Create a Physical Structure

When I was in 6th grade, I won a competition with friends by memorizing 17 digits of Pi.

I was proud of myself until I learned that World Memory champion Gary Shang once memorized the first 65,536 digits. How did he do it? 

He created a memory palace, where he associated numbers with familiar places such as his childhood home. Instead of seeing abstract numbers, he saw concrete objects. By doing so, he proved that the strength of memory is malleable. With the right strategies, you can effectively raise your intelligence.

Spiders use memory tricks too. Instead of creating a memory palace, they offload cognitive tasks to their webs which double as a second brain. Scientists still debate if spider webs are an extension of the sensory apparatus of their entire cognitive system, but agree that spider webs can process and simplify information like a computer. 

Like spiders and memory champions, writers can increase their cognition by externalizing their ideas. Doing so increases working memory. The term comes from computers, which use two kinds of memory: RAM (random-access memory) and ROM (read-only memory). RAM is like short-term memory that allows computers to store information about whatever they’re processing in the moment, while ROM acts like long-term memory that remembers things after the computer turns off. Externalizing the structure of your essay increases your effective intelligence by offloading your working memory to paper. Or, as Albert Einstein once said: “My pencil and I are smarter than I am.” 

I organize my long-form essays with Post-It Notes. I write one idea per Post-It Note, then hang them on the wall in my room. Doing so gives me the freedom to focus on one section whenever I write because I no longer need to remember the overall structure. How many Post-It Notes should you write? As many as you can process with a single glance, where each one represents one day’s worth of writing. Too many notes and it will take too long to process the structure; too few and you won’t offload enough working memory. For long-form essays, Post-It notes are better than linear outlines on a single piece of paper because they’re so malleable. You can change the structure of your essay by moving notes around instead of creating a new outline from scratch. 

Hanging notes on the wall makes your memory spatial. That’s why math teachers encourage you to use scratch paper. One study found that using pencil and paper to externalize ideas instead of only the brain reduced the time it takes people to multiply numbers by a factor of five. As Mackinlay & Card wrote: “Mental multiplication is not itself difficult. What is difficult is holding the partial results in memory until they can be used. The visual representation, by holding partial results outside the mind, extends a person’s working memory.”

Post-It notes help the most for books and long-form essays. Hang them on a wall you walk by frequently. That way, your subconscious can stew on the ideas while you’re away from the computer. Then focus on one Post-It Note at a time whenever you sit down to write.

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