The Power of Narrative

The oft repeated advice is that the key to memory is vivid visualization and using all the senses. Yet, in a recent interview, memory athlete and neuroscientist Boris Konrad reported that—based on his scientific investigations into memory—visualization wasn’t actually that important. Some of the best memorizers “actually have more narrative or even logical ‘images’ rather than pretty visual ones.” I think I understand his conclusion much better now.

As I practice with my new 1360-image system, I’ve noticed I remember people much better than objects. My system is one-third people and two-thirds objects, and the majority of my mistakes happen when I’m recalling those pesky objects. I think it has to do with the underemphasized root of memory: narrative. By “narrative,” I mean infusing a scene with some level of meaning or plausibility beyond that of the basic senses of sight, hearing, etc. Why is this happening? Why does the scene look like this?

At this year’s USAMC, for instance, I came across 042-029-223, which for me translates to Sauron’s castle-Severus Snape-Guy Fawkes mask. I could have pictured it this way:

The castle bumps into Snape, who slips on the mask. I visualize the castle’s rough metal exterior and Snape’s oily hair.

 Instead I imagined it this way:

The eye of Sauron is looking all over for the ring. It turns out that a terrified Snape has it, and he’s using the mask to hide as he escapes.

The latter’s much more powerful. This same idea explains why using people works better for me. People—who have characteristic personalities, voices, and behaviors—automatically add an extra layer of meaning to my made-up images.

Lastly, all this talk of narrative ties in to long-term learning for medicine, or anything really. As an example, I recently had to memorize that the Meynert nucleus is responsible for acetylcholine production. Originally, I just pictured a lion (for “mane”) with an ax (for acetylcholine). Coming back to it a week later, I’d completely forgotten my mnemonic. So I adjusted it: the lion is now a father, who must chop wood to cook meat for his hungry family. The visualization itself is identical, but I remember that image so much better now. Using narrative allows me to take advantage of yet another tool in my memory toolbox beyond vivid visualization and use of senses. My conclusion: I’ve got to start linking my objects in more meaningful ways!