This Tip Could Make Memorizing Way Easier

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It's my favorite new memory trick.

In school, I'd often draw cartoons about what I was learning instead of taking notes. And apparently, I had the right idea all along. A new study found that drawing is one of the better memory techniques.

A group of scientists at the University of Waterloo had participants try and memorize the definition of a set of words. They had some participants copy the words and their definitions. They had other participants try and draw out the meaning of the words. The drawers memorized more words.

“As with single words, we reasoned that drawing facilitates retention, at least in part, because it requires elaboration on the meaning of the term and translating the definition to a new form (a picture),” wrote the researchers.

In fact, drawing worked better than letting participants tracing existing drawings or create drawings they couldn't see. There's something about the drawing process that's just great for memory, even when you're not a good artist — the scientists found that even the participants who scribbled terribly memorized just as well as the van Goghs.

“Taken together, the evidence...demonstrates that drawing is a robust encoding strategy that can, and does, improve memory performance dramatically,” write the researchers.

The benefits were especially noticeable for older people. The scientists found older people were worse than younger people at memorizing when the two wrote out their definitions. But the two groups showed no difference when it came to memorizing from drawing.

I've learned a lot of mnemonics in my day. I've pictured weird images that relate to the words I'm memorizing, put facts to music and associated words with pieces of furniture in a room. But I've never heard of this "drawing effect," as the researchers put it, even though I've used it without realizing it.

It makes sense though. Images must be built much deeper into our brains than letters. We've been processing images since before we were human; writing is new. Mostly, I'm surprised that many educators haven't figured out that fun learning is better learning. Pictures and songs stick in the brain better than pages of text.

Humans like to separate ourselves from other species, often focusing on our ability to use language. Language is great, but we're just animals after all. We might be able to use language (as can many other animals), but images stick in our brains in a totally different, possibly deeper way.

In any case, next time I draw a cartoon of something I'm trying to learn, I will feel no shame.