Our memories are vital to everything we do. Without them, we’d be unable to complete the most basic of tasks or learn the most basic of skills.
My memory is generally OK, but at times it’s pretty terrible. Until recently, I’d figured that this was outside of my control – my memory wasn’t great, that was life. The thing is, I was wrong – there’s a lot that we can do to improve our memories.
The inspiration and actions that I talk about below aren’t limited to improving your memory – they have knock-on effects on learning, creativity, wellbeing and numerous other aspects of your life. Scroll down to take a look!
Want a Spark of inspiration to get you motivated to improve your memory? Here’s a selection that I’ve discovered.
Once you’re feeling inspired, scroll down to the actions section to find out how you can go about improving your memory.
Day-to-day memory applications
Let’s start with the most tangible source of inspiration – real effects that an improved memory can have on your day-to-day.
- Struggle with linking names to faces? There are some pretty simple memory techniques (see the actions section below) that can help you stop offending people!
- Many modern memory techniques were used by Roman orators to remember speeches – they still work!
- Working in the same way as speeches, the techniques also work for preparing topics for job interviews
Memory and mindfulness
If you have any interest in mindfulness, you’ll be interested in improving your memory – there’s some significant crossover between the two.
- The process of memorising a piece of information relies heavily on deep focus and concentration. The process of improving your ability to concentrate deeply is very similar to mindfulness practice – training your mind to focus on one thing
- The Method of Loci memorisation technique (see location in the actions section below) involves using a familiar location (such as your house) as a place to store memories. You have to be able to picture the location in your mind’s eye in detail – this is only really achievable if you pay attention to your surroundings. Sounds like mindfulness to me!
Memory and wellbeing
In addition to the links to mindfulness, making efforts to improve your memory can have some direct effects on your sense of wellbeing.
- We’ve all experienced how time can seem to go incredibly quickly – weeks can seem to pass before we’ve even noticed. The way our minds work is that we remember events relative to one another – I moved house after going on holiday and before my brother’s birthday. The more densely memories are packed into a set length of time, the less quickly time will seem to have passed. Luckily there’s a lot you can do to change this
- Many aspects of memory improvement can be thought of as spring-cleaning for your mind. Stress is bad for your memory, so part of memory improvement involves efforts to reduce stress
Memory and learning
Memory and learning are intrinsically linked – new information is understood through reference to our memory and is then itself stored in our memory for recall later. If we don’t remember, we don’t learn.
- A great memory is at the heart of expertise – experts are constantly making decisions based on patterns observed in a huge memory bank of past experiences. Experts have been shown, across a huge range of fields, to make decisions based on their immediate perception of the situation (rather than any kind of deep analysis). Despite the common perception that chess decisions are painstakingly made through in-depth analysis at the table, chess masters have been shown through brain imaging to primarily use the parts of their brain associated with long-term memory when making decisions. They are making intuitive leaps based on deeply ingrained memories
- When reading to learn, it’s easy to skim the information on a superficial level and not take things in. The focus that memory improvement places on focus and concentration can be immediately transferred to reading, improving information retention
- Memory techniques are used widely in learning foreign languages, particularly for learning new vocabulary
Memory and creativity
Creativity relies heavily on memory – without memory, we could never have new ideas.
- A new idea or piece or art is formed by taking pieces of knowledge already possessed (memories) and combining them in new and exciting ways. The more memories we have, the greater a pool of knowledge we have to create new things
- Roman orators saw memory as an opportunity to invent new ideas, not just a method for remembering speeches
Doing the impossible
Now that I understand memory better, I can see that things that I previously thought were impossible can actually be achieved…
- Firstly, I thought that our brains had finite capacity for memories. I believed the notion that remembering a useless fact is effectively ‘taking up space’ in our brains that would be better served for something else. This isn’t the case! Our brains aren’t structured like computers – they don’t have finite capacity. Go ahead and remember everything that you can!
- I also underestimated our ability to uncover memories that we think we have forgotten. Just because we can’t remember an event immediately, it doesn’t mean that the memory has disappeared. Often memories are ‘mislabelled’, meaning that the obvious things that we think would bring them to mind don’t work – the ‘trigger’ for the memory might be something totally unexpected. Don’t give up on uncovering old memories – you’d be surprised how much you actually remember!
Impressive feats of memory
If the unbelievable inspires you, there’s some great examples in the world of memory.
- Cicero, the Roman orator and politician, was said to be able to speak for three hours entirely from memory
- Ancient author Pliny the Elder made some wild memory claims. Lucius Scipio was said to know the names of all the Roman people. King Cyrus was able to remember the names of all the soldiers in his army. An envoy to King Pyrrhus knew the names of the Roman senate and knighthood within a day of his arrival in Rome
- Returning to the present, the current memory world records are pretty impressive. A couple of my favourites are the record for remembering a shuffled deck of 52 cards (20.43 seconds) and the record for remembering the most digits of pi (70,000). Ridiculous.
