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Advanced Memory Techniques and How to Apply Them

Introduction

Disclaimer:  This is a long post and will cover a lot of information.  It is highly subjective and developed from many sources and molded by my personal experience. Not everything here will apply to everyone, but I strongly believe there is something of value in this post for every single student out there.

When I learned in February 2013 that I was sitting for the Advanced exam that April - leaving me only six weeks to study - I knew I needed to find a way to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.  The gaps were significant: not knowing the major einzallegen and gemeinenden of Germany, not knowing many of the DOs of Spain, etc.  Dutifully I plowed ahead, learning everything by rote, but it was frustrating.  I was forgetting information as fast as I was pouring it into my brain and I knew that I was not going to pass at that rate.

My methods changed after I stumbled upon a copy of Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, a book that details the techniques and processes that Joshua used to go from observing the 2005 US Memory Championships to winning the 2006 US Memory Championships. By applying these techniques, soon I was learning massive chunks of information like all 17 major 1er crus of Chablis (organized by right/left bank and village) in a few hours of study.  I wrote a post about this experience three years ago on Guildsomm, but in the ensuing years I have learned and developed some refinements that can be very effective in helping a student when studying the world of wine.

These techniques are very powerful and can transform how someone studies and provide a quantum leap in how much knowledge someone can acquire in a limited amount of time.  They have changed how I learn and I wanted to share them with the community because we are a culture that is based on people giving their knowledge and time freely to those who do not have it.  Time and time again I have had others in the community, be it other sommeliers, winemakers, distributors, educators, etc, share their time and knowledge with me and have asked nothing in return; we live in a culture of hospitality and generosity and I only want to pay it forward.

First, we’ll go over some basic memorization techniques, many of which you may be familiar with, and then we’ll cover some more advanced techniques (including some that have been known about since the Greeks and Romans - why weren’t we taught those in school?), then we’ll explore some applications of these techniques, and finally we’ll look at how to make all of these techniques more effective.  By the end you should have some powerful tools that will allow you to attack that compendium in Guildsomm with gusto.

Memorization Systems

Rote memorization is memorization based on repetition.  Basically you go over and over a piece of information until it becomes embedded in your “muscle memory.”   Although this information is usually very sticky and easy to recall - think of your multiplication tables, for example - it is often without context and can take a fair bit of time to drill into your long term memory.  There is a better way; utilizing memorization techniques can allow us to get information into our long term memory faster, allowing us to learn a tremendous amount quickly.

We all learn some basic memorization techniques in school, and probably the first ones we encounter are music mnemonics (the ABC song) but these quickly become limited as we have to create a new song each time we need a new memory.  Others which are quite common and effective in their simplicity include the acronym (HOMES for the Great Lakes) or expression mnemonics (Sometimes Japanese Canadians Marry French Canadians Making Really Beautiful Babies for the crus of Beaujolais).  These systems are great for capturing certain types of information like names or places but what do you use to remember more complicated sets of information?

One of the most common memory techniques people employ is storytelling.  This can be effective for retrieving information in a series but if you are trying to remember information in the middle of the story, you will often find that you have to start at the beginning in order to get to the information in the middle, which can be inefficient and nerve racking in the middle of an exam.  Instead a more effective system involves placing memorable images in vivid, specific scenery, a technique called the method of loci (literally method of places in Latin).

The method of loci relies on users to imagine relationships within specific physical locations, with each individual location typically referred to as a memory palace.  Typically the most effective memory palaces are places that are very familiar to you since you can remember them in great detail and easily add more information to them.  For example, let’s say you are trying to memorize the grand crus of Chablis: Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot.  Imagine in your bedroom that there is a giant pile of boogers (Bougros) on your dresser that stretches to the ceiling.  On your desk is a purse (Les Preuses) while in the corner there is Vlad the Impaler (Vaudésir) who has impaled a green frog (Grenouilles).  On your bed is Val Kilmer (Valmur) who is sitting on top of a heap of clothes on your bed (Les Clos) while Blanche Dubois from a Streetcar Named Desire (Blanchot) is trying to wash them.  This is a memorable little story, attached to specific locations in your bedroom that you can visualize and recall so that instead of having to start at the beginning you could just look at your bed to know that there’s Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot.

