African Elephant

Image Credit: / Donald Cook

Okay, I need to be up-front about a couple of things.

First, I’m not an expert in this area, and my memory is anarchic at best, remembering some things easily, some things easily with prompting, some things easily once reminded, and some things not easily at all. My advice and techniques in this area is therefore something that should be taken with a huge grain of salt and the caveat that what works for one person may not work as well, or at all, for another. (That said, I’ve tried some of the methods recommended by the experts and achieved very little that way).

Second, I’m not sure how well anything that I have to say is going to translate into publishable writing. This article is being written without the “road map” that I normally use to plan an article, simply because my handle on the subject is a little vague and admittedly, half-baked. This is about my interpretation of the memory phenomena that I have experienced and observed, and how I have assembled techniques to harness and, where necessary, thwart those phenomena. I’m reaching for a coherent ‘picture’ and have no idea whether or not one will materialize by the end of the article.

Let’s get started…

The Complexities Of Memory

All the science that I’ve seen and read on the subject asserts that we have two layers of memory – short-term and long-term. I’m going to start by disagreeing with it and suggesting that this view oversimplifies a more complex phenomenon.

For a start, I don’t think they are hierarchical, which is the image that is usually presented; instead, I perceive many different short-term memory “banks” which feed into “clusters” of related long-term memories, as illustrated (in a somewhat abstracted manner) below:

Thoughts and Experiences – “inputs” to use a more general term – get filed into short-term memory. Evolution has constructed the human mind in such a way that it pays more attention to certain things than others; processing of those things is given priority, and if there isn’t enough remaining capacity to deal with the other inputs coming to our attention, they get tossed into a general “junk” dumping ground. This is a specialized part of long-term memory; information is still there, and can be retrieved through tools such as hypnosis, but it never comes to our attention.

What is meant by ‘processing’? It means several things: conscious awareness, decision-making, instinctive reactions, fight-or-flight triggers, and associations. Associations are links, first, to other short-term memories that the brain’s processes deem relevant, and then to other long-term memories. These associations are also held in short-term memory.

Another aspect of Processing is sorting out what subject or subjects the Input is relevant to, based on the other inputs that accompany it and those that have just preceded it. I’m not talking about a physical difference that could be observed with medical instruments, or how memories are actually stored in the brain, something we are still some ways off understanding; this is an abstract representation of what seems to happen. So if you are reading an adventure, the memories that you make will have a number of environmental associations but ultimately it will get filed in a cluster relating to “stories” in the long-term memory.

To put it in computer-related equivalents, this is a logical file structure, not a physical one.

The brain seems to operate in such a way that closely-related inputs get filed together – it’s easier to remember other adventures when you are thinking about, or reading an adventure; when watching a TV show, it’s easier to remember not only other episodes of that show but other shows in general. That’s what I mean by a long-term memory “cluster”.

Short Term Memory

The currently-accepted figure for short-term memory is between 15 and 30 seconds. I disagree, because I consider this “immediate memory” and not true “short-term memory”. Incidents of people losing recollection of much larger periods of time immediately following an injury are commonplace, and some may never be regained.

Part of the problem is that the filing a memory into long-term storage is a process; it may start after 15-30 seconds, but it progresses in stages and is not complete for some time, minutes or hours. Where do you draw the line? The memory has not yet completed processing, and may still be lost, so it isn’t yet in long-term memory – but processing has commenced, nevertheless, and will – unless disrupted or interrupted – eventually be completed.

I resolve this by defining an intermediate “medium term” buffer – short term memory that holds thoughts, experiences, and associations while they are being processed into long-term memory, and that has nothing to do with “immediate” memory.

Awareness of the medium-term “buffer” concept came about as a result of contemplating the process of reading a book. It’s not strictly relevant, so I’m dumping this discussion into this sidebar.

When you read a book, you remember what you have read for longer than the 15-30 seconds of short-term memory, even if you aren’t trying to memorize the text. If that were not the case, a novel would be impossible – you would get part-way through a page and forget what you had read at the start of the page.

While you might not be able to quote it verbatim, this is clearly not what happens. Instead, an ongoing gestalt of “the story so far” builds up, which enables you to stop reading and later pick up the book and resume it.

The same phenomenon can be noted when watching a documentary or interview on television.

