How I Built an App to Remember What I Learn in High School

Harnessing the power of our visual and spatial memories

For much of high school my study habits pretty much consisted of:

  1. Jot down bullet points from the PowerPoint as my teacher lectures
  2. Ignore my notes until the next lecture
  3. Re-read my notes right before the test, and sometimes fill-out a study guide or make some flashcards
  4. Take the test and try to recall as much information as I can

Nobody ever really taught me how to study — ever since my freshman year biology teacher gave us guided fill-in notes, the only way I studied through the rest of high school was by copying, reading, re-reading, and regurgitating. Sure, I would do fine on tests with this “strategy”, but I was more learning to take tests than actually learning the content. Most of what I learned would vanish from my memory just days after cramming them into my mind. I’m sure many of my psuedo-studying peers can relate. At one point I realized what I was doing not only wasn’t helping me develop as a student in any way, but also wasn’t even an effective way to memorize and retain information.

I started doing some research on how top students study, and most of what I found was stuff I’d either already unsuccessfully tried or was too lazy to fully commit to. Techniques like active recall or mind maps sounded promising, but were much harder in practice given my habit to just sit in front of my notes and read. I decided to shift my strategy from just vaguely “learning to study” to learning to effectively memorize content.

I eventually found Joshua Foer’s TED talk Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do, in which he explains an ancient memory technique that was supposedly invented 2500 years ago in Greece called the “memory palace”. Like Foer, I was initially skeptical when I heard it — did Cicero really use this technique to memorize speeches? Did philosophers and scholars actually memorize full books with the memory palace? Was it really possible that anyone with an average memory could memorize anything in mere minutes?

I tried it. It worked.

First associate a concept or idea to some whacky image, then picture that image in your spatial memory. Here’s a quick example: Say you want to remember the Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court case. Start by associating Marbury v. Madison with Kanye grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift at the VMAs (the fact that this was 7 years ago just shows how good our visual memory is). Then, imagine yourself in the doorway of your room and seeing Kanye and Taylor Swift standing on your desk! Outrageous, yes, but extremely memorable. With just a little bit of repetition, these three things will be linked together in your mind: 1. Marbury v. Madison, 2. Kanye v. Taylor Swift, and 3. the precise location of your desk.

Imagine this happening on your bookshelf, then link it to something you want to remember

The best part of the memory palace is to use that process to link together a bunch of concepts and visuals and then place them all in different locations with your spatial memory. Close your eyes and try visualizing the layout of your home. Chances are, you remember the exact location of every single piece of furniture. Now take advantage of this and form a sequential narrative of crazy images you see as you walk around your house. On your desk is Kanye and Taylor, on your bed right next to them is LeBron jumping up and down, then in your bookshelf are rows and rows of Spongebobs dancing. This probably sounds completely crazy to you, but the key that the funnier, lewder and more bizarre, the better you’ll be able to remember it.

This technique can take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t good at remembering and link them with the kinds of memories our brains were built for: visual and spatial memories.

As I started using memory palaces to study for various tests in school, I realized that the technique was immensely powerful. But as effective as it was, it was pretty tasking for me to create elaborate visual palaces in my mind, let alone stay committed to practicing the technique. I’d created memory palaces for a couple of my classes, but for the most part I was too used to lazily copying down notes and re-reading them. Fabricating visuals in our minds and staying committed to the technique are probably the biggest barriers that prevent many people from creating their own memory palaces.

I had an idea — what if there was a tool to streamline and help organize memory palaces? I tried a bunch of mundane note-taking and flashcard apps, but they didn’t work well with engaging my visual memory. Then I remembered something: a few months prior, I’d jokingly made a “Tinder for GIFs” app that basically shows you funny (and very memorable) GIFs. Maybe crazy, silly GIFs and memes found across the internet was the key to harnessing the true power of our memories.

Enter “Eternal”

I started building an app that makes it super easy for anyone to harness the power of their visual memory. It essentially combines a note-taking app with a card-based system similar to how a deck of flashcards works. You start by adding a note, which can be a concept, definition, idea, or anything you want. Then you create a card for the note by entering a title that represents a note, and finally the fun part — searching for a whacky GIF to add to the card.

To fully use the memory palace technique, you can take it one step further and link together cards chronologically using a place’s layout that you’ve already unknowingly memorized (eg. house, friend’s house, school, office). As you begin to associate the crazy GIF on the card with whatever you want to remember, your brain starts to commit the association to your memory through a process called elaborative encoding.

I initially built Eternal as a tool to help me memorize material effectively as a student. But as I’ve started to use it more and more, I’ve found that the use cases extended beyond school. I started creating memories for key ideas in books, recipes for making cookies, famous quotations, and heck, even for a dance routine.

Using Eternal unexpectedly helped me employ other learning strategies like active recall and spaced repetition — instead of checking Facebook on my phone whenever I was bored, I would open up Eternal and quickly swipe through a few cards. It’s like reviewing notes, but with a more fun visual aid and user interface. I also realized that this wasn’t just an app for simply holding your notes to be occasionally reviewed. The point of Eternal isn’t to externalize your memory to your phone — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The point is to use our phones to exercise our memory and help us remember the remember.

Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: all these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged
- Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Thanks for reading! Interested in the idea? Check out Eternal on the App Store here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/eternal-take-notes-your-visual/id1071984737?ls=1&mt=8. I’m always looking for feedback to improve both the app and our memories — you can reach me at spencersyen@gmail.com