Learn How To Improve Your Memory
Memories of past events in your life shape your actions in the present and future. You might think of memories simply as scenes from the past that you can call up at almost any time, but memories go well beyond sight.
Sounds, smells, tastes, textures, emotions, facts and even motor skills are all able to be stored in the brain. Many events from one’s past may only have type of memory associated with it after the fact, but some events are able to elicit memories from multiple senses years after they happen. What seems to be a single memory is actually a complex construction of different parts of the brain working together to construct that singular image, fact or sensation.
Memory tends to fade with age, and some people are naturally better at retaining and recalling memories than others, but the good news is there are ways to improve your memorization capabilities, no matter your age. This article will take a closer look at how memory works, plus a number of techniques you can try to improve your own memory.
How Memory Works
In order to make memories, the outer layer of the brain, the cerebral cortex, takes charge of processing information and sensations, as well as voluntary muscle movement. Encoding is the first step in committing something to memory. The hippocampus (located roughly in the center of the brain) and the frontal lobe are responsible for analyzing various stimuli and deciding what’s worth remembering.
From there, memories get stored in various parts of the brain. Scientists have determined that a memory will reside in the region of the cortex in which the information or sensation was first perceived and processed. Now, whether the information is committed to short- or long-term memory depends on the individual and the nature of the information.
Short-term memory is characterized by a brief duration that lasts only up to 20 seconds. Short-term memory is responsible for storing images, words and sounds, as well as for working memory (where information is stored until it’s put to use or discarded). The mind can only take in 5-7 bits of information at a time. Scientists have found that a weakened short-term memory (due to medication, sleep deprivation, heavy substance use, head injuries, etc.) is the first step toward memory loss.
When we take in a certain stimuli, we often recall similar knowledge that is already stored in the brain. In long-term memory, information is stored as a network of schemas, which is converted into knowledge structures. There are two types of long-term memory: explicit and implicit.
- Explicit: conscious memories from personal experiences and our own perception of the world
- Implicit: unconscious memories that we use without noticing it
Long-term memory is responsible for encoding (converting information into a knowledge structure), as well as the storage and retrieval of information. Although long-term memory is a good way to hold onto something for years on end, most of these memories have an expiration date. The longer they go without use, the higher probably they will be lost. Also, memory is not infinite. Recent research has found most people cannot store more than 300,000 facts in their brain during their lifespan.
Ways to Improve Memory
You may think of yourself as having a poor memory, but that doesn’t mean the trait has to be set in stone. There are a variety of steps you can take to try to improve your memory. The following steps, many of which comes from advice given to college students, are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. More research needs to be done on some of the items below, but it’s worth trying these steps out to see which ones help strengthen your memory.
Tips for Committing Information to Memory:
- Intend to commit it to memory: Give the situation your full attention and don’t get sidetracked by the small details.
- Have a positive attitude about committing it to memory: If it’s information that you actually want to remember, there’s a better chance you’ll retain more of it.
- Mull over the information in the moment: Think deeply about what the information you just took in means and how you can use it later.
- Make connections and associations: Can you make an analogy of the situation you’re in? Or, does the event remind you of a book, movie or other life experience?
- Verbalize the information: Instead of simply re-reading useful information, try speaking it out loud, or try teaching or explaining the information later to someone else.
- Chew gum to strengthen memories: Chewing gum while you’re paying attention brings more oxygen to the brain and may increase activity in the hippocampus of the brain.
Tips for Better Recalling Information After the Fact:
- Take a walk or exercise: Getting the body in motion gets the mind in motion and fosters better memory recall.
- Sleep more for memory consolidation: Sleep is when most people’s memory consolidation process happens, so make sure to get enough of it.
- Drink coffee to retain information: Consuming caffeine soon after learning a new task may help with strengthening your memories of the event.
- Eat berries for a sharper memory: Eating berries frequently has some ties to better memory recall years down the road.
Mnemonic Techniques for Better Remembering Information
There’s a whole discipline dedicated to better remembering information. The system is called mnemonics, a group of various time-tested memorization techniques, some of which you may have learned in grade school. Mnemonics are a way of associating new information with something else in a way that helps people better retain the info. If you’re looking to boost your memory, brush up on the following mnemonic techniques and then try them out when you come across new information. Hopefully, you’ll find a few that really make your memory click.
- Acronyms: Each letter in an acronym is a cue to an item you need to remember, such as PEMDAS to remember the order of operations in mathematics.
- Acrostics: Acrostics are like acronyms, except all the letter abbreviations form a recognizable word when combined, such as HOMES to remember the Great Lakes or FANBOYS to remember the coordinating conjunctions.
- Expressions: To better remember a related group or the order of items, create an expression with words that start with the same letter, such as, “Never Eat Soggy Worms,” to remember north, east, south, and west.
- Music Mnemonics: Does the information you just took in remind you of song lyrics you know, or can you make up your own jingle to help you remember the info?
- Model Mnemonics: Venn diagrams, flowcharts and pyramid models to group and organize information are classic examples of model mnemonics.
- Ode or Rhyme Mnemonics: Put the information in the form of a poem to better remember it, such as “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
- Keyword Method: This especially helps with foreign language vocabulary: Selecting a key word in English that sounds similar to the foreign word you’re trying to learn.
- Note Organization: Organize the information by putting it on notecards, putting it in an outline format or breaking it down to numbered items or bullet points.
- Imagery: Can you take the information and mentally or physically construct a picture that helps you retain it? The more unique the image is, the better you’ll recall the info.
- Spelling Mnemonics: These are tricks and associations to help you spell certain words, especially homonyms. For example, the way many people remember to spell Mississippi combines a rhythm mnemonic with a spelling mnemonic (M-iss-iss-ipp-i).
Organizing Your Mind for Better Memory
An overarching, proactive step you can take to help you improve memory is to unclutter your mind. Think of how a well-organized filing system can help businesses pull up old information easily. Start thinking of your mind as such a system. It may even help to write down some of your memories and start grouping them together by similarity. Giving a strong structure to your memory’s “files” is going to be your best tool going forward for storing and recalling information. Take the tips outlined in this article and start working toward a better memory today!