It can be argued that the text has nevertheless entered long-term memory, but often you don’t understand what you have read/seen until you get to the end of the book/show/chapter; but the ability to discuss, appraise, or utilize whatever you have just read/seen seems markedly different from being able to later recall it. There is a spontaneity to the flow of thoughts and ideas in the first instance that is lacking in the latter case, though those ideas will also tend to be more superficial; the experience is subjectively very different, and the memories can be applied more effectively in different ways, providing a qualitative difference.

Long-term memory

The process of storing an input in long-term memory is largely a matter of building and indexing associations between it and others that are already in storage, adding any that already exist in medium-term memory.

It is these associations that are critical in remembering something; the memories themselves can be recorded by the brain perfectly, but if the mental “directory” is damaged, it can be impossible to retrieve them.

In many ways, long-term memory is like the internet with a bad search engine. Many of the links that are presented come back “404 page not found,” even though the page itself is still in place. This happens to web pages when something interferes with the Domain Name system that translates an address in something approaching English, like “” into the computerese equivalent, which is what the web browser actually uses to request and retrieve the web page. If the address is wrong, the page won’t be found.

Routing Around

Some diseases cause this problem to become dramatically worse. Alzheimer’s. for example. I’ve dealt with a few unfortunate people suffering from this disease, and while their memory access is damaged, they can often find a path from another association to the memory in question, by recalling another memory that is related to the target input, i,e, the memory they are actually looking for.

When trying to remember something elusive, the same process can be helpful.

More Associations, Better Recall

That means that the more associations to any given input that are formed, the more easily it will be recalled. That’s what the process of memorization actually is; the creation of layer upon layer of short-term associations that will, in due course, be permanently enshrined in long-term memory.

Blocked Associations

If only it was that simple.

I had a lot of trouble learning my multiplication tables as a child. As I fell further and further behind in this area, I was, on a number of occasions, sent into the schoolyard to walk around reciting them aloud from the schoolbook. This was an attempt to use something called Acoustic Encoding, which is known to aid recall, to build the required association between the question and the answers.

It didn’t work. It was as though the associations that had initially been formed between multiplication table entries and the answers had been permanently filed in my long-term memory with a “bad link”, and all that the repetition did was reinforce that bad link, building associations to the “error page” of my brain’s internet.

It wasn’t for lack of desire, or lack of effort on my part, either. I spent hours outside of school working on those darned tables.

Eventually, I devised a number of mathematical tricks and shortcuts that eventually gave me a reasonable level of proficiency – but, by then, I was in 6th grade and reading (and comprehending) at a university level. Because the method of achieving these results was different to the one that I – and my teachers – had attempted to employ in order to teach me multiplication, it eventually led me to learn the multiplication tables as a process but not as a result. (These days, I don’t remember most of the tricks and shortcuts; the process has (for the most part) become automatic. Some I remember – to multiply by eight, double and then double again and then double a third time; to multiply by seven, multiply by eight and then subtract the original number, or triple and then double and then add the original number to the result.) But by employing these techniques repeatedly over the next few years, I eventually built up an association between individual multiplication questions and the right answers.

But I never did learn them by rote; I learned my way ‘around’ the problem.

(Incidentally, as a result, algebra and calculus came easily to me, permitting me to more than make up any deficiencies in my grounding). In fact, I taught myself calculus in the Christmas holidays between 6th grade and 7th; it took about a week to master it. Then I got distracted by attempts to apply it to the gaps between prime numbers).

The Junk File

Here’s a well-known experiment in perception: Get three or four people in one colored shirt and another three or four in another. Have them throw a ball between them at random, while milling around. Film them, then have the experimental subject count the number of times a player in say, blue, passes the ball within a sixty-second period.

Do this and you can have someone in a gorilla suit walk straight through the group of players and nine out of ten people (seven in ten according to some) won’t even notice unless those on the court react to it. The subject is concentrating so hard on watching the passing of the ball and keeping count that the input of seeing the “gorilla” gets tossed into the junk folder in their heads.

The “gorilla” can even pause and wave to the camera.

What else can get filed as Junk?

Anything that is being performed by rote. Anything that is being learned while distracted. Anything that isn’t considered immediately relevant in a survival/fight-or-flight situation.

You probably remember being miserable the last time you had a headache – but do you remember exactly what the pain felt like? Some experiences have the “serial numbers” filed off and then get aggregated into a general impression.

Can you recall the individual strides that you made in walking to the car or the bus on the Thursday four weeks ago? Details that we don’t pay conscious attention to are rarely filed in the memory in such a way that they can be consciously recalled.

