[Article revised on 3 May 2020.]
Here are 10 simple strategies that anyone can use to improve the amount of information that they take in and remember:
1. Get plenty of sleep. If you read a book or article when very tired, you will forget most of what you have read. Sleep improves attention and concentration, and therefore the registration of information. And sleep is also required for memory consolidation.
2. Pay attention. You cannot take in information unless you are paying attention, and you cannot memorize information unless you are taking it in. It helps if you are actually interested in the material, so try to develop an interest in everything! As Einstein said, ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’
3. Involve as many senses as you can. For instance, if you are sitting in a lecture, jot down a few notes. If you are reading a chapter or article, read it aloud to yourself and inject some drama into your performance.
4. Structure information. If you need to remember a list of ingredients, think of them under the subheadings of starter, main, and dessert, and visualize the number of ingredients under each subheading. If you need to remember a telephone number, think of it in terms of the first five digits, the middle three digits, and the last three digits—or whatever works best.
5. Process information. If possible, summarize the material in your own words. Or reorganize it so that it is easier to learn. With more complex material, try to understand its meaning and significance. Shakespearean actors find it much easier to remember their lines if they can understand and feel them. If needs must, concentrate on the important things, or the bigger picture. In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.’
6. Relate information to what you already know. New information is much easier to remember if it can be contextualized. A recent study looking at the role of high-level processes found that chess knowledge predicts chess memory (memory of the layout of a particular chess game) even after controlling for chess experience.
7. Use mnemonics. Tie information to visual images, sentences, and acronyms. For example, you might remember that your hairdresser is called Sharon by picturing a rose of Sharon or Sharon fruit. Or you might remember the colours of the rainbow and their order by the sentence, ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.’ Many medics remember the symptoms of varicose veins by the acronym ‘AEIOU’: Aching, Eczema, Itching, Oedema, and Ulceration.
8. Rehearse. Sleep on the information and review it the following day. Then review it at increasing intervals until you feel comfortable with it. Memories fade if not rehearsed, or are overlain by other memories and can no longer be accessed.
9. Be aware of context. It is easier to retrieve a memory if you find yourself in a similar situation, or similar state of mind, to the one in which the memory was laid. People with low mood tend to recall their losses and failures while overlooking their strengths and achievements. If one day you pass the cheesemonger in the street, you may not, without her usual apron and array of cheeses, immediately recognize her, even though you are otherwise familiar with her. You might even say something like, ‘Gosh, remind me, where do I know you from?’ If you are preparing for an exam, try to recreate the conditions of the exam: for example, sit at a similar desk, at a similar time of day, and use ink on paper.
10. Be creative. Bizarre or unusual experiences, facts, and associations are easier to remember. Because unfamiliar experiences stick in the mind, trips and holidays give the impression of ‘living’, and, by extension, of having lived for longer.