Here are some tips and tricks to improve your memory – general ability to remember, and the skill of memorizing specific things. When we speak of improving memory, two things come to mind. These are 2 unique aspects of memory.
Let me distinguish these two aspects of memory first:
Studies in Psychology show these as different functions of memory.
- Committing to memory – this is the ability to remember details in useful ways. We commonly refer to this as memory.
- Learning information – when our brain receives information from our senses, the brain gets some pre-memory raw information.
Depending on the usefulness of the information and attention paid to that information, a memory starts forming. That basically means that this information leaves an imprint at the biological level in the brain. This imprint is a small change in how neurons communicate. Now imagine that there is a large network of neurons. They all communicate with each other through synapses. The more robust this network is, and its synapses are, the better the information is ‘maintained’.
Techniques to improve your memory!
Memories are stored all over the brain and new neurons are produced along with new connections regularly to help accommodate new memories. So we don’t really have a storage unit in the brain, the memory is just there, all over the place!
Memory has the following elements:
- Neural patterns that fire in unique ways
- The strength of communication between neurons (I won’t get into the neuroscience of that here)
- Ability to repeat the same pattern of firing to evoke the same memory
- A learning aspect which is utilizing that memory for guiding behavior, performing, acquiring new information, etc.
(This post, in parts, is oversimplified)
What can we do about improving memory?
Promote the strength of neural firing:
These are mental activities you can work on to improve your memory in general. Leverage these powerful techniques if you want to improve your memory in general.
Anything that lets one use memory-related neural circuitry again and would give the brain a signal that the circuit is useful. So then, it will set the memory on a path of strengthening itself. There are many ways we can leverage this. The more you strengthen it, better the memory is.
1. Repeating information
Simply repeating information CAN (but not necessarily) improve the memory for it. Like a list of medicines. Details of a conversation or a lecture. You can repeat it in your head, repeat it to a friend, or even teach it to someone. There is a technique called spaced repetition where you repeat information after a short duration to strengthen it. You then repeat it after a slightly longer duration and you keep increasing the duration – For example, repeat names of star clusters right after you learn them, then in 5 minutes, then in 15, then in 1 hour, then in 4 hours, then in 10 hours, then the next day, then the next week. By the time it’s a week gone, you’ll have it memorized. You can always look back and confirm the information when you repeat it. Here is a strategy I have created to obtain a good memory for new vocabulary! It uses repetition in a structured manner.
2. Deliberate imagery
Very popular, and very effective. Did you know that the mind’s eye is capable of conjuring a lot of details? Visualizing something creates a strong imprint in the brain. More the details, the better it is. Lots of information can have mental imagery. Learning a chart or a process in a lecture? Visualize it a few times, journey through it in your mind. This can be done on the go. Each time, you improve the memory of it.
The brain really likes to create a network of things. Making associations between related bits of information on the go can immensely improve memory formation. Stronger the associations, better the memory for all things associated. You can make associations between conversations, places you’ve visited, people you’ve met, theories you’ve learned. You can make associations by comparing and contrasting, finding similarities, linking them in creative ways, etc. This forms the basis of the snowballing strategy I use a lot.
Musicians, jugglers, memory champions, chess masters, runners, footballers, orators, writers, technicians, etc. practice their trade. They repeat it a million times, they try different but related things, they gain experience. All to the effect of having great memory and learning of their trade. Anything can be your trade. There are ways to practice well – practice a variety of related things, learn from examples, creatively approach your trade, get feedback, etc. Especially powerful for things involving your body. But, it is also very useful in developing specialized circuitry in the brain to acquire ‘new information’ relevant to your trade (and sometimes related stuff). This new information is likely to form a very strong memory. A rehearsed musician can memorize new songs easily. An experienced electrical engineer can memorize complex circuits easily. It’s all practice. Moreover, combine practice with chunking (discussed later) and you’ll be good to go!
5. Assign additional meaning
There are so many things that can add meaning to information, one can write a book on it. Here is a start. Putting information in a story context, using new vocabulary in conversations, talking about something with friends, playing make-belief with information, etc. This is where you can be creative. Here is a fact – there are 1,77,147 ways to tie a tie knot. You can talk about this with friends. You can read up more about it. You can look up the math. You can compare it to how many practical ways there are, etc. All of this, not just reinforces the memory, it gives the fact a context. This context adds meaning. Want to remember the clothing of your friends? Assign meaning to it based on how it brings out their personality, how it makes you feel.