What techniques can we use to make this memory more effective?  As humans, we are visual creatures that are wired to remember things that are abnormal, intense and personal, so add those elements into your memory palace.  Exaggerate the images!  You can change the size, the quantity, the intensity, etc. The heap of clothes sitting on your bed - make it massive, Everest-sized.  Imagine that it is made up of neon green gym clothes, so bright that it hurts your eyes to look at it.  What does it smell like?  Surely the rankness makes you wince when you walk into the room.  So instead of just a generic pile of clothes we now have a mountain of neon green gym clothes that are so rank you need a gas mask to approach them - very memorable.  Get all five senses involved - sound, sight, taste, smell, touch.  Even get your emotions involved - make the images personal.  You might not remember Blanche Dubois, but you could easily remember your ex playing Blanche Dubois in an off-off-off-off Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire.  Imagine your ex in an ill fitting dress that is way too tight (and some heavy stage makeup that is smeared from hysterical crying), trying to use you as a washboard for the gym clothes. You’ve just ratcheted up the intensity and made the visual that much more memorable.

You can also add action to the scene to make things more absurd and sticky.  That pile of boogers on your dresser?  Imagine it swaying to and fro, becoming more and more unsteady until it falls over onto the purse on your desk.  The purse then gets smashed into a million smaller purses which coalesce into a wave and fall on Vlad the Impaler, nearly drowning him.  The action helps cement the objects in place and their relationships to each other.

Remember to use physical objects in these palaces since they have easily imaginable traits; when you are dealing with more abstract or untranslatable ideas it is best to convert them into objects based on the way the words sound, so Valmur becomes Val Kilmer, Les Preuses becomes purses, etc.  Additionally, you don’t need to be concerned with reality when making these memory palaces.  The more slapstick, unique and vivid they are, the easier they will stick.  Raunchy imagery always works well, to the point where some religious orders in the middle ages banned the practice because it was deemed immoral.

Advanced Techniques

Many people have difficulty remembering numbers, but with wine it becomes a necessary evil when you’re trying to learn specifications for many different GI regulations.  One of the most effective techniques for memorizing numbers is called the Major System which links sounds to numbers, effectively allowing you to build words out of numbers.

Number

Letters

0

s, z, soft c (z is the first letter of zero and the others have a similar sound)

1

t, d (t and d have one downstroke and sound similar)

2

n (has 2 downstrokes)

3

m (has 3 downstrokes)

4

r (the last letter of 4; also 4 and R are almost mirror images)

5

l (L is the Roman numeral for 50)

6

sh, ch, j (script j has a lower loop; g is almost a 6 rotated)

7

k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu (capital K is made of two sevens)

8

f, v (script f resembles a figure-8, v sounds similar)

9

p, b (p is a mirror image of 9, b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around)

Unassigned

vowel sounds, w, h, y, x (these can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value)

Using the Major System, if we were trying to remember the alcohol levels for Chablis it might look like the following:

AOP

Alcohol Level

Major System Letters

Word

Petit Chablis AOP

9.5%

p,b || l

PooL

Chablis AOP

10%

t, d || s,z,c

TaZ

Chablis AOP 1er

10.5%

t, d || s,z,c || l

TeSLa

Chablis Grand Cru AOP

11%

t, d || t, d

ToaD

We could then add these images to our existing memory palace for Chablis Grand Cru.  In the middle of your bedroom we could see a gigantic pool filled with, what else, little bottles of Chablis (for Petit Chablis).  Then swimming on top of it is the Taz, the Tasmanian Devil, who has a giant pool noodle which turns out to be a Tesla car being driven by Toad from Super Mario Brothers.  So with a series of four small images we now have all of the minimum ABV levels for Chablis, quite a handsome payoff for such a small amount of work!

The Major System is a type of peg system (which links nouns together with numbers in order to be able to associate a number with a distinct object).  One of the most common is a rhyming peg system (one - gun, two - shoe, etc), but different peg systems become more powerful when combined with the Major System.  Two types of information that people often find difficulty memorizing are allowed styles of a GI and vintage characteristics.  Imagine if you were able to create your own peg systems for each of these types of information, and then translate them into words.  Wouldn’t it be easier to remember one word for a AOP’s style or for the vintage of a region?  The table below gives examples of peg systems that assign numbers to wine styles and vintage characteristics.

