Living With Mild Cognitive Impairment

How to maximize brain health and reduce the risk of dementia

Spaced Repetition

Using repetition to help you remember what you don’t want to forget.

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Have you ever been introduced to someone new, been drawn into the conversation, then quickly forgotten his or her name? This is a common experience for many people who are living with MCI, and, really, for just about anyone. Fortunately, there are a number of techniques that you can use to help you remember short bits of information like new names. In this posting, we will share a memory technique that our clients with MCI tell us they find particularly helpful in these types of situations.

Repetition is the key

Repeating something to yourself in order to remember it is a natural memory strategy that almost everyone uses from time to time. What many people don’t realize, though, is that some ways of repeating information are more effective than others in helping you remember new information.

There is a small but growing body of research devoted to this topic. What studies show is that repeating something to yourself over and over without pausing between repetitions – called massed repetition – is only slightly better than not repeating the information at all.

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You are most likely to remember something later if you repeat it using spaced repetitions. This means that you repeat the information over and over, but you put some time in between the repetitions. For example, after being introduced to someone, you might repeat the name after five seconds, repeat it again after another five seconds, and yet again after five more seconds.

This technique is also called spaced retrieval, because you are retrieving the information from your memory over spaced intervals.

Why does spaced repetition work?

In general, the more difficult it is for you to initially retrieve information from your memory, the more likely you will be able to remember it over the longer term. Repeating something to yourself using massed repetition is a very simple task that takes almost no effort. On the other hand, repeating information over spaced intervals is more difficult, and this greater effort enhances your ability to remember the information later.

Does it really work?

Studies have shown that spaced repetition is an effective way to learn many different types of information. It can be used to help school-aged kids learn spelling words or multiplication problems, or university students learn new vocabulary words in a foreign language. With some assistance from family members, people with severe memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease can be taught new names using spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is one type of memory strategy that has been taught to individuals with MCI as part of effective memory training programs.

When to use spaced repetition

Spaced repetition is a great technique for remembering something you can’t – or don’t want to – write down, like the name of a new acquaintance. I’ve used this technique when I’m driving and hear the title of a book or film on the radio that sounds interesting. My options are to use spaced repetition, or pull over and find something to write on, or just do nothing and hope that somehow the title will stick in my memory. If it really matters, I’ll put the effort into spaced repetition.

The proof is in the pudding

Still not convinced? The best way to find out if spaced repetition works for you is to try it out a few times. Be aware of information that comes at you during the day that you’d like to remember for later, and give it a try. The first time you use the technique, it may not be easy, but it gets better with practice, so keep at it. Soon, it will become natural, and you’ll find that you are beginning to remember the things you don’t want to forget!

Dr. Troyer is the Professional Practice Chief of Psychology and Program Director of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Health at Baycrest and Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Toronto.

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