How can we improve memory?

A cartoon of a mother trying to fit books in a child's head to help him figuratively memorize

I have a terrible memory.” Have you ever said that? If so, do not despair." 

A few simple tips and a little effort can bring surprising improvement. Do not underestimate your brain. Its abilities are astonishing.

How does the brain perform its amazing feats? In recent years the brain has been scrutinized as never before.

But while insight is growing, we still know very little as to how the brain actually accomplishes the things it does.

How we learn and remember information is not clear, but researchers are trying to unravel this mystery.

Involved in learning and remembering are an estimated 10 billion to 100 billion nerve cells, neurons, in the brain. But there are at least ten thousand times that many connections between neurons.

As we grow older, mental ability may decline; our reactions may slow down. Brain cells do not renew themselves, and adults evidently lose some continually.

But to the extent that we use our brains, we may preserve our mental abilities for a longer time.

Our mental attitude influences the brain. An optimistic, cheerful outlook improves the brain’s function at any age.

Some stress may be beneficial, but chronic, undue stress hampers the brain’s efficiency. Physical exercise can help to relieve mental pressure.

Encouraging as this may be, we may still forget important matters, regardless of our age. Can we improve? One area where most have difficulty is in remembering the names of people we meet.

How to remember peoples names?

A few simple suggestions can greatly help you to remember names better. Interest in the person helps. A person’s name is important to him.

Often we cannot remember the name because we did not get it right to begin with. So when introduced, get the name clearly.

Ask the person to repeat it if necessary or even to spell it. Use it several times in your conversation. When you say good-bye, address the person by name. You will be surprised how these few points will help.

Another tip that can further boost your memory for names is to associate a person’s name with something you can picture in your mind. If you can put action into the picture, so much the better.

For example, one person had difficulty remembering a casual acquaintance’s first name, which was Glenn.

So when he saw this individual, he thought of the meaning of the word “glen,” that is, “a secluded narrow valley.”

He pictured the man in this valley, viewing the beautiful surroundings. It always worked; the name Glenn popped into his mind.

Many names may have no meaning to you, so you will need to substitute a word that resembles the name. It does not matter if your substitute word does not exactly match the sound of the name.

Your memory will be better able to recall the name from the association. When you make up your own words and pictures, the impression is much stronger.

You need to practice this diligently for a while, but it really works. Harry Lorayne explains this method in his book How to Develop a Super-Power Memory, and he has used it on many public occasions. He says:

Many’s the time that I've had to meet one hundred to two hundred people in fifteen minutes or less, without forgetting a single name!"

Way to memorize lists

How can you improve your ability to memorize a list of unrelated items? A simple method is called the link system. Here is how it works:

You form a visual image for each item in the list and then associate the image for the first item with the image for the second item, then do the same for the second and third items, and so forth.

For example, you have to get five items at the supermarket: milk, bread, a light bulb, onions, and ice cream.

Start by linking milk to bread. Imagine pouring milk out of a loaf of bread. While the picture may be quite ridiculous, it will help impress the items on your memory.

Also, try to get action into the mental scene that involves you in pouring the milk.

After associating the milk with the bread, move on to the next item, the light bulb. You might link the loaf of bread to the bulb by picturing that you are trying to put the loaf of bread into a light socket.

Then link the light bulb to the onion by visualizing yourself peeling a large light bulb and crying as you do it.

Of course, it is better if you make the association yourself. Can you form an association between the last items, onions and ice cream? Maybe you can imagine eating onion ice cream!

See if you can recall the list. Then test your memory with a list of your own. Make it as long as you like.

Remember, to make the association more memorable, you can make it humorous or even ridiculous or out of proportion.

Try to put action into the picture, and substitute one item for another. Some may object that this method takes longer than simply memorizing the list. However, it takes longer to explain than to use.

Once you have some practice, you will form associations quickly, and your recall, as well as speed of learning, will be much better than if you try to learn without a system.

When 15 persons were asked to remember a list of 15 random items without using a system, their average score was 8.5.

Using the system of linking visual associations on another list, the same group averaged 14.3.

Of course, if you remember to take a written list of these items when you go shopping, that would give you a score of 15—100 percent!

How to remember what you read?

In this age of prolific information, another area where most of us need help is in studying efficiently. Being a good reader is essential in school, in business, for personal improvement, and in preparation for public speaking.

‘But I have difficulty remembering what I have read,’ you may say. What can be done? Learning to make your study time count can help you to remember what you read. Here are some suggestions.

When you study, personal organization is important. Have books, writing materials, and paper within reach.

Try to study in a pleasant area with few distractions and with proper lighting. Turn off the radio and the television.

Have a regular time for study. For some, studying each day for short periods may be more effective than using a large amount of time at one sitting. It is good to divide your time into sections.

Instead of studying nonstop for two hours, it may be better to break the time into sessions of from 25 to 40 minutes each, with short intervals of a few minutes in between.

Research has shown that this contributes to a higher rate of recall.

Determine what material you want to cover during your study period. This aids concentration. Before starting a book, take a few minutes to preview it.

Look at the title. Examine the table of contents, which summarizes the book. Then read the foreword or the introduction. Here the author’s aim and viewpoint may be stated.

Before starting to read a chapter, preview it. Look at subheadings, illustrations, charts, summaries, and opening and closing paragraphs.

Skim the first sentence of each paragraph. These sentences often contain the main line of reasoning. Get the overall picture.

Ask yourself questions: ‘What did the writer set out to prove? What can I gain from this material? What are the main arguments?"

Concentration is important. You should become totally involved. The secret is to make your study time as active as possible.

Kindle enthusiasm by considering the practical aspects of the information. Visualize. Use the senses by imagining smell, taste, and touch if the material lends itself to this.

Once you have got the drift of the material, you are ready to take notes. Efficient note-taking can speed up your understanding and recall of the information.

Notes need not be entire sentences but should be key words or phrases that help you recall the main ideas.

Understanding information does not necessarily mean that you will be able to recall all of it in the future.

The truth is that within 24 hours of learning, as much as 80 percent of the information may be forgotten, at least temporarily.

That sounds discouraging, but some or much of that 80 percent can be regained by reviewing the material.

After each study session, review for a few minutes. If possible, review again a day later, then a week later, and then a month later.

Your applying these points may assist you in getting the most out of your precious study time and remembering what you have read.

So do not underestimate your brain. Your ability to remember things can be improved. One scientist referred to the brain as “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe.”

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