Number

Wine Style

Vintage Characteristic

0

None

Hot

1

White

Cool

2

Red

Humid

3

Rose

Dry

4

White/Red

Rainy

5

White/Rose

Frost

6

Rose/Red

Hail

7

White/Red/Rose

Moderate

8

 

Stormy

9

 

Sunny

These associations are arbitrary and it will take some rote memorization to learn these associations, but the rewards will quickly add up.  If you standardize how you use of the wine style peg system to be a 3 digit number where the 1st digit stands for allowed styles of dry still wine, 2nd digit is for sweet or off-dry wine and the 3rd digit for sparkling, then you could easily build one word that captured the styles of a region.  Chablis AOP (still white only, no sweet wine, no sparkling wine) becomes 100 or “DiSeaSe.”  Add an attack of a virulent plague to your memory palace of Chablis.  Bordeaux AOP (red, white and rose still wine, off dry white wine, no sparkling) becomes 710 or “GaTeS.”  Imagine a gigantic Bill Gates laying waste to the great chateaux of Bordeaux and you immediately know what styles of wine are allowed.

Similarly for vintages if you standardize your use of the peg system to be 1st digit represents weather conditions in winter/spring, 2nd digit is for summer weather and the 3rd digit is for harvest weather, you can build words that capture the essence of a growing season.  For 2010 left bank of Bordeaux, we saw rain at flowering, a beautiful dry summer and a sunny harvest, which becomes 439 or “RuMBa,” so you could imagine yourself in 2010 (which for simplicity’s sake I memorize as 10, or a “DaiSy,” in the major system) doing the rumba in a field of daisies in Bordeaux.

Another useful technique is a body list which involves creating pegs on your body to represent areas that can hold information.

Location Number

Body Part

1

Toes

2

Knee

3

Muscle (Thighs)

4

Rear

5

Love Handles

6

Shoulders

7

Collar

8

Face

9

Brow

0

Ceiling

Notice that the names of the body parts are a bit odd.  Why “love handles?”  Because it is the fifth peg, corresponding to the number 5 and using a word with L in the beginning reinforces the association of L with the number 5 in the major system.  This style of peg system is great for learning lists ten or smaller - I often will use them for things like important 1er crus in different villages.  As long as the context is clear, you will find that you can remember everything on the list.  

For example, with a clear initial start image, I will not confuse a list in Vosne-Romanée (hanging out with Vince Vaughn dressed in a suit of Roman armor) with a list in Puligny-Montrachet (walking a pug that has the face of Monty Burns).  All you then is associate an image with the different points on your body.  For the 1ers of Vosne-Romanée, while hanging out with the aforementioned Vince Vaughn you could have Bo Jackson as a mountie (Les Beaux Monts) on your toes, crème brûlée on your knee (Aux Brulees), Johnny Cash singing a Boy Named Sue (Les Suchots) on your thighs, your parents (Cros Parantoux) on your rear, a mini mountie (Les Petits Monts) on your love handles, rain (Aux Reignots) on your shoulders, a bad ex (Aux Malconsorts) on your collar, and Rhea Perlman (Clos des Reas) yelling at your face. And now you have all of the major 1ers of Vosne-Romanée coded into a tidy, easily recallable list based on your body.  It’s almost like you’ve written the answers on yourself!

Making Recall More Effective

So now that you have learned some useful techniques, how can you apply them to make sure that they are more effective?  The first is to make sure that you are encoding layers of information into what you are memorizing.  Notice that for our list of grand crus of Chablis we did not memorize them in alphabetical order.  For those that are paying attention, we placed them into our memory palace in order from west to east, by doing this we’ve added a layer of important information without any additional effort.  We can also add more information to our existing memory palace, using it as a base for more advanced learning.  Let’s say we wanted to memorize which grand crus of Chablis are bottled by Louis Michel (Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Les Clos).  We could imagine Louis CK getting angry and ripping off his shirt, punching out Vlad the Impaler, grabbing the green frog and climbing the mountain of clothes, eventually getting to the top and holding up the frog in triumph while the Rocky theme song plays.  Absurd?  Of course, but definitely memorable.

