You might get lost the first time you try a new a bike route. But chances are you’ll never get lost in the same place a second time.
On the second bike ride, you’ll remember where to go, what the route looks like, and definitely how steep the hills are. Certain landmarks will look familiar. Even if you don’t go back there again for a week, you’ll remember where to go.
Compare this to reading an article or a chapter in a book. How much do you remember a week after you read it?
Reading and memorizing facts are difficult tasks for your brain. But your visual memory is extraordinary.
For tens of thousands of years, human beings had to find their way around without maps or GPS. To this day, we’re still pretty good at learning our way around in one sitting. Your brain is hard-wired to detect visual cues and physical locations.
One of the great secrets to a better memory is to harness that visual memory to perform the more difficult tasks.
The story goes that the Greek poet Simonides once did a recitation in front of a room full of dinner guests. When he finished, he thanked his audience and left the building.
Moments later, an earthquake struck, and the building was reduced to rubble. Simonides was incredibly fortunate to survive, but an even greater fortune was the discovery he made about the human mind that day.
The Greek building was made of heavy stone and marble. Not only were the guests instantly killed, but it was virtually impossible to identify their remains.
This is where Simonides came in to help. He remembered what everything looked like as he stood before his audience. He could visually recall where each guest was seated, and he could lead their loved ones directly to the spot.
This event led to the development of the "memory palace" technique. You substitute visual data that's easy to recall with difficult information that you want to remember.
We'll illustrate this with a bike ride.
Let’s say you have to learn a list of Italian verbs. You can associate them with different places on your route, and you’ll be able to remember them about as easily as you can remember the route itself.
Let’s say I start by riding out of my driveway into the street. My first Italian word is calciare, which means “to kick.” So I picture my neighbor’s SUV parked in the street, and I stop and give the tire a big kick.
Next I ride down to the main street, where there’s a bike trail that goes along the railroad tracks. The second word is “attraversare” which means “to cross,” so I imagine crossing the tracks.
I leave the bike trail and take a road that winds up into the mountains. Pretty soon I’ve worked up a sweat, so I add the word “sudore” which means to sweat. The next word is “stappare” to “unstop.” It’s like the motion of uncorking a wine bottle, so I “stappare” my water bottle and pour half of it over my sweaty shiny bald head. Then I drink the rest, remembering the word “bere” which means to drink.
I’m just getting warmed up at the beginning of the bike ride, and already I’ve memorized half of my list.
Why am I writing about Jedi mind tricks in a bicycling post?
The bicycle is one of those things that can liberate you from what I call the soft perils of 21st century life. Already you're probably healthier than a lot of your peers, because you often travel on your own physical power. Why not give your mind the same freedom?
One of these days, a dead battery or a weak signal will turn your smart phone into a mere decoration for the inside of your pocket. Then it’s time for you to take control and use the resources you have. That means your bike, your body, and your brain.
Limits of the Memory Palace
I showed you how to memorize a bunch of verbs. But that's a far cry from being able to speak a foreign language. The truth is that memory is just a foundation. There's a lot more to learning.
But riding your bike will help you with other thinking processes such as fluency, synthesis, and creativity. We'll get to that in another post.