Learning and Remembering, With or Without Aphantasia

Memory is tricky whether you have aphantasia or not. Here are some strategies you can use to learn and remember.
Learning and Remembering
Feature image created by the author.

Table of Contents

There are many varieties of advice on how to improve your memory or learn better. I’m sure most approaches work for at least some people. I doubt any approach works for everyone, simply because we’re all different, and our minds work differently. I am aphantasic, so visualization tools don’t work at all for me. I have a pretty good memory, nevertheless.

This article has some suggested strategies for learning and remembering, with or without aphantasia, that do not rely on visualization. They may or may not be helpful for you, since you will need to evaluate how they fit in with how your mind works and the challenges you may have with memory.  What are you trying to remember, and for what purpose? What are your own personal strengths and weaknesses with learning and remembering? Use that understanding to develop a strategy appropriate for you and for the specific purpose.

Remember the Important Stuff, Outsource the Rest

There is a type of information that is extremely important to remember, right up to the moment when you apply that information. After that, it’s equally important to forget all about it, so that an outdated memory doesn’t interfere with the next round of something similar. An obvious example is remembering where you parked your car. Other tasks and appointments can also be of transient importance. Rather than invest a lot of energy in remembering things that will soon need to be forgotten, you can outsource most of the effort to auxiliary tools like to-do lists, shopping lists, calendar reminders, etc., rather than relying on memory alone. 

When leaving on an airplane trip, I used to write down the code for my parking spot at airport lots, right on the ticket that was issued to me when I parked. Even though I usually remembered where I parked, having that backup meant that I had no lingering anxiety about finding my car while I was away and busy with other matters.

Doing this freed my mind to focus on work on a business trip or on having fun on a vacation. Nowadays, I take a picture with my phone if I’m parking in a large garage, or drop a pin on the internal GPS if I’m in an unfamiliar city. When I’m back to where I started, I delete the picture or pin.

Using Songs, Mnemonics, and More to Improve Memory

Sometimes you need to remember items in a specific order or with very specific associations.  The order may be an arbitrary convention. The associations might even be ones that have an underlying logic, but at times it’s convenient to have an easy shortcut.  For that kind of challenge, it can help to turn a list or set of phrases into a short mnemonic or a song. 

As a child learning to use a dictionary, I might hum a part of the alphabet song under my breath to review the alphabetic order. I haven’t needed to do that for quite a long time, since the order of the letters is quite firmly stuck in my head now, thanks to that song. 

Science classes have lots of mnemonics, most of which I have forgotten. However, ROY G BIV (the order of colors of the rainbow; Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet), and LEO, the GERman (Loss of Electron = Oxidation, Gain of Electron = Reduction) still live in my head. These two mnemonics refer to physical and chemical events that happen whether humans understand them or not. We use words to describe them, but associating the words and the concepts can be hard at first.

Wy41JlIL4GFa5zi9HbpYab78XDC2Wp70jh2rauspgRH YWElgSymxSHieUeeEec

You can make up your own songs or mnemonics to help you memorize something. However, for a subject you want to understand better, memorization can only get you started.  To deepen your understanding, whether of rainbows or chemical reactions or anything else, you may need to work on making the concepts your own.  Take notes in your own words or draw your own diagrams. Then try to apply them somewhere. Or have a conversation with someone else who is willing to ask probing questions and be probed in return.

Remembering People’s Names Can Be Difficult  

Learning and remembering people’s names is an important social skill that has elements both of memorization and of deeper learning.  Many of us have difficulties with it, especially in situations where we are meeting many new people at once. 

Common suggestions on how to learn new names include focusing on the person and repeating the name, and perhaps creating strange visual associations between the name and some characteristic of the person. If these work for you, that’s great. 

These have never worked well for me. If I focus too much on repeating someone’s name, it distracts me from paying attention to the person, and I still don’t remember the name five minutes later. I have a fundamental difficulty with names, even for people I know very well. 

I don’t have a great solution for these difficulties, but there are some things I do that help me a bit. If I know that I am going to be meeting a certain group of people and there are pictures available to look at beforehand, I do that. This helps me start to learn both names and faces. I might review again afterwards to strengthen the association between faces and names.

I May Not Remember Your Name, but I Know That I Know You

I don’t have trouble associating people’s faces with how I know and relate to them. However, during the pandemic when face-obscuring masks were commonplace for in-person meetings, I realized that I recognized people by their voices at least as much as by their faces. If I had difficulty recognizing faces, I would probably rely even more on recognizing voices.  I do the best I can with names, but I don’t let learning names distract me from focusing on other characteristics of personality and affect that are more meaningful for me, and I connect those traits with the face and voice.

Since I know this is a weakness for me, I don’t say people’s names most of the time, and when I do, I usually slow down a bit to make sure that I am going to say the right name. I’m also fully prepared to apologize when I mess up. I explain that this is a problem for me, that I frequently call one of my children by the other one’s name, even though I gave them those names. Then I say the correct name, if I can remember it, or ask them to help me out by telling me their name.

Final Thoughts on Learning and Remembering, With or Without Aphantasia

Deeper understanding usually requires time and effort to take root. Learn a little bit and use that as the basis to learn more. Even if the challenge is remembering the people in a new group you interact with, find a number that is manageable to fix in your mind, and then add to that in later interactions. 

Don’t worry if tips that are tried-and-true for other people don’t work well for you. Adapt them to your own needs, or find completely different tools and workarounds that suit you.