How to Improve Your Memory: 7 Easy Tips
Sometimes, our memory doesn’t work the way we want it to. We leave the stove on, we forget the answers to exam questions, we don’t get everything on our shopping list (or forget to add things to our list). We chalk it up to human error, kick ourselves, and carry on with our day.
But how successful we are at learning and remembering, like running a marathon or anything else our body is capable of, is based primarily on how well we prepare and how hard we work at it. In other words, you can exercise your memory to make it stronger, and just like running a race, there are certain techniques that will make you better at it.
So in the interest of remembering the subject matter for an exam, let’s talk about some memory-enhancing techniques.
How Memory Works
First, it’s important to know how memory works. Your memory is composed primarily of three distinct sections: long-term memory, short-term memory, and the sensory register. The sensory register begins the process of building memory by receiving sensory information (sight, sound, etc.).
Sensory registers can’t hold information very long, making them very “lossy.” This is an important feature, though, as we neither need to remember nor are capable of remembering, everything we experience in a day. Thus, the sensory register tends to junk most of the information you receive that you’re not paying attention to, which is why you can’t remember every detail of the drive home from work when you’re daydreaming about the pizza you’re having for dinner—your eyes saw the whole thing, and you obviously acted as needed according to that information, but after using it, your sensory register determined it wasn’t useful.
For any information the sensory register deems important, it’s on to short-term memory (sometimes called working memory). This memory functions like the RAM in your computer; it holds information so that it can be manipulated and worked with. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to do things like, say, write a research paper about memory, because you couldn’t keep track of what you were doing long enough to finish.
Working memory is also pretty “lossy,” and it junks information it deems unhelpful or unnecessary. This is why, even when you’re paying close attention, you don’t typically remember your commute home for very long. By the time you go to sleep, and your brain starts consolidating memories for long-term storage, you’ve already subconsciously determined you don’t care about the Porsche that cut you off in traffic.
Long-term memory is much better at retaining information and can hold onto things for years and decades. It still loses information over time, if you’re not pulling it out into short-term memory every so often to polish it up. That’s why you can’t remember all the information you learned in high school algebra classes (though you’re pretty sure you knew the stuff when you took the test).
Most of the time, when we complain about “memory problems,” our problem is the loss of information between short-term and long-term memory. When things aren’t encoded properly, they can’t be retrieved the way we need them. So we might remember reading the textbook, without being able to recall specifics about what it contained. The goal, then, is to increase the reliability of that transfer.
"Magic Number Seven"
Back in the `50s, a psychologist named George A. Miller did a study to find out just how much information people could keep in their working memory. He found that people, on average, can hold about seven “units” of information, plus or minus two. Like a phone number you’re trying to remember long enough to call, you can keep repeating those seven items to yourself over and over until you don’t need them anymore.
This is a technique called “massed repetition,” and it has some drawbacks. When using it, you’re trying to do one of two things. Either you’re trying to force information into your long-term memory while you’re awake (short-term memory normally consolidates during sleep), or you’re trying to return the information to the sensory register, which returns it to your working memory, in a sort of audiophonic loop. The problem is, while it can technically do the latter, it’s not very effective at the former, and either way, the information is discarded nearly the second attention is drawn away from it.
Whether you’re using massed repetition to remember something or not, the seven unit limitation is kind of a drag, especially for students who are asked to learn far more than seven things in a given day. There’s something you can do about it, though.
If you learn nothing else from this article, learn chunking. While gimmicks like mnemonics will take you pretty far, it’s chunking that turns a preschooler learning the alphabet into an astrophysicist learning quantum mechanics. It’s a psychology principle wherein you group information together to better learn and remember things. Here’s an illustration:
When you were learning the alphabet, each letter was its own unit or “chunk” of information. You had to learn each piece individually, eventually building your memory and knowledge until the whole alphabet was a song you could sing in your sleep. Once you knew the alphabet, you took those chunks you learned, and applied it to reading. You started by sounding out words (each letter being the biggest chunk you understood), until over time you learned to recognize the words on sight.
