Is your memory struggling? Here are 10 ways to boost your recall
From rhymes to chunking and large displays, neurology professor Richard Restak provides key tips to improve your memory
Dr Richard Restak Sat 8 Apr 2023 15.00 BST Last modified on Sun 9 Apr 2023 03.55 BST
Methods for strengthening memory can be traced back hundreds, if not thousands of years. The key insight was learning to think in pictures, rather than words. And when you think of it, this makes sense. We are primarily visual creatures who best remember images, rather than words. The real challenge for our memory (and intelligence) is to correlate things that aren’t ordinarily thought of together. For example: my dog, Leah, is a Schipperke, which is a hard word to remember. Solution? Imagine a tiny boat (representing a tiny dog) with a huge portly captain – the skipper – standing in it while holding a key, skipper key. As in this example, images are most effective as memory prompts when they are whimsical, inappropriate and even outrageous compared to the objects that inspired them. Here are a few key tips to practise for retention and recall of memory.
1. Use all of your senses (multi-coding)
Picture yourself drinking coffee. Not only can you imagine yourself doing that, but you can also imagine smelling its delightful aroma. In your imagination you can taste it and savour it as it flows over your taste buds. The coffee experience is both verbal (naming and describing it), as well as sensory (tasting, smelling, etc). Nouns like “chair” and “notebook” can be described and imagined in different ways (the comfort of the chair, the softness or hardness of the notebook and so on). The more senses that can be recruited, the more likely you will be able to form a long-lasting memory, as more areas of the brain are involved.
2. Create meaningful stories
Our brains are designed to work with meaning. If meaning isn’t obvious, we create it. The easiest way to organise unrelated information is to place things you are trying to remember into a framework, like a story or a rhyme. As an example, I parked my car yesterday in space 351 in a seven-storey garage. So how to guarantee that I will be able to find it? By using the sounds-like system based on rhymes. The number “three” rhymes with “tree,” “five” rhymes with “hive,” and “one” rhymes with “sun”. I pictured a tree under a blazing sun in full bloom with beehives so numerous and ponderous that they weigh down all the branches. When I returned to the garage I had no trouble converting the images back to numbers to remember where I’d parked the car.
3. Make your own memory theatre
It was the 16th-century architect and philosopher Giulio Camillo who suggested the memory theatre as a way of using images and loci (the position of these images) to remember. The loci method remains one of the most popular used by mnemonists and a few of the ones I use are 1) my home, 2) a nearby library and 3) a coffee shop. So if I want to remember, say, three items – milk, bread, watermelon – here is how I would do it. House – imagine the house as a pint of milk turned on its side with milk pouring out of the chimney. Library – when I look through the floor-length window facing me, I see loaves of bread instead of books on shelves. Coffee shop – a giant coffee cup on a table outside contains a watermelon. Come up with a longer list of your own loci and place a list of random items in them – the more bizarre or irreverent the images you come up with, the easier they will be to remember.
4. Use association
Simply thinking about how two or more things can be associated requires you to concentrate and attend – two brain activities which on their own lead to enhanced memory. As the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson put it: “The art of memory is the art of attention”.
5. Think like a Navy Seal
Situational awareness exercises are used by US Navy Seals, and other branches of the military. On request a Seal who must be able to describe the location of the doors and windows of the room in which they are sitting, along with other details that would be helpful to remember in order to be able to make a quick escape in the event of an enemy attack. To get a feel for this, the next time you are in a restaurant, close your eyes for a few seconds and mentally picture the arrangement of the people sitting around you at the nearby tables. If you are like most people, you probably won’t do very well with this memory exercise the first time you try it. The goal is to employ your attentional focus in the manner of a searchlight scanning the night sky. The more you practise, the greater the breadth and depth of your memory. You will remember more because at a given moment, your memory is encompassing larger swathes of your immediate surroundings.
6. Look inward
One step beyond are situational exercises directed inward. Situational exercises involving self-exploration are used in creative-writing seminars. After encountering unfamiliar people in a social setting, the aspiring novelist is asked to incorporate them into the plot of a novel or short story. As an exercise for remembering an unfamiliar group of people, you can invent a visually vivid story around them. A similar method of looking inwards is used in the training of psychoanalysts. It is referred to as self-analysis. The first patient was none other than Sigmund Freud.
7. Try ‘chunking’ to remember numbers
Look at this long string of digits for one minute:
Now turn away and write down as many as you can remember, starting from the left. How many were you able to come up with? According to the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (Moca), the gold standard among neuropsychological screening tests, your performance was acceptable if you remembered five or more. But what is the upper limit of numbers that can be remembered by a group of people randomly chosen? In the 1940s, Harvard psychologist George Miller measured the capacity of people’s short-term memory for digits and found that most people could repeat strings of five to nine letters. Now I’ll show you how to repeat more than 20 digits on the first try! Take another look at the digits you attempted to memorise and arrange them like this:
It should only take a few minutes for you to get the first three phone numbers. But even if you can only remember two of the first three numbers, you have achieved a memorisation of 20 numbers, far higher than the five numbers on the standard neuropsychological test. The organising principle at work here is called chunking – converting random numbers into a memorable string, like a telephone number, so your brain can come up with a way of imposing impose meaning on a meaningless sequence.
8. Use larger computer displays
To form mental images of the greatest clarity, we are better off separating those images so they don’t overlap. If you are using an iPad for instance, you will see the same images as a desk computer with a big screen. But there’s a vast difference when it comes to committing these to memory – so the next time you are reading an important article, work document or committing a map or photo to memory, choose the biggest screen available to you. Bigger displays are better remembered in the imagination. Smaller displays lead to a narrower visual focus and, as a result, less memory formation.
9. Boost your ‘working memory’ to increase intelligence
Working memory, often described as the “queen of memory”, is essentially the ability to keep in your attentional foreground a piece of information while you turn your attention to something else. See how many prime ministers you can think of, starting with Rishi Sunak and going back as far as you can. Now list their names in alphabetical order. To do this, you have to mentally move the names around and rearrange them. What you are doing is encoding one item while retaining access to items recalled moments earlier. This is working memory in action. Experts consider it the basis for general intelligence and reasoning. In general, the people who can hold the greatest numbers of items in mind are best at considering multiple aspects of a problem simultaneously.
10. Keep testing yourself and don’t give up
Finally, one highly effective technique for improving your memory is to keep re-testing yourself on the material you want to remember. Even after you have learned something, your long-term memory for it will be strengthened if you repeatedly challenge yourself to recall it.
The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind by Dr Richard Restak (Penguin Life, £18.99) is available for £16.71 at guardianbookshop.com
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