Article: Improving Your Memory


By Dave Hood

“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorable into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.” ― Joshua Foer, Moon walking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Without memory, you would have no identity. You wouldn’t remember your name, age, where you have been, where you live, your personal history, what you said, memories of your past. There would be no sense of “self.” Without memory, you would be unable to learn new things, such as completing a course at university. Without memory, you couldn’t remember your mistakes and learn from them. Without memory, you wouldn’t remember your duties and responsibilities at work. Without memory, you wouldn’t be creative. When you are unable to remember, you run the risk of performing poorly in school and work and your personal life. This loss of memory is called amnesia. Memory impairment will compromise your desired quality of life, and so possessing and maintain a strong memory is vital to your well-being. In short, memory nourishes your self-esteem, sense of self. Memory also provides you with the ability to learn and to achieve. Without memory, you exist only in the present—without a past or future. And once the present has passed, you cannot remember it. And many people who are unable to remember are deemed incompetent.

What is memory? It is your ability to encode, store, and retrieve information. There are three types of memory: sensory memory, short-memory or working memory, and long-term memory. Sensory memory is the ability to recall what you experience with your senses, such as sight, sound, taste. When you ignore the sensory details of your surroundings, you often will not remember what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. You were lost in thought, disconnected from the outside world. When using short-term memory, you can recall information for a few moments or minutes, such as a telephone number or name. According to the research, a person can remember in the short term by chunking information, breaking it into small sizes, up to seven things for short periods of time, and rereading it several times.

To remember information long-term, you must encode it. Some encoding is automatic, such as personal experience, interval learning, testing. Other types of encoding require personal effort, such as rehearsal, brain fitness, and mnemonics.

There are several types of long-term memory:
• Episodic memories, which are based on personal experience, for instance, remembering the day lost your job.
• Semantic memories, such as facts, for instance, the name of the Prime Minister of Canada in 1975.
• Procedural memories, such as skills that you do without thinking. For instance, riding a bike, driving an automobile, using a smartphone, surfing the Internet with your computer, cooking a three course meal.

Why does our memory fail? There are many reasons. If you are burdened by stress, you will remember less. If you don’t get adequate sleep, you will remember less. If you take certain meditations, for instance, an anti-depressant, you will remember less. If you don’t eat a balanced diet, you will remember less. If you multi-task, you will be unable to focus on a single task, which will is distracting, and so you will remember less. If you are distracted by several stimuli, such as overheard conversation and music, while engaged in a personal dialogue with a friend, you will remember less. If you are depressed or anxious, you will remember less. As you age, you remember declines. For instance, one in three people over the age of 85 have dementia. If you suffer a brain injury, you can lose your memory. Disease, such as Parkinson’s, can result in memory impairment.

How can you improve your memory? Since the invention of the computer, Internet, and smart phone, people are remembering less. Most people now use their smart phones to store information, such as a contact list, which means they don’t have to remember telephone numbers. Secondly, those people who work in an office must often multitask, for instance, working on the computer and answering the telephone at the same time, which results in distraction and reduces productivity, preventing people from remembering. Thirdly, people are reading extensively, focusing on many things on the Internet, and not intensively, absorbing themselves in a single topic. Finally, with access to search engines, such as Google, many people know they can always lookup the information, and so they don’t take the time to remember it. Consequently, we are remembering less.

In addition, as we age, our memory will decline— unless we uses it. Furthermore, the life span of the typical person in western society has been extended to beyond eighty. The problem is that more and more people are becoming victims of dementia, which results in memory impairment.

How can we improve are memory? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Give your brain a workout on a regular basis. For example, complete the crossword puzzle or Sudoku each morning. Other brain fitness workouts include chess, bridge, and writing.
2. Stop multi-tasking and focus on one task at a time. Eliminate distractions, such as noise, and concentrate on what you desire to learn.
3. Learn something new on a regular basis. Break the learning into chunks and deploy interval learning. Suppose you want to learn how to play the piano, you could learn one note every day for a month. Once you learned the notes, you could begin learning short pieces of music, one at a time.
4. Use memory aids, such as an outline, to-do list, note cards, sticky notes.
5. When you desire to learn something, write down the important information, and then review what you wrote.
6. Learn by reducing stress. Learn something and then take a break. During the break, take a walk, meditate, relax.
7. Embrace a brain-boosting diet. For instance, eat omega 3’s, such as fish. Limit calories and saturated fat. Eat more fruit and vegetables. Drink alcohol in moderation and refrain from taking illicit drugs, such as marijuana.
8. Rehearse what you intend to remember. For instance, if you desire to recall a speech. Review your notes, remembering key points.
9. Implement a few mnemonic devices or memory aides.

