Unleash Your Superbrain!

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: November 12, 2013

Ten or 20 years ago we were traveling the information superhighway. These days our course isn’t nearly as linear. We’re careening around a supersonic pinball machine, getting pelted with bits and bytes, tweets, pings and yelps. To help manage this onslaught, we’re outsourcing our memories, says Jim Kwik, founder of Kwik Learning, a speed-reading and memory-enhancement training program. Phone numbers are stored in the address books of our smartphones; sales leads are warehoused in the cloud. And who needs to pay attention to street signs when our navigational systems will plot the most efficient route home?

Problem is, research suggests that our reliance on external search engines and the like may be undermining our ability to recall facts, faces and names. With everything we’ll ever need to know just a few keystrokes away, we’re allowing our memory muscles to get flabby. And we’re paying a price for this. “The two most costly words in business are  I forgot ,” Kwik says. “Whether it’s forgetting a meeting, conversation, task, fact, password or name, memory lapses at the wrong time can make the most talented person appear incompetent.”

Strengthening your memory doesn’t take a new app or some high-tech gizmo. In the workshops he has given for nearly two decades to Fortune 500 companies, university groups and small-business owners, Kwik (yes, that’s his real name and it’s pronounced “quick”) relies on old-fashioned methods such as visualization and new twists on speed-reading techniques that are informed by the latest research on how the brain works. “There’s no such thing as a good memory or a bad memory,” Kwik says. “There’s only a trained memory and an untrained memory.”

Here’s how to start training your memory.

MOM Knows Best: A Memory Mnemonic

Motivation: When meeting someone new, take a moment and ask yourself, Why do I want to remember this person’s name? If you can’t come up with a reason to remember the name, you probably won’t.

Observation: Recalling names or other information is often not a matter of retention, but of attention. Take a moment to quiet your inner dialogue; focus and really listen when you’re introduced to people or attending a presentation.

Mechanics: These are the techniques, tips and strategies for remembering names and information. Although these step-by-step memory tools are critical, they come last because if you don’t have motivation and don’t observe, the best mechanics won’t help.

Picture This: Never Forget a Name Again

It’s an awkward moment. At a business function you run into someone you’ve met before. As you reach out to shake hands—or worse yet, introduce him or her to a colleague—panic sets in. You’ve forgotten the name. It’s a stumble that can trip up a relationship. “It’s hard to show someone you’re going to care for their business when you don’t even care enough to remember their name,” Kwik says.

The cure for faulty name memory is association: connecting those names to unforgettable images. Pictures, Kwik says, create memories that are easier to retrieve than words alone. Kwik, who is big on mnemonics, likes to say his method is easy as PIE.

Pick a place on the person’s face.

Imagine the name.

Entwine the two in a picture that has action, exaggeration and illogic.

Here’s how this works in real life. At a chamber of commerce gathering you meet Joyce.

Pick a place on Joyce’s face. For example, her green eyes.

Imagine her name as a “sounds-like” picture. For “Joyce” that might be “juice.”

Entwine Joyce’s green eyes with juice by visualizing orange juice being poured into her eyes. (Yes, it’s an absurd image but that’s the point: “You’re more likely to recall unusual images than common ones,” Kwik says.)

Next, you’re introduced to Christopher.

Pick a place: his beard.

Imagine the name: Christmas tree.

Entwine the two: Visualize Christopher’s beard as a Christmas tree being decorated by tiny elves.

Along comes a couple, Karen and Matt.

Pick a place: Karen’s red hair; Matt’s eyebrows.

Imagine the names: carrots; doormat.

Entwine the two: There are carrots coming out of Karen’s hair, and Matt’s eyebrows have been woven into a doormat.

It will take time to become proficient at this method (although not as much time as you might think, Kwik says). Meanwhile, there’s a payoff to practicing. “Even if the technique doesn’t work right off the bat, it’s effective in getting you to focus and engage when you’re meeting people,” Kwik says.

