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How To Apply Memory Techniques In Learning Organic Chemistry

In the last post we talked about how having a great memory is no guarantee of doing well on many types of organic chemistry exams. As an example I shared the story of one reader, Hussain, who’s developed the ability to memorize an entire deck of cards in just a few minutes, but got a class-average grade in his last organic chemistry exam. We both agreed that knowing how to apply concepts is, overall, much more important for organic chemistry success than being able to memorize. 

That being said – what if you really wanted to develop a great memory, and do it in an efficient way? And how would you apply it to organic chemistry? It’s a normal human instinct to want to be able to remember a greater portion of the items we read, and to be able to recall them quickly. Having a system for efficiently retaining and processing information is a tremendous benefit.

This past summer I read the book “Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer. It tells the story of how he trained himself to go from having a self-described “average memory” to being able to compete in the World Memory championships. This article gives you a good idea of the process.

The basic technique is to associate things we want to remember with images – not words – and then to mentally distribute those images spatially in a familiar location, such as a childhood home, school, or other familiar place. This is known as the method of loci, or “memory palaces”. 

The technique is very effective, and after some practice, easy to implement. After reading the book, I started using it to remember nerdy things like lists of constellations and geological timescales – and found that I could learn these things in my spare time while I was making dinner or about to go to bed. This was a vast improvement over my previous memorization strategy, which was simply to repeat words over and over in my head like a tape recorder until they finally stuck.

I’d always been curious to see if anyone had method of memory palaces in studying for organic and was meaning to write a post about it. After Hussain mentioned using the method of locii to study for his organic chemistry tests, I had no choice but to ask him if he would agree to a brief interview on the subject. Thankfully for us all, he was gracious enough to do so.

So here is brief Q&A on how a memory expert uses these techniques for studying and memorizing items efficiently. 

1) How did you get interested in developing a better memory? 

There’s an interesting story behind that. I was searching the web looking for hobbies to do in my spare time when I came across this video about Dominic O’Brien, 8-time world memory champion, memorizing a deck of cards in a few minutes. Surprised, I wanted to learn more about mnemonics and memory palaces, so I took a deck of cards and associated each one with a specific symbol. I began by taking 5 cards at random, looking at them one-by-one while visualizing the symbol for each card to create a story in a specific environment, and then I would recall those cards from memory. I gradually increased the number of cards to 10, 15, and more until I could do the entire deck in a few minutes. It took about a month to get to the point where I could memorize the full deck.

I’ve impressed some of my friends at parties by memorizing a deck of cards in a few minutes in front of them. Now, I’m practicing to hopefully enter the US Memory Championship next year. I’m even asking a few of my friends to start a memory team with me or something like that at my college so I’m not just flying solo for the entire ride. And, plus, I don’t know anyone else at my university (Indiana University Bloomington) who uses this technique. I’ve come across a few other students who have heard about it, but no one has ever wanted to put it forward.

2) Can you give some examples of how you use this technique in studying for organic chemistry?
Here’s a specific example. Williamson-ether synthesis: Throw a magic wand and a bottle of beer into a well on a hill, and reel up the bucket from the well to find a pair of angel wings.”

In this story, the WELL reminds me of “WILLiamson”, the magic wand is an organohalide, the bottle of beer is an alcohol, and the pair of angel wings represent an ether. Those are just the images that I use.

There are a lot of ways I use visualization/mnemonics for reactions. I like to think of each element as a different symbol. There are a lot of elements, but, fortunately, O Chem only focuses on a few of them, so it’s easy to develop visual cues for each. You need make the effort to really capture the image when you think about each one so that it will stick with you.
Carbon – Ninja (since it’s everywhere)
Hydrogen – A basketball
Oxygen – Hot air balloon
Nitrogen – Monkey
Fluorine – Flute or a Bird (like…Flappy bird)
Chlorine – Tiger
Bromine – Dog
Iodine – Penguin

I like to think of bonds as ropes that tie different elements together. Along each rope, there are two tiny birds that are perched on them. These birds are the electrons.