How do we use memory to learn? People use various learning strategies to recall information. The most common is rote or rehearsal, repeatedly going over the information you wish to remember. Other strategies include underlining, highlighting, summarizing, rereading. For instance, a university student will underline or highlight important information, reread it, write down a summary, then use rehearsal or rote to encode the information in the mind.

Another popular strategy is outlining. The student creates a numbered list. Beside each number, the student writes down an idea, concept, or topic. Below this information, the student writes down several points, such as facts or details. Afterwards, the student rereads the outline until he or she remembers the information.

The best way to learn something is to break into chunks, use interval learning and not cramming, and then testing yourself. For instance, if you desire to learn the process of writing, you would break the process into pre-writing, writing, revising. At the first study session, you would learn how to pre-write—researching, freewriting, mind mapping, outlining. At the second session, you would learn various ways to write sentences and create paragraphs and to organize and structure your writing. At the third study session, you would learn how to revise the structure, writing style, point of view, and so forth. At the end of each study session, you would test yourself, perhaps asking and answering questions, or using flash cards.

Use Mnemonic Devices to Learn and Remember
A mnemonic device is a memory tool, which you use to encode, store, and retrieve important information. Mnemonic devices embody three principles: imagination, association, and location. To remember something important, you must use your mind’s eye to visualize it. You can do this by associating the information with some visual image in a particular location or place. Suppose you are new to a city, and you wish to remember the name of a baseball team and where it plays. You would create a mental image of the team logo and another image of the stadium where the team plays its baseball games and a particular location where you will store this information, perhaps the washroom or ticket counter.

There are many types of mnemonic devices. Use the ones you feel are most comfortable and helpful.
Here are a few popular mnemonics that incorporate imagery, association, and location:
1. Use visual imagery. Link the new information to some image. For example, suppose you wanted to remember the name Paul Bell, you might link it to an image of a bell.
2. Use an acronym. Suppose you want to remember several pieces of information, such as salad, apples, dog food, you would create a word from the first letter of each word you desire to remember. Your word might be “SAD. “S” for salad, “a” for apples, and “d” for dog food.
3. Use graphical models, such as a memory tree, pyramid, sequence model, pie chart.
4. Create note cards, outline, question & answer. For using note cards, write down the question on the front and answer on the back. For an outline, create a number list. Beside each number, write down the concept or idea you wish to recall. Below each concept or idea, write down the points you wish remember. For the question and answer, ask a question and answer it. If you don’t know, find out the answer.
5. Create an ode or rhyme. For instance, create a poem with the information you desire to recall in the future
6. Create a chain or link between related information by storytelling mnemonic. Storytelling helps you remember things that must be completed chronological order, such as using a computer, driving, cooking.
7. Chunk information. Instead of trying to remember large amounts of information, chunk it into smaller pieces. For instance, to remember a telephone number, you would remember the area code, first three letters, then last four letters.
8. Use the Method of Loci (Memory Palace). Before the birth of the printing press, people required a method of remembering speeches, stories, and other useful information. So, they used the memory palace, which is based on association and imagination to link facts, ideas, and objects to different locations in a place you are familiar with. Here’s how the method of loci works: First, select a familiar place you can visualize in your mind, such as your home. Visualize walking through different rooms of your home. Thirdly, visualize a specific location in each room. Finally, visualize the idea or concept you wish to remember with the visual image of the place and location. For instance, to remember a story from the bible, you might link the story to the bible resting in the drawer of your bedside table.

“How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember…No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory…Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have became estranged…memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.” ― Joshua Foer, Moonwalk with Einstein

Additional Reading
To learn more about memory and mnemonics, read the following:
• “Moonwalk with Einstein” by Joshua Foer
• Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power by Dan Hurley
• How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens by Benedict Carey
• You Can Have an Amazing Memory by Dominic O’Brien


About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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