3 Hacks for a Better Memory
Understanding how we remember things can help us use our memory better. Cognitive psychology informs us that we temporarily hold information in what is called “working memory” before it is consolidated into “long-term memory”.
Working memory is great for processing information that we are currently working on, like when performing mental arithmetic or when using deductive logic to determine if there are any fudge-filled chocolates left a box of assorted treats. However, working memory is limited, on average, to temporarily holding about eight pieces of information at a time before it is lost.
If we want to remember something for the longer term, we need to commit it to long-term memory through a process known as memory consolidation. Long-term memory does not have the limitations of working memory in that it has a very large capacity and can store information for an indefinite period of time.
A method that is commonly used to commit something to long-term memory is to repeat the information, like the digits to a phone number, over and over again until it becomes familiar. This process is often used in rote learning where facts are repeated until they are remembered. However, repeating facts is not necessarily the most effective method for remembering something for the long term.
This article explores three techniques that can help you to consolidate information from working memory into long term memory. These methods utilise science-backed mnemonic techniques referred to as “elaborative encoding”.
1. The Method of Loci
This strategy uses familiar or imagined locations in which to place information to be learned. For example, to remember items on a shopping list, one could imagine each item from the list being placed on a particular pantry shelf. Another example might be a new teacher needing to remember the names of students in a classroom; they could associate each student’s name with the seat that they have been allocated to. When items to be remembered are each associated with a designated location, it becomes easier to store and recall that information from long-term memory.
2. The Peg-Word Method
This technique is similar to the method of loci, but instead of allocating items to a particular location, each item is attached to an imaginary “peg”. While this system sounds simple, it is can yield impressive results. The peg-word system is great for remembering lists as well as facts. An example might be imagining individual portraits of people that you just met dangling from a different coloured peg on a washing line. Details about each person, like “nice smile” or “soothing voice”, could be attached to each person’s portrait to add further associations that will aid memory.
3. The Link System
Here, items to be remembered are linked to each other in some way. For example, if wanting to remember a shopping list, one could link related items like bread and butter or soap and shampoo together. Alternatively, one could elaborate on the list by creating an imaginary image of a loaf of bread lathering up with soap and shampoo in the shower while the butter is melting from the steam filling the bathroom. Adding humour into to the scene may even help with the ability to recall the items. The more creative the imagined scene the more memorable it will be.
Each of these techniques can be modified or combined to suit the situation. The strategies can be used to remember a wide variety of details from shopping lists to anatomical structures. This is why embedding the information into imaginative (hence elaborate) scenes can help us create associations to the information. Of course, thinking about the scene every now and again only helps to strengthen our synapses and associations. The more associations we create to the information that we want to remember, the better chance we have of consolidating it into long-term memory and then recalling it when we need to.