What Does It Really Take to Be a Spy?

We have action/adventure ideas about spy training, thanks to movies lik The Bourne Identity and James Bond. But you know what the most important skill is for an intelligence officer?

A good memory!

Memory training is not only the most common training across all branches of intelligence, it’s also the oldest. Not weapons, not hand-to-hand combat…memory.

Because spies are sent into the field to gather information, pure and simple. That leads them into danger sometimes, sure. But that information-gathering is always key.

So how to organizations take ordinary citizens and turn them into memory machines?

The Classic “Bunch of Items” Technique

The oldest method is a very simple one, so tried and true that it’s still in use. It’s simply this:

Every day, perhaps even several times a day, have someone bring in a tray or a box with a set number of items on it. Start with 10. Then go up to 15. Then to 20. And so on. Set a timer or stopwatch and look at the items for a set amount of time. First a minute. Then 30 seconds. Then 15. And so on.

Then write down as many objects as you can remember.

Sounds easy, right? And it is…until it isn’t. As the items increase and the time decreases, it forces you into new levels of memory creation.

Then new complications will be introduced. Perhaps after you’ve looked but before you’ve written anything down, someone has a conversation with you. Or perhaps while you’re looking, there’s a distraction going on.

These complications simulate the real-life environments that spies will be working in.

Put It In Your House

Each agent will discover ways that work best for them. One modern agent shared with a reporter in recent years that his method was to “put it in his house.”

For this technique, you start by choosing the environment you are most familiar and comfortable with. The home that you dream about most often. The one you could navigate with your eyes closed. Often this is a childhood home, or the place you’ve lived the majority of your life. Transient places aren’t recommended.

Next, as you encounter new information, you turn it into an image or even imagine the words written down on a piece a paper. And then you put that object in a specific location in your house and visualize it there.

So let’s say I just met Sue, who will be of interest to my superiors. I take a mental photograph of Sue–red hair, brown eyes, 5’7″ perhaps–and I put that photograph in a frame and put it on my mantle. Or perhaps it’s a number–a date, maybe. I write that date down on my calendar that hangs on my fridge. A drop location could become a knick-knack that I store in my curio cabinet.

This method would require just as much practice as the older one, because you’re still training your brain to store and process information in a new way.

The Benefits

The fun thing is that these exercises aren’t just useful for spies–they’re useful for all of us! You could make memory games part of your routine in order to keep yourself sharp and improve your own mental faculties, no matter what your profession!

W R I T E   T O   S I R   M E R R I T T

Have an intelligence questions?
You can email Sir Merritt directly at

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