Another way of ensuring that things are easier to memorize is to use specific encoding.  Many people use the major system to memorize the numbers 00-99 and use the same image in each time it occurs in a memory palace, thus making it easier for you to associate a specific image to a specific number.  In my memory palaces, when I see Zorro I know it is the number 04 (ZoRRo - since it's one sound, the two letter count as one, hence RR = a single 4), or when I see Lassie the number is 50, or when I see something NASA related I know the number is 20 (NaSa), etc.  I do something similar with varietals, so wherever I see She-Ra I know that I’m dealing with Syrah and wherever I see a bowl of Fruit Loops I know it’s Viognier.  So if I see a giant coat being roasted in an oven while She-Ra is eating a bowl of NASA-brand Fruit Loops, we know that we’re in Côte-Rôtie (oven roasted coat) and we have Syrah with up to 20% Viognier.

Your ability to recall any of this information in the future will be predicated, in part, on how much effort you put into recalling it.  When I first started using flashcards I had no idea how to structure my memorization sessions until I found a flashcard app that used the Leitner method.  The Leitner Method is a system that sorts flashcards into groups based on how well the user remembers them.  Typically with the Leitner Method when you learn something for the first time you will put it in a box (box 1) to be reviewed the following day.  Items in box 2 will be reviewed after 3 days, box 3 after 7 days, box 4 after 15 days, box 5 after 30 days, etc.  Any time that you miss an item, it is moved back to box 1, thus ensuring that you are more frequently reviewing items that you are not remembering well.  Many programs will allow you adjust the number of boxes and intervals to suit your needs.

"Leitner System" by Zirguezi is licensed under CC BY 1.0

An even more sophisticated version of Leitner is a system called Spaced Repetition.  Instead of putting flashcards into boxes, each card is individually tracked by the app so it knows when it is due next.  Every time you get a card right, the amount of time until you see it again increases (typically doubling) while every time you get it wrong ensures the interval which you see it next decreases (typically dividing the interval in ½).  Many flashcard apps keep sophisticated statistics on how well you are using Spaced Repetition/Leitner, which will quickly allow you to identify your trouble areas.

Parting Thoughts

I know it can seem a bit daunting to have to learn an entire new system to add to your studies, especially when you have to invest some time and effort into acquiring them them, but these techniques are proven and powerful tools in your arsenal.  They can become  valuable supplements to your study sessions that will allow you to learn new information rapidly and recall it with less effort and greater accuracy.

You can help reinforce your recall by making sure that you are not learning in a vacuum.  Use multiple methods of learning to reinforce information when you are learning a region: draw maps, listen to a podcast about the region, drink the wine, cook regional food, prepare a class on the region, etc.  Do this every time you are reviewing an area and you’ll be amazed how small facts become much easier to recall.

Additionally, when you get something wrong, do not just go on to the next question.  Stop and take the time to research and understand why you got that question wrong.  If you’re using physical flashcards, go so far as to tear up the old flashcard and write a new one (the very act of rewriting a question helps re-encode it in your memory).  If you focus on quality, rather than quantity, you will find that you will end up with a vast tapestry of knowledge to draw on, where all of your information is interwoven, giving you a much more complete understanding of a region rather than a rote list of facts.

Just remember that no single technique is a silver bullet.  Many techniques will be good for learning some sets of facts, but sometimes you’ll need to engage other methods of learning in order to make things stick.  If you’re having trouble remembering the geography of Andalucia and which DOs are located in what areas, you’d be better off drawing/tracing maps rather than trying to memorize the DOs of Andalucia in a memory palace.

I hope you find these techniques useful in augmenting your studies; once learned, they will help you get a ridiculous amount of information into your head in a very short period of time.  If you have any questions, please post a reply or message me directly.  I’d be happy to add any clarifications that I can.

If you do find these techniques useful, I would ask you to share this and other helpful tips with fellow members of your community, be it on Guildsomm, email lists or directly with your peers.  As a culture, one of my favorite things about being a sommelier is how much we believe in helping others in our community. We share our time and knowledge out of a spirit of generosity, mentorship and paying it forward.  We run tasting groups, we lead study sessions, we teach each other, we make each other better professionals, all without asking for a dime in return.  That spirit warms my heart to no end; I’m proud to be a sommelier among such awesome people.

Other Resources

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