While for the generation of our parents memorizing lists and telephone numbers was an essential skill, in the age of information the relevance of memorizing data is put to doubt. If you can google anything you want or take a screenshot, why do you need to remember anything at all?
The ability to recall and use information is still an important work skill and people who possess it are seen as smart, competent and dependable. And yes, some professions just cannot depend on technology that much. Can you imagine a surgeon who says “Siri, how do I conduct eye surgery? My apologies, Mr. Smith, bad connection here, loading, it won’t take a minute”?
The good news is that our memory is actually much better than we think. We don’t forget, not really. Forgetting something isn’t erasing or losing something from your memory but a failure to retrieve the information when we need it. Therefore, there are two main problems with our memory that we can work on:
- We have bad retrieval mechanisms that often fail
- It takes way too much time to take in all the information you know you will need
Methods that improve memory
Luckily, there are three simple ways to work on these problems.
Memory devices are all the cunning tricks you can use to trigger retrieval just when you need it. They connect easy-to-remember cues with unfamiliar and complex information. Bizarre images work well, the more emotion they evoke, the better.
When I had to memorize all the enzymes of the human digestive system for my biology class, including what nutrients they ferment and where in the body they are active, I had a hard time doing it until I invented a story. I remember to this day that in our stomach we have pepsin that breaks down the proteins. Why? Because I could never get out of my head the image of teenage professor (prof. Teen) drinking Pepsi and exploding. You get the idea.
This isn’t the best technique for conceptualizing or understanding complex structures, but it’s perfect for memorizing lists, passwords, telephone numbers, the order of things to address in a long speech, etc.
Some of the simpler mnemonic devices are known to you from school. For example, acronymic, like My Very Elderly Mother Just Sat on Uncle Ned to remember the planets of the Solar system or Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain to remember all colors of the rainbow.
However, this same technique can be used for more complicated things. When you have to remember long strings of data that are difficult to put in order, you either connect them into a story or tie them to places you know well, like your body, your house or a street you walk down every day. The items to remember are tied to specific places in this location, so to retrieve them from your memory you “walk through” the location in your head.
This is a technique known since ancient times as the method of loci that was prominently featured in BBC series Sherlock under the name “mind palace”. This technique is also known as memory journey or Roman room.
You don’t have to be a genius to use it, just visualize vividly and apply some imagination. Feel free to use vulgar or ridiculous imagery, as long as it works for you. This TEDx talk is a great example of how unexpected and absurd images are used with connection to the human body. The speaker uses this technique to help the audience memorize names of US presidents in the correct order and it’s priceless.
Now, we have dealt with random data. How about conceptualization and systematization? Here is where mind mapping comes into play. When you have to sort out the information in a way that gives you a clear big picture: well-structured with all the elements in relation to each other.
“Mind map” is a very fortunate name since it gives you a birds-eye view of everything you know on a particular subject. This technique is used by people who have to digest big volumes of information from a variety of sources quickly and efficiently – analysts, detectives, students, and people who write papers for money. The beauty of this technique is that you don’t have to learn it, it doesn’t require any particular skill, but it’s powerful since it activates pattern-recognition processes of the brain and helps to solidify recent memory into long-term memory.
When you create a mind map you are forced to break the information into small chunks, conceptualize data, and build all the known pieces into a hierarchy. This is a great way to visualize complex and abstract concepts by using color, pictures, arrows, connections, and placement of elements in relation to each other (near, far, above, below, next to).
Mind-mapping can be used for note-taking, revisions, brainstorming, and recalling relevant information. When your mind map is finished, it can be used as a handy reference for the future, when you will be able to refresh information in your memory at a glance.
Such maps can be drawn on paper or in apps, such as Mindly, MindMaps, iMind, Coggle, etc. – according to your preferences. Some people find tactile experiences of picking up felt-tips and crayons, the feel of paper and the smell of ink stimulating and reinforcing their memory. Others prefer the possibility to edit their maps and rearrange clouds for better visual hierarchy.
Spaced repetition technique
Now we need something to improve retention and reduce the time spent on learning it. This one is more relevant for students who have to memorize huge volumes of information in a short time and keep everything in their memory at the very least until after the test (ideally – way after the graduation, but let’s be realistic).
You know that to learn something you will have to repeat it – that is what revisions are for. However, for repetition to be effective, it must be optimally spaced. It means neither too little, nor too much time should elapse between the learning sessions.
The ideal time depends on how difficult it is for you to retain specific information: something that you’ve memorized well suffices to repeat only occasionally, while something that is still shaky in your memory should be reinforced over and over.
To make sure that the spacing is done properly, a spaced repetition system was created. It is typically implemented in the form of flashcards. As in mind-mapping, you have to break information down into small pieces, but this time each piece goes on a separate flashcard as a “question-answer” pair.
I must stress, that this method isn’t perfect. First of all, it’s better for information-heavy but conceptually light courses like Biology or Psychology, while for conceptual-heavy courses like Chemistry and Physics flashcards can be somewhat helpful, but your time will be better spent on solving typical problems. Moreover, this method is only as useful as the flashcards you create, so take time to learn how to do them properly.
Create good flashcards
- For something simple, as learning the words of a foreign language, you can use a premade deck. In more complex cases, for example, while studying for your exams, it’s better to create your own flashcards. You write them in your own words, so you 100 percent understand them at a glance. Moreover, you are actively self-learning, which makes it more effective.
- Do not try to cram too much information into one card or you will end up remembering only a part of the information on your card, while constantly forgetting other items. It’s better to use separate cards for each piece of information.
- Don’t create too many cards and don’t cheat yourself. If you cannot remember what’s on the back of a flashcard until you flip it, mark it as wrong and return to in later.
- Multiple-choice cards aren’t very effective because you may find yourself memorizing the answer to the given question instead of recalling concepts and connections you need to learn.
Use any downtime you have
Flashcards present self-contained bite-sized pieces of information and unlike the entire lecture, they don’t require you to spend much time at one go. Even five cards reviewed in a course of two minutes are a good investment of your time. Standing in line, riding the elevator, waiting for a bus – every minute adds up to as much as several hours of practice a day.
Practice every day
Avoid getting behind on your revisions, don’t let them pile up. You will inevitably skip a day or two because of vacations or particularly busy days, but don’t make a rule out of it. If you fall behind on your card revisions you miss the chance of solidifying the memory and ultimately don’t benefit from the spacing technique.
First understand, then memorize
Don’t try to cram something you do not understand. If you cannot conceptualize the information, simply cramming in the sum of data isn’t going to help you – it will go away very soon. And even if you will be able to remember the information, you are much less likely to apply it adequately when needed. You must be able to slot each piece of information into a coherent structure.
Although physical flashcards have their merits, the correct use of the spacing technique with adequate intervals between repetitions is time-consuming and limits the learner to simple algorithms (like Leitner system). Therefore, spaced repetition software (apps like Anki, Brainscape, Quizlet, etc.) allows reaping more benefits.
Human memory is a beautiful thing. Although we have the technology to back us up, some things are only possible because of this amazing ability of our mind. For example, the use of natural language. We can speak, understand each other, read and write only because we remember all the words and rules of placing them in the right order.
We need to exercise our memory because learning and getting better at it is a skill in itself. Mastering this skill opens possibilities to continuously getting better at things that are important to us, like public speaking, new professions, hobbies, relationships, sports – whatever you like. It makes our life longer and more meaningful.
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