Once that happened, you became capable of memorizing things like poems and lines for a play. There’s even a chance you still remember some of them, as they’ve become whole chunks themselves in your mind. The principle applies to any subject, and the bigger the foundation you have in that field, the larger the chunks you can create, which translates into faster learning.
So if you’re ever called to memorize a lengthy speech, a collection of science terms, or a phone number, break it into chunks for easier memorization.
It’s important to be aware that some people remember different types of information better than others. A predominant theory in the psychology community is the VAK theory, which stands for “Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic.” In the theory, information is broken into three categories, depending on the primary sense engaged during the learning process. The categories are then applied to learners, who are grouped according to which kind of information is retained with the greatest reliability and the least amount of effort.
Visual learners tend to do best when they can see a process or when information is presented visually. They are good at remembering what people look like, the color of the professor’s shirt, or where things are on a page.
Auditory learners remember things they hear. They often don’t need to take notes during lectures, they can identify someone by voice, and some can even learn a piece of music just by listening to it.
Kinesthetic learners depend on tactile information. They remember where they set their keys because of how it felt to drop them on the granite countertop, and they remember all the rules of baseball because they played in Little League as a kid.
Knowing which group you’re in can be helpful in strategizing your learning and memorization. For instance, if you’re an auditory learner, try reading things aloud when you study, and you may increase your retention. If you’re kinesthetic, try pacing while you read. If you’re visual-based, try doodling or drawing pictures during a lecture. Keep in mind that some people are a blend of more than one, and different tactics will have different efficacies for different individuals.
Also be aware that whatever your learning type, our brains are built to depend on visual and auditory information, so certain techniques will be helpful for just about anyone. Here are a few of them:
—Visualize things you need to grab from a room before you walk in
—Create mental images (the more absurd, the better) to help you remember names, topics, or terms
—Listen to music while you study
—Sing the poem or text you’re trying to memorize to a familiar tune
Remember how massed repetition isn’t very effective? Well, your email password and high school locker combination are both proof that repetition works, it just has to be done right. That’s where “Spaced Repetition” comes in. Recent studies have revealed that if, rather than spamming the repeat button in your brain, you space out your repetitions, you improve consolidation into long-term memory and the recall when it comes back to working memory.
Here’s an illustration, using phone numbers again. If, instead of continuously repeating the phone number to yourself, you waited about five seconds between each repetition, you’ll give your brain a chance to consolidate it into long-term memory before recalling it. Then, once it’s settled in long-term, each time you recall it the memory gets stronger.
The mind palace technique involves conjuring an image in your mind of a place you’re familiar with and then associating the information you want to remember with that place. For example, you can imagine writing the phone number you want to remember on a piece of paper, and then using a magnet to stick it on your fridge at home.
Rhymes are used frequently to remember things, by turning information into a rhyming phrase. Phrases like “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” are examples. Acronyms, meanwhile, are useful for lists, such as when new musicians are learning the notes on a treble staff: EGBDF. Almost every pianist, violinist, or trumpet player will know what you’re talking about if you say “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”
Oddly enough, research is coming out with evidence supporting the claim that 3D video games are promoting memory and brain function. The spatial awareness required to navigate and problem solve in these games helps stimulate the memory sectors of the brain, and that stimulation promotes memory function. It helps both in the recalling of previously remembered information and with the encoding and consolidation of new information.
Now that you have a better understanding of your memory, and how maximize its effectiveness, why not put that added brainpower to use? Learning is always a good idea, and when you can turn that learning into a degree you’ve always wanted, you’re winning twice over. So if you’re looking to qualify yourself for a better career, know that there are options for anyone who wants to go back to school. Get in contact with CollegeAmerica today and start your journey toward the job you’ve always wanted.