Wouldn’t it be nice to just look at a page and never forget what was on there? What if you could never again forget a friend’s birthday? The bad news is, not everyone has a photographic memory, otherwise known as eidetic memory. Only a few actually have it, the rest rely on mnemonic devices. The good news, however, is that everyone can take steps to improve their memory, and with time and practice most people can gain the ability to memorize seemingly impossible amounts of information.
Whether you want to win the World Memory Championships, ace your history test, or simply remember where you put your keys, this article can get you started.
- Convince yourself that you do have a good memory that will improve. Too many people get stuck here and convince themselves that their memory is bad, that they are just not good with names, that numbers just slip out of their minds for some reason. Erase those thoughts and vow to improve your memory. Commit yourself to the task and bask in your achievements — it’s hard to keep motivated if you beat yourself down every time you make a little bit of progress.
- Exercise your brain. Regularly “exercising” the brain keeps it growing and spurs the development of new nerve connections that can help improve memory. By developing new mental skills — especially complex ones such as learning a new language or learning to play a new musical instrument — and challenging your brain with puzzles and games, you can keep your brain active and improve its physiological functioning. Try some fun puzzle exercises everyday such as crosswords, Sudoku, and other games which are easy enough to download into your mobile phone and which you can practice on for several minutes per day.
- Exercise daily. Regular aerobic exercise improves circulation and efficiency throughout the body — including the brain — and can help ward off the memory loss that comes with aging. Exercise also makes you more alert and relaxed, and can thereby improve your memory uptake, allowing you to take better mental “pictures”.
- Reduce stress. Chronic stress does in fact physically damage the brain, it can make remembering much more difficult. After prolonged stress, the brain will start to become affected and deteriorate.
- Stressful situations are recognized by the hypothalamus, which in turn signals the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then secretes adrenocorticotropic hormones (ACTH) which influences the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and later, cortisol (corticosteroids). The corticosteroids can weaken the blood-brain barrier and damage the hippocampus (the memory center). Ironically, the hippocampus controls the secretion of the hormone released by the hypothalamus through a process of negative feedback. After chronic stress, it will begin to deteriorate and will not be as efficient in regulating the degenerative corticosteroids, affecting the memory. Neurogenesis (formation of new neurons) indeed exists in the hippocampus, but stress inhibits it.
- Realistically speaking, stress may never be completely eliminated from one’s life, but it definitely can be controlled. Even temporary stresses can make it more difficult to effectively focus on concepts and observe things. Try to relax, regularly practice yoga or other stretching exercises, and see a doctor if you have severe chronic stress as soon as possible.
- Eat well and eat right. There are a lot of herbal supplements on the market that claim to improve memory, but none have yet been shown to be effective in clinical tests (although small studies have shown some promising results for ginkgo biloba and phosphatidylserine). A healthy diet, however, contributes to a healthy brain, and foods containing antioxidants — broccoli, blueberries, spinach, and berries, for example — and Omega-3 fatty acids appear to promote healthy brain functioning.
- Feed your brain with such supplements as Thiamine, Vitamin E, Niacin and Vitamin B-6.
- Grazing, or eating 5 or 6 small meals throughout the day instead of 3 large meals, also seems to improve mental functioning (including memory) by limiting dips in blood sugar, which may negatively affect the brain.
- Take better pictures. Often we forget things not because our memory is bad, but rather because our observational skills need work. One common situation where this occurs (and which almost everyone can relate to) is meeting new people. Often we don’t really learn people’s names at first because we aren’t really concentrating on remembering them. You’ll find that if you make a conscious effort to remember such things, you’ll do much better.
- One way to train yourself to be more observant is to look at an unfamiliar photograph for a few seconds and then turn the photograph over and describe or write down as many details as you can about the photograph. Try closing your eyes and picturing the photo in your mind. Use a new photograph each time you try this exercise, and with regular practice you will find you’re able to remember more details with even shorter glimpses of the photos.
- Give yourself time to form a memory. Memories are very fragile in the short-term, and distractions can make you quickly forget something as simple as a phone number. The key to avoid losing memories before you can even form them is to be able to focus on the thing to be remembered for a while without thinking about other things, so when you’re trying to remember something, avoid distractions and complicated tasks for a few minutes.
- Create vivid, memorable images. You remember information more easily if you can visualize it. If you want to associate a child with a book, try not to visualize the child reading the book — that’s too simple and forgettable. Instead, come up with something more jarring, something that sticks, like the book chasing the child, or the child eating the book. It’s your mind -– make the images as shocking and emotional as possible to keep the associations strong.
- Repeat things you need to learn. The more times you hear, see, or think about something, the more surely you’ll remember it, right? It’s a no-brainer. When you want to remember something, be it your new coworker’s name or your best friend’s birthday, repeat it, either out loud or silently. Try writing it down; think about it.
- One method you can use is “Spaced Repetition” learning. Flash cards, which are typically used when you want to review for an exam, are a good example for this. It’s essentially a card with a question on one side and the answer on the other. In the course of learning a topic, you would have a stack of cards and would go through them testing yourself. Those that you got right you would put to one side and review a few days later. The more difficult ones might take several days to fix in the brain. However, how do you determine the ideal time to review the cards that you have temporarily remembered? Leave it too long and, like all memories, it may have faded and we forget the answer. If we review it too soon then we waste time looking at it. We need some system to know exactly when to review each card. This is where “Spaced Repetition Software” comes in. This software automatically works out the most efficient time to test you on each card for optimum memory retention. There are a number of free bits of software out there for you to use.
