How to Remember: The Link System

Link System

The Link System

This memory technique is called the link system. It is one of the most basic systems you can use. While it is simple, it’s essential and powerful. It will help us improve our memories right now and also help us master more sophisticated systems.

Linking, or association, is an essential aspect of memory. Arguably, everything that we learn is linking together in some way. Psychologists have concluded that the things we know are linked together in a complex hierarchy. New information hangs on prior knowledge. Your mind links together everything that you — it is an association machine.

When you have an experience that jogs your memory, you might suddenly recall several details that you would otherwise have forgotten. No matter how complicated the memory situation might be, your mind is making many associations. Even with complex math formulas or very abstract ideas, a link will trigger the memory you want. It’s this basic concept that we’ll use over and over.

Most people, when asked to memorize a list quickly, will manage to remember about seven items. Typically, without the aid of any memory technique, one’s short-term memory can place between five and nine things. So, read through the following list, close your eyes, and see how many you can remember. Give yourself extra credit if you can place them in the correct order. If you can remember more than seven, you’re off to a great start.

Test Yourself

1. Comb
2. Ice cream
3. Avocado
4. Toilet paper
5. Hotdog buns
6. Toothpaste
7. Orange juice
8. French fries
9. Chicken
10. Dish soap

Remembering all ten is pretty easy with the link method. In this system, you use your imagination to link each object with the next one. Here is an example, using the list above. I imagine combing my hair, which is loaded with ice cream. Each time I lift the comb out of my hair, ice cream drips to the floor and makes piles of avocados. I pick up the avocados with toilet paper and place them into a hot dog bun. I add toothpaste as a condiment. Then I pour a glass of orange juice while I deep fry a French mime. I stuff everything into a chicken (alive or dead, your choice!) and wash it all with dish soap. There’s an image that I won’t forget!
The stranger, funnier, or more perverse our associations, the more memorable the list is. And while it might seem easy when it’s explained to you, with a little bit of practice, you will find it easy to do on your own. Just follow these simple rules:

1. Exaggerate your associations

It’s easy to remember items if you exaggerate the pictures in your mind. Use a giant comb to remove ridiculous globs of ice cream from your hair. Make the avocado piles taller than you. Make it ridiculous.

2. Move your associations

Still pictures are nice, but motion is nicer. The more like a mini-movie, the easier it will be to remember the items and the order. With action, you can search your memory forwards and backward to find the items. We are wired to pay more attention to motion, even if it’s only in our heads.

3. Substitute your associations

While it may sound strange, if we make our associations more complex, our memories become stronger. This might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true. That’s why instead of stirring the orange juice with a french fry, I have chosen to deep fry a French mime. It’s much easier to remember French fry this way. It’s exaggerated, there’s movement (he screams in agony!), it’s absurd, and I’ve substituted for the actual item, a french fry. That image hits on every level and is easy to remember.

4. Be absurd!

The more absurd, the better. Unless you plan on telling someone your process, you can imagine whatever you want. For some people, sex and violence make it easier to remember. For others, silly and funny make it stick. Whatever interests you is what you should use to make those memories stick.

When you are trying to associate one thing with another, be outrageous. It will stick much longer. Think about the things that you remember from the past. Are they the most boring day-to-day details of your life? Probably not. We tend to recall the most interesting, unusual, and bizarre events. Use your brain’s natural inclination to your advantage.

In short, when you link items together, use your imagination. Be creative, and you’ll remember anything that you need to with this memory technique.

Now, it’s time to test yourself. Look at the following list for 60 seconds. Hide the list and try to write them all down. Check to see how well you did.

  1. Bananas
  2. Soap
  3. Eggs
  4. Paper cups
  5. Bandages
  6. Matches
  7. Laundry detergent
  8. Toothpaste
  9. Shoes
  10. Tomatoes

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