This is a guest post, written by Reuben Yonatan
How much information can your brain remember? From childhood friends to everyday facts and figures, the brain’s capacity is incredible.
But there are certainly times when our memory fails, and sometimes the rationale behind what you remember and what you forget seems senseless. For example, why can you easily remember some things, like the make and model of your first car, but not others, like what you had for breakfast last week? Or the name of that person you just met four seconds ago?
3 Types of Memory
Your memory is basically broken up into three parts: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
The Sensory Memory: This is like a small holding tank for split-second information from your senses. So, if you’ve ever looked at the sun and then closed your eyes, that after-image is a piece of sensory memory. This only lasts for an instant because your brain is constantly trying to process everything you are experiencing.
Short-Term Memory: If someone on the street gives you directions to the post office, then you are engaging your short-term memory. Short-term memory, sometimes known as working memory, is the information that is in your consciousness right now. The duration of short-term memory has been said to be around ten to fifteen seconds long and the capacity of information is about seven items. There are many different techniques, some of them outlined below, that can help you extend that period and eventually help move pieces into long-term memory.
Long-Term Memory: This is like the hard-drive of your computer; it stores facts, observations, and stories that you experience in life. Major events, anomalies, or highly emotional experiences are usually remembered a lot stronger and longer because they are like breaks from regular workings of your brain’s chemistry. Then, the more that you recall these experiences, the more neuron paths are formed to help strengthen these memories.
Scientists don’t know how much storage capacity your brain has for memory because they haven’t figured out a good way to quantify it. However, what we do know is that we forget … a lot.
You may have noticed that it’s much easier to forget things when you are multi-tasking and your mind is elsewhere, and it’s much easier to commit things to memory when you are fully in the present moment and intentional about remembering them. And because our modern world is full of distractions, it is increasingly important to keep your mind in tip-top shape—and in the present moment—so you can remember all of the important things going on in your life.
From combining your senses to taking breaks to creating emotional connections to the material, here are 15 different ways to improve your memory skills and keep your mind present.
Tip #1: Turn Words Into Pictures
Science has told us that we remember visual cues better than words. Scientists have seen more activity in the brain regions related to memory when we “encode” these visual memories than when we “encode” words. This is why slide decks work so well with pictures. You are more likely to recall a picture of a beach than just the word beach. In fact, studies have shown people recalling up to 2,000 photos with up to 90 percent accuracy.
Tip #2: Recall Just Before You Forget
Each type of information has a time limit in your memory. It will stay with you for a time and then quickly drop off. This time period varies between hours and days depending on the type of information and how complex it is. Obviously the more complex the information, the harder the brain has to work to retain it. The key is review the information again just before it drops off. This memory trend is what’s known as a curve of exponential decay. Revisiting information you’ve just learned is the best time to train your brain to remember it.
Tips #3: Stay Present
Today’s world is full of distractions. Try to keep your attention on the goal at hand. Studies have shown that when you multitask, it’s like splitting your brain’s functioning power into smaller parts. You actually make three times as many mistakes if your brain is given two goals at the same time. When learning a new skill or trying to remember a new sales pitch, try to set up a place that is free of distraction so that you can focus on learning. If you are in a meeting, avoid the temptation to check your email while listening to your colleagues or boss speak.
Tip #4: Learn How to Learn
There are four main types of learners: visual, auditory, tactile (or reading/writing), and kinesthetic. Visual learners prefer visual information for learning. Auditory learn better hearing information than reading it or seeing it. Tactile or reading/writing learners work better when they interact through touch, like writing something down.
Kinesthetic learners are all about experiential learning, like verbally reciting something. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and leveraging these strengths can greatly impact your memory skills. You can even take a test online to figure out what type of learner you are.
Test scores at one school were seen to improve from the 20th to 70th percentile when students were taught in styles based on their strengths.
