A Dozen Ways to Improve Your Memory

Sleeping Aids Remembering

Taking a nap or enjoying a good night’s sleep immediately after learning anything new helps that memory stick. New research has shown that during sleep – especially deep or slow-wave sleep – information transfers from a part of the brain responsible for short-term memories (called the hippocampus) to the cortex where it is consolidated into long-term memory.
So if you want to enhance retention and improve recall try sleeping on it!

Questioning Yourself Makes Recall More Certain

Contrary to popular belief, memory is not a sponge that passively soaks up facts and figures. The fastest way to learn anything new is to interact with the text by constantly asking yourself: “What is happening?” “Why is it happening?” “How is it happening?” “Who is involved?” and “When did it happen?” Searching our answers to these five questions helps consolidate new information in your memory. They will also help to ensure that you fully understand the material you are trying to memorise. There is no more difficult and frustrating task than to try and commit to memory facts and figures that don’t really make much sense to you.

Self-Testing Enhances Memory

In 1620 the great scientist Francis Bacon commented: “If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails” Modern research confirms how right he was right. Rather than attempting to memorise a text through passive reading, activate the memory circuits by testing your knowledge frequently. The more effort you put into self-testing your recollection the faster you will retain new information and the more easily and accurately you will recall it.

Rehearsal Aids Long Term Recall

When striving to remember anything, that new information is initially stored in our Short Term Memory (STM). Because the capacity of STM is limited, new facts and figures tend to cause older ones to be lost – unless you have transferred them to Long-Term Memory (LTM). This helps explain why we so easily forget someone’s name after a first meeting! To transfer information to Long Term Memory, whose capacity is for all practical purposes infinite, constantly ‘rehearse’ or repeat those facts. Use the Seven Times Rule for names, addresses or phone number. Repeat the information silently to yourself seven times over with a pause between each repetition and you’ll be amazed at how swiftly you remember it.

Memorising PINS and Number Sequences

Credit or debit card PINS and other types of number pass codes can be memorised easily by devising a sentence in which each word has the same number of letters as the number to be recalled.

For example the nine-digit code 336964356, could be committed to memory with the sentence: ‘Why (3) are (3) Indian (6) elephants (9) always (6) grey (4) and (3) never (5) purple (6)?’ You’ll find such nonsense sentences and phrases far easier to memorise than a lengthy number – try it and see for yourself.

Use Mnemonic Short-Cuts to Speed Retention and Recall

Many facts are more easily remembered by use of a mnemonic. This is a phrase, sentence or rhyme that lodges easily in the memory and provides the facts you need. For example the mnemonic ‘Most Volcanoes Erupt Mulberry Jam Sandwiches Under Normal Pressure’ has enabled generations of children to remember the nine planets outward from the sun: Mercury; Venus; Earth; Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Although, of course, this no longer works quite as well since astronomers have recently decided Pluto is no longer a planet! The more bizarre and unique you can make a mnemonic the easier it is to remember!

Only Remember What You Need to Remember

Einstein once remarked that it is more important to remember where you can find the facts and figures you need than to try and remember the information itself. It is good advice from one of the world’s greatest and most innovative thinkers. Never bother to memorise anything unless you have an excellent reason to do so. As the Chinese say: ‘ The palest ink is better than the best memories’. So write it down or note it on your computer. But, for security reasons, never carry pass codes and PINS in your wallet or handbag.

Talk Your Memory Up not Down

Always remain positive about your memory, both in what you tell yourself and say to others. Do not punish yourself for occasional memory slips and lapses that everyone makes, or see them as signs of impending mental decline.
Never tell yourself, or someone else, that you’ve got a ‘terrible memory’ or find it impossible to recall specific facts, such as names or faces. Such negative statements can quickly create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Build a better memory through regular practice, using memory techniques like those provided in the Memory Memos and on our Mastering Your Memory DVD. Try and take the time to learn a short piece of prose or poetry every day – look on this as the mental equivalent of taking exercise. Never forget that memory is like muscle – the more you use it the stronger it becomes.

Use Red Ink in Mental Imagery

When you need to remember something but can’t write it down immediately, for example when given someone’s name or telephone number, try this powerful visualisation technique. Close your eyes and imagine a sheet of perfectly white paper on which you write it down in bold red numbers or letters – the redder the better!

To recall that information again imply shut your eyes again and see the ‘note’ in your mind’s eye. With only a little practice the information will spring back into your mind as well. Why red? No one seems to know for certain but research suggests that it is the most easily recalled of all the colours when used in this way.

Free-Association Aids Recall

Free association can provide a powerful aid to recall.

Ask yourself what the last item of information you can clearly remember brings to mind. Now form a second association with that new item and then a third and so on until you can clearly recall what you were seeking.

But avoid attempting to force that elusive topic to spring into your mind since our memory does not normally work efficiently under pressure.

Instead relax and, when possible, occupy yourself with some mundane activity, such as going for a walk, taking a shower or even doing the washing up – anything that can be done almost automatically. As you carry out this task the missing fact or figure is quite likely to suddenly pop into your head.

Chunking Makes Remembering Easier

When tasked with memorising large amounts of information, try breaking them into smaller, more manageable, chunks. In the USA children are sometimes taught to spell Mississippi in just this way, by chanting MIS – SIS – SIPP – I. Chunking information in this way works best if each segment is no more than seven items long, since this is round about the upper limits of short-term memory. Make a note of how many ‘chunks’ you have broken the information into, however, so that you are sure to bring them all to mind. When attending a meeting where I cannot take notes, I use this technique to ‘chunk’ the information I hear and keep a score of the total number to recall by transferring a coin from my left to my right hand pocket each time another ‘chunk’ is stored.

The Critical Times for Rehearsing New Memories

Rehearsing new information is essential to committing it to memory. But precisely when you rehearse is just as important. Research suggests the following rehearsal schedule will enhance the ease and accuracy of remembering. Your first rehearsal should take place after 5 minutes. Quietly go over in your mind the key points of what you heard or read. The second rehearsal should take place one-hour after that, a third after three hours and the final one after six hours – or just before going to bed. By following this timetable the facts and figures will consolidate themselves in long-term memory and make it easier to retrieve the desired information even when under pressure.