Sure, you could improve yourself the normal way, with hard work and years of slow, incremental progress. Or you could use some of your body’s built-in cheat codes and just hack your way to awesometown.
These hacks come with various degrees of difficulty, but no risk or potential for injury. And actual scientists say that all of them work.
Remember Long Lists With a “Memory Palace”
The human brain sucks at remembering lists. Think about it: When you go to the grocery store, how many items can you manage before you have to write them down? Three? Five? For most of us, if there’s any more than that, we’re going to get back home and find out we forgot the milk (which by the way was the whole f*ck*ng reason we went to the store in the first place).
That’s weird, because there are other things in life we have no problem with. For instance, we don’t have much trouble remembering the locations of a hundred different spots around town, even if we don’t know the addresses (do you even know the street address of your favorite coffee shop?), or the locations of a thousand items around the house. Sure, you couldn’t write them all down, but if a friend asks you where they can find a flashlight, you’re probably going to have an answer. If only there was a way to exploit this strength to overcome the other weakness …
You’re able to find your way around because a whole lot of your mental horsepower is devoted to spatial memory — learning the layout of your environment. And there is totally a way you can tap into it as a hack to remember long lists. So-called memory champions have been doing it forever. They call it creating a memory palace.
Here’s how it works: You pick a familiar place that you know well and can imagine without much problem — the inside of your house, the layout of your neighborhood, whatever. You then imagine yourself walking along a specific route in that place and associate an item on your list with each location.
So let’s say you’re trying to remember a long grocery list, and you choose to use your neighborhood to mentally visualize it. You could imagine the first item on your list — condoms — scattered willy-nilly along your driveway. The next thing on your list might be beer — you could picture your neighbor passed out drunk on his lawn, pants down, if you want. Next up is frozen pizza, so you picture pizza pies replacing all the windows at your drunk neighbor’s house. Let your imagination do the hard work for you — the more ridiculous/striking the image, the easier it’ll be to remember.
It all sounds like a ridiculous extra step, but you soon realize how incredibly easy it suddenly makes it to recite a list. You’re simply forcing the spatial memory part of your brain to help out. And you can start doing it at any time — the memory palace (or method of loci) memorization technique isn’t something that requires years of practice. In one 1968 study, college students were asked to memorize a list of 40 items by associating each item with a specific location around campus. Not only were the students able to memorize an average of 38 of the 40 items, but the next day they were able to name 34 of the original list (and that was in 1968 — imagine how much more they would have remembered if the kids hadn’t been on so much pot).
In another study, German senior citizens were also asked to memorize a list of 40 words by associating each word with Berlin landmarks. Before using the method, they could only recall an average of three words. After associating the German word for “father” with the Berlin zoo, for example, participants could remember an average of 23 words from the list. Oh, and you don’t have to have one location for each list item, either. In yet another study, subjects just took their imaginary walk twice and were still able to remember 34 of the 40 items. Seriously, go try this.
Retain Information by Spacing Out the Reminders
The hell of trying to learn anything is that time randomly wipes important information you’ve committed to memory — you can’t remember the Pythagorean theorem, but you remember the base stats of 649 Pokemon. This is why so many of us wind up cramming at the last minute for exams — it’s not just procrastination, it’s fear that if we study a month ahead of time, we’ll forget part of it by exam day. So our only answer is to cram everything into our short-term memory, knowing that we’ll lose it right after the test. A hundred grand in tuition well spent!
No, what we need is a way to retain information for the long haul, without doing a lot of work. In other words, we need a scientific method to arrive at the exact minimum amount of time and energy we need to successfully retain important information.
There is a measurable process by which your brain drops information, a “forgetting curve.” If you want information to stick, there’s a specific hack you can do to work around it. It takes a bit more practice than the memory palace thing above, but if your job or degree depends on it, it’s worth it. Basically, it’s a matter of figuring out the rate at which your brain forgets things and adapting to it. They call it spaced repetition.
