How to supercharge the way you learn

Face to face with the world’s leading memory experts, my mind is beginning to feel very humble. Ben Whately, for instance, tells me about the famous mnemonist Matteo Ricci, a 16th Century Jesuit priest who was the first westerner to take China’s highest civil service exams. The exam was an excruciating ordeal that involved memorising reams of classical poetry – a task that could take a lifetime. “Only 1% of people who took them passed them, yet Ricci passed them after 10 years, having not spoken any Chinese before.”

与世界顶尖记忆专家面对面时,我开始变得非常谦卑。例如,本·沃特利(Ben Whately)给我讲了著名的记忆术专家马迪奥·瑞希(Matteo Ricci)的故事,这位16世纪的神父是第一位参加中国科举考试的西方人。科举考试的过程极其痛苦,需要熟记大量的古典诗词——这是一项穷尽毕生精力才能完成的任务。“只有1%的应试者能够通过科举考试,但瑞希用了10年就通过了,而他之前从没说过任何中文。”

Can psychology give us all the same astonishing command of our minds? That’s Whately’s aim. With former memory champion Ed Cooke, he’s already designed a learning app, Memrise, that uses some of the mnemonist’s principles, as BBC Future has described in the past. Now they’ve teamed up with researchers from University College London to launch a competition to find the best possible way to enhance their techniques. Memory experts from across the world were asked to conduct experiments to find the easiest, and most effective, way to memorise new information.

心理学家能让我们的记忆力发挥同样令人震惊的威力吗?这正是沃特利的目标。他已经与前记忆冠军艾德·库克(Ed Cooke)合作设计了一款名为Memrise的学习应用,并在其中融入了记忆术专家常用的一些技巧。现在,他们还与伦敦大学学院的研究人员合作发起了一项比赛,希望找到最有效的方式来提升他们的技巧。在这项竞赛中,来自世界各地的记忆专家都会通过实验找到最简便、最有效的方式来记忆新的信息。


I’m here to observe the first round of judging. It offers a fascinating exploration of the way our memories work. Whether you are a university student cramming for your finals, or have simply yearned to pick up some tourist French, their insights could take the pain out of digesting facts.


The competition’s task is superficially simple, says Rosalind Potts at UCL. “We wanted to know if you had an hour to study a list of 80 words, what do you have to do in order to remember them a week later.” The task is made more difficult by the fact that those 80 words are all Lithuanian. The entrants had to test the strategy on participants and compare them to a group who were not using any particular technique.

伦敦大学学院的罗萨琳德·波茨(Rosalind Potts)表示,这场比赛的任务非常简单:“我们想知道,如果你花1个小时来学习80个单词。如何才能在一个星期后仍然记住它们。”由于这80个单词都是立陶宛语,所以难度进一步加大。参赛者必须针对受测者测试自己的技巧,并与没有使用任何技巧的一组受测者进行比较。

Despite the fact that world-leading scientists entered the competition, some approaches failed to lead to any improvement in memory recall. “It shows how difficult it is to translate scientific principles into real-life learning,” says David Shanks, also of UCL.

尽管吸引了世界领先的科学家参与比赛,但有些方法却未能对记忆起到任何改善作用。“这表明,要将科学原理应用到实际学习中是多么困难。”伦敦大学学院的大卫·尚克思(David Shanks)说。

Boredom, for instance, proved to be a hurdle: one team found a subject falling asleep during the hour-long word-memorising session – despite the fact they were being paid with cakes to take part in the study. “It happens,” says Yana Weinstein at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who is also on the judging panel.

