How Does Memory Work?

Updated: Mar 15, 2019

Do you remember what you did on October 15, 2006? Were you even born? Chances are if that date was not your birthday or a significant day in your life, you do not remember what you did that day. Our memories are tied to things that have emotional connections. If you can find a way to make learning emotional, you can find a way to memorize just about anything.

Emotional Studying

An extraordinarily effective method for memorization is to make the information emotional. Let me give you an example. When you’re trying to learn a vocabulary list, try to relate the words you do not know or have a hard time memorizing to something funny, gory, sick or silly.

Basically, you need to make an association with something that really stands out in your mind. By associating a word or concept to something that makes you smile or laugh, you have increased your chances of recalling that piece of information.


Soliloquy means an act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of anyone who may hear.

  • You love comic books.

  • You realize Spiderman talks to himself.

  • This makes you laugh.

  • Spiderman and Soliloquy both start with S (alliteration is helpful, but not essential in this exercise)

This example is completely subjective, since humor is in the eye of the beholder. However, the takeaway from this is that you have to find a way to make your learning come to life.

Chunking Lists

Now, once you’ve made emotional connections with the subject you are trying to learn, there are other tips that may help supplement your studying. Most words have some sort of hint in them that allow you to quickly understand and learn their meaning. For instance, the word “Biology” has two hints: “Bio” is a greek root, which means “life” and the suffix, “-logy” means “the study of.” You can also “chunk” your vocabulary list into categories that share similarities. This creates multiple layers of associations to help you remember your vocabulary list without fail.


You need to learn the art history terms: composition, modern, avante-garde, abstract, foreground, contrapposto.

Group 1 Group 2 Composition Modern Foreground Abstract Contrapposto Avante-Garde

  1. Group 1 deals with words that have to do with the layout of a work of art.

  2. Group 2 deals with the style of the work of art or the historical period it belongs to.

  3. Now I know that “Avante-Garde” is related to "Modern", while “Contrapposto” is related to "Composition."

  4. Chunking these words into groups will trigger your memory for words that are difficult to learn.

Random Association

After working with these techniques if you are still left with words that you generally get wrong, it is a waste of time to try and create strong memory associations. Generally, half of the words on a vocabulary list are easily memorized. It’s those last few tricky words that require a different sort of tactic. The reason you get them wrong is because there is nothing you can relate to in that word. Your best bet is to look at the word without thinking of what it actually means and latch on to whatever first pops into your head.


  1. Demagogue means a leader who seeks support by appealing to popular passions.

  2. The first word or idea that popped into my head is the Demagorgon character from the first season of Stranger Things.