Ed Cooke: What We Can Learn From This Grandmaster of Memory

| Learning, Memory

Ed Cooke feature imageEd Cooke is a master of memory with more than a few claims to fame.

He’s an official Grandmaster of Memory.

An impressive memory athlete.

An author and entrepreneur.

And a passionate language learner who built a successful app.

The question is…

What can you learn about how to improve your memory from Ed Cooke?

A lot, quite frankly.

So if you’re into learning how to use memory techniques in effective and efficient ways, let’s dive into a learning-focused profile.

I plan to extract each and every gem for you!

Who Is Ed Cooke?

After completing an MA in Cognitive Science, Ed Cooke got involved in memory sports.

At just 23 years of age, he became a Grand Master of Memory.

People earn that title when they can:

  • Memorise 1,000 random digits in an hour
  • Memorise the order of 10 decks of cards in an hour
  • Memorise the order of one deck of cards in under two minutes

After making his mark in the memory competition world, several things happened.

Cooke was featured in one of the most successful memory improvement books of all time, Moonwalking with Einstein.

He also wrote a book of his own, Remember, Remember. As part of its promotion, Cooke interviewed other mnemonists, such as Dr. Yip:

But perhaps Cooke’s biggest claim to fame is the software company he built, Memrise.

What Is Memrise?

Cooke founded Memrise in 2010 with Ben Whately.

As I recall it, the early Memrise was like a forum for people to share their mnemonic images. If you were trying to acquire nursing knowledge, for example, chances are you’d find someone sharing how they had used mnemonics to commit medical terminology to memory.

It wasn’t exactly like Anki, where you can download cards created by others. But as mobile technology developed, Memrise quickly incorporated both spaced repetition and gamification elements.

Around this time, Memrise started focusing specifically on language learning. Although it is one of the better language learning apps on the market, the core focus on sharing and using mnemonics is largely gone.

That said, it goes way beyond flashcards and word lists to help you expand your lexical repertoire. It has audio and visual resources based around native speaker recordings and immersive videos. It also includes interactive lessons and grammar exercises that might help solidify your understanding of your chosen language.

It’s not something for me, I’ve found, but I’m aware of my own biases. Many people quite like it and I do think it’s well done. I just personally prefer to use Memory Palaces to aid my language learning activities.

Memrise Pro

Memrise offers a subscription-based service called Memrise Pro, something I subscribed to during its first year. But as chatbots and pronunciation analysis features started piling in at the exclusion of memory techniques, my interest waned.

(To be fair, my interest in all memory apps, past and future is almost non-existent at the moment. Even if I was excited about this memory app in the past, that enthusiasm has completely disappeared. All the same, even if I’m critical of digital amnesia, I generally support such efforts, such as the innovation proposed by Idriz Zogaj.)

I still pop into the basic version of Memrise from time to time and remain impressed by its focus on capturing native speakers. One can imagine a future holographic version making interactions with native speakers even more engaging. But it’s not likely to ever replace the learning you’ll get from real life speaking scenarios.

How to Use Ed Cooke’s PAO Mnemonic System to Memorize Anything

Technically, the PAO System mnemonists use belong to no one.

But what is it? And can you really use it to memorize anything?

Well, yes.

As Cooke explained to Tim Ferriss, he uses categorical thinking to memorize playing cards. Basically, you associate a Person, Action and Object to the playing cards and then weave these associations into a Memory Palace. Each card is a type of person and depending on the person assigned to the card and the action, you can recall its identity.

The origins of this kind of system go back to ancient India, if not further with the katapayadi. Many memory athletes now base their systems on what is fondly called the Major.

A common approach to the Major Method, using numbers paired with letters.

The trick really comes down to a quirk in how memory systems work:

  • You have to pick a system
  • You have to make it your own as you learn it
  • You have to practice it

Once you do, you can perform incredible feats like my friend Braden Adams, who memorized 70 decks of cards very quickly to raise funds for an Alzheimer’s charity. (Braden’s really great to listen to on the benefits of memory competition too.)

But there are other applications for a PAO System. Or an alternative system like Dominic O’Brien’s approach to memorizing numbers and cards (the Dominic System.)

For example, you can use a 00-99 PAO to memorize the verse numbers when committing scripture or prayers to memory.

You can also use the system for language learning. For example, with a full 00-99 PAO System based on the Major, you’ll have images for every two-digits paired with consonants. When you’re trying to come up with an association for a word, you can always think about what image you could draw upon from your PAO System.

And this is also true for any kind of terminology or learning goal that involves either words or numbers. As I discuss in my analysis of the ancient memory techniques, Aristotle observed this long ago. A PAO System is effectively bi-directional.

It can be a bit of a chore to wrap your mind around these memory systems, but also tremendously fulfilling. Give this tutorial on how consonants and numbers can become bi-directional to help you memorize anything a try:


Remember, Remember: A Quick Book Review

Although some have criticized Ed Cooke’s Remember, Remember for having little more than a few mnemonic examples based largely around memorizing names, I quite like it.

And that’s saying something because I normally don’t like memory improvement books built around too many examples. I’m a bit of a disciple when it comes to the advice in the Rhetorica Ad Herennium that we should not give students of mnemonics more than two to three examples.

Nonetheless, Cooke makes memory techniques very real in Remember, Remember. He contextualizes the practice with reference to his “memory walks,” a theme that also comes up in Lynne Kelly’s Memory Craft.

As Cooke puts it regarding taking a physical journey for establishing and stimulating memory:

These were memory techniques in action: ways of remembering that are kind on the mind, quickly learnt and formidably powerful.

Cooke compounds this sentiment by focusing his mnemonics around history. Historical knowledge is so important, and getting more so as rote learning is damaging so much critical thinking and creativity as automation-based technologies continue ramping up.

Truly, if we want to enjoy learning that is both “kind on the mind,” and enable us to be kind to others, we need as many memory tips from as many memory masters as we can get.

Thanks, Ed Cooke!

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