When Ron White returned from Afghanistan, the Naval Reservist and memory expert felt like most Americans had no idea what the war was about or what military members and their families were experiencing.
“I just thought, ‘Man, they have no idea what’s going on, on the other side of the world,’” he said. “So I printed out all the names.”
Those names were of the more than 2,200 military members who died in Afghanistan: first name, last name, rank and date of death. Then he memorized them and wrote those names on a wall that was 52 feet long and eight feet tall in a Fort Worth park.
“I want people to understand the scope of the sacrifice being made,” he said. “I just really wanted to say to the moms and dads and widows and children that they’re not forgotten. Their sacrifice was significant. Somebody outside your family knows their name.”
The two-time USA Memory Champion uses a specific system to remember speeches, facts and win contests. Commonly known as Memory Palace or the Method of Loci, White says it’s one of the most popular method with memory experts.
You begin by memorizing a map of your home – commit each room to memory. In each room, memorize five pieces of furniture. Once you know that layout backward and forward, you create mental images of the information you need to remember with a word association and assign it to a specific piece of furniture.
White used an example of studying psychology: In the first room, your first piece of furniture is a chair, your first bit of info to remember is Carl Jung. Over the chair, imagine a photo of a young (Jung) child with a curl (Carl).
“These pictures you see, they have to be full of action and emotion,” he said. “The more sights and sounds, the more vivid it is, that will help memory. I think they’ll be really amazed at how much they can memorize.”
Even if you consider yourself an auditory or kinesthetic learner, the mind really works best with visual images when it comes to memorization, he said. If you’re auditory, add sound or music to those images. If you’re kinetic, imagine texture and other details of how they feel.
The more you use it, the easier it gets and the more you can remember. White compared it to having a mental shopping basket.
“You can put a hundred items in a basket,” he said. “If you don’t have a place to put the items, your brain can only carry seven or eight of them. These pieces of furniture are like a shopping cart; it gives (your brain) a way to carry them.”
But you don’t want to try to memorize while you’re participating in class, White said. Use that time to take good notes so you can pinpoint exactly what you want to commit to memory.
It’s important to not only be well rested and alert when you’re memorizing, it’s also important to sleep well afterward, he said. Experts say you need eight hours of sleep after study to properly retain material, he said.
Positive self-talk is also key while foods such as spinach, blueberries, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, apples and other choices rich in Omega 3s boost memory, he said. Water is also essential; a well-hydrated brain enables you to focus better. Caffeine can help with short-term, but long-term, repeated use can have negative effects, he said.
With all that and the Memory Palace system, anyone can improve memory skills, White said. A strong memory is really not a byproduct of a good education or high IQ, he said. White taught a 6-year-old girl the presidents of the United States with his preferred method.
“I’m an average guy,” he said. “I’m not some genius. I didn't go to college. I don’t think you have to be super-smart to use this system.”