Martin Verbic
May 5 · 8 min read
Credit: Mark Breznik

Each July, about 15000 high school students who want to study medicine in Austria sit a rigorous admissions exam, the MedAT [1]. Choosing 10% of such a large pool of prospect doctors is all but an easy task. Along the standard Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics, Austrians also test candidates’ cognitive and socio-emotional competencies. There are several problems to solve in the cognitive part, the most interesting one being the memory test. Named retention power and memory (or Merkfähigkeit und Gedächtnis) it consists of two phases: an encoding phase and a recall phase. During the encoding phase, there are exactly 8 minutes to try to memorise 8 patient records each containing some facts about the patient, such as name and photo, month and year of birth, blood group, medication, allergies, patient number and country of origin.

It may seem pretty straight-forward to some extent, but choosing 600 students out of nearly 6000 only in Vienna, requires it to be somewhat more demanding:

  • Completely made up name without any sense.
  • Two other cognitively demanding tasks (numerical sequences and syllogisms) serve as a distraction for 25 minutes. After their completion, the recall phase follows.
  • The questions about the patient records make you connect all of this recalled data. For example, they might ask you: “How many patients are there with the blood group B that do not take any medication?”

It takes a rather much different approach than trying to learn all the facts by heart in 8 minutes. It’s incredibly hard, but taking into account the 25 minutes of other cognitively demanding tasks and it’s almost impossible.

How about photographic memory? In theory, if one would possess the mythical photographic memory, no one would stand a chance when comparing to them. But let me reassure you, photographic memory doesn’t even exist. [2] So everyone has to in one way or another actively invest in memorising whatever there is to learn.

No by heart learning, no photographic memory, what else is there to use? Mnemonics. This post will feature a detailed view of some of the most useful mnemonic strategies for rapid encoding of random information, how to start learning them and apply them in different areas of life and beyond. At the very end, I will also describe a possible workflow and integration of the MedAT patient record.

Principles of memorisation

Which things are people going to remember the most? Which situations, objects, persons do you remember most? It’s usually the most absurd and the most emotional ones. This is already the first technique to apply. The sky is the limit really, but the more vivid, the more insane and absurd the pictures are the better.

Theories, such as the Flashbulb memory theory imply that people remember events more if there is an emotion present at the time of encoding. [3]

Using as much imagination as possible is absolutely key on the way of better and more efficient memory. Here are some examples (mainly on the example of the MedAT):

  • Photos: The easiest way of memorising photos is to look for familiar faces in those photos and try to imagine that person or to look for specific characteristics of a group of people.
  • Names: Again, looking for familiarity with the people you know, to famous people. Or maybe imagining an object if the name resembles it. You could also look for specific details on the face of a person and try to absurdly emphasise it or apply a stereotype to it.
  • Countries: Like it or not, stereotypes are the answer. The more absurd the stereotype, the better you will memorise it.

The Major System

The Major System is a technique that allows one to memorise numbers in a systematic way. [4] The premise is that each phonetic consonant corresponds to a single-digit number. The second rule is to ignore the vowels in words and only use words with either one or two phonetic consonants (for single- and double-digit numbers respectively).

As with every beneficial skill, there is some learning to do. It’s ideal to allocate objects, animals or words that are easy to imagine to numbers from 00 to 99. Such a span is ideal, since learning these allocations for three-digit numbers is not smart. The reason is that the amount of words required to learn is simply too large to be beneficial and effective.

But what about the long, 6-digit numbers? Well, those will require breaking down the word into 3 parts and making a story out of it. For example, the number 637492 contains the words gem (63), crow (74) and pony (92). A simple story can be made up out of these three nouns could go something along the lines of “A gem was taken by a crow, which ran away on a pony.” Note that it’s important to keep the sequence the same.

Every absurdity, special connection to your life in the story or noun is amazingly helpful. In learning these allocations as well as in the actual encoding process. This system, however, has to be practised to truly master it and apply it in everyday life, school or on an exam.

