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Approximately 140 CFA Society Chicago members met by Zoom on September 14, 2021, to learn how to use mental training techniques to improve memory and retention. The instructor was Paul Nowak, founder of IRIS Reading, LLC, who has presented to CFA Society Chicago in the past on speed reading. Nowak considers memory training to be a good way to improve retention, which is as important to reading as is speed. He defined memory training as “learning how to learn”.

Nowak began by pointing out that we often learn things by rote memorization, which involves repetition, and can sometimes be an effective learning method. He noted that we easily remember the lyrics from songs that were popular far in the past because we listened to them so often. The music also helps us remember the words because we associate the two with one another. But what method can help us remember important things when we don’t have the time to invest in repetition? Nowak has developed a four-step process to address that, with the steps forming the acronym for which he has named his company, IRIS which stands for:

  • Inspect – Give a quick scan to what you’re about to read to get the general gist of it. Look at the table of contents, illustrations or diagrams, chapter titles or section headings, etc.
  • Read – Notice how the material is organized within the structure you observed in the inspection. Pay particular attention to the beginning and end of each chapter or section.
  • Inquire – Ask yourself questions about what you’ve just read as a quiz to see what you’ve learned.
  • Store – Put the information away in memory (preferably long-term memory).

Nowak continued by explaining several concepts that he utilizes in his training. These included:

  1. Visualization – The ability to see something with “your mind’s eye” without having it within your literal vision. When we meet people for the first time, we’re more likely to remember their faces an hour later than their names. This is because visual recall is much stronger than verbal recall.
  2. Chunking – Dividing information into small categories or groups (“chunks”) before we store it in memory. It’s easier to remember several small groups of information than one large group.
  3. Association – Because it’s easier to remember unusual, even weird, things, associate information with an item, thought, or activity that will help you learn and remember it. Using the example of meeting new people again, if we meet two people, one named Baker, and one who is a baker, it’s easier to remember the profession of the latter one than the name of the first, because of association.

The meat of Nowak’s process relies on the Numeric Pegging System (a common tool in memory training that is not unique to him). To teach it, he asked everyone to read the table of contents and brief summaries of the twelve chapters in the book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina. He then proceeded to teach how to remember the chapter titles with numeric pegging.

Begin by using visual association to peg each cardinal number to an object. Nowak suggested using objects with shapes that resemble the numbers one through ten as follows:

  1. Pencil
  2. Swan
  3. McDonalds Golden Arches (turned sideways)
  4. Chair (turned upside-down)
  5. Hook
  6. Cherry
  7. Lightning bolt
  8. Race track (the toy version in a figure eight pattern)
  9. Balloon (with a string attached)
  10. Place setting (plate with a fork)

The second step involves thinking of an image of something involving a pegged object that connects it to the corresponding information. For example, the title of chapter 5 in the book was Short Term Memory. To connect this to the pegged word “hook”, Nowak reasoned that a popular image of a pirate includes a hook in place of a hand. Pirates hide treasure and use maps to help them remember where it is.  Hence, hook, leads to pirate, to buried treasure, and to treasure map to assist memory. As this example illustrates, the associations can be silly or frivolous (which might be more effective than serious associations). To extend the concept beyond ten items, add a second pegging idea to represent the second digit. This adds a layer of complexity but still helps simplify the memory process. This pegging process is more generally called elaborative encoding among professional memory trainers.

An alternative method called the Memory Palace is much older, extending back to ancient Greece according to Nowak. This one relies on places one frequents rather than objects as pegging tools. A simple (modern) example would use the rooms in a house as cues. Each room could be divided into sections, or pieces of furniture in the room, to help remember greater detail of associated ideas.

The final topic Nowak addressed was how to improve retention of material we want to remember. The best way is by reviewing it, in other words, by repetition. To explain what he called the science of forgetting he used the Forgetting Curve as illustration. The curve arrays percent retention on the vertical axis and time along the horizontal axis. The first time we learn something, retention falls quickly as depicted by a steep, downward and rightward sloped line. With each review of the material, the steepness declines as we retain more for longer. The goal in reviewing is to extend the time at which retention bottoms out as far as possible. Nowak recommended using a Fibonacci sequence to space out the reviews; increasing the time between reviews with each one, whether measured by hours, days or weeks.

The presentation filled the entire 90 minutes allotted with Nowak responding to questions as they came up during the presentation.

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