What Is Rote Memory?

Learn about rote memory in this Howcast video about memory techniques featuring memory expert Barry Reitman.


My name is Barry Reitman. I'm the author of "Secrets, Tips, and Tricks of a Powerful Memory." I'd like to discuss the question, "What is rote memory?" R-O-T-E. Rote memory is, unfortunately, all that most of us are taught when we're young. It's the constant repetition of something to learn what it is. It really doesn't work well at all, and it is counter productive. Let me tell you a little story. There was an old sea captain, back 150 years ago in the days of the four and five masted sailing ships. He was the most respected sea captain in the entire Mercantile Navy. Everyone really appreciated his knowledge. He had a quirk. The old captain would go to the wall safe in his cabin every single morning, unlock the combination, open the door, take out a piece of paper, read it for a moment, fold it up, put it back, close up the safe and lock it. And for years, for decades, everyone went, "What's the captain's secret? What has made him so great?" And one day, the captain died, and everyone, of course, was very sad. He was a beloved sea captain. But the younger officers, they were eager. Now this was their chance to find out the captain's secret. And all the younger officers raced to his cabin, and the purser had the combination to all the safes on the ship, and he ran over and he opened the safe. And he opened the safe door and took out the piece of paper, and he read, "Port, left; starboard, right." The captain had learned this, obviously, by rote memory, which means he never learned it at all.

So I'm going to make a suggestion of what should have happened with that old captain his first day on a sailing ship. He was twenty years old. He had just gotten married and his first job as a sailor, and he came on board the ship. But in this version of the story, the older sailors grab him and hold down his left hand on table, and one of them takes a bottle of bring red port wine and pours it all over his left hand. It gets under his brand new wedding band, and it's all sticky and gummy and ugly, but the port wine on his left hand. Port, left. Had that happened, the captain would never have forgotten, would never have needed his safe for port, left and therefore starboard, right. But here's the good information. They didn't have to do that, they didn't have to hold down his hand, and they didn't have to pour out that bottle of wine. All they had to do was say, "Hey listen, young man, imagine this. Imagine us holding down your hand and pouring port wine on your left hand and it seeping all around your wedding band. Picture that. If you can picture that, it's as good as if we had done it. And if you do that, you will never forget port from starboard." That's un-rote memory. That's remembering the right way.

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