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How to Get a Spy’s Photographic Memory in Six Easy Steps

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You’re probably familiar with the story of the group of MIT students who won millions of dollars at casinos in the 1980s by playing blackjack. This tale-turned-legend was made famous when the movie 21 was released in 2008.

Beginning in 1979, this group would travel to casinos around the country where they would use card-counting strategies and collude with other members of their team to win at blackjack.

At one point in the operation, there were over 100 members on the team. They would use various signals when working with their partners, such as touching their ear or checking their watch. Even though the team wasn’t technically doing anything illegal, counting cards is something that will usually get you thrown out of a casino.

Now, the part of this story you probably haven’t heard is how the team got caught counting cards.

The Man Who Never Forgot a Face

In 1967, Robert R. Griffin and his partner Beverly S. Griffin formed Griffin Investigations, a private investigation firm that specialized in the gaming industry. In its heyday, the company was employed by almost half the major casinos in the United States to root out professional gamblers who used legal techniques to beat the house.

Robert used his photographic memory to help identify members of MIT’s Blackjack Team, which ultimately led to the end of their winning streak. His photographic memory was so good, he could identify people even when they were wearing disguises.

For example, one day at a casino, Griffin noticed a man in a wheelchair and remembered he had seen the same man a few days earlier at the same casino without a wheelchair. He alerted casino security and as they approached the man, he jumped up from his wheelchair and ran away.

Photographic memory is a skill that can come in handy in many ways — whether you use it for personal security (such as noticing the same person or car following you) or to remember critical information and survival skills that could save your life.

According to Warren Reed, a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service and British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) trained spy, photographic memory is not innate, but is rather a technique that can be learned. In fact, we both agree this training is essential for a spy because you have to be able to think on your feet and can’t always refer back to your notes.

Take a Walk Down Memory Lane

To be clear, when he mentions photographic memory, Reed is talking about remembering things in images with great detail. Recently, Reed explained the process to learn the technique commonly used by people who have a photographic memory.

Here it is in six easy steps:

  1. Imagine your childhood home. Think of your childhood home or a place you’ve lived for a long time — essentially, a place where you know every inch like the back of your hand. Ideally, this should be a place you can picture very clearly, where you have vivid memories of spending time.
  2. Create a path. Imagine walking through the place you chose. Start at the front door and visualize a path going through each room, including bathrooms, closets and hallways. As you’re imagining your path through the house, make sure to catalogue every nook, cranny and piece of furniture. Then end your path at the front door where you began.
  3. Picture what you want to remember. Envision the information you want to remember — whether it’s a person, place, story, number, object or sequence of events.
  4. Simplify things. Take each component or important detail of the story, object, event or person that you want to remember and place it in your home somewhere along the path you created — like on a table, chair, shelf or wall.
  5. Make it stand out. Let’s say you are trying to remember a long string of numbers or a complicated story someone has shared with you. The more ridiculous you make something, the more likely you are to remember it. In other words, add an unusual element to the thing you are trying to remember such as an odd color or unique texture.
  6. Walk your path again. After you’ve placed each thing you want to remember along the path inside your home, start at the front door and travel the path again, stopping at each spot where you placed an item you want to remember. By placing what you want to remember in a specific location inside the home, you will embed them in your memory the same way your home is.

Even though most of us probably can’t remember what we ate for breakfast, the truth is photographic memory is a skill everyone can learn and use. The more you practice this technique, the easier it will be. So put your mind to it and give it a try.

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