Learning how to improve your memory is a pretty daunting task, especially since we’re not even entirely sure how memory works. Are our brains like a computer that stores a finite amount of information, or is the vast neural network entangled with the universe on the quantum level? We’re not sure yet, but we do know a few interesting tricks that can improve your memory – no matter how little we understand about memory itself.
These tips and tricks allow you to improve your working memory and memory recall. Before we go on, here’s a quick explanation of the differences between the two types of memory.
- Your working memory is essentially what’s responsible for memory storage – call it temporary memory storage. Most often, if a thought or idea isn’t processed by your working memory, it’s as good as gone. Some of these memories can still be recalled via hypnosis, but they’re much harder to recall.
- Memory recall is your ability to actually remember things at will. Improving your memory recall will allow you to pull memories out of your brain much more easily. Anything that you’re able to recall will have already passed through your working memory and moved into permanent storage.
Now that you know the main differences between recall and working memory, here’s a few tricks for improving them!
1. Ignore stuff!
Okay, it’s not that simple. However, scientists have shown that concentration and attention are vital to the process of passing ideas or situations through your working memory and into your long-term memory. Why does this matter?
People who have difficulty concentrating are unable to focus their attention on a single point. To put it another way, they have a hard time ignoring other things that are going on, and get distracted. In a simple sense, this is the basis of attention deficit disorder – the person simply can’t ignore their surroundings and continually switches their focus.
The more you focus on an object or an idea, the more your brain recognizes its importance. If you’re not able to place your focus on something, it becomes much more difficult for it to pass through your working memory and into permanent storage.
Training yourself to ignore excess feedback and sensory stimuli is important for developing a healthy memory.
2. Chunk your data
You’ll be better able to remember complex things if you separate them into distinct chunks. For example, take a random number: 2480823094. If I say that number and ask you to repeat it back to me, chances are you won’t be able to remember it all – scientists suggest that most people recall between 5 and 9 numbers (the “magic number 7” being the average).
The amount of data that you can recall isn’t limited to numerical information, though. You could consider each number that you remember to be a “chunk.” If the average person can remember between 5 and 9 “chunks” of information at once, it stands to reason that if you chunk that number into 5 sets of bigger numbers – say, 24, 80, 82, 30, and 94 – you’ll be far more likely to remember it, whereas if your 5 “chunks” are the first 5 numbers, you won’t get anywhere near as far.
This can be applied in any context. Once you’re aware that your brain can “chunk” information, you may find it easier to “chunk” complex situations or sets of information so that you can remember them more easily.
3. List your information
The human brain tends to remember things better when they’re presented in connection to other things. For example, you could list several pieces of information like a story. When you remember the story, you’ll remember the other bits of information.
For example, if you have a bunch of unrelated things that you have to remember – say, a to-do list that involves going to the dentist, picking up a book, and dropping off a letter – your story might go something like: “Once upon a time, a man dropped a letter off at the post office. He received a book back the next week which told him that he had bad teeth.”
4. Chew some gum
Chewing gum, for some strange reason, is associated with increased short-term memory. If you have a bunch of stuff that you need to remember for no more than half an hour, pop a stick of gum into your mouth. Apparently, the act of chewing triggers something in your brain that allows it to develop memories better.
5. Use keyword association
This is most commonly used when you’re learning new words, but can also be applied to other types of learning. The most basic example would be when learning a new word, such as “cacophony.” You could use the word “phony” as your keyword, since you already know that word, and try to use this to recall the rest of the word.
This can also be applied when trying to remember other information. For example, if you’re trying to remember a historical event, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, you could use the word “pearl” as your keyword and piece the rest together through association.
6. Adjust your setting
It’s been suggested that people tend to remember things better when they’re in a similar setting and headspace as they were when they learned them. Say, for example, you study at home on your couch, then try to recall information at your school desk during a test. If you aren’t able to recall as much as you want to, you might find that you can remember more when you’re back on the couch.
You could try to set your study area up to resemble your desk at school. That way you link your personal study space and your school study space together and improve your chances of remembering more.
Memory’s weird. We don’t understand it very well, despite the fact that it’s crucial to our everyday existence. Since we don’t understand it, it makes sense that some of the most popular techniques for improving memory seem quite strange. Maybe once we gain a better understanding of how our brains store memories, these techniques will make a bit more sense!