例如,事实证明,无聊是落实这些技巧的一大障碍:一个团队发现,尽管组织方对受测者提供蛋糕以吸引他们参与测试,但还是有一位受测者在时长1小时的单词记忆环节睡着了。“确实有这种事情。” 本次比赛的裁判组成员、马萨诸塞大学卢维尔分校的亚纳·韦恩斯坦(Yana Weinstein)说。

Notwithstanding those minor hiccups, many teams found some benefits – as much as doubling the amount their subjects recalled. Rather than focussing on one single technique, they tended to use combinations of the following strategies:


1) Embracing ignorance. Self-testing is one of the best ways to improve recall. For me, the most surprising, and potentially useful twist, on this technique was a strategy called “errorful generation”. Without any training, subjects were forced to guess the meaning of the Lithuanian words. “They will always be wrong the first time round,” says Shanks – yet psychological studies have shown that the initial mistakes subsequently make the words stick. “It’s remarkably better than if you had studied the word.”

1)拥抱无知。自我测试是改善记忆的最佳方式之一。最令我意外且很有可能起效的方式,就是所谓的“犯错式完善”(errorful generation)。在没有接受任何培训的情况下,受测者被迫猜测这些立陶宛语单词的意思。“他们第一次肯定会猜错。”尚克思说,“但心理学研究表明,最初的错误反而会提升随后的单词记忆效果。”

Simply recognising your own ignorance, it seems, primes your mind into action – doubling the recall compared to a group who didn’t use the technique. This builds on the idea of “desirable difficulty” in psychology – by making a task a little bit harder, it can engage your attention and construct firmer foundations for later recall.


2) Surfing the memory’s waves. You can easily waste time over-studying. So many of the entrants had designed algorithms that cleverly work out how strong your memory for each of the 80 words is, so they could rekindle it once you had started to forget. Memrise’s app has one version of this approach that you can use for now – and the entrants may suggest ways to further refine it. Alternatively, you can rely on your intuition to help time your learning – leaving longer and longer periods before you retest and learn from your mistakes.


One entrant also experimented with giving short breaks to the participants during the word memorising task – allowing them to watch a video of a waterfall – potentially allowing the information to sink in. When you’re studying, it’s certainly worth taking short breaks to ensure that fatigue doesn’t overcome your natural abilities.


3) Buffet studying.  It might seem tempting to chunk the material into themes and learn them one by one – so some of the entrants organised the words into categories and themes. But one team found that simply cycling through all 80 words was effective. Whately points out that memory champions memorising a pack of cards take a similar approach – rotating quickly through the whole pack rather than learning it block by block.


If that sounds confusing, research does at least suggest that you should add variety to a study session. It’s better to spend small blocks of time on a variety of subjects and skills – rather than concentrating on a single topic. Think of it as taking from a buffet, rather than eating a set dinner.


4) Story-telling. Any form of “elaboration” can help reactivate those synapses and seal the memory. One entrant asked the participants to build a story with the words they were learning, for instance. Cooke and Whately were also excited to see one team implement a “memory palace” – in which you try to link the words to objects in a room.


The program they designed might show a picture of a living room and give you the Lithuanian word “lova” – bed. You could then imagine your lover laying on a sofa bed. Once you have mapped out your learning in this way, you should be able to retrace your steps and recall the word with ease.


This was, in fact, the technique that allowed the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci to learn Chinese to such an advanced level – and it also lies behind Cooke’s ability to remember 2265 binary digits in less than 30 minutes. The team’s computer program may simplify the process by making it more automatic.  “If this does turn out to be the winner – that’s a serious discovery,” says Cooke.


Learning game


The judges hope to run the competition every year as they further refine the art of memory. In the future, there may be many more inventive approaches to consider. Shanks, for instance, points to one project that failed to enter this year, but may still be a promising strategy for the future. “They were building a video game where you shoot the spaceships out of sky, and completely incidentally, the spaceships have Lithuanian and English words on them,” he says. “I thought it was a brilliant idea.”


The real challenge for these memory experts, however, isn’t just to make learning quick and effective. As every student knows – the biggest obstacle to learning is distraction, whether it’s the idea of sunbathing in the park or switching on the TV. We may need many more competitions before we can overcome that hurdle.