If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
~ Mark Twain
How can I improve my memory? That was a question that was asked of me recently by a friend. He seemed to be forgetting everything all of the time. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Maybe he was just forgetting those times when he didn’t forget!
But we could all use strengthening our memory. And as we get older it appears that our memory becomes poorer. I have my own thoughts on this which I’ll explain to you in a bit.
Not many of us will have an eidetic memory or synesthesia. The former is known as photographic memory and the ability to recall exact details of things seen visually. Synesthetes are people who experience synesthesia which is defined as the ability to experience one sense through other senses or abilities.
Perhaps the most common example is of synesthetes who see numbers or letters as coloured. So if I wrote the alphabet here in just black, a synesthete would see each letter as a separate and distinct colour.
This obviously can help in memory as you’re accessing 2 mental abilities to recall something. The word “memory” for example could be easily remembered with the addition of the different colours that each letter would have. Learning a new word could b easier because you wouldn’t have to remember the letters if you remembered the colour sequence.
Synesthetes can also have associations where a name or phrase or day of the week might have a personality – like angry or sad – or it might have a smell. So when I say Wednesday, a synesthete might smell vanilla, just as an example.
Many have lately brought to question the legitimacy of pure eidetic memory, however, there are real savants that have incredible memories. But we aren’t savants and we just want to be able to improve our memory and this is the goal of our article.
If you’d like a thorough book which includes many memory drills and other techniques for improving your memory I recommend The Memory Book.
But for a few actionable tips you can start now, let’s look at exactly what the science suggests is the best way to improve our memories.
Memory tools and tricks to improve our ability to recall things, people and places have been around since at least Pythagoras’ time and the art of improving memory has quite a storied and colourful history.
But enough of that, let’s get some actionable advice for memory improvement.
Visualize the Visigoths
That’s perhaps a silly image but it’s use as an important and practical memory tool is clear.
In order to remember things better we must use our visual and more importantly spatial recognition to remember anything. This goes for remembering words, phrases and sounds too.
Not to diminish the fact that we can learn by different modalities. Some prefer auditory, tactile or visual learning, but the fact remains that visualization has been proving since ancient times to enhance memory recall.
Let’s take a classic example. If you want to remember your keys after you’ve placed them somewhere take just a moment to make yourself aware of the environment. You put the keys on the edge of the bathtub as you were about to use the loo. Remember that. Remember the bathroom, the toilet the sink, the keys on the bathtub edge and you’ll remember where they are.
Where do you keep your oatmeal? Look at the environment where the oatmeal is. Take notice of the cans of soup next to it, the way its can is dented perhaps. Identify the greater environment whenever you want to recall something at a later stage. Take a moment to soak it in visually.
A new world order
I hinted at this aspect above. Basically, in order to remember better we need to identify an order to the objects or things we wish to remember.
If you can set the order to things all the better. And this is a good way of testing your memory and training your memory to get better. Take half a dozen cans you have around the house and place them in a particular order. Look at them for 30 seconds and then try to remember them right after, 5 minutes later and one hour later.
Then place 7, 8 a 12 cans and repeat the process. You can also limit the time you give yourself to take the environment in.
Right now, try and write down everything you saw the last time you were in your kitchen or bathroom. How many did you get right. You can make this as difficult as you like. How many tiles in your shower? How many on the kitchen backsplash.
All you’re doing is training your mind to remember order and to give order to things.
Part of the reason why I feel older folks seem to think their memory is not as good as it was when they were younger, is not because it is poorer but because we become overstimulated as we get older.
We need to give better attention to our environment. Practicing mediation on a daily basis can also improve memory as we learn to focus right here and right now on what is right at hand.
Divide and then conquer
Another great memory aid is to divide and conquer or use chunking. It is easier to remember 7 numbers rather than 10 and this is one of the reasons our phone numbers are only 7 numbers long.
Try this. Try remembering these 3 telephone numbers: 541002590503187435829.
Then try remember these 3 telephone numbers: 743 5829 905 0318 541 0025. It is likely you will find remembering the latter 3 easier, even though they are the same numbers.
This is useful tool for remembering many things. If you want to remember how many people were at a dinner party for instance, put them in groups of 5 or 7 by identifying some similarities and then testing yourself later.
Repeat after me
Repetition is a very important method in improving your memory for any purpose.
For example you can repeat walking through buildings and remember specific places, art, elevators and so on each time you walk through it and as you repeatedly walk through it you try and remember all these items or specific places in order and continue building up your list.
This can be used for remembering text and studying for exams. Chunk pieces of a speech or text you need to remember and put things in their place as markers. So for Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a dream” which starts like this:
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
You might chunk it up and place images of a smiley face on the History Channel being carried by on a placard by demonstrators. This is just an example of how such a repetition and chunking using visualization can be used to enhance your memory.
And of course one the best methods which has been tried and true is mnemonics, which is using linking to increase your memory of long lists of arguably unlinked words or phrases.
So if a list of words is mother, tea, plane, cat, moon, night. You might create the story for yourself of a mother cradling a baby while drinking a cup of tea on a plane while looking out the window and seeing a cat on the moon at night.
But the most important thing you can do to get a better memory is to use it more often. Use tools to help, but don’t forget to practice. As practice will make your memory almost perfect.