If you want to become one of those lucky people who soaks in new information like a sponge and never forgets an important detail, then the internet is chock full of tips and tools for you, from advice on when and how to learn to tricks to help you cram information into your head.
These techniques are at least somewhat helpful, but according to Norwegian neuropsychologist Ylva Østby they will only improve your memory at the margins. The real secret to an exceptional memory, she reveals in Adventures in Memory, a book she co-wrote with her novelist sister Hilde Østby that's recently been translated into English, is as simple as it is powerful: You need to care.
And, apparently, a whole bunch of geniuses agree with her.
Memories need something to stick to
The Østby sisters have been doing interviews in support of the new translation, and many of these conversations are fascinating dives into the weird and wonderful world of how humans form and recall memories. But one review from blog Farnam Street is particularly useful for those looking for practical strategies to improve their memory.
The post homes in on a truth about memory that's so simple we often overlook just how powerful it is -- we remember information best when it's meaningful to us.
That meaning can be something simple such as a connection to an idea we already know. For example, it's hard to remember people's names when you're first introduced to them because their names have no associations to attach to. That's why linking the person you meet with some existing memory -- i.e., "This is Joe from Alaska where Uncle Barry went on vacation last year" -- makes it far more likely you will remember their name.
Some of the smartest minds in business already understand this truth, not just when it comes to names but in regards to all kinds of learning. Both Elon Musk and Bill Gates have advised those looking to learn faster to start by building up a foundation of basic concepts in whatever domain you're focusing on. Then, you can branch out to learn the details. This speeds up learning in the same way the "Uncle Barry from Alaska" trick helps you remember names. It gives new information something to stick to.
Passion supercharges your memory
But finding meaning in new memories can be about more than just connecting them with what you already know. It's also about how much you care.
"The Østbys explain that the strongest memory networks are created 'when we learn something truly meaningful and make an effort to understand it,'" notes Farnam Street. "They describe someone who is passionate about diving and thus 'will more easily learn new things about diving than about something she's never been interested in before.'"
In short, the more you care about a subject, the faster you'll learn it. And the difference between giving a damn or not trumps all the memory tricks out there. "Many people who rely on their memories don't use mnemonic techniques, nor do they cram. They're just passionate about what they do," the Østbys note.
Which may be why, when Einstein offered his young son advice on how to learn to play piano, he focused on passion. "Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don't notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal," the genius wrote.
All of this advice points in the same direction. The more meaningful information is to you, the faster you'll remember it. That might not help you get through that required class you find dry as day-old toast, but it does mean there is nothing wrong with your leaky brain.