- Vedic chant is considered to be the oldest oral tradition in the world. It was used to perfectly preserve the Vedic mantras from ancient times until the present day
- The Shas Pollak were Jewish scholars who memorised the 5,422 pages of the Talmud in photographic detail. If a pin was placed through a word on one page, they could name the word that the pin subsequently passed through on any of the other pages
Across all memory techniques you’ll find certain similarities. Each technique is focused on making use of the way our brains have evolved, making the most of what we are good at remembering.
In particular, you’ll see a common reliance on three main areas of memory – association, imagination and location. Here’s a quick explanation of each and an exercise to get you started with them.
It’ll work best if you read the association, imagination and location sections in that order. However you can jump between them if you want to – ultimately they all work together.
Our existing memories can be thought of us anchors in our mind – they’re already firmly in place and unlikely to budge. If we can hook a new memory onto an existing anchor, it’s more likely to stick.
Here’s how to get started:
- Hop over to this random name generator
- Change the options to fit your preference – I chose first name only, either gender, random surname and English
- Examine the name that pops out and think about how you can associate it with existing memories. For example, I got Gary Thorburn as my first name. I associated Gary with Gary Lineker, the ex-footballer who advertises Walkers crisps. I associated Thorburn with Cliff Thorburn, an ex-snooker player with a big moustache
- Take the associations and form them into one image. My image is of Cliff Thorburn, leaning over a snooker table to take a shot. He’s just been eating crips and there are a few fragments stuck in his moustache. As he goes to take the shot, the fragments drop onto the table, putting him off the shot. He misses, making him super angry – he bangs his fist on the table
- The image you create should be very memorable (see imagination below) and can now be used to remember that name. You can practise further with names of people you meet – try to quickly form a mental image to remember their name!
Our memories are best at remembering things that are novel and new – things that are overly familiar often get forgotten. Memories seem to merge into one another if they don’t have any defining features.
The aim is to use your imagination to make things totally novel and unique. Here’s how you do it:
- Take a generic, uninteresting item that’s commonly on your shopping list. You’re going to attempt to make it memorable enough that the shopping list is no longer needed! I’ll take a banana as an example
- Firstly, make use of your senses. The more senses you engage when remembering, the better the chance that the memory ‘anchors’ into your mind. Imagine the smell of the banana, the texture of its skin. Imagine the smell – does it smell ripe or unripe? Imagine its colour in detail – is it green, yellow, turning black? How does it sound if you drop it on the floor? Characterise the banana – if it’s ripe, all your sensations should point to that fact
- Secondly, make use of your emotions. What’s your immediate reaction to seeing the banana? Does it make you happy (because you like bananas…?) or sad? This is another opportunity to anchor the memory in place
- Finally, make the memory unique. The more surreal, the better. You want it to be different to anything else that you’ve remembered. An easy way to achieve this is to combine things that aren’t normally combined. You could give the banana a personality – is it angry or sad? Or you could imagine that the banana is incredibly big or moving around by itself. Anything surreal and memorable!
- The next logical step is to use a specific memory technique to remember multiple items from your shopping list. You can combine imagination with location to remember the whole list – just see below!
Our memory for places is incredibly strong – it has evolved to be that way. In evolutionary terms, it has been a pretty short length of time since we were hunter-gatherers, relying on our memories to tell us where to find shelter in the winter, where to find food and where to run to escape from predators. Those with the best spatial memories were most likely to survive and their genes have been passed down to us.
The great thing is that we can use our powerful spatial memory to remember things that aren’t related to location. One method is called the Method of Loci. Here’s how to get started with it:
- Firstly, pick a location that is very familiar to you. An obvious choice is your home, but anywhere that you can picture clearly in your mind will work
- In your mind, start at the front of your house (the end of your driveway or your front door). This is your first location. Make sure that you can picture it well – you’re going to need it later
- Travel inwards, entering your house and standing in the first room. Pick a memorable location in this room (a large immovable object is best – a table or a fireplace, for instance) and then move onto the next room. Continue until you have ten locations picked
- Practise walking through your house in the same order, visiting each of the locations. Make sure that you can picture them vividly. If necessary, physically walk through your house and get familiar with each location
- Now that you have your locations in place, it’s time to try out the method in full. Take a list of ten items – a shopping list works well, but they can be anything at all. Write them down
- Take the first item and mentally place it at the first location. Then (this part is really important), combine it with the location using the method in the imagination section above. Make it totally surreal and memorable! Using the banana example again, I could imagine the banana, perfectly yellow and unblemished, getting impatient at my front door. It gets so annoyed that it starts banging itself against the door, bruising its skin
- Repeat this for each of the ten items, placing one item at each of the ten locations
- Give yourself an hour and then try travelling back through your home. Attempt to retrieve each item as you come to it, noting them down on a piece of paper. When you’re done, compare the list to your original list – did you get it right?
- Keep practising this way until you’re confident enough to try it for real! Over time you can increase the number of locations and add additional buildings to maximise the number of items that you can remember!