”How Do You Know So Much About Everything?”, or How to Build an Encyclopedic Memory


Too often throughout my life have people tried to convince me that somehow my mind was “special” and that I was “gifted”.

Later on in life, it occurred to me that the only thing that really made me different was the fact that I “tripped” on some successful formulae on how to memorize things and that I applied them with consistency.

If you’ve had a conversation with me in real life, you’ll definitely know that I am an experience collector that draws in a lot of different histories and cultural experiences from throughout the globe and draws them together in ways that are inspiring at best, intimidating at worst.

Today I decided that I’m going to let loose some of my secret as to how I developed the memory and how you can develop an encyclopedic knowledge of anything of your choice!

You already have an encyclopedic knowledge of SOMETHING

That’s one important thing to keep in mind. Even if it is very simple details about your life, your family or your work sphere, there is something that you know very well in detail.

How exactly did you remember it? I’ll give you some clues.

For one, you associated the various facts and faces and stimuli used for recognition with multiple elements. Some of them were:

  • Feelings
  • Incidents associated with certain feelings (e.g. funny stories, awkward stories)
  • Places (we’ll get to the memory palace in a bit, which is probably the world’s most tested-and-true memory technique)
  • Your senses (you may associate smells or sounds or melodies with them)

Another thing you also did in order to remember these details about your life is the fact that your brain has been convinced (and rightly so) that learning these details is actually essential to your survival. (If you can trick your brain that learning something is essential to your survival, your brain is going to learn it whether you like it or not. Humans are the most successful species this planet has ever seen and your brain is, by extension, served as the key to that success. Trust it).

In places like Germany and Myanmar where I could not always rely on people speaking English or other languages I knew, my brain kicked into second-gear when I needed to learn phrases of the local language, especially ones that would be useful in emergency situations. Even in places like Sweden and Iceland knowledge of the local language could be a survival advantage and …

(I was writing this in Grand Central Station and a fire alarm went off. Despite the fact that the announcement was in English I literally couldn’t understand a single word. Serves to show you that sometimes even “your language” can be completely unintelligible to you and you don’t give it a second thought or become insecure about it!)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

I was having a conversation about multilingualism at (one of) my rabbi’s classes last night. Interestingly I said that a lot of people memorize other things with great success (e.g. names of sports teams and what years they won, names of Pokémon, video games, video game levels, TV shows, episodes and seasons, books you’ve read, names of your teachers throughout your life, etc.) One reason for that is that they associate it with places, feelings and stimuli.

Take the example of sports games. I’ve lived with a lot of students from Spain when I was in Poland (to whom I owe the fact that I talk Spanish like an Iberian). They went to sports bars very frequently and no doubt they associate each game with a different place and a different set of emotions, not also to mention the sort of things that their friends or other company said or did during the game or afterwards. In so doing, they have an advantage in memorizing a “timeline” in their head given that they associate each incident with stimuli that serve to enforce the memory.

Or take video games. I can literally draw of map of the Kanto Region (from the original Pokémon games) from memory. I can tell you where in Kanto to find any of the individual species in the Red Version (I started with a Bulbasaur, for those curious). I can even hum the music from any of the routes or the cities (although this is probably due to my musical memory in general, which is something I may write about another time). What’s more, I KNOW I am not the only person who can do that.

I associated each place not only with the melody but also the type of Pokémon that were found there, in addition to places in real life where I was when I beat certain gym leaders in the game. (I beat Brock in Hamden, Connecticut outside of a place called Wentworth’s Ice Cream store, for example).

Now how exactly can you apply this to ACADEMIC knowledge?

For one, since I was very young, I associate particular places with other stimuli (they were usually visual or musical). I also associate places with individual customs or landmarks. Flags, obviously, became a big help as well.