Whole-Brain Note-Taking

When you’re at a workshop on, say, using social media to build your business, or reading or listening to a book on the same topic, the right and left hemispheres of your brain process the information in two ways: Logical leftie—the hemisphere that’s the analytical, critical thinker—is attentive to the actual content being presented. Ruminative rightie—our intuitive, creative, big-picture side—is reacting to this content with emotion, questions and flash inspirations on how the information can be utilized in your life.

Kwik suggests letting each part of your brain take notes in its own way. That way at the end of the presentation, rather than jottings that can be difficult to interpret—Hmm, did the speaker say that, or is that what I was thinking?—you’ll have both a summary of the material and the beginnings of an action plan.

Here’s all you need to do: Take a lined piece of paper and divide it into two columns. At the top of the left column write Capture. This is where you’ll be doing traditional note-taking—writing down the bullet points of tips, quotes, facts and statistics that are offered during the social media workshop or in the book:

Nearly one in five U.S. consumers has scanned a QR code on a smartphone.

665 million people use Facebook every day.

People between the ages of 55 and 64 are the fastest-growing demographic on Twitter.

YouTube has 1 billion unique monthly visitors.

Label the right-hand column Create. Here you’ll be recording your impressions on what you’re listening to and beginning to build on what you’ve just captured:

1. Talk to Joey about QR code in new biz cards.

2. Tweet sweepstakes!

3. Brainstorm YouTube strategy at Tuesday mtg.

The ABC’s of Smart Reading

Kwik likes to quote a Woody Allen quip: “I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes.

“It’s about Russia.”

In other words, if you increase your reading speeding tenfold but you’re only retaining a fraction of what you’ve read, you’re wasting your time. A better alternative is what Kwik calls “whole-brain reading,” in which speed and retention are both increased by engaging the right and left hemispheres of your brain in the task of reading.

For starters, you’ll want to set yourself up for an optimal reading experience. “All learning is state-dependent,” Kwik says. “I don’t try to tackle new information before I manage my state.”

Begin by eliminating external distractions. Choose good lighting; natural sunlight is the best, which you can mimic with full-spectrum bulbs. Set the room to your ideal temperature—not so warm that it makes you drowsy, not so cool that you’ll think about whether to grab a sweater. Acknowledge annoyances. Say, for example, you can hear the din from a construction site down the block. Do the best you can to minimize such distractions—don noise-reducing headphones or play baroque music. With 50 to 80 beats a minute, baroque music—such as concertos by Bach, Handel or Telemann—can induce the alpha brain wave state ideal for deep concentration. Breathe deeply, relax and try to accept the distractions you can’t eliminate.

Next, you want to quiet your mind’s incessant chatter—what meditators call “the monkey mind.” You’re trying to read Tolstoy or a primer on leadership skills, and your monkey mind is leaping from whether to have pizza or pitas for lunch, what Motown song your favorite American Idol contender should pick for the next round of competition, and whether you’d go for an Aston Martin or a Lamborghini if you had half a million bucks to spend on a new car. You can blame this babble on the frenetic-hopscotching right hemisphere of your brain.

Before we reveal Kwik’s speed-reading trick, it’s helpful to know a little bit about the mind-body connection. Our brains and our bodies are linked cross-laterally, Kwik says. The brain’s left hemisphere controls functions on the right half of the body; the right brain, the functions on the left half of the body. In other words, the left hand knows what your right brain is doing.

So here’s the simple trick to smarter reading: As you read, run your left index finger—or a pointer held in your left hand—under each line. Traditional speed-reading training also uses the underlining strategy as a way to focus attention, but doesn’t specify which hand to use, a refinement that’s essential to Kwik’s method. “When you’re underlining with your left hand you’re involving the right side of the brain that wants to distract you because it isn’t being engaged,” Kwik says. You can think of underlining as giving a Smurf toy to a fussy toddler.

