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7 Ways to Enhance Your Memory

These evidence-based tricks will help you remember far more effectively.

jackmac34/Pixabay
Source: jackmac34/Pixabay

One of the biggest myths about memory is that “You can’t increase your memory by training it." WRONG!

I can sort of appreciate why this myth might be accepted (‘If I can’t do anything about it, there is no point trying. Sweet, less effort for me’). The inconvenient truth is that there are *plenty* of ways to improve your memory or simply get the most out of what is already there.

Researchers have found that some of the most common study techniques are highlighting or reading and rereading text/notes. It doesn’t take a whole lot of (cognitive) effort to read a passage or highlight a phrase. The same thing that makes them popular also makes them rather ineffective (requiring relatively little cognitively effort). Neither of these is entirely useless, but there are better options.

Here are 7 tips from science that you can use to help you crush exams, impress people at parties, and just remember more stuff. Some of the following can supplement rather than replace what you are already doing.

1. Sleep after learning (consolidate)

Right after you learn or do something, it’s fresh in your memory and you can remember it fairly vividly. With the passage of time, as you do/read/learn more things, memories slowly decay, and become less and less accurate approximations. In addition, new memories are fragile and can easily be forgotten.

So how do you strengthen memories for recently learned things and protect new memories? We know that consolidation (both system and synaptic) takes place on a neural level without us doing anything (or at least being aware of it), and this does strengthen our memories. However, there are things we can do to considerably improve the consolidation process. You might be surprised to learn that one of them is sleep.

Recent research supports the idea that consolidation is particularly strong during sleep. A 2006 study appearing in Learning and Memory found that students who went to sleep within 3 hours of learning material remembered nearly 16 percent more content than a group that waited 10 hours and then slept.

Going to sleep probably eliminates a lot of environmental stimuli that might interfere with the learned content. While sleeping instead of studying may not be that helpful, it might be worthwhile going to bed shortly after a study session.

2. Visualize

Sometimes our brains can’t really tell the difference between what is real and what we imagine. We know that mental imagery can activate some brain regions; and that mental rehearsal can lead to measurable improvement for some tasks. Mentally "visualizing" information can also help tremendously.

If you haven’t heard of the Method of Loci (aka The Memory Palace), I would definitely recommend googling it and/or reading about it extensively. You know those people that perform astonishing memory feats like remembering decks of cards, pi to 1,000 places, or the names and faces of hundreds of people, all in a single sitting, well with the exception of savants like Kim Peek and Daniel Tammet, most of them are just average people with inherently average memories.

A group study appearing in the New Year 2003 edition of Nature Neuroscience investigated the reasons for memory champions’ superior performance. Their conclusion was that they employed "strategies for encoding information with the sole purpose of making it more memorable," but that superior memory was NOT driven by exceptional cognitive ability or structural differences in the brain.

Essentially, those that are highly adept at memorization tasks "encode" information (store it in their mind) very effectively. The most common way of encoding large amounts of information effectively is with visualization. This basically involves using mental imagery to represent the information you are trying to remember.

3. Chunk

Most people probably know that we can theoretically store 7 (+/- 2) pieces of information in our short-term memory at any given time. So we can remember, at least temporarily, the names of the Seven Dwarves after hearing them, but we’d be in trouble if there were 10 of them.

Sometimes (often) it can be beneficial to be able to remember more than seven or so bits of information. One technique that can help is chunking.

Chunking is essentially just breaking up a long stream of information into manageable "chunks." Let’s consider the 14-digit number string 1-9-6-9-4-8-1-2-1-6-1-0-6-6. At first sight, this might seem fairly meaningless, but if I rewrite it as 1969 – 4,8,12,16 – 1066 suddenly it becomes pretty easy to remember. Instead of remembering 14 separate pieces of information all you have to remember now is: 1) moon landing 2) multiples of 4, and 3) the Battle of Hastings. Most information strings will not be this easy to reduce, but you get the idea.

4. Take breaks

This sort of relates to both points 1 and 5. Study for a few minutes and then take a break. Taking a break, however, doesn’t mean giving up entirely. What you ideally want to do is study in a number of short bursts, mixed up by breaks, rather than doing all of your study at once (cramming).

As well as leading to a significant decrease in academic performance, all-night cramming may be causing serious health problems (anxiety, depression, insomnia).

You can really only concentrate effectively on one thing for a certain stretch of time. The advantage that short intermittent bursts of study have over one continuous session (assuming the total amount of time spent studying is the same) is referred to as the spacing effect.

5. Don’t cram (break study up, study regularly rather than all at once)

The root of the problem is that people procrastinate. Some people do it more than others but regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or IQ — people procrastinate. The catch-cry of the procrastinator may as well be, “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow." Sometimes this makes sense, but the bottom line here is that, despite its immense popularity, cramming just does not work.

There is plenty of research showing that studying in small sections (broken up by "downtime") leads to better memory retention than when all of these smaller sessions are crammed into one long session (refer to point 5 above).

A study by UCLA researchers appearing in the Journal of Child Development suggests that trading sleep for study time (a common by-product of cramming) is likely to lead to more academic problems, not less, the next day. The authors stress that sleep is critical for academic success, and that sleep deprivation dramatically impedes the learning process.

6. Generate yourself and test yourself

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that taking an active role in the creation of revision material is an effective way to achieve strong encoding and promote good long-term retrieval of memories.

Making up questions yourself and then testing yourself on them (not immediately) involves active involvement with the material and actually strengthens the encoding of material to be learned. Even just reading text with the idea of making up questions based on what you have read is beneficial.

What a lot of students don’t realize is that self-testing is possibly even more important than simply reviewing information. Self-testing gives you an idea of what you know and increases your ability to remember it.

To really improve your understanding and recall of a concept, you can always try and explain it to someone else (or yourself). Educators have known about the benefits of self-explanation (essentially, thinking out loud) for some time.

When you ask yourself questions/work on answers/try different solutions/comment on mistakes/identify changes in approach, you force a conscious awareness of the processes the mind is going through. When attempting to learn new material try asking (and answering) yourself things like:

  • Am I doing this right?
  • How can I understand this better?
  • What is an example of this?
  • Why didn’t/wouldn’t this work?

7. Elaborate on material

Thinking about something (a concept/idea/proposition etc.) and add meaning to it by relating it to other things you know about, helps you remember it better. But not only that, the material is much more likely to be transferred into your long-term memory. This process is known as elaboration.

This association tool partly accounts for why techniques such as The Method of Loci (possibly the most effective memorization technique you will ever learn) and similar image-creation/linking techniques are so powerful. These are used to some extent by pretty much all of the top memory ‘experts’ around the world.

These techniques are just some of the more effective ways to enhance your memory, but there are plenty more. The bottom line is, you can definitely improve your memory, but often it takes a bit of effort.

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