Tip #5: Combine Your Senses
Basically, the more senses involved in storing information, the better your brain will remember it. This is not saying that you should be watching TV while memorizing facts and figures. The senses still have to be focused on the same thing. Children learn better using this VAKT method (visual, auditory, kinetic, and tactile), and it can easily be applied for adults.
When learning a new word, students will say the word, trace it with pen and paper, and write it to help improve the memory. Studies have shown that respondents are correct 10 percent more when taught something with multisensory techniques than only using one sense.
Tip #6: Make an Emotional Connection
What’s the difference between a motivational speaker and a boring sales call? You probably remembered the messages from the motivational speaker long after you have forgotten about that sales call. This is because you will remember more if you are motivated to do so. Science has shown that you will create stronger memories if you have an emotional connection to what you are learning (as long as it is high priority information).
Tip #7: Use Flashcards
Although this might seem like something you’d do in high school, remembering information with flash cards helps with “active recall.” This means you are forcing your brain to remember something from scratch. This helps create stronger neuron connections and eventually better memory recall. Students reported being able to answer 50 percent more correctly when using active recall study methods, like flash cards, compared to those who didn’t.
Tip #8: Write it Down
After meeting someone, trying writing down their name right away with pen and paper. In one study, scientists compared people who took notes during a class with a pen and paper versus with a laptop. Those who took notes long-hand did better than the laptop note-takers.
Tip #9: Repeat Verbally, Repeat Verbally
When you repeat something, it helps move the memory from working memory into long-term memory. This is called the production effect. If you are trying to memorize a list, you don’t normally say it out loud. You would probably list it in your head, or at most, whisper it so you don’t look foolish. But our brains remember the abnormalities more than the commonalities. Science has shown that when you do something weird like speak a list out loud, you will remember it better than trying to learn it silently.
Another study showed that this is even more effective when you repeat aloud to someone else in the room because of the way the brain records the communication between you and a partner.
Tip #10: Smell Your Memories
Remember when you met that person at a conference who had on too much cologne? Next time you smell that cologne, you will probably think of that person. The sense of smell is directly connected to the amygdala and the hippocampus — both are parts of the brain that deal with emotion and memory. Sitting in a meeting, try to remember the smells to help trigger your brain’s memory of that association.
Tip #11: Associate Ideas
This is the Baker/baker paradox: Someone shows two people the same photo of a man. One person is told that the man is a baker. The other person is told that the man’s name is Baker. It turns out that you will remember the man’s profession more than the actual last name. When you are told the word “baker”, you easily, and more readily associate the photo with the mental images that you already have of a baker, like cake or bread. We are better at remembering things with more ideas “attached” to them.
Tip #12: Use Rhyme All the Time
One of the reasons that nursery rhymes hold up so well is because the words are easy to remember. One experiment by cognitive scientist David Rubin shows that when two words in a ballad rhyme, students remember them better.
Tip #13: Take a Break
Studies have shown that when people took a ten-minute break after reading something, they recalled more information a week later than those who simply moved onto the next task without taking a break. (You should note that falling asleep right after doesn’t count as a “rest.” You should still stay awake.) Scientists believe that this helps with memory consolidation and thus better retention.
Tip #14: Chunk Information
There is a reason that phone numbers are seven digits long. Most people can remember about seven chunks of information in their short-term memory. A famous cognitive psychologist named George Miller found this in the 1950s. Trying to remember your bank account number? Try breaking it up into smaller groups of numbers.
Tip #15: Create a Memory Palace
This idea of a memory palace, or “mind palace”, originates from the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos. The idea is to attach bits of information to spatial memory. So if you choose a house as your mind palace, you would imagine putting representations of the information that you want to remember into a room. So if you want to remember to buy eggs on your grocery list, you could think of putting an egg in that room. This type of thinking is what helps World Memory Champions memorize 4,140 random binary digits in half an hour or the order of 28 packs of playing cards!
Want to learn more about how to improve your memory? Listen to Tim Ferriss’s podcast interview with Ed Cook, a Grandmaster of memory. The interview discusses many different techniques and strategies to improve your memory.