“Memorizing a Deck of Cards in a Minute”or “Why You Have an Amazing Untapped Memory”

I like hobbies. Hobbies are fun. Especially when they’re challenging.

during the summer of 2013, a young boy sat on the floor of his living room, staring into the empty void that is the internet. With three empty months in his hands, unburdened by school, limited by nothing but his imagination, liberated by the warm blessing of the summer, you’d find it disturbingly ironic that he’s occupied and entertained for hours on end by looking at image macros and reading about the late Steve Jobs. But little did he know that adventure was knocking at his doorstep.

Okay, okay, enough with the fiction novel. Last summer, while I was looking for hobbies and fun things to learn, I stumbled upon this video of a world-famous memory superstar named Dominic O’Brien. Despite his old age, he was able to memorize a deck of cards in a minute using a technique called memory palaces (or Method of Loci). This technique could also be used to memorize grocery lists, names of people, or anything about anything. I had always wanted to become exceptionally good at something that most others weren’t. Fascinated by the challenge, I decided to take it up myself.

If you’re not familiar with how memory palaces, work, here’s how it works. We’ll use the deck of cards as an example. For each item you want to memorize, choose a visual image. That means, for each card in a standard deck, you choose a familiar, memorable, easy-to-imagine, visual image to associate with that card. Choose things that you can make into a story. It’s better to choose people or characters for these images since you can give them “life” by crafting them into a story. For example, if you are a Beatles fan:

Ace of Diamonds – John
Ace of Hearts – Paul
Ace of Spades – George
Ace of Clubs – Ringo

Be creative and make each card distinct from one another. (For some people, the Beatles might not be the best choice unless they can distinguish each member clearly). After each card has an assigned “character,” you’re ready for the next step. Also, it may help for you to associate a distinct and unique “object” for each “character.” (For example John – Peace symbol/Guitar, Paul – Bass, George – Guitar/Sitaar, Ringo – Drums.)

To actually memorize the deck of cards, go through each card of the deck one by one and, as you see the card, visualize the “object” in your mind. Choose a familiar setting (for example, your daily commute, walking through your house, etc.) As you “walk” through that setting, visualize each “object” from the cards of the deck. Make a story and see each image. I suggest you start with a few cards at first, then gradually increase the number until you can walk through an entire deck of cards. Make a “chain” of ideas that can let you move from one object to the next. Don’t stop, and don’t hesitate. Also, don’t go too fast or the story won’t “stick” with you. Trust yourself that you’ll be able to remember the story. Try not to cycle or “revisit” the same place in your story twice, or that may confuse you in the end. Also, don’t make it too “logical.” Make it bizarre or fun. That way, it’s much more memorable and easy.

I’ve bolded the characters and objects in this small example:

As I shut the door to my dorm room, I see John Lennon in front of me, strumming his guitar. He is confronted by Giorgio Armani, wearing the finest of suits. I turn left and see Sam Eagle sitting on the floor and waving an America flag while listening to a lecture by Albert Einstein, writing on the chalkboard on the opposite side of the hall. I walk down the hall towards the exit door and see Che Guevera standing outside, sporting his signature bandana, and having a conversation with Ellen Degeneres who sits on her couch

After your story is over, you will find that you can easily remember the story from the beginning to the end. You’ll be able to recall each image and the associated card that goes with it.

Anyways, when I began my memory journey, I made my mnemonic dictionary. I began with only 5-10 cards at once and increased the number until I was able to memorize a whole deck of cards. From there, I began to impress my friends at parties and even use it to memorize a few concepts in my classes. In about 4-6 weeks, however, I could memorize a shuffled deck of cards in a minute.

Human memory isn’t as important as it once was. Before the invention of paper and spread of modern technology, our ancestors had to rely on their own memories for preserving history, geography, science, and other information. For this reason, people must have had to had amazing memories. Sure, ancient civilizations such at the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had systems of writing such as hieroglyphics and cuneiform, respectively, but human beings will always create more information and require more efficient means of being able to store and retrieve that information. Scholars must have had to commit a large amount of information to memory.

Nowadays, that information can be stored in computers, books, and just about anything you can think of. But, the people who are alive today, the descendants of the ones of those ancient civilizations, still retain much of this amazing memory. All people have this amazing memory ability, but, because we don’t need to use it anymore, we’ve grown to distrust ourselves in remembering things. Nowadays, we forget peoples’ names after a few minutes of meeting them. We forget where we place our keys. We forget what we learn in class a few hours ago. Obviously I’m not advocating that we should abandon daily reminders or throw out all forms of writing, but we should take advantage of our own potential and never underestimate ourselves.

Personally, however, I grew a lot more confident in my ability to learn and retain information. I hope to develop more as a scholar and a human on this amazing adventure through memory.

Memrise is a helpful website that can teach you this method, too.

Learn more about how I used memory techniques in my Organic Chemistry class freshman year.

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