For most of my life — like most people, I think — I have lived with a vague understanding of international geography. I knew that Romania was somewhere north of Greece, and that Uzbekistan was somewhere west of China. I knew that Tonga existed.
I am going to write briefly about why I decided to paint a full map of the world in my head, and then get on to how, and what I learned. If I convince you to do this yourself, please do glance at the “How” section. I learned some tricks in the process that would have saved me a bit of effort.
As Joshua Foer wrote in his wonderful book about memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, memorization gets a bad rap these days. We often associate memorization with dull, meaningless education — Dickens’ contemptible Mr. Gradgrind enjoining to “Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts… nothing else will ever be of service to them.”
But, as Foer argues, memorization is an important element in creativity and spontaneity as well. Memorized information gives us the palette with which we paint fantastic scenery. It is the storehouse from which we draw the building blocks of great ideas. It’s no accident that many of the most groundbreakingly creative people are also very knowledgeable — that the greatest writers are often the most well-read.
Since reading Foer’s book, I have begun to work more with my memory, and have found the work not dull, but rather refreshing and enjoyable. Serious memorization is not drudgery at all; it’s an endless creative game of building links and pathways through the mental landscape. I have found that, for example, closing my eyes and recalling all of the nations of Africa is an excellent preparatory exercise to clear my mind for the work of writing.
With this in mind, I have decided to start filling in some of the important gaps in what I know. The countries of the world seemed a practical way to start — a group of facts I feel any educated person should command.
Before I began, I had to decide exactly what I wanted to do. Simply recognizing the names of the world’s countries would be easy. I wanted, however, to be able to recall the names and relative locations of every country in each continent unprompted. That meant I had to do two things:
1. Create a mental map of the world that I can “see” in my mind.
2. Invent a specific order in which I can cycle through the countries in each region without missing one.
The following are notes on how to accomplish these two things quickly and effectively, drawn from my experience.
Divide areas into sections or strings of countries
Africa is an intimidating block of random looking countries at first, but is actually easily divisible into sections. Starting from the south, for example, it can be divided roughly into the following rows:
Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique
Angola, Zambia, Malawi, (Mozambique again)
Equitorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, DR Congo, Tanzania (with Uganda and Kenya on top)
This only leaves behind small countries such as Lesotho, Swaziland, Burundi and Rwanda, which can be easily attached mentally to larger nearby countries (South Africa, Tanzania).
These rows still look a little intimidating, but this is where the memorization comes in.
Build creative, complicated connections between countries
Memorization is the building of mental connections. It means weaving a web of associations between mental objects that binds them together so tightly they will stay put. If the connections are strong and interesting, one pass will be enough to successfully memorize a string of countries.
I like to build in images, wordplay, and any associations that I already have available. At the same time, I close my eyes and see the countries floating in front of me. I even like to stretch out my hands and feel the countries, to add a tactile connection.
Mnemonic choices are deeply personal, but as an example, the beginning of Africa for me goes like this:
“I already know South Africa is at the southern tip, and if Africa were a keychain then that’s where there would be a loophole, so I remember a hole in South Africa, which is Lesotho. Swaziland reminds me of swizzle-stick, so I’ll imagine a swizzle-stick sticking in between South Africa and Mozambique. Mozambique is easy to remember because it’s a very long name, and Mozambique is a very long country. Over from Mozambique is Zimbabwe. I’m going to remember Zimbabwe and Zambia to the north of it as “zim” and “zam,” which sound sort of musical together, and like sounds that might be made by a mbira, which is a zimbabwean instrument, something I learned from my best friend in high school, who is from South Africa, so I can remember that both of those countries are directly north of South Africa…”
Mix this kind of inner monologue with visual imagery and tactile and spatial memories, and the connections will become permanent the first time.
As a final note, disgusting, offensive and sexually charged imagery and ideas are the stickiest. Do with that as you will.
Associate tiny, oddly placed and easy to miss countries with larger ones
Rather than inventing a whole sequence for tiny countries, place them mentally inside other countries. Just remember, for example, that Italy comes with three add-ons, and then tick off San Marino, The Holy See and Malta.
Don’t expect, by the way, to catch all nation states just by looking at a map. Learn the major countries first, then go through an alphabetical list to mop up all the ones you missed. Did you catch Andorra? How about the Seychelles? I didn’t think so.
Some notes on the hard bits
Europe: Divide, divide, divide. Try to do Europe in one go and you’ll only confuse yourself. Western, Northern and Central Europe and then the Balkans are easy divisions. Then divide those sections further into strips. Did you remember Iceland?
The Caribbean: Confusing, until you remember that it is just a circle starting with the Bahamas and going around to Aruba. Learn it in one long line. I chose to learn all of the countries, even though many are not nation states.
Oceania: Luckily, geographers have already divided this miserably complicated area into three convenient regions: Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. Learn them as three small constellations.
As Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote in Wired Magazine, the view of earth as a whole has a profound effect. One of the most important things about going to space, he writes, is the ability to look down on earth and realize our perilous and singular condition as a species.
Not all of us can fly over earth in a space station, but there are things we can all do to expand our imaginations. Holding all of the countries on earth in your head is a small gesture, but it is a gesture in the same direction. Too often, I think, we only remember the existence of places like Guatemala and Tuvalu when they appear on the news as the victims of some disaster.
I think it worthwhile, now and then, to think to oneself: “There are people, just like me, living their lives right now in Transnistria. I wonder what they are thinking about?”