Everyone knows ninjas were assassins in feudal Japan who wore special black outfits to hide themselves on night missions.
But apparently the word ‘ninja’ was rarely used in the past – the more usual term was ‘shinobi’.
And their outfits were actually dark blue and anything but special. They were typical farmers’ clothes, which the shinobi wore to blend into the crowd – and which admittedly came in handy when trying to avoid being noticed at night.
Plus they were much more than assassins – their activities included spying, sabotage, military combat, prophesy, astrology and code-making.
These were some of the facts I learned when I visited the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum in Japan. It’s a fascinating tour, including an original ninja house, full of trapdoors, revolving walls, secret passages and hidden compartments; a museum stuffed with ninja weapons, clothing and ingenious equipment; and a breathtaking demonstration of ninja combat skills.
I even got to wear some ninja chainmail and throw a shuriken (metal throwing star), although I couldn’t match the ninja who threw three of them at once, so that they embedded themselves in the wooden target in a neat row, a couple of inches apart.
And with my interest in memory systems, I couldn’t help noticing this explanation of the ninjas’ memory system:
It sounds bizarre, but if you think about it, this approach makes perfect sense.
The mind works by association, so if you want to be confident of retrieving new information, the most reliable way is to attach it to something that you will definitely recall – and it’s hard to forget a part of your own body, or the pain of a wound!
Memory expert Tony Buzan likens this kind of technique to hanging a coat on a hook. You will always know where to find your coat (new information) if you hang it on an immovable hook (something you can remember easily).
The Ancient Romans used the same principle to develop the Roman Room memory technique, by first visualising a room and then adding an imaginary object to the room for each piece of information to be memorized.
For example, supposing your Roman room took the form of a comfortable living room and you wanted to remember to book a restaurant table for your anniversary. You might imagine your partner seated at a candle-lit table in the middle of the room, with a white-jacketed waiter standing by.
The incongruence of having the restaurant-table in your living room would help to make it memorable. And the visual details of the candles and waiter’s white jacket would also help to embed the memory.
Develop Your Ninja Memory Skills
If you want to improve your memory, you can take a leaf out of the ninjas’ book – but without inflicting so much pain on yourself!
1. Start with a single piece of information you want to train yourself to remember.
2. Consider the information and notice what associations it has for you – particularly any quirky, funny, sexy or otherwise memorable associations.
3. Pick one key association and exaggerate it so that it becomes comical, alarming, exciting or otherwise emotionally charged.
4. Visualise the exaggerated association and make sure it contains an extremely obvious clue to the information you want to recall.
5. Repeat the visualisation several times, hours and days apart, until you are certain it is permanently embedded in your memory.
For example, supposing you are learning Japanese and you want to remember one of the Japanese words for graveyard, ‘hakaba’. You consider the word and notice it sounds like ‘haka’, the war dance performed by the New Zealand All-Blacks before a rugby match, and ‘bar’.
So you imagine a bar set up in a Japanese graveyard, complete with shining taps for the beer, and several All Blacks players standing on top of it, performing the haka. The image is so bizarre that it’s unforgettable – especially when you realise with a grim smile that the black rugby kit is the perfect colour for a graveyard!
Or supposing you are trying to remember to prioritise work on a new portfolio website to showcase your work, but you keep finding yourself getting caught up in other people’s demands, and never seemed to find the time.
You visualise a traditional portfolio case, and imagine placing it on top of your to-do list, so that it blots out everything else on the list – reminding you to work on your portfolio first, before you get on with the rest of your day’s tasks.
So next time you’re struggling to remember something, look out for the ninja hovering in the corner of your eye, and remember to take his advice! 😉
Illustration: Drawing of a ninja by Hokusai.
Over to You
What would you most like to be able to remember?
What memory tricks do you use to remember important items?
Have you ever used a formal memory system?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For tips on creativity, productivity and creative entrepreneurship, sign up for free updates from Lateral Action. And for bite-sized inspiration, follow Mark on Twitter here.