Have you ever been in a situation where you have forgotten the name of a client after you just met them for the first time or returned from the supermarket and forgotten the one item you really needed? Memory lapses are very common and can be very frustrating. The issue is not with storage of the information but rather with retrieval – the information is already in your mind.
Memory is defined as the mental activities that acquire, process, store and recall information. Memory involves three major processes: encoding, storage and retrieval. There are three types of memory: short-term memory (STM), long-term memory (LTM) and sensory memory. Sensory memory is very short-lived, usually lasting up to 4 seconds, and consists of information that first enters your brain via your senses, such as sight, sound and smell. A small proportion of this input passes to your short-term memory for recall. STM is the information that we are actively thinking at a given point in time and usually lasts about 30-40 seconds which is enough time to memorize a telephone number or someone’s name. STM acts as a filter for the input the brain receives from the external world, only passing certain information onto LTM for storage.
Many people find it difficult to remember abstract facts or information. Improving memory involves making the information less abstract in your mind. One way of doing this is to categorize material in a more distinctive way or link the information mentally to a personal experience. For example, we can always remember what we were doing during the morning of September 11, 2001. A more familiar and common way of remembering is practice and repetition, which is commonly used by students but also actors. To memorize their lines, actors tend to read and then re-read the material quickly over a period of four days, approximately five to ten times a day. By the time they have read the material twenty times the lines are stored within their LTM.
When you arrive at a supermarket without a shopping list do you try to recall the name of the items or do you recall the image of the item? Memory recall can be either verbal or visual, therefore memory improvement techniques are grouped into these two categories.
To improve your verbal memory try the following techniques:
- Rhymes – It is easy to recall information when placed into a poem or rhyme e.g. “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November…” etc
- Acronyms – Devise your own using initials of words that you need to remember. e.g. ROY G BIV is used to remember the colours of the rainbow and their order.
- Acrostics – Similar to acronyms but consist of words that allow you to remember other words e.g. “My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas” is used to remember the planets in our solar system and their order.
- Stories – Making up a story which contains all the key elements that you need to remember is a great way to remember a list of words, activities or presentation notes.
To improve your visual memory you need to picture images in your mind and develop a visual vocabulary:
- Mental images – Forming an image in your mind that captures the vital information is a very powerful way of remembering. For example, if I wanted to remember the following list of nine items: apple, briefcase, keys, umbrella, window, newspaper, tree, pen, car, I would form the following image in my mind - ” I am in a room with a desk and on the desk is an open briefcase with a newspaper next to it. I need to place the apple, pen and keys into the briefcase. Next to the desk I see an umbrella that I need to take with me. From the window in the room I can see a car outside parked next to a tree“.
- Grouping – Visual grouping involves associating a random list of items with unrelated objects. For example, if you were going hiking in the mountains, you would remember to take the following items because you would associate them with your trip: an umbrella could be associated with a tree; your hiking boots could be associated with rocks, a hat could be associated with a large flower; and food items could be associated with pine cones or other forest berries.
- Visual references – The use of visual landmarks to guide someone to a destination is very common e.g. buildings, intersections, bridges, schools, shopping centres, sports fields, statues, gardens, unique structures or places of business. An extension of this approach is to use visual references as anchors for remembering things. Also called “Method of Loci” this technique was used by ancient orators to remember speeches by associating paragraphs with the mental picture of the different rooms of a familiar building. As the orators visualized a “mental walk” through a building they would recite the paragraphs of their speeches that were associated with each room of the building.
Memory joggers can also assist you to remember specific items:
- Keep a small notebook with you at all times and write notes to yourself. You can also use your electronic notes function on your phone or 3M Post-It notes.
- Write lists of items that you need to remember e.g. shopping list, list of travel essentials, holiday destinations list, To-Do list
- If you need to take something with you in the morning leave it by the door or in your car.
- If you keep losing essential items such as your keys, decide on a specific location where you will always place the keys.
- For medication or vitamins taken daily, place the items with something that you will use daily such as your toothbrush or drinking glass.
- When you put something away or file a particular item, record the item and its location on a log, running list or simple database
What approach do you use to remember important items?
Dr John Kapeleris