Here are some numbers: 87, 34, 982, 104, 33  – see if you can memorize them.

The Goals

  1. Understand how memory is about association

    We need to connect the dots to remember things well – in most cases

  2. Humans have limited memory

    Can you remember those five numbers we talked about still?

  3. Computers can do things we can't

    Certain things aren’t worth remembering – and we can’t really remember them anyway… so – we found some other ways

  4. We can do things computers can't

    So, it makes sense – to split up the work.


Types of memory

People have decided that there are three types of memory. And in those types – there are some categories.

I’ll spare you the long version: There are things you can remember for a short time, like those numbers that you saw earlier / and probably don’t remember anymore… (STM) – and there are longer term memories – such as the name of your elementary school – or the city you grew up in (LTM). Procedural memory is how you remember to ride a bicycle or open a door without thinking about it consciously. Declarative is about facts and Semantic is about meaning.

If I were to rattle off 40 numbers… you couldn’t remember them or add them up or multiply them in real-time, right?

Could a computer remember the smell of a flower and the sounds of birds in a field just after a rainstorm?

Storing data

You can really only remember 5-7 things at a time in short-term memory. (most people)

People would make little marks in wood – or tie knots in a rope to help “store” numbers so they could keep track of things. These rows of beads on an Abacus let you store numbers so that you don’t have to keep them in your short term memory. You can add 20 numbers together by just using a little of your short term memory at a time.

You can number (271 apples) – and while it’s in working memory – turn your body / and note 271 to the abacus. Now you can totally forget that number entirely – because it is recorded already – to the machine. Then … you can turn back and get the next number (139 apples) – and then add that number to the abacus.

Now you don’t need to remember either of those numbers because you’ve already added them to an external memory system. You just have to read the total. There should be 4 hundreds, 1 ten, and 0 ones… so / who cares what those numbers were. We know that we have 410 apples. Although – if you had to go back and check… that wouldn’t be very easy…

How things connect


You have all of these ‘things’ that you ‘remember’ – but every time you “remember” something – you are rebuilding it. It’s pretty weird… and a lot of people don’t like to believe that.

The way you recall them is by signifiers and landmarks. I can remember many little bits that allow me to map out enough landmarks to build out a story I can tell myself.

Here are some good Radiolab episodes about memory:

Humans have a mysterious and wonderful way of cobbling things back together. Computers don’t do that. They have explicit (fully developed or formulated) sets of data that they can recall exactly – every time. This is really really good for arbitrary things like numbers – or really large sets of information that humans wouldn’t want to remember.

While the computer can remember vastly more things than we can – there is a limit and there are a few different types of memory – but we can talk about that later.

Some people say they can remember being a baby – and get really mad when I suggest they can’t. I’ll probably talk about that later… but it’s unlikely that you can remember anything before you knew a language – because – we seem to store our memories in our native tongue. Does your internal voice speak to you? Mine defining speaks English. Scientists believe our memories start around 3 – because that’s when we learn to speak. We have to connect the ‘things’ to other ‘things’ – and if we don’t know how to refer to anything… then it would make sense… the jury is still out. What do you think?

The computer definitely doesn’t know anything – until we describe enough things to create a shared language.

Mind Palaces / Memory palaces

Temple of Time: Emma Willard, 1846

For some reason – Joel thought of me when he heard this podcast and sent it to Ivy.

I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I’ve read about these “Mind Palaces” and have always been interested in ‘memory’ and how we store information.

I heard a podcast (probably Radiolab) – where they talked to some people in a tribe and they could map out their entire neighboring landscape from a birds-eye view. When asked about it – they said ‘of course we can’ we just look at it from above. I think about this all the time. (I’ll find it). I’ve also always been fascinated by Native American creation stories and generally – how Shamanism and other information is shared over centuries.

In the past couple weeks (August 2019) I’ve been working on my own Mind Palace. I’m not sure if it’ll stick… – but I think this little story is a good example of how it works. You don’t just make a ‘library’ in your mind and ‘walk in there’ and pick up the right imaginary book and read it – and then just “know the answer.”

The other day – I was looking up a diagram I was going to include in a later lesson. It took forever to find. ( is a hard address to remember!!! — So. I wanted to buy this guy’s book. I’d been developing my Mind Palace (it’s more like a barn so far) – and it looks like this:

Derek's mind palace

My Mind Palace is pretty “Abstract” so far. I’ll show it a little more in the video – but the basics are that I have some imagined physical space. Currently, I’m spending most of my time in the greenhouse. I haven’t organized the plants very much. The house is still a blur. I’m spending most of my time relaxing on a leather day bed in the central area of the greenhouse. Off to the side is a little kitchen. It’s more like an artist type kitchen with a sink for dirt and paint. There’s a refrigerator in there where I have Ivy’s phone number in those brightly colored plastic magnets.

