Do you have a hard time remembering names, dates, and conversations? Are you continually misplacing objects, or walk into a room and forget what you were doing? These are common memory difficulties that plague all of us, but they may leave you feeling frustrated and concerned that something more serious is happening in your brain. The truth is, most of us have perfectly intact memory; we are just out of practice in how to learn best and remember new information. Today we’re going to offer some tips to improve your memory.
We cannot talk about memory without first talking about attention. Attention is the gateway to memory, meaning that to commit something to memory, you must pay attention to it first. It is impossible to remember something without paying attention to it; there is just no way around it! Memory works in these stages:
As you can see in the diagram, if you pay attention to information, your brain can then 1) process it, 2) save it, and 3) retrieve/remember it later. Often when relatively healthy adults say they forget names, conversations, misplace objects, etc., it is an issue of attention rather than memory. Now that we know it is probably our attention that is the issue; it seems like a quick fix, right? However, our attention is swayed by both internal and external distractions. For strategies on how to minimize distractions, click here.
Now that our attention is in check, we can utilize several strategies that make it easier for us to remember information later on.
Spaced Retrieval Practice involves remembering a particular fact on your own, without looking it up or asking for the information, over and over again with increasing time intervals between each recall. For example, let‘s say I needed to memorize the name of the 7th president of the United States. After learning that the 7th president of the United States was Andrew Jackson, I would ask myself the name of the 7th president after 1 minute, then after 3 minutes, then after 5 minutes, etc. While this strategy makes your brain work harder, spending more time studying information (e.g., by rehearsing, reviewing, re-reading) is not the most efficient way to memorize information. If you practice retrieving information from your memory after gradually longer delays, you will build stronger connections to the information in your brain. Out of all the strategies presented here, this one is the most flexible and can be applied to any kind of information.
Associations involve linking a new piece of information to something that we already know, which makes it easier to remember. This strategy is particularly useful for remembering names. For example, let‘s say I meet someone named Jill. Immediately when I meet her, I associate her with a Jill that I already know: my Aunt Jill. Now every time that I look at her, I think of my Aunt Jill and can remember her name. I like to associate names with celebrities I know who share the same name, or a funny nickname that they currently have or had while growing up. The more creative and ridiculous the association, the more it will stick.
Imagery involves associating a new piece of information with an image that will help jog your memory. With Jill from the previous example, I immediately think of the childhood song lyrics, “Jack and Jill go up the hill.“ If I picture Jill going up a hill when I meet her, I am more likely to remember her name later on.
Another memory strategy using imagery is called the memory place. Memory place involves linking a place that is familiar to you—perhaps your home, or the walk to your favorite coffee shop— to a list of items that you need to remember. To help you remember the list of items, simply “place“ the representation of the item you need to learn at a point in your familiar place. For example, say I need to memorize a deck of cards that are in random order. As I visualize myself walking through my home, I see the Jack of Hearts which opens the front door, I turn right into the dining room and see the 3 of Clubs sitting at the table, and I continue into the kitchen where the Ace of Spades is cooking dinner. I could continue placing the rest of the cards in the deck throughout the house, recalling them as I walk through the home.
Chunking involves taking individual pieces of information and grouping them into larger units (chunks). By chunking individual pieces into larger groups, you increase the amount of material you can remember. Our working memory is limited, and research suggests we can hold between 5 to 9 pieces of information at a time. People often use chunking without realizing it, especially for phone numbers. For example, instead of saying 5-5-5-9-7-8-2, most people will “chunk“ the telephone number into 555-97-82. In this example, you only have to remember three pieces of information rather than seven, which makes it easier on your brain! While chunking is excellent for memorizing numbers, it can also be helpful for to-do lists or grocery lists, where you can group the list by categories or location.
Chaining involves learning individual responses that are a part of a sequence that forms a complex behavior. This strategy is particularly useful when learning a procedure where the task can be broken down into smaller steps. Start by mastering the first step of the sequence. Once that is mastered, add the second step and rehearse the first two steps together. After the first two steps are mastered, add the third step, and rehearse all three steps of the sequence. Continue adding steps like this until the entire sequence is learned. I often use this strategy when memorizing a speech or presentation. I start by breaking the speech into paragraphs. Then, I:
Memorize the first paragraph and rehearse it
Memorize the second paragraph, rehearse the first + second paragraphs
Memorize the third paragraph, rehearse the first + second + third paragraphs
Continue until the entire speech is memorized
Forgetfulness around names, dates, and conversations are maddening, yet resolvable with these tricks. I encourage you to make a list of things you usually forget and identify which of the above strategies may be useful in remembering the information in the future. It‘s possible that you already use these strategies here and there, and just need to get into the routine of using them more.
Short-term memory loss is often a complication for many people who have suffered from a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). If you need additional support during this time, Home Base’s team of clinicians is available and ready to serve you. Please visit www.homebase.org/connect2care or call our clinic at 617-724-5202.
About the Author: Dr. Jacqueline Marsh is a neuropsychology postdoctoral fellow at Home Base. Prior to fellowship, Dr. Marsh completed her undergraduate studies at Butler University and received her MS and PsyD in Clinical Psychology from Nova Southeastern University. She completed an internship at the Miami VA, where she completed rotations in Geriatric Neuropsychology, Geriatric Primary Care, Palliative Care/Psycho-oncology, and Neuro-rehabilitation. During the internship, she developed a special interest in cognitive rehabilitation as she had the opportunity to facilitate groups for Veterans who survived stroke and TBI, as well as provide individual therapy to Veterans with comorbid cognitive impairment and mental illness. In addition, she has experience providing comprehensive neuropsychological assessments for Veterans with spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, cerebrovascular accidents, chronic neurological conditions, amputation, and polytrauma.