How to Memorize Words: 2 Helpful Methods

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Do you want to know how to memorize words? What are the best methods and strategies for memorizing words?

Learning how to memorize words can be challenging, but memory experts have developed useful methods that can make this process more efficient. Keep reading to find out how to memorize words and why it works.

How to Memorize Words

There are many different memory techniques. But what if you specifically want to know how to memorize words?

Our brains aren’t very good at perfect recall because it’s evolutionarily ineffective. The brain uses 20% of the oxygen we breathe and 25% of our glucose even though it only comprises 2% of our body mass. Our brains tend to drop words because the actual words aren’t important—it’s the meaning behind them that matters. 

For example, in the Watergate hearings, John Dean reported conversations word-for-word. When compared to a tape recording of the actual conversations (Dean didn’t know about the existence of the recorder), there were discrepancies. Dean didn’t get the quotes word-for-word and sometimes he didn’t even get the content right. Overall, though, he remembered the gist of things correctly.

There were two historical approaches to memorizing a speech or text:

  • Memoria rerum, which is remembering the meaning of the words. This was the preferred method.
    • For example, Cicero suggested a speechwriter creating a single image for each topic.
  • Memoria verborum, which is remembering a text word-for-word. This method has some downsides:
    • Inefficiency. If you remember everything word-for-word, you have to create and place many images.
    • Instability. If you needed to know every word in order, if you forgot a word somewhere in the middle, you wouldn’t be able to get any further.
    • (Note: Carruthers, author of The Book of Memory, thinks that this approach was only ever meant to be used for single words or phrases, not long texts.)

Word-for-Word Memorization

While memorizing meaning is likely more relevant in your daily life than remembering exact wording, there are cases in which you might need to memorize word-for-word. There are two methods: the methodical method, and the emotional method for how to memorize words.

1. The Methodical Method

The Ad Herennium recommends memorizing poetry word-for-word by repeating a line a couple of times and then trying to transform it into images when you’re learning how to memorize words. How do you transform a word like “and” into an image? There are a few options:

  • Create a visual dictionary. Assign images to abstract words, and then whenever you come across the word, you have an instant substitution.
  • Punning. It’s going to be easier to remember which images correspond to which words if you connect them somehow. One way to do this is punning, which is when you use a similar-sounding word in place of the actual word.
    •  For example, Gunther, a German memorizer, visualizes the word “and” as a circle, because “and” rhymes with “rund,” which means round in German.
  • Memoria sillabarum. At its most extreme, you can assign images to syllables and then break words into syllables. Choose a concrete word that starts with the syllable as an image. This creates a sort of rebus puzzle.
    • For example, mathematician and theologian Thomas Bradwardine assigned the image of an abbot to the syllable “ab-” and a crossbowman (balistarius) to the syllable “ba-.” To remember Abba, he could picture a crossbowman shooting an abbot.

This method tends to be more popular with men.

2. The Emotional Method for Memorizing Words

The emotional method is similar to Method acting. First, you break the text into chunks (or “beats”) and then you assign an emotion to each section. This allows you to retain the meaning of the text (unlike the shot abbot above), which allows you to create additional anchors to already existing memories. 

Studies have shown that if you do an action related to a phrase you’re memorizing, you’re more likely to remember it. For example, if you’re trying to remember “Stir the soup,” you’ll remember it better if you actually stir soup while memorizing the line.

This method is more popular with women.

Learning how to memorize words can be challenging. Practicing these strategies for memorizing words can also help strengthen your memory overall.

How to Memorize Words: 2 Helpful Methods

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" at Shortform.

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  • The memory techniques that took the author from novice to US memory champion in one year
  • The 6 key types of memory we use everyday
  • Why memory isn't just genetic, and how you can improve your memory with the right techniques

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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