Here are the 10 ways to improve your memory:
- Get enough sleep. If you read a book or article when very tired, you will forget most of what you have read. Sleep improves attention and concentration, and therefore the registration of information, or retention rate. Sleep is also required for memory consolidation.
- Pay attention. You cannot take in information unless you are paying attention, and you cannot memorize information unless you are taking it in. It helps if you are actually interested in the material, so try to develop an interest in everything! As Einstein said, ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’
- Involve as many senses as you can. For instance, if you are sitting in a lecture, jot down a few notes. If you are reading a chapter or article, read it aloud to yourself and maybe even inject some drama.
- Structure information. If, for example, you need to remember a list of ingredients, think of them under the subheadings of starter, main, and dessert, and visualize the number of ingredients under each subheading. If you need to remember a telephone number, think of it in terms of the first five digits, the middle three digits, and the last three digits—or whatever works best.
- Process information. If possible, summarize the material in your own words. Or reorganize it so that it is easier to learn. With more complex material, try to understand its meaning and import.
- Relate information to what you already know. New information is much easier to remember if it can be contextualized. In a recent study looking at the role of high-level processes, Lane and Chang found that chess knowledge predicts chess memory even after controlling for chess experience.
- Use mnemonics. Tie information to visual images, sentences, acronyms, or rhymes. For example, you might remember that your hairdresser is called Sharon by picturing a Rose of Sharon or a sharon fruit. Or you might remember the colours of the rainbow and their order by the sentence, ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle in Vain’. Medical students remember the symptoms of varicose veins by the acronym ‘AEIOU’: Aching, Eczema, Itching, Oedema, and Ulceration.
- Rehearse information. Sleep on the information and review it the following day. Then review it at growing intervals until you feel comfortable with it. Memories fade if not rehearsed, or are overlaid by other memories and can no longer be accessed.
- Pay attention to context. It is easier to retrieve a memory if you find yourself in a similar situation to the one in which the memory was formed, or if you are feeling the same way. People with low mood tend to remember their losses and failures while overlooking their strengths and achievements. If one day you pass the cheesemonger in the street, you may not, without her usual apron and array of cheeses, immediately recognize her as the cheesemonger, even though she is very familiar to you. If you are preparing for an exam, try to recreate the conditions of the exam: for example, sit at a similar desk, at a similar time of day, and write with ink on paper.
- Be creative. Bizarre or unusual experiences, facts, and associations are much easier to remember. Because unfamiliar experiences stick in the mind, trips and holidays give the impression of living, and of living longer. Our life is just as long or short as our remembering: as rich as our imagining, as vibrant as our feeling, and as profound as our thinking.
Memory refers to the system, or systems, by which the mind registers, stores, and retrieves information for the purpose of optimizing future action.
Memory can be divided into short-term and long-term memory. Long-term memory can be further divided into episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory records sense experiences, while semantic memory records abstract facts and concepts. Interestingly, the distinction between episodic memory and semantic memory is already implicit in a number of languages in which the verb ‘to know’ takes on two forms, for example, in French, connaître and savoir, where connaître implies a direct, privileged kind of knowledge acquired through sense experience.
There is, naturally, a close connection between memory and knowledge. The connaître and savoir dichotomy is also pertinent to the theory of knowledge, which distinguishes between first-hand knowledge and testimonial knowledge, that is, knowledge gained through the say-so of others, often teachers, journalists, and writers. In the absence of first-hand knowledge, the accuracy of a piece of testimony can only be verified against other sources of testimony. Similarly, the accuracy of most memoriescan only be verified against other memories, not any independent standard.
Episodic and semantic memory are held to be explicit or ‘declarative’, but there is also a third kind of memory, procedural memory, which is implicit or unconscious, for knowing how to do things such as reading and cycling. Although held to be explicit, episodic and semantic memory can influence action without any need for conscious retrieval—which, of course, underlies practices such as advertising and brainwashing. In fact, it is probably fair to say that most of our memories lie beyond conscious retrieval, or are not consciously retrieved, and, therefore, that memory mostly operates unconsciously. ‘Education’, said BF Skinner, ‘is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.’
A mysterious type of memory is prospective memory, or ‘remembering to remember’. To send my mother a birthday card, I must not only remember her birthday, but also remember to remember it. Whenever I forget to set my alarm clock, I usually find myself waking up just in time to make my first appointment, even when I have only slept three or four hours. This suggests that, even in sleep, the mind is able to remember to remember, while also keeping track of the time.
Memory is encoded across several brain areas, meaning that brain damage or disease can affect one type of memory more than others. For example, Korsakov syndrome, which results from severe thiamine deficiency and consequent damage to the mammillary bodies and dorsomedial nucleus of the thalamus, affects episodic memory more than semantic memory, and anterograde memory (ability to form new memories) more than retrograde memory (store of old memories), while sparing short-term and procedural memory. Alzheimer’s disease on the other hand affects short-term memory more than long-term memory, especially in its early stages.
As a psychiatrist, I am often asked to assess people with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia, and am all too aware of the importance of memory in our lives. Without any memory at all, it would be impossible to speak, to read, to learn, to find one’s way, to make decisions, to identify or use objects, to cook, to wash, to dress, to develop or maintain relationships, or to have any real sense of self. To live without memory is to live in a perpetual present, without past, and without future. It would be impossible to build upon anything, or even to engage in any kind of sustained, goal-directed activity. Although there is wisdom in being in the moment, one cannot always be in the moment. In Greek myth, the goddess of memory, Memosyne, slept with Zeus for nine consecutive nights, thereby begetting the nine Muses. Without memory, there would be no art or science, no craft or culture.
And no meaning either. Nostalgia is often prompted by feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, or meaninglessness. Revisiting our past can lend us much-needed context, perspective, and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life is not as banal as it may seem, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been—and will once again be—meaningful moments and memories. And it seems, if weddings and wedding photographs are anything to go by, that we go to considerable lengths to manufacture memories for the purpose of nostalgizing. Tragically, people with severe memory loss cannot revisit the past, and, as a result, may confabulate (make up memories) to create the meaning that they yearn for. I once visited a nursing home in England to assess an 85-year-old lady with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She maintained that we were in a hotel in Marbella, and that she was making plans for her wedding. When I asked her what she did yesterday, she replied, with a twinkle in her eye, that she hit the town for her bachelorette (hen night), and that her glamorous friends spoilt her rotten with champagne and fancy cocktails. The search for meaning is deeply ingrained in human nature, so much so that, when pressed to define man, Plato replied, ‘a being in search of meaning’. Like confabulation, it could be argued that nostalgia is a form of self-deception, in that it involves distortion and idealization of the past. The Romans had a tag for the phenomenon that psychologists have come to call ‘rosy retrospection’: memoria praeteritorum bonorum, ‘the past is always well remembered.’
And memory is unreliable in other ways as well. ‘Everyone’, said John Barth, ‘is necessarily the hero of his own life story’. We curate our memories by consolidating those that confirm or conform to our idea of ourselves, while discarding or distorting those that conflict with it. We are very likely to remember events of existential importance such as our first kiss, or our first day at school—and, of course, it helps that we often rehearse those memories. Even then, we remember just one or two scenes, and fill in the gaps with reconstructed or ‘averaged’ memories. Déjà-vu (French for ‘already seen’), the feeling that a situation that is currently being experienced has already been experienced, may arise from a very good match between the current situation and an averaged memory of that sort of situation. Our memories depend on our interests and emotions. Two people supporting opposing teams in a football match, or opposing political parties in an election, will register and recall very different things, and would likely disagree about ‘the facts’.