It is frustrating and embarrassing not being able to remember the name of someone you have just met. Learn the tricks the experts use and keep a good memory at any age.
The process by which the brain first acquires information and then stores it when it needs it is a mysterious phenomenon. Thanks to advanced technology, including positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have begun to record brain function (brain wiring). It gives us a better idea of how memories are created, what memory is, and how it works.
Thinking in action
Memories are established as sequences of electrical activity that connect brain cells or neurons in various parts of the brain.
These electrical pathways link all the senses, connect sensory energy with physical and emotional responses and store them in memory.
When you remember something, you are not retrieving information from an organized file located in a specific area of the brain. But, it is much more complex than that.
If you think of the word hammer, for example, your mind instantly recalls the name of this tool, its appearance, weight and texture, its function. Your brain also remembers the sound it makes when hitting a nail (each information piece was taken from a distinct zone of the brain).
When remembering your favorite school teacher, your brain brings in a single millisecond, the various aspects of his or her appearance, personality, and perhaps the sound of a voice. It then projects the multi-layered image onto the mental screen we call our mind’s eye.
The long and short term memory
At the instant, memory starts it captures information through the eyes, ears, nose, skin, or taste buds. Sensory impressions are temporary and first remain in the short-term memory. But only for 30 seconds to a few minutes, as the capacity there is limited. As new information enters your short-term memory, it pushes out old data.
No set rules are governing what the mind stores into long-term memory and what it erases. We do not apply a conscious choice to what is retained. What makes information stick depends on its impact, its emotional significance, and its links to existing memory. If two or more senses are involved or there is something of great interest to you, the information is more likely to be retained.
There is nearly no limit to the amount we can store in long-term memory and, the information there is never lost (but it is not always easy to access).
These suggestions will help you turn your experiences into memories:
- Focus on one thing at a time: You can’t remember every piece of information along the way. Decide what is important to remember and pay close attention when this new information presents itself.
- Be an active listener: Hearing is not the same as listening. Some people find it very helpful to repeat what they have just heard, for example: “Let me see if I understood what you said. You want me to…”
- Eliminate distractions: When you were younger, you may have found it easier to study with the television or music turned up loud. Now that you are older, you may need to eliminate distractions for better mental performance. Some people need total silence to concentrate.
- Use your senses: Use all the faculties you can to store a memory. Years ago, many elementary school children learned long lists of information by singing them to a familiar tune. They processed input energy from several cues at once: cognitive, visual, auditory, and motor. Years later, that memory is still there.
- Practice, practice, practice: Repeated exposure strengthens the brain’s electrical pathways and improves recall. Do you remember how many hours you spent memorizing multiplication tables? Give new learning the time it needs.
- Put recent information in the context: It is much easier to remember something meaningful than something abstract. To retain better, associate the new learning with something you already know. The more links you develop around a piece of information, the more likely it is that something will stick in your memory.
- Sleep well: Adequate sleep is essential for two reasons. First, the mind works much better if you are not tired. Secondly, research indicates that almost everyone needs 6 to 8 hours of deep sleep. Sleeping well is fundamental for the brain to make the chemical changes necessary to integrate new skills or data into long-term memory.
- Reduce stress: Stress, in the form of anxiety or depression, impedes memory, as it interferes with concentration and weakens the motivation to learn.
- Check for sensory impairments: You cannot remember information that you do not pick up. For some older people, memory problems start with sensory impairments. If you have vision or hearing problems, talk to your doctor.
- Create habits: Make it easy on yourself. Choose an appropriate place to leave eyeglasses, keys, and a wallet.
- Drink plenty of water: Drink at least eight glasses of water a day, more if you drink caffeinated beverages. Dehydration can cause many problems, such as electrolyte imbalance that affects the brain.
- Choose a smart lifestyle: You can improve memory function by following the tips in our digital magazine. Eat nutritiously, make time for aerobic exercise three times a week, avoid smoking and limit alcohol consumption.
Have you ever wondered how memory trainers manage to remember hundreds of names and many sequences? They mastered mnemonic formulas, tricks, and easy methods that capture information and store it in memory. Almost all of these tricks work by consciously increasing the amount of mental processing around a single piece of information. Although many of the conventional techniques for improving memory are old, they are supported by the latest findings on how the brain processes new data.
The main techniques are association, visualization, imagination, and organization. See how they come into play in these everyday memory challenges.
Give a name to that face.
Names are the main nightmare of memory. The next time you meet a person, examine his/her face and catch a detail (freckles, smile, hairstyle). Now make a conscious link between that peculiarity and the person’s name. Let’s say you met a man named Michel Devon. Notice that his blue eyes are the ocean’s color and, imagine him as the captain of a ship heading for Devon Island. The more ridiculous the representation is better because exaggeration makes a display more memorable. The key is to do an intense association between the name and the visual image. So when remembering, one triggers the other. Secure this memory by repeating his name several times during the conversation. Try to imagine what it would look like in writing.
Associate and visualize
Association and visualization help prevent you from misplacing your reading glasses or travel ticket. To fix information in your memory, associate it with a visual image, at least with an additional sensory cue.
For example, when you place your eyeglasses on the bathroom shelf, notice how the lenses catch the light-reflection. When you keep your travel ticket in your coat pocket, observe the contrast of its color with the color of your coat. Besides, you can feel the rough edge of it against the soft inner fabric of the pocket.
Make a phrase
Take the first letter of the words you want to remember and construct a new word or phrase. You can memorize this short shopping list: milk, eggs, lemons, lettuce, oranges, and beets, using this technique. You can also try to form a word with the first letter of the items written in your list.
Long sequences of numbers (credit card, credentials) are organized in subgroups to facilitate their recall. Almost every phone number in the world is made up of between 7 and 10 digits. These are, in turn, divided into two or three subgroups. Because that’s all the short-term memory can remember at once.
Apply the same technique to words. Let’s say Thursday’s to-do list includes: eggs, pick up dry cleaning, newspaper, bread, buy pants, gas the car, pharmacy, apples. In this way, you can group the information for memory efficiency: FOOD eggs, bread, apples. PLACES pharmacy, gas station, dry-cleaning. OTHER WORDS newspaper, pants.
Form a chain
Think serially and make a mini-story that threads together the items you want to remember. The sillier the story, the better. In that way, you could memorize Thursday’s list:
As I pulled into the gas station to fill up with milk, I almost ran over a man coming out of the pharmacy. He got so angry he threw eggs, bread, and apples at my car. As he ran, he knocked down a woman coming out of the dry cleaners with a pair of pants. The incident was reported by the local newspaper.
Become a reporter
If you must remember something essential, imagine you are a reporter, and you have to write a story that contains some key points. It concentrates on the who, what, where, when, and why of the information for your demanding editor. You will find out that by exaggerating some aspects of the story, it will be easier to remember information. Don’t lose sight of the facts.
This content is published for informational purposes only and cannot replace the work of a professional. We recommend that you consult with your trusted specialized professional.