Who among us has not walked into a Target mentally chanting something like “Eggs, shaving cream, toothpaste, toilet paper” only to get home and realize we’ve forgotten the toothpaste? Looks like we’re using mouthwash tonight!
If you’ve got a lengthy to-do list, and you’re not ready to commit to bullet journaling or whatever to keep track of it all, Gary Small, the director of the Longevity Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, has a little trick to hold it all in your head: Turn the words into a story.
He demonstrated this trick on Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. It can be used to remember any random set of words, and he showed us: Beach, Professor, Horse, Teddy Bear, Cigar, Nun, Palm Tree, Pasta. He told us to make up a story about those words, and then moved on to talk about other stuff, coming back to the words at the end. (Feel free to play along!)
This trick works because the human brain is a glutton for stories. Narrative just seems to stick to our brains better than loose facts do. As I’ve written previously, the way someone tells the story of their life to themselves forms a big part of their personality. Almost all healthy adults are able to construct a narrative of their past—it seems to be one of humanity’s innate skills. “The default mode of human cognition is a narrative mode,” Jonathan Adler, an associate professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering told me when I interviewed him about this.