In some circumstances, associations can be damaged in terms of specifics – being hit by a yellow truck can create a damaged association, for example, in which anything yellow causes a ‘danger’ reaction, while trucks of other colors do not, because the specific association was damaged and only part of it – the impression of ‘yellow’ – survived.

The sirens of emergency vehicles can form an association in the minds of those experiencing traumatic injuries that can cause post-traumatic stress reactions in response to other sustained sounds, like music. Any sharp sound can trigger involuntary recollection of a gunshot in PTSD cases resulting from shootings or combat service. Every case is different to each individual; but they are all cases of damaged mental associations, strengthened and reinforced in some cases because in a combat environment they increase the likelihood of survival.

Buffer Accumulation

There are one or two more phenomenon that needs to be understood before I can get to the techniques and specific advice that I want to offer.

What happens when you work on something for a period of time greater than the usual transition period that memories require in order to migrate from medium- to long-term memory?

My experience is that if you are continuing to add to a mental “file”, processing of memories into long-term storage is delayed until the addition stops, and the process of performing the earlier parts of the activity are very likely to be filed as “junk”.

If you’re working on an adventure for a couple of hours, say, none of it gets written to long-term memory and properly indexed until you’ve finished – at which point, only the high points and some general impressions of the first 90 minutes will be remembered.

This discarding can have unwanted consequences; sometimes, the wrong things get filed as junk or abstracted into something simple. If, for example, you get half-way through creating an adventure and interrupt the process for a related activity like constructing a key NPC, you can find that details of the plot and even mental notes that were decided before the interruption are lost, or remembered in more abstract form – at least when compared with the part of the adventure written after the NPC was created.

This isn’t a failure of memory; it’s a failure of memory indexing. The details of the adventure were crowded out of mental RAM by the details of the NPC creation process; in order to make room for the latter, the former was subconsciously synopsized and compressed, and the “unwanted” details then thrown away as Junk.

Junk memories aren’t lost; they are just poorly indexed with associations. There are times when that becomes important.

Sleep Processing

During sleep, the absence of new “inputs” means that the brain can devote more of its processing capabilities to filing, indexing, and cross-indexing the events of the day.

As part of this process, some of the associations that already exist in the memory are retraced as the brain attempts to connect related inputs to that memory. Sometimes, that can lead it into the ‘junk’ folder. It can even lead to a memory being extracted from the Junk folder and properly processed – with the result that when you wake up, you recall a memory that had been long-forgotten but that you wanted to memorize at the time.

I’ve had ideas for articles, made a mental note to make a physical note of the idea at a later point, gotten distracted and forgotten the idea – only to suddenly remember it on waking some days, weeks, or months after the fact. Or it might be a rules insight, or something that I meant to add to the shopping list, or any number of other things.

That’s why I regard the “Junk” folder as another area of long-term memory.

This processing of “Junk” can also explain where some of the weirder things in dreams comes from, when a seemingly valid association being followed by the sleeping individual leads to a Junk Memory due to a malformed association.

Practical Advice

Enough of my half-baked theorizing and analogies, let’s apply them to actually trying to memorize something, at least well enough for practical purposes – an adventure, say, or the key contents of a reference book.

1. Skim-Read

Without trying to understand what you are reading, skim the contents as quickly as you can. For a page of text in something like the D&D DMG or Pathfinder Core Rulebook, five seconds to a column is an acceptable pace.

How much should you skim-read at a time? No more than you can read in a couple of hours, if you were reading it properly. As a general rule of thumb, one chapter.

2. Do something else for at least 30 minutes

The impressions created by that skim-read will form the foundations and central nexus of associations between the details of what you ultimately learn. So you want to give them time to get properly logged in long-term memory. If you do anything even marginally related to what you’ve been reading, you keep adding to the “buffer”, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. So the trick is to do something completely unrelated for half an hour. Work on your budget. Go Shopping. Cook a meal. Watch some TV (the more mindlessly entertaining, the better). Go for a walk. Have a shower. Anything that is s substantially different activity.

If working on something RPG-related, that doesn’t include having a conversation with someone over the phone who is likely to talk about RPG-related matters.

Last choice is to read something completely unrelated to the subject you were just studying up on – trying to learn History? Read a book on Physics.