Chunking

Chunking is a simple memorisation technique that uses an even simpler principle: packing as much information in as little memory capacity as possible. Some isalready used in the Major System or when memorising numbers. It’s irrational to try to memorise the whole 6-digit number in one go, but cutting it down to three bits of 2 is entirely doable.

A similar area of application for chunking is if you have to memorise two details that are relatively consistent. As seen later, chunking together two at first completely irrelevant things can prove to be extremely helpful in reducing the amount of information to memorise. Again, it’s all about setting up a logical system beforehand and practising it.

In the example of MedAT, chunking could be used with blood-groups and medication. These too are consistent and can be allocated with a noun for each blood-group depending on the medication, something along these lines:

Loci method

As the name might suggest, the Loci method is based on specific points in a specific space. This method is used in a variety of ways (MedAT example below). It is also known as the memory palace technique used extensively by Sherlock Holmes. But with practice and a familiar space with full of discrete loci, anyone can build it.

The principle is again fairly simple. You choose a space (a room or a street for example) where you are comfortable and that you know to the last detail. In this place, you then choose specific locations (loci), where you “put” your objects during the encoding phase. This is where the beauty of the system comes in — everything that was previously only imagined, from numbers to allergens and months, now gets integrated into this mind palace.

There are so many different ways to use this technique. Imagine you have to or want to memorise lots of different dates. You could build yourself 12 buildings corresponding to the months. These buildings could have 28/29/30/31 floors corresponding to the dates. You could then put every person in their own room in a specific building and on a specific floor. Sounds doable right? Imagination is your limit, the bigger the better.

Integration of techniques on the example of MedAT

For you to fully understand the mentioned techniques, this section serves as an example of a workflow of encoding during the MedAT memory test. The patient record looks something like this (name, birthday, blood-group, medication, allergies, patient number, and country of origin respectively):

For this specific photo, I choose to be in the living room (I am sitting on the couch) where I have predetermined specific loci.

  1. Photo: The photo does not resemble anyone I know, but I can imagine it lighted up on the TV.
  2. Name: Could be an anagram for INDOK, which I can apply to the word “Indochina”, also is from Korea which is great for chunking. I hang the whole Indochina continent on the speaker on the wall right of the TV.
  3. Birthday: 27 is Unke, a German word for a sort of frog and I have a predetermined noun for October: Wienerschnitzel. The next locus is the couch, so a frog is eating a Wienerschnitzel beside me on the couch.
  4. Blood group and medication: Blood group B and yes for medication corresponds to a banana, so I put a banana on the nearby cupboard beside some books.
  5. Allergens: I know a drug that’s called an antihistaminic and know how it looks like. Mouses are not a problem. I imagine some mouses eating a heap of antihistaminic tablets on the floor in front of me.
  6. Patient number: 51 is latte, another 51 makes it a double one and zero is Oase, German for an oasis. I imagine a double latte standing on the speaker left of the TV.
  7. Country: Even though I have already associated Korea with his name and Indochina, since I have a predetermined spot on the DVD player, I imagine a Korean flag on the number display.

Applications and some final notes

These techniques can be used virtually anywhere, with little limits. The Major System is an awesome technique for learning different values and the Loci method proves to be one of the most effective study techniques of all. I know for a fact that participants in Pi number competitions use it, where they recite as many digits of the Pi number as they can by heart. A Slovenian participant, who just happens to be the world champion, had a system of walking down the street of his home city and imagining each successive number on specific Loci.

The workflow described, however, is highly specific for the MedAT and probably one of the few ways to actually at least have a chance of succeeding. So if you happen to be into that I hope it helps. When I sat the exam in July 2018 I received a fairly good amount of points using these techniques.

Footnotes

  1. MedAT — official website of the Austrian medical admissions test
  2. The truth about photographic memory — Scientific American
  3. Flashbulb memory theory — Brown and Kulik (1977)
  4. Major System

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Originally published at https://martinverbic.com on May 5, 2019.

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Martin Verbic

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A medical student writing about improving through learning, thinking and performing better.

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