How to Overcome a Leaky Brain in Your Studies

Leaky Faucet

Do you find yourself studying and then, when the test date comes, you end up drawing a blank? You understand the concepts, but little details just seem to leak out of your brain. You can remember studying them, but the knowledge they contain leads to a dead end.

I would separate academic learning into two categories: holistic and memorization. With holistic you are striving for the big picture, you “get” the subject. With memorization you need the details: facts, dates, terms and specific patterns. Both are important.

I Wasn’t Born with a Steel Trap

I’ve always been good with holistic learning. Understanding concepts, linking them together and finding metaphors or visualizations has always been easier for me. This ability can help with remembering facts, but it also made my memorization skills weaker as I used them infrequently.

After a great deal of research and experimentation I’ve been able to build a steel trap even if I wasn’t donated one at birth. Now I’m confident I can memorize any information I can’t integrate holistically. Here’s how you can overcome a leaky brain too:

Crucial Idea: Know What You Won’t Remember

Memorization isn’t that difficult. You’ve probably picked up some of your own techniques to remember facts. The problem is memorization can take time and you don’t know what you’ll forget!

The key to memorizing effectively, therefore, is to read while being sensitive to what information you are likely to forget. Knowing your own weaknesses is crucial, otherwise you’ll waste a lot of time studying material you didn’t learn properly the first time.

If, for example, I encounter a list of dates, places or facts, I can be aware that just reading won’t be enough to store this. When this happens I can switch modes and start encoding the information so it has a reasonable chance of surviving until the test date.

Memorization Tips

Here are some different techniques I use to help store information. Find a few you like and practice them. For the anything you encounter that won’t fit into one of these methods, your alternative is simply to repeat it enough times that it will stick. Brute force is an inefficient, but sometimes effective solution.

1) Link or Peg

One of my favorites is the link technique. The ideas behind this are fairly simple:

  • We remember in associations.
  • We are more likely to remember uncommon rather than ordinary details.

What would you be more likely to remember seeing, a picture of a flower or a picture of a purple elephant riding a unicycle on a tightrope? The link technique makes use of these two facts and allows you to store large lists with this method.

The link technique has three basic steps:

Step One – Convert Data to Images

Convert all data you need to memorize into images as this is the only type of information that can be encoded. In a management class I memorized Henri Fayol’s ten principles of management. But since they were all abstract ideas, I first had to convert them into symbols. “Division of labor” was represented as a knife cutting things apart.

Step Two – Exaggerated Linking

The next step is to form mental images that combine each base image in a ridiculous fashion. To link “division of labor” with “unity of command” I took the base images (cutting knife, hand pointing in a commanding fashion) and combined them. The resulting image was a giant hand with tiny knifes chopping it into segments. The more ridiculous the mental image, the stronger the link.

Step Three – Run Through and Test

The final step is simply to close your source and mentally run through the list. Any weak links should be replaced with more memorable imagery. Any weak symbols, or places that you can’t convert the image back to data, need to be re-examined.

2) Compression

The next method of memorizing is to compress information into a single source. Then from the source point you can easily reference individual facts associated with them. This is used in statistics all the time as graphs or charts compress down the information of a data table.

I tend use mostly pictures when compressing information. My notebook is filled with doodles I use to connect ideas together in a visual format. They usually look awful and lack artistic quality, but that isn’t the point. The point is to draw something quickly that can serve as a compression point for multiple ideas.

Another example from my management class, I compressed the information of Michael Porter’s five-forces model by making it the five horsemen of the business apocalypse. Then I drew quick sketches of each of the five horsemen (30-45 seconds each) and the mental image remains.

3) Blunt Force

When creative techniques like the ones mentioned above failed, the best solution is to use blunt force. The best way to use blunt force techniques is to test yourself. This way you can make sure that your efforts to fill knowledge into your head aren’t being wasted.

In a history class I needed to memorize maps of Ancient India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. My solution was to trace a copy of the map with numbers instead of the place names and a key I stored on the reverse of the page. Then I just tested myself repeatedly for a half hour until I could get every one right without looking at the key.

Memorization Shouldn’t Compensate for a Lack of Understanding

In my free e-book, Holistic Learning, I talk about how it is basically the opposite of rote memorization. Learning through linkages and a broad understanding instead of through force. Holistic learning accounts for a good 70% of school-based learning and 90% real life learning. It shouldn’t be neglected just because you can memorize numbers.

I always strive to see if there is a holistic solution first, and only failing that, do I look for a way to memorize it. A great example of this is formulas in science. Someone who has memorizing abilities might just encode the formula. But this is inferior to actually going through the formula, understanding where it comes from and relating it to other concepts.

This way you actually “get” the formula instead of just having it memorized. And when you understand how information fits into your web of knowledge that understanding has far more usefulness than any memorization.