The result: You’ll increase your reading speed and comprehension by 25 to 50 percent, Kwik says. This visual method pacing works with online material as well. If you’re reading on an iPad or e-book reader, use the cap side of a pen, instead of your finger, as your pointer (the pointer doesn’t actually need to touch the screen, it can hover above). If you’re reading on a desktop computer, use your mouse, controlled by your left hand, to underline.

Underlining will feel awkward at first, but keep going. It’s commonly believed one needs about 21 straight days of doing something to form a habit. Try practicing, Kwik suggests, for 20 minutes every day for three weeks to a month.

Location, Location, Location: The Key to Giving a Presentation Without Notes

When ancient Greeks needed to remember to pick up mead or olive oil at the marketplace, they may have relied on the method of “loci.” The memory trick is attributed to the poet Simonides of Ceos. One night during the 5th century B.C., he recited a victory poem in celebration of a Thessalonian nobleman. Then, summoned by a messenger, he stepped outside the banquet hall. As he left, the roof of the hall collapsed, crushing the guests. It was left to Simonides, the only survivor, to help identify the victims who were mangled beyond recognition. Simonides closed his eyes and reconstructed the banquet hall in his mind, picturing where each guest was seated before disaster struck. Then he walked back into the hall and led grieving relatives to the remains of their loved ones.

Fortunately the loci method is not disaster-dependent. To use this technique, you create a mental blueprint of a place you know well and then piggyback the information you want to remember on top of various items within the room. There are three important rules to employing loci effectively, Kwik says.

1. Pick actual things; the lamp in the corner of the room, not the corner itself.

2. Choose items that are large, not knickknacks.

3. Choose items that are unique: a single chair, not a set of chairs.

These landmark items are the hooks where you’re going to hang information. Next, link each landmark to an item on your memory list with a striking visual image. If you need to pick up, say, milk, laundry detergent and paper towels, you might visualize a giant container of milk crushing your coffee table, detergent suds spilling out of your couch, and your flat-screen TV wrapped in paper towels.

If you’re giving a talk at a conference on, say, social media, the method works just the same. Let’s say you have 10 key points to communicate. They are about hashtags, Tumblr, Facebook, Yelp and so on. This time you’re going to add a room—the kitchen—so you can connect five points to the living room, five points to the kitchen. For hashtags, you might imagine a huge cauldron of corned-beef hash tipping your stove over; for Tumblr, gymnasts doing cartwheels on your kitchen sink; for Facebook, close-ups of your family on huge, talking refrigerator magnets; and for Yelp, a litter of yelping Chihuahuas, loaded in your dishwasher like soiled plates.

Why does this wild-sounding method work so well? Remember that the brain is much better at recalling visual images than, say, lists or bullet points full of words. We’re especially good at creating spatial memories—where things are located in space (a room, a street).

What you’re doing when you recall your visualizations is “walking” through a location or a route that you know intimately well, like your bedroom or the stores you pass on the way to the bus stop every day, and summoning up those vivid images you’ve linked to each landmark.

In the case of the bedroom, clockwise is the “route” you’ve chosen. It’s easiest to remember the items in a room if you’re picturing the actual layout of the room. So when you create those visualizations, you are “standing” in the doorway of your room and picking out large items as hooks as you move through the room. If you are picking the stores you pass on the way to the bus stop, you’d create a memory map that followed your route—linking the first point of your speech to the first store you pass, and so on. You can even use your body parts as a route, moving from toes to knees to waist to chest, shoulders, etc., and then doing a mental body scan to recall your visualizations. And again, you want to make the images as vivid as possible, because our brains are attracted to novelty like bees to bright, sweet-smelling flowers.

Now when you give a speech, you’ll call up the blueprint you’ve created. Prompted by each visualization, moving clockwise, you’ll hit your points with confidence, impressing the heck out of your audience by giving your talk without notes. (And, of course, you’ll remember to pick up the dry cleaning and some bagels on your way home!)

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for SUCCESS.com. A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.