san diego


Indeed there is never moment when we do not wish to commit something to memory, and we wish it most of all when our attention is held by business of special importance.

– Rhetorica ad Herrenium

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on developing detective skills, like deduction, observation and reasoning, that can enhance your life and travel experiences. In part 1 we discussed the benefits of observation and how you can hone your observation ability with a bunch of awesome games. Part 2 talked about developing razor-sharp reasoning. If you don’t know who Carmen Sandiego is, just want to get caught up, or if you have a tendency to miss out on things that are happening right before your very eyes because you can’t stay focused then part 1 and part 2 are definitely worth checking out.

Part 3 will explore memory, and include information on how our brain processes and stores memories, which memories you can aid your mind in keeping for future reference and how to discard unusable memories and finally we’ll talk about some memory making and recall tips and tricks.


There are two types of memory: short-term and long-term. We use short-term memory when we need to recall information for a very short time period and then never use it again. This could be for remembering a phone number for a one time call, cramming for a test and then forgetting the answers right afterwards, remembering an ad in the daily newspaper for some item at your favorite store or remembering the directions to a place until you get there. Short term memory causes no permanent change in the communication of your brain cells. In an effort to work as efficiently as possible your mind throws out information that is unnecessary in the long-term.

Long-term memory is responsible for recalling information that is needed down the road. Building new long-term memories requires permanently altering the communication/wiring in brain cells. This is done by creating new growth, lines of communication, between cells. For the rest of this article, this will be the focus of our study as we seek to find out how we can hone our long-term memory to create clearer memories and be less forgetful.


We create memories by a process of encoding, storing and receiving. When our separate senses bombard our brain with new data the information is encoded or converted into memory by the hippocampus. The hippo takes the smell of fresh-cut grass, the color and shape of the baseball diamond, the sound of people in the stands and the squawk of the speaker and creates a complete experience. When a memory is created the hippocampus then decides what to keep and what to discard. How does it do this? We’re not really sure. But by some means, probably by some standard of future usefulness, it determines what memories are discard (memory remains in short-term memory and vanishes) and which are kept (memory is pushed into long-term memory).

When the hippo decides to keep a memory for future use it breaks apart the pieces and sends them on their way. It sends the smells to the part of the brain dealing with smell, feelings to the area of the brain dealing with that, and so on. Think of your brain as a large filing room. The archiver puts each file in a certain location that only he knows about. When he needs them he just goes out and grabs them. The brain works the same way. When the hippocampus recalls memories it puts all of the individual pieces back together again. So it takes the smell of cut grass from one area, the shape and color of a baseball diamond from another, sounds from another and stitches them all together again to form a complete memory.



Sometimes the brain doesn’t do this correctly though. Have you ever tried to recall a memory and only been able to get bits and pieces? Maybe a certain color here, or a certain smell there, or only a single sensory memory? Since the brain wants efficiency it eliminates unused information by pushing it deeper into the brain. New memories are laid on top, leaving the olds ones a bit rusty. The habits and memories recalled most frequently remain fresh, while the others fade. The brain has an amazing ability to change as needed; this is called plasticity. As new information is gathered the brain develops connections with the new information giving the mind an unlimited ability to develop memories.

It’s great having an unlimited retention capacity, but not so much if you can’t get things back out again. If you can’t receive the information once again after it’s been stored, or if you can only receive bits and pieces, fragments here and there, fear not. The good news is that by keeping our brains active and through the use of memory tips and techniques we can help our minds recall information easier.


In ancient times great orators would show their smarts by memorizing long speeches and recalling them before an audience. In addition to the memory as a spectacle people just needed to have a sharper memory due to circumstance. Today, with the advent of technology our smartphone has become our memory. But, there are still times when having a great memory can come in handy, plus you tend to not make a very great first impression if you have to pull out your phone every five minutes to verify facts or look up information.  Below are some ancient techniques scoured from multiple sources, everything from Cicero to Aristotle to Quintilian. It turns out that in the short-term the mind is better at recalling sounds and in the long-term the most effective memory formation is through meaning making, or by assigning your own meaning to experiences and facts. For that reason we’ll be focusing on tips and techniques that help you assign meaning to your experiences.


This technique is especially helpful when you need to remember the order of something (events, people, streets, itineraries, etc).  Tie each fact, event, etc to an image and then put that image in a specific location.

Example: Let’s say I’m visiting Porto and want to remember all of the port wine houses by the Douro River.  I want to remember Sandeman, Calem and Krohn, and the easiest way for me to do so is remember first the logos of each Port house. Sandeman’s logo is a man in a black cape and hat. Calem’s logo is a boat and Krohn’s logo is a crown. I’m going to use a vineyard as my choice of location for this, so I imagine a man in a black cape tending to grapes in the vineyard. Nearby on the water’s edge is a boat waiting to take wine across the river and finally watching the whole process is a man wearing a crown. If I can remember this imagery and locations I can easily recall the wine houses in Porto when I need them.


