Top 10 memory tips

Posted on: 18 November 2011 by Gareth Hargreaves

Upgrade your memory and stay sharp with these simple techniques.

Brain exerciseWith a bit of practice you can improve your memory, whatever your age. What we know about memory suggests that there are four key elements to developing its powers

What memory techniques rely on:

So many memory lapses occur because people just don’t pay attention when the material needs to be memorised.  For example, when being presented to someone new, we are thinking about what to say, or wondering what impression we are making, instead of trying to take in the person’s name.  Instead, when you put something important away, really think about what you are doing and don’t get distracted.

The mind dismisses boring material as irrelevant, but boredom is relative.  If you must memorise something, find a way of making it interesting to you. Make it into a story, or imagine asking critical questions of the person presenting it.

Memory works best if new material is linked to something already known – maybe the man you’ve just been introduced to has the same name as your brother or an old school-friend? Use this as a hook to recall the name in future.

There is nothing like ‘hands on’ experience to improve the memory – the mind gets the subconscious message that this material is important if you keep forcing it to recall. So if you learn a new word – foreign or otherwise, or someone’s name, use it straight away in a written or spoken sentence and repeat often.

Top Ten Memory Tips

1. Make the most of external memory props
These are things such as diaries, wall planners, electronic organisers, Post-it notes, ‘to-do’ lists – even knots  in your hanky or notes written on your hand.

2. Leave a message
If you are at work when you remember something you must do when you get home, call home and leave a message about it on your answering machine, or e-mail yourself at home.

3. Learn some poetry off by heart
The late poet laureate Ted Hughes said that the secret of learning poetry is a combination of visual imagery and careful listening to the underlying sound pattern. He suggested splitting the poem up into phrases and extracting a key word from each phrase, for which you make a vivid visual image, linking it firmly to the one which went before.

Try it with the first four lines of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

  • To see a World in a Grain of Sand
  • And a Heaven on a Wild Flower
  • Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand
  • And Eternity in an Hour

The key words could be ‘world’, ‘grain of sand’ and so on.  You could perhaps imagine a tiny globe suspended in a sand grain to start off with. Notice how the rhythm within the lines helps, as do the rhymes in lines one and three, and two and four.

Literary verse, with its strong rhythms is easier to memorise than modern blank verse. But if you like the latter, your interest should help you learn it – relying mainly on visual imagery. You should speak the verse aloud because it will not only will this add to your pleasure, but will help fix the poem in your mind.

4. Get organised
Don’t dismiss the old saying, ‘A place for everything, and everything in its place’ as a memory aid. Put things in logical places – pills you take at bedtime next to your toothbrush, items for the following day in your bag, letters to post in a tray by the door. Be consistent about keeping things in their place so your memory creates strong associations between the item and its location.

5. Little and often
If you have a lot of material to absorb – for a presentation, an exam or a special project – it is best to break it down.  If you have a lot of material to absorb, it is best to break it down into small chunks and tackle it in several short, but frequent, sessions.

Research shows that people remember more if they split seven hours of study over a week - into say an hour a day, rather than into longer, but less frequent learning sessions of two or three hours.

6. Lock away your diary
If you feel you are too dependent on external props such as Filofaxes and organisers, try creating a mental  diary. Imagine the day (week, month or year) as a journey dotted with interesting locations – a river, a clump of tress, a castle and so on. Each feature corresponds to an hour of the day, so 2 O’Clock is the entrance to a park, for example. Now make an image for each thing you have too remember – the dentist might be waiting for you, smiling with a flower in his buttonhole, by the herbaceous border near the park entrance.  In other  words, you are due to see the dentist at 2 O’Clock.

Try it for a day or a week and see if it gives you an enhanced feeling of control over your life.

7. Get enough sleep
If you are studying, or generally being bombarded with information, don’t lose out on sleep. While –  amazingly – no one knows why we need to sleep, there is some evidence that it may play a role in learning. When students were deprived of sleep in an experiment they found it harder to recall complex material, although their ability to memorise simple lists was not impaired.

8. Look for landmarks
It’s frustrating and time wasting to forget where you parked your car or how to find your way out of an unfamiliar building. Try memorising landmarks.  For instance, your car may face a tree or a sign. In a building, mentally trail a length of string behind you with features tied into it at specific places – such as a sign on the wall before you turn right, or a pot plant by that set of swing doors.

9. Go with your biorhythms
People differ in when they are most mentally alert. Try learning a list of words and see when the peak time is for you.

10. Keep a journal
Most of us take photos on holiday to preserve our memories – but why not try capturing the experience in writing too?  The verbal dimension will strengthen the memory trace – which will add to your pleasure when you look back. 

A journal can have immense practical value for checking facts and details and may be a good place to work out problems and reflect on experience.  It may even make you famous – for inspiration, look at the diaries of Samuel Pepys, Virginia Woolf, Alan Clark, Sir Roy Strong and Kenneth Williams.

Brain Facts & Stats

  • The brain itself has no pain nerve endings; the pain of a headache comes from the scalp.
  • The brain contains about 100 billion neurons (about the same as the number of stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way). All this in about 1.5kg (3lb) of greyish, porridge like tissue.
  • The rate at which neurons communicate varies between one signal every few minutes to about a thousand per second.
  • Each neuron has between 1,000 and 10,000 synapses. The brain therefore has up to one million billion synapses.
  • Dominic O’Brien, five times world memory champion, can memorise a single pack of shuffled cards in 38.29 seconds. Unfortunately for Dominic, who obviously enjoys a game of blackjack, he has been banned from all the casinos in the UK.

The Haynes Brain Manual contains all you need to know about the brain, how it works and how to keep it healthy.  The book is available in all good bookshops, though you are likely to obtain best prices from Amazon.


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