How To Remember A Fact


Remembering things used to be an essential skill. But these days it’s only really needed by podcasters who are recording in front of a convention audience a live episode where they discuss whether Star Trek V was a bad movie or not. Everyone else can mostly just look stuff up or decide that they don’t need to remember a thing after all. In the old days, you needed a certain kind of person who could tell you, oh, what the code words were to trigger Shipwreck’s hypnotically suppressed memory of a formula to make water explode in that one episode of G.I.Joe where he wakes up seven years in the future. Today, we have Google to tell us whether water ought to be exploding. It ought not.

But it remains a fun hobby, among a certain kind of person, to have things that they just remember. And there are different kinds of things to remember. There are things that you are expected to do or to not do. I don’t mean to talk about that, even though it seems like that covers everything possible. That breaks down quickly when I ask if you’ve ever written a note to yourself so that you potholder. I repeat the admonition to your confused face. Then we get into a debate about whether ‘to pothold’ is a verb and, if it isn’t, then is ‘potholdest’ a comparative? In the confusion I can sneak out undetected.

But I don’t. I want to discuss remembering facts. Any literate, well-informed person could encounter nearly 96 facts worth remembering by their age and decaying range of knee mobility. But how to keep them available? How to keep them from turning into this, a typical remembered fact:

By the time he was 42(? 44? 32?) years old, Ludwig von (van? van der?) Beethoven had been part of over (nearly? under?) 120 (20? 220?) without once [ something ] except for the ~one time(s?) in [ Bonn / Vienna / ^W with E T A Hoffman ].

Reference: Harpo Speaks!, Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber.

There are two good ways to ensure you will never forget a fact. The first we know from that time you were in fourth grade, and were prepared to give the most thoroughly awesome presentation on “water” that your science class had ever seen. And you even had real actual cubes of ice stored in the thermos bottle to show off alongside some water you got from the one water fountain in school that didn’t just dribble a tiny trickle of warm, indistinctly smelly water down the spout. And how you began by declaring how aitch-two-oh was the technical name that scientists gave the water “molly-cah-loo-la-lee”. And how since that day you have known the generally agreed-upon pronunciation of “molecule” with the thoroughness that somehow everyone else in your class knew because why would they laugh so much? And you know it with such thoroughness that you feel jabs of embarrassment whenever you see the word “molecule” in print, or hear someone talking about molecules, or you make use of a molecule of something.

So tying a fact to embarrassment lets you remember it easily. Indeed, oppressively, to the point that you cannot possibly forget even facts you wish to. This is what makes mnemonics work. Bind a fact you wish to know to something too dumb to let anyone know you know. Once you’ve composed:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sulfuric acid is
Formula aitch-two-ess-oh-four

The terror that someone will learn about the meter of that last line will ensure you’ll never mistakenly put roses in your heap of “things which are blue”.

You don’t need to use embarrassment to commit facts to memory, no. But the second way to sear a fact into your eternally-present memory is to tie it to shame. And, you know, look around your country. Whichever country you’re in right now. There’s enough you’re ashamed of as is. We don’t need to add to that heap of shame by trying to use it to remember which chemical element is abbreviated Ci. It is cinnamon. You’re looking at a “periodic table” of spices. Stick to embarrassment.

Shipwreck’s hypnotic activation phrase was “frogs in winter”. I’m not going to try to convince you Star Trek V was good, but I will insist William Shatner’s directing was solid. If you find your water starting to explode try smothering the blast with the good, stern look your fourth-grade science teacher gave the class after she finished smirking. That’ll help.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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