So let’s say you’re trying to learn Spanish, and you’re going to have a big final on it in four months. The most rudimentary way to practice spaced repetition is to put the words you need to learn on note cards with the English on the front and the Spanish on the back (flash cards, basically) and get three boxes (or create three piles, if you don’t have any boxes sitting around) marked:
1. Every Day 2. Every Week 3. Once a Month
The labels tell you how often you’re going to look at the flash cards. “What?” you say, “I don’t got time to be studying this sh*t every day! Besides, I know I can hold this stuff in my brain longer than that!” Right, you probably can. This method will tell you exactly how long. That’s the point: to arrive at the exact bare minimum amount of time you need to study.
So, the first time you study, yes, you drill yourself with all of the flash cards. The ones you get right you promote to the Every Week pile. Ones you get wrong go in the Every Day pile. The next day you try it again, but now you’ve got a smaller pile. The next day, it will be smaller still. A week later, you’ll try the Every Week pile again, and the ones you get right you stuff into the Once a Month pile. You’re just filtering this sh*t right on down the line, giving yourself less and less to do.
A month later, you go through the Once a Month pile to make sure you remember it. The stuff you’ve forgotten goes into the weekly rotation again. See what you’re doing? You’re figuring out the exact rate at which this stuff falls out of your brain. Breezing through that monthly box? Great, make it every two months. The spans of time are flexible (conversely, if you have an exam or presentation in two weeks, you can shorten the whole process — make your three piles Daily, Every Other Day, Every Three Days).
If You Avoid Thinking About the Future, You Get Better at Everything
Consider the tenses past, present, and future. The difference between the sentences “Bob is at the store buying nachos” and “Bob will go to the store to buy nachos” has explicit implications about how far we are from eating nachos. That is need-to-know information. But it may be surprising that some languages don’t have a future tense, or it’s not obligatory. In Mandarin, for example, it’s fine to say something like “Bob store buy nachos,” and nobody will make fun of your caveman speech or slap you in the mouth because you didn’t immediately specify the time frame of nacho delivery.
One might think that speakers of such languages would just be wandering around confused, utterly unmoored from time as we know it, hurtling obliviously through chronology with no anchors to tether them, screaming into the void as history whips pas-
No? They’re totally fine?
Huh. It turns out that speakers of these tenseless languages actually make far better decisions than tense-language speakers, about virtually everything.
For example, a study by Keith Chen of Yale Business School analyzed data from 76 countries, focusing on things like saving money, smoking and exercise habits, and general health. The surprising result was that cultures in which most people speak languages without a future tense make better health and financial decisions overall. In fact, it found that speaking a tensed language, like English, made people 30 percent less likely to save money. It is thought that speakers of such languages, whom we shall call Untensers, see their lives as less of a timeline and more of a whole. Therefore they are automatically more mindful of how their decisions will affect their futures than we savage, primitive Tensers. Strangely, it seems that thinking of “the future” as being some far-off place, removed from the realities of our daily lives, makes us more likely to buy that second Xbox just because the first looked lonely.
Untensers consistently accumulate more wealth, hold onto it for longer periods of time, are healthier, and live longer than Tensers, for whom the past is something we’ve left behind, and the future is like a distant planet where consequences live that we don’t fully intend to visit.
Music Changes Your Ability to Perceive Time
Hold music — the stuff you hear on the line when you call everyone from the bank to your local bail bond agency — didn’t fall into America’s phone lines by accident. It’s designed specifically to reduce the amount of time you think you’re waiting, so that you’re less likely to hang up in anger. Other places that involve waiting, such as doctors’ offices, use a similar trick. Time shrinkage is also the aim of most retail stores, which is why you’ll rarely enter a mall, supermarket or clothing store without hearing some sort of music in the background.
How Does It Work?
To understand why exactly music makes it seem like less time has passed, think of the human brain as a mountain lion that is eating a bag of money. It doesn’t matter what the zookeepers distract it with — food, shiny objects or just shouting and yelling. All that matters is that they give another zookeeper the chance to sneak up and retrieve the money while the lion is busy deciding which one of them to eat.
Similarly, when your brain is steadily distracted, you’ll be less likely to notice things around you in detail, and this includes the passage of time. Our brains have limited input capacity, and when something else is using up that capacity, we’re less likely to think things like, “I’ve been standing in line to get Richard Moll’s autograph for three g*dd*mn hours” or “Do I really need this Garfield alarm clock?”
