It may surprise you to learn that we have outstanding visual and spatial memory systems. When you use techniques that rely on those systems, you’re not just relying on raw repetition to burn information into your brain. Instead, you’re using fun, memorable, creative approaches that make it easier to see, feel, or hear what you want to remember. Even better, these techniques free up your working memory. By grouping things in a sometimes wacky yet logically retrievable fashion, you easily enhance your long-term memory. This can really help take the stress off during tests.

Here’s what I mean about your good visual and spatial memory. If you were asked to look around a house you’d never visited before, you would soon have a sense of the general furniture layout, where the rooms were, the color scheme, the pharmaceuticals in the bathroom cupboard (whoa!). In just a few minutes, your mind would acquire and retain thousands of new pieces of information. Even weeks later, you’d still hold far more in your mind than if you’d spent the same amount of time staring at a blank wall. Your mind is built to retain this kind of general information about a place.

The memory tricks used by both ancient and modern memory experts taps into these naturally supersized visuospatial memorization abilities. Our ancestors never needed a vast memory for names or numbers. But they did need a memory for how to get back home from the three-day deer hunt, or for the location of the plump blueberries on the rocky slopes to the south of camp. These evolutionary needs helped lock in superior “where things are and how they look” memory systems.

The Power of Memorable Visual Images

To begin tapping into your visual memory system, try making a very memorable visual image representing one key item you want to remember. For example, here is a picture you could use to remember Newton’s second law: f = ma. (This is a fundamental relationship relating force to mass and acceleration that only took humans a couple hundred thousand years to figure out.) The letter f in the formula could stand for flying, m for mule, and a, well, that’s up to you Part of the reason an image is so important to memory is that images connect directly to your right brain’s visuospatial centers. The image helps you encapsulate a seemingly humdrum and hard-to-remember concept by tapping into visual areas with enhanced memory abilities.

A creative memory device—the months with the projecting knuckles on hands have thirty-one days. As one college calculus student noted: “Oddly enough, with that simple memory tool I doubt I will ever forget which months have thirty one days— which amazes me. Ten seconds to learn something I’ve just avoided learning for twenty years because I thought it would be too tedious to sit there and memorize it through repetition.

The more neural hooks you can build by evoking the senses, the easier it will be for you to recall the concept and what it means. Beyond merely seeing the mule, you can smell the mule and feel the same windy pressure the mule is feeling. You can even hear the wind whistling past. The funnier and more evocative the images, the better.