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We love learning new things and we can remember very complex things without any effort of memorization if we have a very real purpose for that information or find it very interesting. People do this when it comes to learning to drive (drive reasonably or die), remembering the story-line of an interesting book, job training (learn or get fired) and so on. But when it comes to remembering someone’s name you have just met 10 minutes ago, or memorizing individual words of another language it’s a different story. I discovered the secret to why this is.

What makes the complex way, if interesting or purposeful, so easy to remember and the simple way so difficult? The workings of the powerful subconscious is a counter-intuitive beast. For now I will keep the journey of discover and the hours of research for another article and just get straight to the secret, and reveal everything on this one page. The discovery of this, what I like to dramatically call “the Secret Power of Subconscious Memory”, lead me into developing a learn a language video game called Giant Baby Zombies, which I mention at the very end of this article.

Disclaimer: Although I’ve done hundreds of hours of research from renowned scientists and psychologists, what is written below is mostly my own personal observations and realizations in conjunction with scientific research.

How to harness “the secret power of the subconscious memory”?

As you know, the brain uses memory-links to find memories. If you smell a certain food it might bring back memories of your childhood. Your subconscious stores everything. But we can’t access everything we want at the moment we want that information, like the name of someone you have just been introduced to. There are a number of reasons for this. One of them is that you don’t know this person and your brain may secretly think, “Who the hell is this random person with that weird looking shirt? I’ll never see them again. This is not useful information. I will just throw this info in the spare room full of the other junk. Right next to those TV commercials from when I was 10 years old”. Good luck finding that disorganized brain info. Unfortunately this info doesn’t get bookmarked in your favorite folder. We know it’s there, we know we were told the name and we know later when we get the courage to ask the name again we will say “ah, yes. Of course. I knew that!”. Maybe we could find that name again ourselves if we had the whole day dedicated to find it among all the junk. But we are not going to do that we have to eat and live. We should have organised and labelled that info instead of throwing it in the junk room (a few lines down I will tell you how). We didn’t store that info with easy to find links.

If you can remember the breadcrumbs, the link, the pathway you can get the information. Lucky enough with things that have an immediate purpose the brain will automatically create these links for you without almost any effort. Let’s call that auto-memory-links and links we have to create our selves we will call manual-memory-links (things like names, new words, and almost everything else).

The ultimate goal would be to learn everything as if they were right this minute immediately purposeful so the subconscious can do the magic work for us. Wouldn’t that be great? Can we recreated that? The immediately purposeful way feels the easiest way, it feels effortless. You could say to your brain, “Hey brain. Emmm… in one year from now I would really really like to speak Japanese. Please understand how very cool and useful that would be.” Unfortunately this won’t work. Your brain is too clever for that, even if you really are going to Japan next year.

Unless you are in Japan right now and you need to speak it to buy food and find your train stop then your brain won’t view it as purposeful right now and it won’t bother to effortlessly create those memory-links. Your brain subconsciously will think to it’s self, “Yeah right! You live here not Japan. We need to focus on gathering food and resources for tomorrow not next year. And who knows what will happen from now up until then.You might eat a doggy piece of sushi at that all-you-can-eat cheap restaurant. And I don’t care if that restaurant is a Chinese restaurant that also sells fake Japanese food I’m still going to develop an irrational fear of everything Japanese. So don’t waste my biological brain energy on that wish”. In order to fight that son of a…. you will have to put in a lot of effort in mundane memorization exercises. But there must be another way? Yes there is. I found it.

The solution – 2 ways: Create manual links or make it Immediately Purposeful

I’ve traveled to a lot of places around the world. When I visited China and the Philippines I made a real effort to learn those languages. Repeating words over and over again used up a lots of mental energy and was not very efficient. I could spend 30 minutes on one word and later that day it was gone, but I could spend 2 minutes learning a new programming algorithm and it’s there forever. Why is this?

After my personal research and realizations I made a new way, a new way for me, to remember such things, things the brain doesn’t view as immediately purposefully. Now it only takes me 1 minute to remember a new foreign word, a new name, or anything I want, and I have access to that information forever. There are 2 ways to do this, both methods have advantages and disadvantages. The first way can be done today by you, if you are creative. The second way can be given to anyone young or old and is the easiest to learn from. But it has to be created by someone to be given. I encourage you to read both.