3. Read “more properly”, in 30-minute blocks.

I’m still not talking about reading it word-for-word, digesting each and every statement. This is more like an in-depth skim, reading whatever it is as fast as you possibly can and letting the words soak into your subconscious. Or, to put it another way, loading your short-term memory “buffer” with a block of text.

4. Do something else for at least 30 minutes

Again, you want time for that to get filed away in long-term memory. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you catch up with your initial skim-read.

5. Read properly in a completely different location.

Experience has taught me that skim-reading in this fashion enables you to read and comprehend text a lot more quickly than simply reading it, and does a better job of lodging what you’ve read into accessible memory. I’m talking about a factor of 4, or five, here.

If this reading can take place in the area where you will eventually use the information you are learning, so much the better; additional associations will be formed with memories of the activity that occurs there. This works very well for RPG adventures and rules.

But, at the very least, go into a different room of the house if you can.

5a. Look for Patterns

Patterns enable something complex to be synopsized into a far more compact and accessible form that can be recalled far more quickly. During the reading above, look for patterns. It’s now at least three years since I used the EL table for D&D 3.x, yet I can still recall the structural pattern of it: EL N+1 = 1.414 creatures of EL N or CR N.

This pattern doesn’t quite hold up at ELs less than one, but almost all the table is completely contained by remembering one number and that relationship. And that’s a lot easier than memorizing the whole table.

6. Do something with what you’ve read.

Actually manipulating the knowledge you’ve just acquired in some fashion builds a whole new ‘cluster’ of associations. You could synopsize it to yourself, you could explain it to someone else (even your pet will do), you could think of ways to use it in an RPG, you could pretend to be giving a class report on it, you could try to express it in a diagram or (more abstractly) in a sketch – the specifics don’t matter too much, though some are more effective than others.

You do have a choice to make – refer back to the text, or do it all from memory. The first builds associations with the printed word, making it easier to find and understand what you need when you need it, but making you more dependent on having the source at hand; the second is harder, but removes that crutch.

Another choice that can work very well is to crack open a related book and find the equivalent sections, then skim-read those (even if you are familiar with the contents). When learning the COBOL programming language, I used my books on BASIC, PASCAL, and FORTRAN, even though those were out-of-date. That meant that when I encountered a statement in COBOL, I was able to bring to bear not just my understanding of what I had read, but the accumulated understanding and experience in all those other programming languages – and enabled me to quickly grasp the idiosyncrasies of the language I was actually studying. This is the same trick.

Environments, or why a different room

Environmental impacts on the learning process come in three varieties: distractions (to be avoided), masking agents, and serendipitous associations.

A Distraction impacts on your ability to learn, as discussed earlier. Does that mean, for example, that you shouldn’t have music playing while you study? Yes, and no.

Music videos and anything else visual poses a distraction. Our eyes already present our brains with more input than they can handle – that’s proven by the “gorilla” experiment I described earlier. So adding anything visual to the mix is a no-no. Similarly, any music that you haven’t heard before is a poor choice, because it demands that you pay greater attention to it by virtue of its newness.

Playing old favorites, however, potentially brings into play the Masking Agent effect and the Serendipitous Association Effect, and both are beneficial.

The “Masking Agent” Effect is when the familiar sounds mask the random distractions of the environment, permitting you to focus more intently on what you are doing. The potential downside is creating a deep association that makes it harder to recall the material without music playing. This is avoided, in part, by having at least some of the study taking place in a different environment – hence, a different room (Leave the iPod behind).

The Serendipitous Association Effect occurs when something in what you are listening to resonates with what you are reading in some particularly strong way, purely by chance. As a result, recalling what you were listening to aids recollection of what you were reading, and re-reading that text reminds you of the music. There is an intensification of both associations by virtue of the “soundtrack”.

A personal anecdote serves as illustration; it has been set off in this box so that if readers aren’t interested, they can skip over it and just take my word for the Serendipitous Association Effect.

I was rather late in reading The Lord Of The Rings; the reason was that this was the Library’s copy and someone had borrowed The Fellowship Of The Ring and not returned it. As a result, I put off reading it until I had gone through all the other sci-fi and fantasy they had, at least twice over (more often in some cases).

At the same time as reading it for the first time, I was also listening to the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Discovery” album for the fifth or sixth time. At the time, I tended to play new purchases multiple times in close succession. At three different points in the text of the Two Towers, three tracks of “Discovery” seemed to link emotionally to what I was reading: “Confusion”, “Midnight Blue”, and “Wishing” – despite the lyrics having little bearing on the textual content. As a result, I can no longer hear those tunes without recalling the relevant parts of the Two Towers, and whenever I think of those parts of the story (or re-read them), I remember the music. There’s an indelible association between the two.