But it works the opposite way, too. In some situations, listening to music can actually expand perceived time. For example, listening to music while performing tasks that require concentration will usually cause us to overestimate the amount of time that has passed. The theory is that as your mind switches back and forth between perception of the music and concentration on the challenging tasks, it forms separate “events,” or distinct memories. When your brain thinks about what you’ve been doing for the past hour, you’ll remember more of these events and recall that the hour was quite long.
Experiments have found that time also expands when we’re listening to familiar music that we dislike.
When we hear the opening chords of a song, our brain remembers the whole thing and immediately skips ahead and plays it mentally. This fake mind-music is extremely vivid, working on exactly the same parts of the brain as actual music does. So the effect is that you take a few moments to vividly imagine that you’re sitting through five minutes of that damn New Radicals song before you come back to reality only to realize that you still actually have to sit through it.
Write It Out (Even if You Don’t Read It Later)
Quick! When was the last time you held a pen and wrote something? It was probably while signing a receipt, wasn’t it? A note you left on the parked car you dinged at the mall? Child support checks? In this age of smartphones, constant texting, and spending half our waking hours online, most of us have lost the gentle art of holding a pencil and scratching out ransom notes the old-fashioned way. Which is too bad, because if you want information to stick in your brain, you need to write that sh*t out by hand.
The act of handwriting actually engages neural activity that you don’t get by hammering on a keyboard. During an experiment at Indiana University, preschool kids who were learning the alphabet were separated into two groups. The first group was shown letters and told what they were, while the second group had the additional task of practicing writing the letters. When the kids were put into a “spaceship” (an MRI machine), the brains from the writing group lit up like somebody had crammed a road flare into their ears. Their neural activity not only was more enhanced, it was more “adult-like,” which we presume means they later asked researchers to check their cholesterol levels while they were there.
In other words, it seems to be the same principle as the memory palace thing above — forcing another part of your brain into the action to help out with memorization. We invented keyboards because typing is way easier and faster than writing, but making it faster means we’re losing handwriting’s unique ability to imprint information in our brain. So those flash cards we had you make above? Get a pen and write that sh*t out instead of printing it off your computer. Watch your score improve.
A 2008 study proved that this works especially well when you’re doing something that involves learning unfamiliar characters, like some computer languages, or sheet music, or Japanese. Again, making your fingers draw out the shape engages a completely different part of your brain than if you’re just staring at it on a screen and saying, “Remember this, g*dd-*mn-t!”
But of course your brain is good for more than memorizing stuff. For instance, this next hack is for those of you with rage problems …
You Can Learn More While You Sleep
Say you’re tired of sleeping like a mere mortal and want to learn how to turn those useless REM cycles into productivity cycles. A very minor change in your schedule can let you use your sleep patterns to your advantage, thus making you smarter.
How? Tell Me!
No, we’re not talking about those scams where they have you put a tape recorder under your pillow and let it teach you Spanish while you’re asleep. What scientists have found out is if you need to remember a bunch of information (say, for a big exam), do NOT study right up until time for the exam. Study at least 24 hours before, and sleep on it.
They did a study at Harvard that proved this technique works. Participants were separated into three different groups after being shown images that they were told to memorize. One of the groups was tested on the memorization after 20 minutes, the other after 12 hours and the last after 24 hours. You would expect that the ones who were tested just 20 minutes later would do best, but that would, of course, make a really sh*tty story.
No, the participants who slept on it and had 24 hours for the information to fester in their brain did the best on the test, while those who only had 20 minutes did the worst.
How is it possible that your brain works like leveling up in Dungeons and Dragons? Scientists say the ability your brain has to retain information works in three different ways: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. While the first and last occur while you’re awake, it’s the middleman that is important during sleep.
When you sleep, your brain is constantly processing information that you couldn’t have processed with everything going on up there during the day. This works to strengthen your neurological bonds in the brain. Think of it like downloading something on a computer. When you go to download something while your p*rn is up, it takes longer, right? Close up any applications that are running and you have a smoother, quicker download. Yeah, kind of like that … maybe.
So does this technique work with the “sleep two hours a day” system we mentioned earlier? We’re not sure anyone has tried it, but by our calculations such a person would immediately gain mental superpowers, possibly including telekinesis. Somebody in the comments try it and let us know.