Some people suggest that you use a real place. They used to teach this technique in schools across the world – as a normal way to remember large amounts of information. It just kinda faded out for some reason (which I’ll research further).

How you use it

I needed to remember an author’s name because I wanted to walk over to the book store and buy the book. The author is Randall Munroe.

I didn’t walk over to my ‘mind palace library’ and write down his name… and store it in my library – as it might seem (how that “Temple of Time” figure implied).

Instead, you use the things in the imaginary place as a way to forcefully connect dots to something that you wouldn’t normally have reason to. My first thought was that Randall and Munroe  – have strange spellings (to me). So – Randall felt kinda random. Because I haven’t really organized my plants yet… I thought of the word “random.” Then I thought… Marilyn MonroeI didn’t have anything to tie to that yet… so – figuring that I might need to anchor to that time period later… I placed a painting of Marilyn on the wall near the door to the greenhouse kitchen. I can always move it later. So, instead of trying to figure out the author name… I think:

“It was a weird oneplants… on yeah… they are random… and the painting… – and the words were spelled funny… Randall Munroe.

Weird, right! – but… spending that time to connect the names – was enough to lock it in memory. Instead of remembering 2 words with no context… I remember the whole act of setting up a way to remember it. It’s wild. You do NOT have to do this type of thing… but I’m just using it as an example. The more connection points – (smell being a big one) the easier it is to get it into long term memory and more importantly – to recall (remember) it.

Your brain is taking bits of experience and bouncing around to retrieve a final concept – or collection of things.

It’s ok if that all sounds crazy. It’s just for fun. What I’m getting to – is much more simple. Computers are simple compared to humans.

Why can't we just write it all down?

This stuff all sounds like a mess! Can’t we just write it down? Well, we did. People compiled huge lists of all of the mathematical outcomes for everything they could think of.

The word “computer” is traced back to the early 1600s.

“A person performing mathematical calculations.”

But… the idea goes back much further. We used books like this to figure out what would happen to crops – and more recently how to bomb people with missiles and how to steer fleets of ships and all sorts of complex decisions.

The problem is… that the books they used to make the calculations were made by humans. Sometimes they made mistakes when they wrote them. Sometimes they make mistakes when interpreting them. Sometimes the fleet of ships crashed into a reef or a miscalculation destroyed the crops that year.

If you’re like me – you look at a table of math like this and things just go blurry. That’s ok! We aren’t going to use anything like that. I promise!

A more common example

Try and relate to the Multiplication Tables you used in elementary school. These tables are less complex – but conceptually they are the same. They are just a bunch of pre-worked out “math stuff” even thought they are “cute.”



These were the “Computers” of the 1950s.

Calculation machines

Using some sort of Calculation machine – we were able to off-load the job of our short term memory and skip much of the books of math tables. This allows us to focus on bigger issues / and to avoid some of the mistakes. (keep in mind that these machines aren’t perfect – and they are built by the humans, so – there is always a chance for something to go wrong)

Before cell-phones, I had to remember all of my friend’s phone numbers. Now I can only remember 2. I’m not sure if offloading our human memories is always the best thing…



There ‘s a 20-minute episode of The Mind, Explained – That was just released (September 12, 2019) – which I want you to watch after this lesson (if you have access to it):

Also – side note: What are your thoughts on it’s “pacing?” How does it make you feel?

In conclusion

So! You can’t remember everything. But – a computer is never going to be able to remember their first kiss – or or the ache in your legs and the wind and the view as you reach a crest and complete an arduous hike… or how it feels to see an old friend after years. BUT – it can remember a lot of stuff that you can’t. Boring stuff like how many pounds of fish came off each 201 boats each day for 24 years. Let’s save our memories for the important stuff – and let the computers do the other stuff. Know which is which – and how to leverage that power.

The Challenges:

  1. What are the most important memories?

    Try and draw out a complex memory – using mind-maps / brain-“storm” / lists – and whatever types of things you can think of.

    30 minutes suggested
  2. What parts of that memory do you think other people could relate to?

    What words / attributes / or concepts / in your drawn-out memory – would other people understand – and relate to? Why do you think they would? What are some ideas you have that other people don’t share? Why would they be different to different people.

    30 minutes suggested
  3. Ask a few friends if they can remember being a baby

    See what they say – and report back to us in our next meeting.

    20 minutes suggested