a little bit at a time. And of course there are also a very small percentage of people who actually have a problem visualizing things, but even they can get used to it if they really try. And I’m quite sure that even for those with this inability to visual things, it’s not such a big problem because you can still use all of your other senses. Even if you can’t see yourself going on this mental journey, or around this memory palace, I would find it very difficult to believe that someone can’t imagine that they’re walking around in their house. Even if they can’t see it clearly. Like you can still feel how it is to walk around and you can imagine that you’re walking into your own kitchen, and then you can still imagine that these things are placed on different things, that there is a monster in the kitchen sink for example, even if you can’t clearly see it, you can still imagine that it’s there and then you can still use the same principles and the same ideas. There are even studies that show that memory techniques have worked for blind people, people blind from birth. That of course shows that you don’t need to be able to visualize things to make it work.
Michael Frank: In addition to cramming, multitasking, trying to learn or study with distractions, what do you feel are some of the biggest memory mistakes that most people make?
Jonas von Essen: I feel that one of the biggest mistakes is that people generally don’t trust their memories. And of course there might be a good reason for that, but in some cases it’s also a big hindrance for remembering things because, for example, almost everyone is sure that they’re very bad at remembering names and just by saying to yourself “Yeah, I’m really bad at remembering names, I will never be able to remember the names of all these new people”, like that of course will make it impossible for you to remember it, because then you will probably not even try, you will probably just shake hands with people and then you will say your name and focus on that, and they’ll say their names but you don’t notice it, you won’t think about it, you won’t focus on it, and I think that’s of course a very bad idea because then you definitely won’t remember it. I think that’s a very simple thing that you can do is to at least try to remember it.
Michael Frank: Do you have any parting advice or recommendations? Are there any particular books that you recommend?
Jonas von Essen: There are a lot of books on the subject, and personally I think that most of them teach approximately the same things, but I can recommend the ones by Dominic O’Brien. He’s a previous world memory champion and I think he describes the general techniques quite well. So one of his books would be nice and there is an American forum called The Art of Memory where people discuss these techniques and I think that’s also a good place to start.
Michael Frank: Are you going to enter the world champs again, Jonas?
Jonas von Essen: Not at the moment, no. Because it takes a lot of time to stay on the absolute top level and to be able to compete with all of the others. So at the moment I’m not planning on starting practicing that much again, but I’m focusing on other projects like I’m still memorizing decimals of Pi, and I intend to try to be the first person to beat the 100, 000 barrier because it feels like a cool goal to get past.
Jonas von Essen is a two-time World Memory Champion and has held memory records and won countless memory competitions around the world. He has participated in big Chinese TV shows, placed 2nd in Sweden’s got Talent (by memorizing the first 50,000 decimals of pi), done advertisements for Nissan and helped Charles Darwin University in creating a memory course. Recently he published his first book on memory techniques and at the moment he is studying informatics in Gothenburg as well as working part-time as a public speaker, and is determined to spread the wonderful world of memory techniques to as many as possible.