This was something that I may have picked up later in in my childhood from edutainment games. Take, for example, the 1990’s versions of “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” (I’ll have you know that they depicted some places I’ve been to in real life, including Yafo in Israel, Gamla Stan in Stockholm, and the Old Town in Heidelberg with not a hint of inaccuracy in the SLIGHTEST. Okay, they probably copied the details from panoramic photos, but whatever). In the games, you not only associate the places with hints that the characters give to you but also the landscapes and the musical pieces that echo the “mood” of whatever place you’re in. (Yafo is going to be very different from San Francisco, and Mount Kilimanjaro is going to be very different from either of those).

The places no longer became lists of places I’ve never heard of, they became places of living people, real places and a culture that I tasted, to whatever small a degree, with the game’s soundtrack (I would say that Israel, Iran, Iceland, Zaire (as it was called then), France and Germany probably have the most memorable musical pieces in that game).

Or let’s take verb conjugations, for example.

For Finnish, I associated them with particular sentences that I heard in songs and spoken by characters in dubs of animated movies or cartoons. In so doing, the grammatical “pains” of Finnish (such as conjugations of verbs, conjugations of the “no” verb [in Finnish, “no” is a verb and you have to conjugate it and pair it with the stem of another verb afterwards], or the relative pronouns [don’t get me started on these!]) weren’t so painful anymore.

In Hungarian, I’m doing something slightly different, in which I’m associating them with sentences from my Anki deck, all of which seem to tell a story by themselves (okay, let’s open up the deck right now and see what I get. Okay…the sentence is … “apám jól van, mint mindig” [Father is well, as usual]. Doesn’t that sentence tell a story by itself? Doesn’t it cause some emotion of sorts to stir up in your heart? When you hear the sentence, you may associate it with a particular “taste” captured in the sentence. Remember that.) No doubt I’m going to head onto what I did with Finnish-dubbed cartoons as well, probably later on down the line…

Here’s probably another point you need to take away: just reading stuff off a page over and over again is NOT LIKELY TO WORK. You have to pay attention to how each element you’re supposed to be memorizing makes you feel.

What words in it resemble things or words in other languages you already know? What sort of story is the word telling? (In many Germanic languages [Yiddish, German, mainland Scandinavian] you “over-set” something to translate it, but in Finnish and Tok Pisin you “turn” it).

Are you learning it with a friend or eating something you really like (or really don’t like) while you’re learning it?

Did a native speaker correct your pronunciation and did you feel embarrassed? Did a native speaker compliment you and make you feel good about it?

These emotional turns are going to cause your memory to go into Jedi mode, which is why immersion in another country (or another area of the country or the city that you’re living in that you haven’t explored), which is very likely to create emotions of all sorts, is such a good idea, regardless of whether you’re a beginner (like I was with Burmese in Myanmar back in May), on the intermediate plateau (like where I sort of am with Greenlandic right now concerning my Greenland mission in October) or fluent (like with Danish in Greenland).

You can also use music to create emotions as well, which is why learning from a song (and a song text) is a fantastic idea as well, even though it may not assist you in conversation at the absolute beginner stage (although no doubt it will help you up your vocabulary count in the intermediate stage and beyond!)

In summary:

  • To develop an encyclopedic memory, know that it is possible. You already have a very good knowledge of at least something, no matter who you are.
  • Associate what you want to learn with “hooks”. They can be anything that evokes an emotion or a visual that may assist with it. Pay attention to what “connections” you can make between what you want to learn and what you already know. Your knowledge base is like a Lego Castle and the more you build on it the more opportunities you’ll have to link things.
  • Use hooks of all sorts.
  • If something’s not sticking, feel free to expose yourself to it multiple times and your brain may come up with a hook eventually. If not, you can stare at the what you want to learn (e.g. a word, a conjugation) and make something silly so that you remember it.
  • Associate pictures or other sentences or tunes with what sort of words you want to learn.
  • Most importantly, realize that ALL humans are capable of this, and you don’t need a “certain type of brain” in order to get an encyclopedic knowledge of things. Just keep working on the hooks and you’ll get asked what I get very frequently in no time. “How on earth to you manage to KEEP SO MUCH STUFF in your BRAIN?!!?”


Happy hooking!