9 MIN READ
Memory Improvement Techniques – Start Here
Boosting Your Powers of Recall With Mnemonics, Senses and Emotions
It's a gut-wrenching moment: you need to introduce someone, but you've completely forgotten their name. Or you're in a big meeting and it's your turn to speak, but the vital information has dropped out of your mind.
If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. Chances are, we've all experienced that pit-of-the-stomach feeling when our memory lets us down.
But in a fast-paced, information rich environment, developing a strong memory is more valuable than ever.
The good news is that there are plenty of tools to help. The ancient Greeks taught their students systems for recalling key information, and many memory-boosting techniques have been developed over the centuries since.
In this article, you can learn tried-and-tested mnemonic systems for making remembering easier, and other principles that you can put to good use immediately.
What Are Mnemonics?
"Mnemonic" is simply another word for memory tool. Mnemonics are techniques for re-packaging information, helping your brain to store it safely – and find it again at the right moment.
Think about some of the mnemonics you've heard over the years. You may well remember facts, rules or spellings with the help of mnemonics, such as:
"Thirty days hath September, April, June and November… "
"ROY G. BIV" (for the colors of the rainbow)
"Big Elephants Can't Always Understand Small Elephants" (to spell the word "because")
Mnemonics often use rhymes and rhythms to make hard-to-learn information stick in our brains. Many of them also rely on images, senses, emotions, and patterns – which are key features in the wider memory techniques that have been developed.
Our brains are built to learn like this. No wonder we find it much harder to remember information presented as black-and-white words on a page!
Think of mnemonics as ways to boost what your brain can do anyway. Often, the information you want is in there "somewhere" – you just need a tool to help you reach it quickly when it counts.
Creating Rich, Reliable Memories
Exploring the common features of well-used memory techniques will help you to choose the most effective strategy for you. Let's look at the four key aspects: images, senses, emotions, and patterns.
Research has shown that our memories are activated more strongly by images than words.
We're particularly good at recognizing pictures we've seen before. Think about how many signs, symbols and logos you can identify in a split second. You can easily start inventing your own images to help you remember.
To remember a task you need to do in the future, you could try creating a vivid mental image of it actually happening. And when you meet someone new, spend a few seconds picturing something – anything – that might give you a visual reminder of their name.
Your brain can combine multiple senses to create strong memories. Some of our most powerful recollections are encoded through smells, tastes and touch sensations, as much as through sights and sounds.
Use as many senses as you can to learn and remember. Don't just picture the things to buy at the grocery store: imagine smelling, touching and tasting them, too.
Imagine that you're learning about a new concept at work. You could think about building a physical model of it. Give your memory several different sensory routes back to the original information.
Even important and serious material can be given a humorous twist in your imagination. Make your imagery exciting, weird and wonderful, and you've got a much better chance of remembering it. Be playful and mischievous. It's no coincidence that rude rhymes are very difficult to forget!
To remember an important idea that comes up in a meeting, highlight what's most exciting about it – or challenging, surprising or funny. When you meet someone new, spend a moment thinking about whether their name seems to "match" their character.
You give information a pattern when you use rhymes and rhythms, or turn sets of letters into mnemonic words or phrases. Examples of this are the SMART Goals acronym, which is a mnemonic for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound; and the phrase Every Good Boy Deserves Football, for remembering the notes on the lines of the treble clef, EGBDF.
As you'll see below, some memory techniques use spatial patterns to store vast amounts of information. To remember a telephone number for a short time, you could repeat it to yourself rhythmically. Or, when you're taking notes, experiment with different ways of organizing and arranging your words on the page.
Designing Effective Mnemonics
As you start inventing mnemonics of your own, keep in mind three more principles: imagination, association and location.
Imagination: create images that are vivid, engaging, and rich enough to jog your memory. You could be visualizing a real situation in order to remember and re-use it, or inventing one that will help you write, say or do something in the future.
Association: make the most of your brain's habit of linking ideas. Separate pieces of information can be linked so that you remember them all. That might help you remember all the items to pack for a trip, for example. Or, two ideas can be paired, so that one thing reminds you of another. Using that strategy, you might think of your colleague holding a microphone to recall his name is Mike.
Location: use your memories of real-world places to help you remember new material. Since you can easily remember the layout of your home, why not use the rooms to "hold" items from the list you're trying to learn?
The Main Memory Techniques
The three principles above have been developed into a number of specific memory techniques. They can be divided into three main categories:
1. Image clues: these are memory tools in which ideas are represented by pictures.
Just like logos or icons, image clues can trigger your brain to think about complex ideas.
Memorable, multi-sensory images are associated with others in pairs or sequences, or arranged in your "mind's eye" around familiar places.
Specific systems have been developed to "peg" new information onto ready-made images.
2. Storytelling strategies: these are tools that capitalize on the fact that well-told stories are automatically memorable.
Storytelling strategies allow you to link individual image clues into long chains, in order to remember lists, processes, and all the points you want to make in essays or presentations.
You can get an extra memory boost by choosing a setting that relates to your subject matter.
3. Spatial systems: these are tools that let you use all the real-world journeys you know to store new information. These journeys might include your route from home to work, or a favorite countryside walk.
You also know your way around many different buildings, and you can imagine their layouts with ease.
Spatial systems allow you to associate key images with particular places, or to visualize them positioned around familiar routes in your mind. When the time comes to recall some information, you can go back in your imagination and "find" the images you left behind – helping you to retrieve important details quickly and accurately.
Start experimenting with some of these mnemonic principles and you'll discover that you can quickly become much more confident about your memory!
We have a selection of memory-boosting resources that explain how you can apply all the techniques described above.
Image clues are used powerfully in the Number/Rhyme Mnemonic.
The Link and Story Methods explains storytelling strategies.
A good spatial system to start with is the Roman Room System.
It's even possible to combine different techniques, to create memory methods that are exactly right for you.
Memory tools – "mnemonics" – have been used for centuries, helping to boost confidence and combat information overload.
The best memory techniques use rich imagery, strong emotions, and clear patterns.
A number of specific systems have been developed, based on the key principles of imagination, association and location.
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