We joke about our memory and it seems that everyone we know has a chronically bad recall whether it’s in maths or for faces. Particularly when we get older there is a sense of inevitability about losing our memory and we tend to accept it as though it is part and parcel of aging.
However bad memory needn’t be something that we are forced to accept, and actually there are many ways we can improve our memory over time. It’s highly important to do this as well, as actually the different forms of memory are useful in all kinds of different situations.
In everyday life we are forced to use our memory to remember names, passwords, PIN codes, dates and arrangements and more and forgetting any of these things can often get us into trouble. Even without these obvious opportunities to work our memory muscles though, our ability to recall information also comes into play in a lot of other ways in other tasks. For instance the ability to do maths often depends on our ability to store information in our short term memory – to hold numbers and carry digits across while we manipulate them in our mind. If we don’t have a good memory then, we won’t have good maths either, and in fact our general mental prowess will suffer. Many of the parts of an IQ test depend on memory even if they don’t seem to, and in general if you have poor memory you will find that you seem less focused and less sharp in general. Here then we will look at how to improve our memory.
One way to improve memory is to use a range of memory techniques. This means that you don’t necessarily need to improve your raw mental processing power, because instead you are simply using that power in a more efficient way.
To do this you need to understand a little about how the brain works and how it developed. If you take an evolutionary view of psychology, which is the generally accepted view, then you will recognize that our brain developed in order to survive in the wild. This then mean it was designed to store pressing information that made sense back then, and to let go of information that didn’t seem to be particularly useful for a survival sense.
So this then meant that remembering dry numbers and figures would never be particularly memorable – the simple reason being that you never really had to do maths as a caveman and that you never really had to remember long lists of dates. Rather you had to remember practical things and social things that could help you to survive and to function in society.
So what you need to do then is to convert the dry information you have into something more interesting and meaty. We remember stories because we learn from them, and so if the concepts we have to remember are more like stories or images that contain a story then we are likely to remember them.
In his book Trick of the Mind, Derren Brown explains using images in order to link dry objects together and this way he explains how to remember lists of items.
For instance then, if you had to remember a list like the following, how would you?
banana, monkey, phone, foot, piano, jumper, skier, tree, apple, landmine
Derren Brown suggests using mental images in order to link items together. So for instance the first one would be very easy, you would simply envisage a monkey eating a banana. Bring that image up in your mind and really focus on it for a minute before doing the next one: ‘monkey, phone’. To remember this one you would then imagine a phone and a monkey and you would picture a monkey on a phone complaining about taxes, or you might imagine a phone shaped like a monkey. The more bizarre the image the better. Next you should imagine a phone that looks like a foot, or a man stepping on and crushing the phone – imagining the sound and feeling and everything as it happens.
Spend a couple of minutes doing each one, and recap the previous ones before you move onto the next. Then try to remember your list – you’ll find it comes surprisingly easily.
You can also make sentences a way to remember your items – for instance if you had to remember the list above you might use the sentence ‘You have to give a banana to the monkey if he’s going to let you use the phone. Get a foot in the door early and call for piano repair. You’ll know the man when he arrives, he wears a jumper and is a keen skier. Meet him by the apple tree but be careful for the landmine.’ Place emphasis on each of the items as you say them and you’ll be surprised at how you can work out which ones were items on the list. You’ll find remembering a sentence such as this far easier than remembering random items with nothing tying them together.
Now for numbers – of course it’s harder to make a sentence or an image out of numbers, so what do you do instead? The answer is a clever trick – you replace the numbers with rhyming words and items. So 134792 becomes ‘sun tree paw heaven lime stew’ and your sentence becomes ‘Ah, to sit in the sun under a tree and to paw at heavenly lime stew‘. You just then type the number with each of the emphasized words, or you can use the visualization strategy.
Struggling with the visualization of your numbers or items? The answer is simple – just draw the things you want to remember as a visual image. So you can have your monkey eating a banana while on the phone on a page next to a severed foot on a piano with a jumper strewn on the piano stool. Or for our latter example the image might be a man in the sun under a tree eating with a paw a bowl with a halo around it with crushed limes sticking out the top.
Once you’ve actually seen the image it then becomes a lot easier for you to recall it, and it is a great way to practice too when you actually draw it – you’ll find you really ingrain it in your mind.
For longer sentences, adding a tune is a fantastic way to help yourself learn. Change the lyrics to a song you like, and then record yourself singing the new lyrics. Now just sing along with the recording as you go about doing other things.
Many ‘memory masters’ recommend using a ‘memory palace’ in order to keep things on a longer term basis. Here you are imagining thoroughly a place which can be made up or real, and you are imagining items in that place that you want to recall. So for instance you might have a painting on the wall that says ‘1935’, or a statue of a monkey holding a phone. Now this is a more advanced technique for remembering items, but if you take the time to visualize the area and if you keep things in the same places then this is a way to commit certain things to memory that you never want to forget.
Choose a place, it can be fictional or real, and start with one room – add one or two items in there that you want to recall, and if it helps again you can draw this somewhere to help you remember what’s where. Now when you want to recall those items just imagine being back at the place.
All these techniques can help you commit numbers, formula, lists and more to memory permanently or temporarily. However even the quicker methods like making sentences out of numbers will take you too long to be useful when doing maths, and if you want to improve your raw memory then you need to simply practice – and brain plasticity suggests that this can be trained just like anything else.
To practice memorizing things simply make it a regular habit to play memory games. These can be brain training games on your smart phone or computer, or they can be games you devise yourself. Pairs is a very simple memory game you can play with friends that will enhance your memory.
Of course to practice your short term functional memory for things like maths you should just practice maths, and this is a habit that can be incredibly good for your brain in a variety of ways. Start each day by giving yourself a few maths problems and a time limit and see how long it takes you to get through them.