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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Mnemonic Specialist Teaches Total Recall

MTSamvel Garibyan resting on volumes he says make easy targets for memorization.
Try this at home: Pick 30 words at random out of a dictionary, preferably one in a completely unfamiliar tongue. Take 10 minutes to commit them to memory, then repeat the words and their definitions in the order you learned them.

While this may prove difficult for most people, it's child's play for Samvel Garibyan, a mnemonics expert and self-styled "memory coach" who teaches techniques for processing and retaining vast amounts of information.

In a bid for the Soviet mnemonics record, in 1990 Garibyan memorized 960 out of 1,000 words in languages as diverse as Farsi, Esperanto, German and Bengali, along with their Russian definitions, in less than three hours. Although he acknowledges that the same feat might be beyond the capabilities of most people, Garibyan believes that within every individual lies an untapped ability to store great amounts of information.

"My grandfather was a big Communist, and he could quote anything that Lenin ever wrote," Garibyan said. "What I teach, however, has little to do with memory as most people know it."

By his own account, Garibyan was an unexceptional child who indulged in constant daydreaming. He said he discovered his gift for memorization after an operation to correct nearsightedness left him unable to read for six months. A 21-year-old law student at the time, Garibyan found that he could remember his lectures better by simply listening to them than he could with the aid of notes and textbooks.

"My professors would yell at me for not paying attention," he said. "Then I would ace an exam and they would wonder how I did it."

Garibyan developed his gift by reading books on psychology, philosophy and the development of the mind. His search led him to an unlikely source of inspiration: children.

"I realized that children had exceptional memories because their capacity for imagination is so vast," he said.

This was, in fact, the method that Garibyan had been using the entire time.

Garibyan began teaching his technique in 1989 when he opened a school in Yerevan, Armenia. He moved his family to Moscow in 1991 and began giving private lessons and holding seminars several times per year.

Students are first taught to relax the mind and body through breathing exercises. This relaxes the body and clears the mind of extraneous thoughts. "As soon as the brain feels the body doing the exercises, it automatically goes into learning mode," Garibyan said. "It's like flipping a switch."

After mastering the physiological components of the process, students begin to learn how to condition their minds. The most essential part of this training, according to Garibyan, is the elimination of negative thoughts and self-doubt through a series of mantras and affirmations.

"Most people are intimidated by the prospect of learning large amounts of information," he said. "It is impossible to learn if one doubts oneself."

Once mind and body are prepared, students begin learning the actual technology of Garibyan's method, which relies heavily on visualization. Students learn to attach words, names or numbers to mental images. To memorize words in a foreign language, students are taught to substitute a similar-sounding word into a story line. If an English speaker wants to memorize the Russian word for orange, apelsin, he would picture his son driving an orange Opel.

Garibyan is very specific about what his course can do and not do for those trying to learn a language. "I can teach students to memorize enormous amounts of words at a time," he said. "But to learn the language's grammar, they would have to go elsewhere."

Although the pages of Garibyan's book, "Shkola Pamyati" (School of Memory), are filled with testimonials from former students, including high-ranking Gazprom executives and government officials, Garibyan is not without his critics.

"He claims he invented this method, but in fact it was invented in Greece 2,500 years ago," said Oleg Stepanov, a St. Petersburg mnemonics specialist. "There are many methods of memorization, and his is no better than any other." Stepanov said he found it curious that Garibyan has not competed in any of the numerous memory championships that have been held around the world in the last few years.

Many medical professionals support the view that human memory can be improved with study, though within limits.

"The brain's capacity to retain information can be enhanced if we regularly work at improving it," said Matvei Livshits, a neurosurgeon at Moscow Children's City Hospital. Livshits added, however, that genetics plays a major role in determining to what degree a person's memory can actually improve.

Despite his detractors, Garibyan chooses to see himself as a teacher and motivator, rather than a human computer. "I inspire people to believe in themselves and get them away from fixed and dogmatic ways of thinking," he said. "I am also the best vocabulary teacher in the world."

For information about seminars or private lessons, call 136-3417 or visit the www.samvel.ru web site.