Our minds remember shocking images and moments better than ordinary or boring ones. When using images in place of words use disgusting, shocking, funny and uncommon images for best recall. When traveling it is always easier to recall moments where you are shocked by something new and unique. This goes for sights and smells. This is good news, as the moments we generally want to remember when traveling are those experiences when we do or engage in something different from our status quo.


To remember passwords, street names, hotels, restaurants, etc you can use acronyms. Acronyms are only useful when you can form a word that resonates and makes sense to you.

Example: My hotel, Hotel Rhododendron is located on Evergreen Avenue. I use the word HERA (Every other letter is used. The H and R stand for Hotel Rhododendron. The E and A stand for Evergreen Avenue)  to remember where I should tell the taxi cab driver to drop me off.


Making up a story, or solidifying a story with an experience helps you remember details more vividly. By rehearsing a story in your head, writing it down, or by simply telling another person the experience becomes ingrained in your memory and is easier to recall. Our minds are sensory organs. They rely on sight, sound, smell, touch and taste to remember a thing. By putting these elements into a story you also commit the experience to memory.


Your starting point is everything, the first domino that starts the chain reaction to a whole experience. If you pick the middle point in a series of moments as a starting point you can more easily move forward and backward, whereas starting at the first moment only lets you move forward.

Example: If you have facts 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and use point 5 as a starting point you can move faster backwards to point 1,2,3,4 or forwards to points 6,7,8,9. But, if you use point one as a starting point it takes you longer to get to fact 9 as your brain needs to recall facts 1-8 first.


Have you ever been thinking about something and then your mind suddenly switches gears to something seemingly unconnected? If you’ve dug deep enough I guarantee that you’ve found a thread of similarity connecting the two thoughts. Our minds chunk similar information together. Think of it like a filing cabinet. If you have a file on “jungles” and acquire new information that may be somehow related to your perception and memory of jungles then the information will be combined.

This is useful to know, as memories can combine and become one over time. If you experience something and your mind recalls a similar experience and says “remember how similar that was to this?” you have a choice to either say yes and remember the similarities or no and focus on the unique differences between the two moments and hence create a new, separate memory.


Now let’s put it all together. Let’s say I have a friend who wants to visit Tel Aviv, Israel and is looking for recommendations on where to stay, what to eat, etc.

“Hey Hank, you’ve been to Tel Aviv right?”

“Yeh, it was great. Why?”

“I’m planning to pass through Israel and spend some time there. Any recommendations on where to stay, eat, etc?”

“I stayed at Hotel Rhododendron on Evergreen Avenue (in room 322). The best restaurant I went to was Toros on Ha Saraf Street and the steak there was amazing. I’d recommend going to the beach to anyone.”

“Oh that’s great advice Hank. You’re so smart and have such an amazing memory.”

How can I recall such specific details even after several years? The secret is using a combination of the above techniques.


I can start with all the information italicized/ underlined above and condense it several times. First I form acronyms if possible and images if not. Then I form an order that made sense to me.

Mnemonic Meaning
The words “Tell a” Tel Aviv, Israel
Acronym HERA Hotel Rhododendron on Evergreen Avenue
Image of a tree and a girl dancing underneath in a tu tu Room 322
Image of a bull eating another bull in the sand Eating steak at Toros Restaurant and visiting the beach
A young boy watches the bulls and laughs, his mom says “Stop Hurting Animals. Resist Animal Fights.” Ha Sharaf Street

The Story: Tell a lie to HERA and she’ll send you to the tree where the girl dances in a tutu. There you’ll watch in fascination as a bull eats another bull in the sand and a young boy watches, laughing, until his mother scolds him saying, “Stop hurting animals. Resist animal fights like these.”

I repeat the heck out of the story until it’s ingrained in my brain, remembering the connections between images and acronyms to my appointed meanings.

The image from this story that sticks in my head is the bull eating another bull because the image is so unusual. and one I won’t quickly forget. When a friend asks for recommendations in Tel Aviv, Israel I immediately envision one bull devouring another bull in the sand. From here I can move to the boy laughing and the mother scolding. Or I can move the other way to the girl in the tutu beneath a tree and the goddess HERA.

Within a matter of seconds I have all of the important information that I need to give an accurate recommendation to a friend. On top of appearing really smart I also have this great experiences from Tel Aviv that I can recall anytime I want.

Food for Thought: What are things that you do to remember important experiences, moments and information? Let us know in the comments below.