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How to Improve Your Memory

By: Miriam Vered - Updated: 1 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
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In the 5th century BCE, a Greek named Simonides had to leave a banquet early. After he left, an earthquake destroyed the banquet hall, and everyone there was killed. Although the bodies were unrecognizable in the wreckage, Simonides identified them all because he could remember where everyone had been sitting. His memorization methods have been used by scholars throughout history, and are still popular today.

List Learning Strategies

These strategies tend to be mnemonic - that means that they link the items to be learnt to information that is already firmly in place in the long term memory. Order and images are the two key concepts. Most of us are already aware of some simple mnemonics, and use them from childhood without thinking twice. For example - how do you remember the colours of the rainbow? A lot of people use the mnemonic "Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain", where the first letter of each word reminds them of a colour starting with the same letter. (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue Indigo, Violet).

The very same principles apply to more complex mnemonic systems, like the method used by Simonides, which is called the method of loci, or the Roman room method. You choose a very familiar room, or house, or daily journey, or even your body. You select items of furniture, or landmarks on the journey, or body parts, and train yourself to always pass your loci in the same order. Then you imagine each item on your list at one of your loci. So if you're trying to memorize your shopping list, you could start by imagining a box of eggs by the front door, a milk carton on the hatstand, an orange on the windowsill, and so on.

A similar strategy uses numbers as memory pegs. First you think of an image that you'll always associate with each number, like a pen for 1, a swan neck for 2, snooker balls for 3 etc, then you imagine each item on the list associated with each of your pegs. For example, you could imagine writing on the eggs with the pen, a swan drinking your milk, rolling the orange at the snooker balls etc. In the link method, you imagine a link between each item, like the eggs cracking over the milk, and the milk spilling on the orange. In the story method, you tell a story that links the items in the correct order.

The problem with all these methods is that it can be hard to recall each item without going through the whole list. Most of the methods are also hard to use effectively without lots of training and preliminary memorization. The loci method has the advantage that the room or journey is already very familiar so you don't have to expend any extra effort memorizing it.

General Principles of Memory

Most memory experts, from ancient times until today, agree that, although complex memory strategies can work wonders for the dedicated few, for most people some basic principles require less effort and are more useful. These include breaking information up into manageable portions, absolute concentration while memorizing, lots of repetition and reading information aloud while memorizing. Associations between facts to be remembered are important, and emotional associations can be the most effective. Studies have also shown the importance of sufficient sleep for optimal performance of all cognitive tasks, including memorizing. Regular physical exercise also seems to boost memory, while regular use of alcohol or marijuana can cause memory havoc.

Music and Memory

How do most children learn the alphabet? The A,B,C song is certainly the easiest way, and childhood learning is littered with similar didactic jingles. Somehow in adulthood, we seem to drift away from deliberately using music to aid our memories, but if you think about it, pop lyrics often seem to enter our heads apparently by osmosis, even when other information that we may have spent hours studying just seems to slip away. Some enterprising science teachers who've noticed the way that music seems to hold the back door key to memory have set the third law of thermodynamics and the periodic table to popular tunes!

How Does the Brain Memorize?

Brain scanning studies have shown that one part of the brain lights up while people are memorizing information, but another is active when they're predicting whether the information will be needed in the future. It seems that people with good memories don't just cram lots of facts in. They also effectively mark which facts are actually important. As we learn more about how this process takes place, science may develop new strategies for improving our memory skills. On the other hand, it may turn out that however complex our technology, we haven't got a lot to add to the techniques that Simonides developed 2500 years ago!

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