Did you exercise this morning? Perhaps you ran a few miles or completed several circuits in the gym? How about your brain? Did you exercise that, too?
I’m guessing not, so here’s a little exercise to get you going: I want you to memorize these 15 words: monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper, shoe, worm, envelope, pencil, river, rock, tree, cheese, quarter. You’ve got five minutes. Don’t write anything down. Ready, set, GO!
So how did you do?
Now, what if I handed you a list of 60 random numbers? Could you recite them, in order, in under five minutes? Or an entire deck of shuffled cards?
Probably not, and that’s okay. But I know someone who can: Chester Santos, the winner of the 2008 USA Memory Championships. He won by recalling the precise order of a full deck of playing cards in two minutes and 27 seconds. A Reuters headline at the time proclaimed Santos the top US “mental athlete”.
Just as physical activity helps keep your body in shape, mental activity helps keep your brain in shape — and boosts memory.
Santos recently spent some time talking to delegates at the CFA Institute Middle East Investment Conference 2016 about why it’s important to exercise our brains.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “This guy is gifted, so of course he can memorize these types of things.” And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong (talent plus training), except that each one of us has the ability to improve our memory through training and dedication.
“You are all capable of doing extraordinary things with your memory, you just need to learn the right techniques,” Santos said. “You are all capable of remembering more than you think is possible.”
Case in point: While researching Santos for an interview, I came across his TEDx Talk, “Memory Fun 101,” where he tells the audience they are going to memorize those 15 words I listed above. And I thought, “No way!” So I played along with the audience. And it worked. The trick was seeing and experiencing the images connecting the words.
Why is memorization a key skill for investment professionals?
- It ups your game. Professionals who have easy mental access to important facts and figures when they are meeting with clients or giving a presentation in front of their colleagues are seen as more of an expert in their particular field than the person who is always having to look things up or telling clients, “I’ll get back to you later.” Moreover, learning to memorize a presentation will help you become a better presenter as you won’t have to rely so much on notes and can interact more with the audience.
- People think you are smart. Whether or not this is true, we perceive those with razor-sharp memory ability as more intelligent. And we all want to hire, do business with, and refer people we think are smart.
- It helps with networking. “You are not getting the most out of business networking if you are attending a bunch of events and the next time you see someone at another event you have no idea what their name is or what they do for a living,” said Santos. “You are really losing out on an opportunity to build better relationships. If you can remember 75-plus percent of the people you are meeting, it will pay huge dividends in your personal and professional life.”
- You need to build your “cognitive reserve.” Memory training strengthens our cognitive reserve, Santos noted. According to a Forbes article on seven seven habits that may change the brain,”Mental activity may or may not keep a brain from developing disease (like Alzheimer’s), but it certainly seems to be linked to fewer symptoms, since it fortifies us with what’s known as cognitive reserves.”
Here are three main principles, or techniques, to improve your memory:
1. Practice visualization.
Take whatever it is you’re trying to remember and turn it into a picture. For example, the name “Jim.” Maybe you visualize a dumbbell. You want some sort of connection to make whatever it is you are trying to remember more memorable. Santos said it’s important to work on visual memory because visualization ability has been linked to more than memory. It’s also linked to intelligence. So if you’re able to visualize complex relationships, that will improve your understanding.
2. Utilize as many additional senses as possible.
Think touch, taste, smell, sound. Santos said that as you involve more senses as part of the encoding process, you activate more areas of your brain and this builds more connections to the information, making it easier to retrieve the information when you need it. “With memory techniques, we are recruiting extra areas of the brain that are not normally involved in memory,” he noted.
In a fascinating NOVA episode, “How Smart Can We Get?” that explores memory vs. intelligence, Larry Cahill, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, tells David Pogue, “We are visual, we are auditory, we have all these different senses. And the more a single piece of information is locked in through the various senses, the better chance it’s retained.”
3. Invoke creativity and imagination.
Think of something that happened to you that was “strange, unusual, out of the ordinary” and chances are you can recall it with little to no effort. So when you visualize the image or scene, the crazier and more vivid the story, the better.
In the same NOVA episode, neurosurgeon John Golfinos tells Pogue, “So, if you think about it, [memory champions who employ visual metaphors] are attaching extra information and using other parts of the brain — the part that processes language, the part that processes images — and that’s how they attach them onto the memory and make it a stronger memory, by recruiting other parts of the brain to help.”
And now to apply these techniques to something that pretty much everyone I know needs help with: Remembering names.
Santos recommended four steps:
- When you are introduced to someone at, say, a party or networking event, make it a point to immediately repeat the person’s name. Say you’re introduced to someone named Patrick, shake his hand and say: “Nice to meet you, Patrick.” Doing so forces you to pay attention. Get into that habit and soon it will become second nature.
- Early on in your interaction, ask a question using the person’s name: “So Patrick, how long you had your CFA charter?”
- Think of a connection between the name and anything else. Maybe a character on a TV show, or a friend or family member who has that name. Use your imagination to build an association between the new name and an image.
- When you leave the function, make it a point to say good bye using the person’s name.
Now that doesn’t sound too difficult, does it?
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
Photo courtesy of George Raphel.