Sometimes, when I have to memorize things like pKa values or specific reactions, I’ll use these element symbols. For example, to remember that HBr’s pKa is ~ -9, you imagine a dog holding a basketball on its nose and throwing it into a hoop. As he does this, the ball makes a tall, beautiful arch before the ball circles around the rim of the hoop a couple of times and, finally, it sinks in. The arching of the ball’s trajectory followed by the circular motion of the ball remind you of the number 9 since 9 basically looks like a circle with a curved line. Remember the scenery of this visual device, too. Is it in your college’s basketball stadium? Your old house’s basement? Your backyard? Make sure that the visual devices are in places that are very familiar to you. I like to use places like my daily route form my dorm to my first class.

Let’s say you want to memorize the Sn2 mechanism. You could imagine five ninjas arranged in a cross-pattern (similar to the tetrahedral structure) on the roof of a building. There are four ninjas surrounding the middle ninja. They’re defending themselves against a giant tiger, which attacks the middle ninja. Frightened, the cowardly ninja in the back runs away, and the tiger remains with the ninjas.

One important note I’d like to make is that my visual cues don’t have to be exactly the same ones that other people use. When I say the word “frog,” I picture a frog in my head, but it’s most likely not the exact same picture you get in your head. You also have to think about the specifics of the picture (Is it a photo of a frog? A drawing on a whiteboard? A sculpture made out of clay? Where is the frog? Is it on a lily pad or on a log?). Similarly, my visual cues may help my associations, but not necessarily everyone’s. (I actually used Pokemon for each card when I was memorizing a deck of cards, but that’s another story).

3) Doesn’t it take a lot of time to develop all of these associations?
I know all of this is really counterintuitive. You’re probably thinking, “If I had to memorize stuff for O Chem, why should I memorize a whole new set of images and visual cues and try to associate them with chemistry stuff? That’s basically saying I have to memorize more things!” But this isn’t how memory works. Memory isn’t like a bucket that you fill up with water in which each drop of water is a different memory. This would mean that, the more you remember, the harder it is to recollect different things. But, with memory palaces/mnemonic techniques, memory is completely different. Think of memory like you are standing on an island, and you see another island in the distance. You want to get on the other island, but you can’t just swim over because it’s way too far away. Instead, you want to build a bridge to run across to to get to that island. Memory is like building bridges, not filling up buckets. Spending a few minutes every now and then to visualize and make associations is very beneficial in the long run.

4) I love that analogy. Have using memory techniques benefited you in other courses? If so, how?
For other subjects, I have actually used this technique to memorize my speeches for my Public Speaking class. While the rest of the students use notecards and visual aids, I have my speech memorized. Along with boosting my confidence and reducing my anxiety, it helps me with my delivery since I’m better able to present the topic of my speech to my audience. I’ve used it in my Molecular Biology class to memorize entire biological systems (such as DNA Replication, the role of different cells in embryogenesis, etc.)

Now that I’m in college, I’ve been associating visual images for a lot of the things I learn. It’s mostly in subjects like sciences that require a lot of abstract thinking, but I also make sure to understand the theory behind everything (obviously you can’t rely only on memory to do well in school). It helps you with active recall, which is something most students struggle with.

5) Anything someone should know before trying to implement this? And are there any books or guides you’d recommend?

I don’t think there’s any secret trick or hack to making it work because it does take practice. I believe that most people have really great memories that they need to exercise and train in order to maintain. However, we, as a society, have been lead to believe that memorization is incredibly difficult and we won’t remember anything. In addition, our ancestors who lacked paper and other ways of writing information had amazing memory abilities (such as the Roman rhetorics and scribes). Our brains hold the remnants of these memorization capabilities, but most of us are either unaware of them or too afraid to try to use them. A lot of it is really about trusting yourself that you can memorize.
Some other resources I’ve used:

-Great book, must-read.

-Forum for meeting other memory wizards.

-Memorize ANYTHING:

 Thank you very much to Hussain for sharing how he has used memory techniques in learning organic chemistry.
Have any questions for Hussain? Leave them in the comments!

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