Secret 1: Create manual links

One of the first words I used with the method was the word hungry in Filipino/Tagalog. It’s Gutom. It only took me 1 minute to learn and 4 years later I can still remember it. I manually created the links to the word. I just spent 1 minute thinking of way to make that word complex, yes complex. I know it’s counter-intuitive but so is most great things.

I broke the word down to Gu and Tom. I imagined an infant Tom the cat (from Tom & Jerry the cartoon) sitting in a baby chair holding an over-sized spoon and slamming it down while crying “Gu Gu ga ga!!!”. That is my link to Gutom. Thinking creatively for 1 minute creates memory-links, labels it, and makes it easy to recall. After you use the word in a conversation a few times all that baby cat imagery drops away like a rocket dropping it boosters and you can use it fluently. If you are not creative you can still try, or you can read something informative written by a creative person. Tomorrow you may still remember what hungry is in Tagalog. Test yourself tomorrow at breakfast. You will always be gutom in the Philippines as the food is amazing and you’ll keep wanting more! Another “magic” way of remembering is “immediately purposeful learning” (I just made up that term), which is so easy to learn from. I cover this below in Secret 2.

Your Experiment: Try this the next time before your trip to the local grocery store. At first try it with just 10 items. Don’t make a list. Create a monster! Imagine a monster from the food you need to buy. Create those memory-links! Imagine a monster with spaghetti hair, a round face made from ham, eyes made of two fried eggs, and banana smile. Give it a try! Amazingly, more complexity makes things easier to remember. Interesting creates links in your brain. With links you can repeatedly find information quickly and effortlessly. 

Secret 2: Immediately purposeful

Another amazing way is to have your brain create memory-links automatically. Wow, have it create them for you even if you don’t have a creative bone in your body.

Herbert E. Krugman performed many studies in human brain psychology and once said that the public forgets nothing, they just put it out of their minds until it has some use.

There is only one media platform I know of that can create immediately purposeful learning. Just one platform can do that, and that is the gaming platform. But paradoxically it fails to do so in educational games. I purchased some language learning games thinking they will create a purpose and be fun, but they all turned out to be boring with almost no in-game purpose at all. They were not proper games, they were not even good mini-games. Some were basically a high-school class room wrapped as a modern App. Things like drag the correct word over there and get a grade A, next lesson unlocked. Terrible.

Some learning games were a string of unrelated mindless mini-games (game in the loosest sense). Instead of a page with 10 words on it, they would have a backyard with 10 items in it instead of words. This would be ok if clicking on the items had a consequence to the game-play and overall story. But they didn’t. Click on a word and it tells you the word and nothing more. No consequences, no story, no purpose thus no auto-memory-link learning. You won a new sticker if you clicked everything.

I asked myself, “why are language games like this?”. My brain answered, “Hi. It’s obvious. Great game companies like Nintendo are in the entertainment world not the language business. Language companies are made up of business people and teachers and they hire programmers, programmers that will follow their game plans without complaining. They are old school and not game designers. If you just asked me this before you bought those games I could have saved you a lot of money.”

Then I said in a sarcastic manner, “That’s just great! I know this way is the best way to create that immediate purpose and make learning a language so easy. It would have been amazing for my children, my wife and myself to learn this way. It would have been the best! But nothing exists like that. What am I supposed to do now?”. I meant the last sentence as an off-hand remark and didn’t expect an answer but then my brain replied, “Make it”. Then I thought, “Well I’ve made games for the company Nokia, so…”

So I imagined a new type of language learning game, a game in which every click is psychology infused with an immediate purpose.

A game in which everything you do has an important and immediate consequence and simultaneously also has a larger meaningful long term purpose.

A game that automatically creates memory-links effortlessly.

One in which you learn without even trying.

One that has fantastic entertainment and a story that cohesively weaves every click and level together.

A game as entertaining as a Nintendo game. One with a great story progression like Mario Brothers. So I made a small prototype with just 9 words and tested it on unwitting friends and family. I didn’t tell them I made it and it worked even better than I imagined. The words stuck in their brains like magic, they couldn’t even believe it that they could remember the words days and months later after only playing for less than 5 minutes. I decided I wanted to learn a language this way and I will expand it out to the full game I imagined. I called it Giant Baby Zombies. Well I called it about 100 different things before that. It will be for anyone who wants to learn Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Spanish, Filipino or English. You use a 1960’s supercomputer to restore humanity for the Giant Baby Zombies before they destroy Tokyo, or Shanghai, or Ireland, or Mexico, or Manila. Sound interesting?

What techniques do you use for memorization?