Don't Write That Down!


We live in a very textual world. We have become accustomed to producing and consuming huge amounts of text. Writing things down can be great: we can communicate with people remotely and across gaps of time, we can keep track of our activities, and we can record thoughts so we don't forget them. In building a memory palace, however, writing things down can be disastrous.

Several years ago I read an article in the Atlantic Monthly about singers of oral epics in India. It would take several 8-hour performances for these bards to perform even a single epic, and all of it was done from memory. The singers described how the poems were stored in their minds. Each verse was a pebble or stone along a riverbank; to recall the epic, the singer merely had to walk down the riverbank and pick up each stone in turn.

If you are familiar with memory systems or have done our memory course, this is a clear example of the “Journey Method.” What is remarkable about this story is what happened when scholars studied these poets and got them to write down their stories.

The epics were learned and performed orally, completely from memory and without the use of writing. When scholars began to teach these bards how to write the epics down, the verses quickly faded from their minds. These great memory artists who knew their craft and their epics inside and out quickly began to forget everything as soon as they wrote the material down.

This should tell you something. If you are building a memory palace, you have to manage carefully the balance between text and memory. I have found that in many cases, the initial temptation is to write things down immediately. You come up with an association and you write it down… Bad move. DON'T write it down. Hold onto it in your mind. Not only will writing it down often remove it from your mind, but it will keep you from developing the sharpness of memory that will allow you to break through and store more and more material.

There are times when writing things down is important in building a memory palace. Creating a large conversion system, for example, is best done by recording the material and the accompanying associations. A conversion system is where you set out a series of repeating elements and you convert them into easily remembered associations. You might create a conversion system for verbal endings or for numbers. In this case, writing things down can be helpful — it's preparatory for the actual memory storage. In building the memory palace and storing items therein, however, it is often best to keep things in your mind, without writing them down. Be careful about relying on text when developing the skill of memory.

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