Refreshing Memory

If you are really trying to learn something, rather than learning it for one use and then discarding it, this process should be repeated a few times at increasing intervals. The timing that I use is 1, 1, 11. That’s a Mnemonic device; it should be read 1 week, 1 month, 11 months. So, 1 week after completing the whole process (steps 1 through 6), I will repeat it. A month after that, I will repeat it again. And 11 months after that, I’ll do it again.

Each time, it should get faster, simply because you already have the memory associations that you’ve built up to help you.

Networking Associations

Another trick that I’ve found useful is to make an existing cluster of relevant long-term memories more accessible before starting study. For example, if I want to learn the initiative system for a new game system, it helps to recall the basics of the initiative system from D&D / Pathfinder, or the functioning of the turn chart for Champions. This “sensitizes” the mind to the new material and cross-links associations from something you already know to the new material being studied. You don’t have to go so far as to crack open a book; 60 seconds spent recalling the basics is enough.

When the time comes to recall whatever it is that you’ve learned, you can then recall to memory the system you know well, and that helps remind you of the newly-learned material.

Key Associations

Some associations seem to be “keys” that unlock a flood of related memories and learned material, as though they instruct the brain to “load up” the entire associated memory file; engaging a “key memory” actually feels like changing mental gears, bringing some learned material on-line while marking others as “irrelevant”. I’m acutely aware of this process when I change hats from D&D GM to Hero-System GM, for example.

I’m not exactly sure how a key association is formed, and there is no system I know of for identifying them. I can state that the key association often seems to have something to do with the first thing that you do when entering that mental “mode”, but that can vary quite a bit.

Creating additional stimuli to prompt recall of the key association is useful. Back when I was GMing two completely different campaigns back-to-back on the same day, I used food to do so – because AD&D was in the afternoons and Hero System in the evening, I had a meat pie for lunch and hamburger for dinner. Over time, I found that these foods, and especially the different sights, smells, and flavors, helped in the switching of mental gears, and even simply remembering the taste of the food could initiate the process. This trick made it easier to recall the key association, and that brought the entire campaign and game system to mind.

Sadly, dietary restrictions limit my access to that technique these days – but I can still put myself in “AD&D mode” using that memory. If I’m then asked a question about the Hero System, I have to stop and deliberately change mental gears.

I also deliberately altered the pattern of game set-up between the two to help form different key memories – with the Hero system, XP was rarely handed out at the end of the game session, it was more usual to do so at the start of the next game session. Recalling the principles that were used to determine the amount of XP to be awarded is the “key association” in my head for the hero system.

Actors have been known to use a similar principle to get into character.

The Research Connection

Readers may have experienced a strong sense of deja vu when reading the description of the process, as I’ve described it above; it bears more than a little resemblance with the techniques that I employ for “lightning research“. This is not a coincidence; the purpose of lightning research is to identify the key facts that you need and load them into short-term memory for immediate use. Once used, you aren’t concerned with what happens to that information – but the very act of using the research for whatever purpose you required it for engages “step 6” of the above process, so you are more likely to recall that fact when the time comes.


Does it work? Well, in the course of writing this entire article, I had to look up exactly one fact: the currently-accepted duration of short-term memory. As I explained earlier, I don’t wholly agree with the premise that it and long-term memory are “all there are”, and so have never memorized a value for it. Everything else in this article was simply written, stream-of-consciousness style – without, as I said at the start, any sort of structural blueprint or mnemonic. Despite this, it seems coherent in both content and structure so far as I can tell.

Working Harder

Any student knows that the more often you repeat steps 5 and 6, the better you will learn the material being studied. I used the technique to study higher mathematics, synopsizing key formulas and techniques in an exercise book devoted to the purpose, which I still have and refer to. These were written from memory (in pencil) and then rewritten in ink after verification of accuracy. It was only about five years ago that I discovered that (as a result) I had completely forgotten to include the formulae related to geometric series…

The greater the variety of ways that you apply what you have studied, the greater the variety of associations made with the content studied, and the more easily it can be recalled.

When it comes to learning something, there is ultimately no substitute for hard work. But there are ways of making that hard work more effective, and those are what I’ve hopefully presented here today.

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