New Research Shows an Easy Way to Help Improve Your Memory

A new angle on how to improve your memory without that much effort

Posted Apr 01, 2017

If you've tried to find ways to improve your memory (and who hasn't?), it's likely you've practiced the well-known strategy of associating what you need to remember with something that will make it easy to recall. Forming clever associations to people’s names is one of those tricks (e.g. “Nelson has a large Nose”). These often do work, but they require you to invest a good deal of extra effort when you're entering that information into your mind's repository.  It would be preferable to find a method of memory improvement that could almost come naturally to you without any excess cognitive lifting.  University of Nigeria psychologists Philip Mefoh and Valentine Ezeh (2017) may just have identified just such a strategy as a way to prevent memory slips. Their approach suggests you may be able to improve your memory by simply changing your focus when you’re presented with information you need to remember- whether it’s something that’s happened in the past or something you need to do.

Memory, then, has two related aspects- remembering what’s happened, and remembering what you need to have happen in the future.  Much of what you need to get through your day actually involves remembering those future events. Take the ground beef out of the freezer before you leave home. Call today to make a doctor’s appointment.  Pick up your laundry on the way home. The need to remember things for the future is called prospective memory. This future-oriented process contrasts to what we usually think of as memory, which is remembering the past- known as retrospective memory.  Failures in both aspects of memory can be annoying, frustrating, and even costly. If you forget to renew your driver’s license, there will be a penalty, and if you forget a street address on the way to someone’s home, you lose precious time trying to look it up.

Long understood in psychology as a feature of the way people process information from the environment, cognitive style refers to your ability to dissect complex stimuli into their component parts.  The most frequently-used test of cognitive style asks people to find simple shapes that are embedded in a coherent array, such as detecting the letter “A” in a picture of the Eiffel Tower.  People who are field independent can easily do this, and people who are field-dependent have trouble. For the field-dependent, seeing that Eiffel Tower may itself be such a compelling image that can't be taken apart.  Another example would be the ability to see the triangles that compose an image of a 3-dimensional rectangle as shown here. The Embedded Figures Test (EFT) was developed in 1971 by Educational Testing Service psychologist Herman Witkin as a way to assess cognitive style and is still in use today.

Mefoh and Ezeh believed that cognitive style would be predictive of memory slips based on the theory that people who are more analytical when they approach stimuli (i.e. the field-independent) would have more efficient cognitive processing overall in part because of their better attentional and semantic abilities. To test this prediction, the Nigerian psychologists administered a group form of the EFT along with a test of prospective and retrospective memory slips to a sample of 233 undergraduates (55% women). 

Before we get to the study’s results, here are examples of the items used to test prospective and retrospective memory that form the Prospective and Retrospective Memory Questionnaire (PRMQ), developed by University of Coventry psychologist Elizabeth Maylor and colleagues (2000) on a sample of older adults and those with neurocognitive disorder. University of Aberdeen’s John Crawford et al. (2003) expanded the sample to include individuals who had no known memory disorder so that it can now be used confidently on adults of any age. The items for each type of memory on the PRMQ divide into short- and long-term and self- vs. environmentally cued.

Here are sample items along with their categories:

  1. Do you decide to do something in a few minutes’ time and then forget to do it? (prospective, short-term, self-cued)
  2. Do you forget to tell someone something you had meant to mention a few minutes ago? (prospective, long-term, self-cued)
  3. Do you fail to do something you were supposed to do a few minutes later even though it’s there in front of you, like take a pill or turn off the kettle? (prospective, short-term, environmentally-cued)
  4. Do you fail to mention or give something to a visitor that you were asked to pass on? (prospective, long-term, environmentally-cued)
  5. Do you forget something that you were told a few minutes before? (retrospective, short-term, self-cued)
  6. Do you forget what you watched on television the previous day? (retrospective, long-term, self-cued)
  7. Do you look at something without realizing you have seen it moments before? (retrospective, short-term, environmentally-cued)
  8. Do you repeat the same story to the same person on different occasions? (retrospective, long-term, environmentally-cued)

Each item on the PRMQ is rated from 1 (Never) to 5 (Very often), and with 16 items on the total scale, the possible range is from 16 to 80. The average score based on a sample of 551 British adults ranging from 17 to 94 years old (average age= 63 yrs.) was 39, or right about in the middle. Most of the participants in the Crawford et al study scored in between 29 and 47; dividing by half for the 8 items shown here, you could expect a score of about 18 or 19 on average, ranging from 14 to 23. 

Turning now to the Mefoh and Ezeh study, the findings supported the prediction that people scoring on the field-independent side of the cognitive style measure indeed had better PRMQ scores. The relationship was slightly stronger for retrospective memory than prospective memory.  As the authors concluded, “the field-independent style, because it uses an active reasoning pattern, tends to be more successful in processing information” (p. 45).

The memory slips reported on the PRMQ are, of course, self-report. People with severe memory deficits won’t remember their memory slips, by definition. Therefore, the results most likely underestimate the true relationship.

If you resonated to many of the items shown here from the PRMQ, it may be time for you to consider working on your field independence. Do you tend to process information in a general, global, manner? When someone gives you directions, for example, do you only hear the first few words and then zone out after that? How about when you’re spending that evening in front of the TV, but can’t remember what you watched the next day? Were you actually paying attention or thinking about something else?  You might imagine that it would be easier to remember to do something if you leave it out in front of you, such as that allergy pill you’re supposed to take every morning. However, if you don’t “see” it on the table in front of you, that environmental cue won’t be of much use.

This novel approach to improving your memory is easy enough to implement. Rather than forcing yourself to remember, just make sure you are actually tuned into your surroundings,  pay attention to what you say and do (and what others say and do), and those memory slips will soon slip away.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Crawford, J. R., Smith, G., Maylor, E. A., Della Sala, S., & Logie, R. H. (2003). The Prospective and Retrospective Memory Questionnaire (PRMQ): Normative data and latent structure in a large non-clinical sample. Memory, 11(3), 261-275. doi:10.1080/09658210244000027

Maylor, E. A., Smith, G., Della Sala, S., & Logie, R. H. (2002). Prospective and retrospective memory in normal aging and dementia: An experimental study. Memory & Cognition, 30(6), 871-884. doi:10.3758/BF03195773

Mefoh, P. C., & Ezeh, V. C. (2017). Effect of cognitive style on prospective-retrospective memory slips: Unipolar approach. Swiss Journal Of Psychology, 76(1), 43-46. doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000190