How to improve your memory?
Back in high school, I’ve always wondered why some people seem to memorize like an elephant. I never understood how actors could memorize an entire script. I was curious whether it’s an innate talent or if it’s workable. If we can get better memory, what kind of training do we need, what are the most used memory techniques?
A few principles
By definition, memory is our mind’s ability to store, record and recall information.
Oftentimes, our memory is not defective; it’s the techniques we use that are inefficient. In this sense, we just need to find out which techniques work best and apply them in our daily life.
From a study conducted by the Tony Buzan team, there are a few patterns when it comes to our memorization:
- We learn better at the beginning and at the end of a class. But we rarely memorize the explanation in the middle.
- We memorize pieces of information that are linked together whether by using rhyme, repetition or anything that calls the 5 senses.
- We memorize fewer elements in isolation. Put in another way, we can hardly memorize something without any association or the techniques above-mentioned
- We are likely to memorize unique or striking elements
- Comprehension doesn’t necessarily involve memorization: we can understand what we learn but forget most of the information
- It is important to review what you just learned for a long term memorization.
At the same time, memory is like a muscle because you can improve it. The more we use it and the more it grows. As we use more associations, our brain memorizes elements more easily.
Based on those few observations, what then are the best techniques to improve our memory?
The first principle of how to improve your memory: Learn how to learn
As a kid, I remember when my Mom asked me to go to the grocery store. I would repeat the list again and again in my mind, sometimes aloud (sugar, salt, oil, chicken…) from our home until the shop. As a matter of fact, I would sometimes forget a couple of things. To memorize something, it is enough to repeat it over and over again or learn it by heart.
Until my last year of high school, I never really questioned my memorization techniques. I had to learn how to learn. Through my readings and discoveries, I learned that by using our visual, auditory, sensory and kinesthetic memory, we will deeply anchor information in our brain. We remember the facts and the subjects more easily this way. Actually, our brain remembers best when we use association and connection techniques.
Use mnemonic or acronym techniques
These memorization techniques are based on association and consist of creating a mnemonic sentence from the first letters of a series of information. In this case, you will easily remember the information. We use this technique to memorize a series of numbers, lists, synonyms, antonyms or vocabulary in general.
For example, we learned in grade school “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” to better memorize the list of the planets. Notice that we can use other mnemonics such as “My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets”. Regardless of the technique, we can see that the first letter of each word corresponds to the first letter of the planets which respectively are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. The key here is to use the mnemonic you’re most familiar with.
Memory palace or the method of places
One of the oldest methods ever used. We can trace it back to Ancient Greece; 2500 years ago. The method of places also called elephant’s path, mind palace or method of loci has been used since the Greek and Roman time. They used this technique to memorize entire speeches, dates, names… To do this, we start by visualizing a familiar place. It can be a particular room in a house, for example your bedroom. Identify distinctive features or particular elements in your room. Associate an element of the place with specific words, concepts or pieces of information you want to memorize and so on.
You can also use a specific order to memorize a specific list. For example, I would use different parts of my closet and insert different pieces of information such as a grocery list or specific dates for a history exam.
This technique calls visual memory and you can use order, senses, exaggeration and humor to reinforce the association.
How to improve your memory: the Mental history
Another variant of the memory palace is the mental history. We associate a list of information with a story. You create a story and input along the way elements you want to remember.
Draw a mind map
This technique works particularly for people with visual memory. Some of us feel that they retain more easily when they can visualize it.
It consists of drawing a diagram. It must be created with great care. We therefore use pictures, colors, drawings, associations for us to assimilate the information better. I like mind maps because it increases creative thinking and helps in problem solving as well.
In addition to scriptural memory, mind maps mobilize the left and right part of the brain, creating therefore more associations. Notice that we remember our notes more easily when we write them by hand. To draw a mind map, we can then use a simple piece of paper and pen. There is also different software where we can create instantly a mind map.
Use spaced repetition
I first learned this technique when learning the Chinese language. There are over 3000 characters to memorize and it was almost impossible to learn each character without a smooth system.
Spaced repetition system is based on two principles:
– We forget most of the things we just learned
– We can put newly learned elements in our long term memory if a system recalls the information just before we forget them
It starts with a simple observation: we are likely to forget anything new we learn if we don’t revisit it.
We memorize a new word (or anything we want to remember) if we learn it again in 24 hours; getting past that, we will forever forget it. After this short interval, we can recall that same piece of information in one week, then in two weeks if we successfully remember it. The interval varies depending on how well we memorize the information.
This system reinforces what you easily remember. Meanwhile, the SRS (Spaced Repetition System) focuses and consistently repeats an element you don’t remember, until you put it in your long term memory.
For example if I easily remember a French word, let’s say “pain” (bread) I don’t need to recall it immediately; I will have that word in two or more weeks. But if I can’t remember another French word, let’s say “magnifique” (beautiful); I will have this word “magnifique” again and again (today, tomorrow, in 3 days etc…) until I remember it and put in the long term memory.
Without this system, I wouldn’t have been able to memorize more than 20 characters. I use Ankidroid on my computer and my phone to learn new words, formula etc…
This memorization technique uses our auditory memory. Based on the movement and rhythmic principle, the more you use it, the more associations you create and the better you’ll memorize. Oftentimes, we use it to memorize a date or a fact. We should find ourselves the melody and compose ourselves with the rhythmic phrase.
How to improve your memory: Just take a break
Prefer regular and short breaks to long sessions. This increases memorization because regular breaks let our brain assimilate the information.
Exercise and sleep well
As we exercise, we increase the blood flow, oxygenating the brain. Physical activities improve brain function and increase performance. As we go to the gym or work out home, it is also essential for our brain to rest. This is why sleep is so important: our brain processes and structures information during the night. It helps the brain assimilate the knowledge and reinforce the memory. I personally noticed that I can’t sleep if I try to memorize something right before bedtime. Our brain remains active the whole night if we do so. If you want to sleep well, avoid learning your lessons at the last minute. Sleep for at least 7 hours
Externalize as much as you can
There are actually things you don’t need to memorize. For example, you can write down your to-do-list which is even recommended. If you want to stay productive and be more organized, don’t solely rely on your brain: externalize on a paper or using an app. At the same time, in an era of information, where we are connected to the internet, it’s far better to memorize where the information is rather than memorizing every piece.