Genghis Khan got around. At the dawn of the 13thcentury, the Mongolian warrior conquered the largest empire the world had ever known: an expanse stretching from the Sea of Japan in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, from Siberia in the north to India in the south. To conquer this territory and then maintain his domination, the emperor had to formulate complex plans. This created a problem: His soldiers were illiterate peasants, scattered over thou-sands of miles. How could he spread his complicated orders through the ranks quickly, simply, and without error?
His solution: Put the orders in a song. All the Khan’s soldiers learned a small set of melodies, which they practiced as they traversed the mountains and steppes. Then, when the time for fighting arrived, commanders would set their orders to the tune of one of these melodies. The soldiers’ task was simple: memorize a few new verses for an old song, rather than a series of entirely unfamiliar, abstract instruc-tions. And if any one of the soldiers forgot the lyrics, hundreds of others could sing him the next line. Using this scheme, the soldiers crooned their battle instructions, and large segments of Eurasia fell.
Others in the ancient world also relied on deliberate memorization strategies. The Greeks of classical Athens, for example, put a high value on public speaking, much of which was done from memory. The Greeks therefore developed a number of memo-rization tricks to help them in this endeavor.
Similar mnemonic tactics are used in the modern world. Medical students, for example, have developed strategies that help them memorize anatomy, drug names, and disease symptoms. Thus, they learn the 12 pairs of cranial nerves (olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, and so on) by taking the first letter of each word and forming a sentence built from new words that start with the same letters. The resulting sentence—“On Old Olympus’ Towering Tops A Friendly Viking Grew Vines and Hops”—paints a vivid image that’s far easier to remember than the original list.
These examples remind us that—with just a bit of work—we can get enormous amounts of information into our memories, and then recall that information, in detail, for a very long time. But there’s also a darker side to memory: Sometimes we remember things that never happened at all. Indeed, far more often than we realize, our memories blend together separate incidents, introduce rogue details, and incorpo-rate others’ versions of events into our own recall.
How far off track can memory go? In one study, researchers planted in participants a memory of getting lost in the mall as a child, then being brought home safely by a friendly stranger. Nothing of the sort had happened to anyone in the study, but they came to vividly “remember” it anyhow. Other studies have planted false memories of vicious animal attacks, and even—in one remarkable study—a false memory of a hot-air balloon ride.
How should we put these pieces together? How does memory operate, so that we can easily remember countless episodes, thousands of facts, and the lyrics to hun-dreds of songs? Why does Genghis Kahn’s lyrical trick, or the medical students’ sentence-building strategy, help memory? More broadly, what can we do to learn more rapidly and hold on to the information longer? And why do our memories sometimes betray us, leading us to endorse large-scale fictions?
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