Attention is key to forming memories that are useful
The brain receives a lot of information, a lot of it is useless. Managing this information is hard. Attention selectively chooses information because it is meaningful, useful, standing out, relevant, etc. Consciously attending to information makes forming memories easier. Deliberately notice things and take mental notes. In all honesty, Attend to the information. Learning how to observe is a skill; with practice, you can really attend to information well enough for it become a strong contender for memory formation.
The weight of information
Information comes in all sorts of weights. By weight, I mean, significance. Some information is light and useless, some information is heavy and useful. You can deliberately treat some information as more important by making it ‘heavy’. This would prime your brain to consolidate it during your REM cycle while sleeping. Important information urges the brain to memorize it. All of the above would help strengthen the neural circuitry involved in memory formation as well as help recall that information better.
Quick tricks to improve the memory for specific information:
These are special tricks to help improve memory for specific things. The previous section makes your general memory better.
These are simple tricks that make information meaningful for the brain in some way. Some mnemonics are simple like making an acronym for a concept. Example – How to give good feedback? It should be Feed-forward, actionable, succinct, and timely. A mnemonic for this could be F.A.S.T. Some mnemonic ‘systems’ require homework and they are powerful mental tools.
- The Major system can be used to remember numbers. Basically, you assign a fixed letter to each single digit number and then use a combination of these letters based on the number you want to remember by making words. Words are easy and meaningful, therefore easy to remember.
- The mind palace (what Sherlock Holmes uses) is a very powerful tool that leverages the visuospatial memory circuits. Simply put, one of the most powerful memory systems for the brain is the memory for spatial location and its visual aspects. Think about it. How well can you imagine your house and the location of things in it? How well can you remember your locality? The mind palace is basically a house/area you are familiar with. At each significant spot in the house or the area, you ‘place’ information by creating an association of that place and the information. Say my mind palace is my current house. Each room has objects in it and I know their locations. I can then start at the entrance of my house and make associations of bits of information with each piece of information. Then I can do the same to another room. And so forth; a mind palace can be huge. To recall the information, I will simply remember the associations I made with each furniture item and then extract my information. With practice, this gets very easy.
- The peg system is fairly easy. You can learn it in 10 minutes. The user makes
fixednumber-object association which we call ‘pegs’. We then use this number-object pair to create an association with information. So, it is easy to recall target information by remembering the peg and the association. Once the peg is known, one can instantly tell the numerical position of that information. In short, you fix an object you can visualize with numbers 1 to 10. Once you fix and learn those (make it easy like one- sun, two – shoe, three -tree), simply associate information with that object through vivid imagination. Once you do that, you have a handy tool to remember to-do tasks, glossary lists, this answer, etc.
This is a fairly obvious memory trick but we often don’t use it to its fullest. Chunking is a process to group information into small collections and treat the collection as single units with information. Say a phone number – 43522350234 can be chunked as 435 – 223 – 502 -34. You can chunk things to buy based on categories – stationary, meat, liquids, etc. You can chunk anything and make small units to remember. Chunks are easy, random lists of long things are not. Make sure your groupings are small.
As I have mentioned before, learning and memory go hand in hand with good sleep. For memories to form, neural circuits need to maintain the information and strengthen it through plasticity. If the information is useful, important, relevant in any way, the brain will do its job and restructure a little bit to strengthen the circuits used for that information. This could be musical practice, exam answers, roads, etc.
Remember to remember
Prospective memory, or remembering to remember, is perhaps the easiest and most profound technique. One simply reminds oneself that a certain bit of information is important, and then he/she recalls it. When you remember to remember, you basically add more value to the information. Once you actually remember that information, you do that again. So over time, you would’ve rehearsed that information enough to be easily available to you. You could remember the people you met at a conference by quickly restating it in your head. Then, remember to remember. After some time, you recall the names, then remind yourself again. Finally, after 3–4 times of doing that, you’d be knowing those names well.
A general finding is that having adequate amounts of Vitamin B12 is associated with a good memory. Another finding is that exercising 4 hours after studying helps ‘consolidate’ that memory after learning better than immediate exercise. Regular sleep is also associated with better recall. Remember – learned information is a skill. You may enjoy reading this article that looks at lifestyle factors in a lot more detail.
Trying to recall means your brain is finding its way to fire up that neural circuit which represents that information. That also means that the ‘recalling’ process can be strengthened through practice. So a habit of recalling information will be useful in extracting that information from your brain. It is one of the best study techniques – popularly known as retrieval practice.
Go through each of these aspects of memory carefully. These techniques will certainly improve your overall memory. The power to remember is in your hands!
- How to study well and remember information for exams.
- Is listening to music while studying good?
- Is listening to music while working good?
P.S. Image used can be found here under the CC0 license.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced in Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, a few books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.