It was sat up there as proud as you like, nestled happily between the toaster and the electric frying pan and, unfortunately, only partly obscured by the steak knives. It was the vase. You know the vase. At least you would if you’ve ever been married because it turns up at every wedding. It might look like a different vase each time, but, trust me, don’t be fooled, it’s the vase.
One problem with the vase is that, and maybe this sounds familiar, it was ugly enough that I would happily have placed it gently on the first tee at the local golf club and smacked it into tomorrow, except that I don’t play golf and would likely have done myself an injury in my enthusiasm. It seemed impervious to being dropped, or having things dropped on it.
And there’s a problem with the vase. I have no idea who gave it to us. None. The risk for embarrassing comments? High. Ok, maybe it’s a problem with me. I may have made suitable cooing noises when we unwrapped it. I may have lovingly packed it after the wedding and, once out of sight, may have even kindly donated it to the clay pigeon club. I may have even been told who gave it to us, more than once. Zip.
Yet my wife could tell you not only who gave it to us, but who was responsible for every gift we received. We’ve been married for 17 years, and she still knows. Me? Hopeless. Hopeless!
Why does my memory seem so bad?
Memory is a remarkable thing. Without it, we have no sense of who we are, no past and serious problems with learning. We know people who say they are good with names, others with faces, some with music. We also know there is a little seahorse shaped structure called the hippocampus, that it’s responsible for the transfer of short-term memories into long-term memories and it’s susceptible to the effects of stress.
We know that we don’t store everything we learn and that the brain actively and deliberately forgets stuff. We also accidentally forget stuff, in that we might not encode, store, or retrieve things accurately, or because of some kind of interference or other speed hump in the memory process.
When we want to understand a bit more about how memory works, most of us are driven by the goal to make ours better. What we mean is that we’d like to be able to remember whatever we want, whenever we want, effortlessly. Our memory itself could well be fine; it may be our encoding, or storage, or retrieval that needs some work.
In the first instance therefore, any effort to make better use of our memory must focus on these three things. If you’ve ever been convinced to buy a memory product, you’ll note that this is where their emphasis is. Primarily, memory techniques focus first, naturally enough, on the encoding, as this is the first thing we have to do. Let’s have a look. We’ll come back to memory in subsequent posts too.
So here’s the take home bit
Some common, and pretty effective tips.
- Relax. Avoid telling yourself you have a bad memory. You’ll anticipate failure, but what you’re also doing is providing interference for the memory. If you are spending your mental resources telling yourself that you never remember names, how many resources are left to actually do the remembering? You’ll also lower your cortisol which affects the hippocampus.
- Refocus. See Number 1. Divided attention is a killer for memory. It’s awfully hard to remember something if our attention isn’t fully on task.
- Rework it. Make strong, vivid or outrageous associations*, especially for simple items such as names.
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It is still a powerful tool, even if it’s boring. Think of what you’re doing as a skill and it’s easier to understand that to get better at it we have to practice more. The more you use a memory, the stronger it becomes.
- Relate it. Hook it to something you already know. This way, you’re building on what are already well-established memories.
- Write it down. Use tools. Yep. Diary, pda, organisers, calendars. The act of writing something down helps with encoding. Say aloud what you have to do and you help. Even mouthing the words helps.
- Reduce the difficulty. Our brains like to work efficiently, so the fewer items it has to work with the better. If you’ve got complex material, see if you can group complex items together and use structure and hierarchies to sort and categorize.
- Rewrite the information. Put it in a different format. If it’s visual, make it auditory, and so on.
- Revisit it later. Come back to it the same day, week and month. More on this later too!
- Retell it. Share it with someone else. The conversation and effort help consolidate it too.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Relax, Refocus, Rework, Repeat, Relate, Write, Reduce, Rewrite, Revisit, Retell
What have you noticed?
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*Making crazy and vivid associations, such as between a person’s name and what they look like is a common technique. Here’s an example. Suppose we met. My name is Brendon. Now you could take Brendon and morph it into brained on if you read this blog. That’s easy. You could stretch it further though. Brained on sounds like rained on. I’m blessed with a nose of such proportions that small children can shelter under it in the rain. Now you’ve got a link between an outrageous picture of small children huddling under a big nose so they don’t get Rained on. You’d quickly get to “Brendon” thereafter. We’ve made a real effort with the encoding by making it outrageous and therefore memorable. Have a go with someone you know.