- Group things you need to remember. Random lists of things (a shopping list, for example) can be especially difficult to remember. To make it easier, try categorizing the individual things from the list. If you can remember that, among other things, you wanted to buy four different kinds of vegetables, you’ll find it easier to remember all four.
- Organize your life. Keep items that you frequently need, such as keys and eyeglasses, in the same place every time. Use an electronic organizer or daily planner to keep track of appointments, due dates for bills, and other tasks. Keep phone numbers and addresses in an address book or enter them into your computer or cell phone. Improved organization can help free up your powers of concentration so that you can remember less routine things. Even if being organized doesn’t improve your memory, you’ll receive a lot of the same benefits (i.e. you won’t have to search for your keys anymore).
- Try meditation. Research now suggests that people who regularly practice mindfulness meditation are able to focus better and may have better memories. Mindfulness (also known as awareness or insight meditation) is the type commonly practiced in Western countries and is easy to learn. Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital show that regular meditation thickens the cerebral cortex in the brain by increasing the blood flow to that region. Some researchers believe this can enhance attention span, focus, and memory.
- Sleep well. The amount of sleep we get affects the brain’s ability to recall recently learned information. Getting a good night’s sleep — a minimum of seven hours a night — may improve your short-term memory and long-term relational memory, according to recent studies conducted at the Harvard Medical School.
- Build your memorization arsenal. Memory pegs, memory palaces, and the Dominic System are just some techniques which form the foundation for mnemonic techniques, and which can visibly improve your memory. Memory pegs involve visualization methods in which you make use of various familiar landmarks, associating the to be learnt information to these various popular landmarks. This helps to trigger and enhance the memory process.
- Venture out and learn from your mistakes. Go ahead and take a stab at memorizing the first one hundred digits of pi, or, if you’ve done that already, the first one thousand. Memorize the monarchs of England through your memory palaces, or your grocery list through visualization. Through diligent effort you will eventually master the art of memorization.
- Most people’s brains are not very good at remembering abstract information, such as numbers. This is one of the things that separate those with eidetic memory from those with a great, normal memory. The key to being able to recall such things is to build associations and links that evoke the memory. This is why almost anybody with normal brain functioning can dramatically improve their ability to recall things using mnemonics. While building a memory palace, for example, actually requires that you “remember” more, by associating the thing to be remembered with other things (emotions, other memories, images, etc.) you build more mental “links” to the memory, thus making it easier to access.
- A large number of memory improvement products are available (a search on the internet will produce hundreds of such products). Most of these products actually teach you mnemonic strategies, and while some are no doubt bunk, some are legitimate.
- One easy method to help you remember people’s names is to look at the person when you are introduced and say the person’s name: “Nice to meet you, Bill.” Another way to remember someone’s name is to visualize that person holding hands with another person you know well with that name. It’s weird but it works.
- Try memorizing the order of a deck of playing cards. Although this may seem like a pointless task, it will allow you to discover memorization techniques that work best for you.
- Take a tray of objects (say, 10 objects). Study them for 30 seconds. Take the tray away and write down all the objects you can. Increase the number of items to exercise the mind even more. Or, get someone else to find the objects on the tray; this makes them harder to remember and will test you more.
- Put black ink at the end of your palm to remember any important thing for the next day or for that day itself. Whenever you see the black dot, you’ll remember what to do.
- Visualize whatever you have to do as part of something you see every day. For example, if you have to give your dog some medicine, visualize your dog in your fridge every time you walk past it or look inside. This will keep your dog fresh in your mind.
- Write the event or task down immediately. If you don’t have a pen, one thing you can do is change the time on your watch; later on you will remember why it is set at the wrong time. You could also wear your watch upside down.
- Write in a diary or journal every day without fail. Even small issues should be written down — this is a good way to make sure you don’t miss anything.
- Leave yourself a telephone message reminding yourself of important “to do” tasks.
- Memorize your favorite song or poem until you can say it to yourself without any help. Try to do this often.
- There are also games that have been created to help you improve your memory. Playing some of these will help.
- If you notice a severe or sudden deterioration of memory, talk to your doctor immediately. Sometimes “senior moments” can be precursors to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia or Asperger’s.
- Exercise due diligence when purchasing a memory improvement product. Find out as much as you can about how the program works, and do your own research to determine if it will work for you. Some of these products are simply scams. Be especially wary of products that promise to improve your memory instantly or with little or no effort: effective strategies to improve recall take time and practice.
- While some herbal supplements that claim to improve memory may in fact work, there is no conclusive evidence that any of these are effective. Most are harmless, however, and may be worth a try, but exercise caution: some supplements can have harmful effects, and not all contain what they say they contain.
- MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine) Links to all sorts of scientific information on memory
- Slate.com Article about the U.S. National Memory Championships
- Wikipedia Article on mnemonics, with tons of examples
- NASA Tutorial on memory (with some fun exercises)
- Slate.com A review of some memory-enhancement products
- BBC Radio 4’s ‘the memory experience’
- How to get smarter, one breath at a time Time Magazine article reporting on the impact of meditation on the brain.
- wikiHow How to Improve Your Memory