Better Memory

Dec 18, 2008 by

Better MemoryEveryone knows someone who seems to never forget, that one person with a memory head and shoulders above everyone else. Always on time, always there with the name of the host, always reliable for a birthday card – often, she of better memory is also she of many friends. These people are around.

But how do they do it? Is this “super” memory something they were born with, or is there some secret they know that you don’t? The answer, usually, is a little bit of both. While genetics do appear to play a role in the brain’s ability to remember, there are also certain practices we can all do that will result in clearer, more accurate, and all around better memory.

Often, achieving a better memory is as easy as treating remembering as something you have a hand in. When we stop taking our brain’s ability to remember for granted, and begin to think of it as something we can consciously control, we take the first steps toward improving that process. Make no mistake: the human brain is a complex and beautiful machine, capable of wonders we might not fully appreciate for decades. Left to its own devices, a healthy brain will go about its business with rugged determination. Memory and recall are part of this business, but that doesn’t mean the brain can do it all on its own.

A big part of achieving a better memory is learning how to pay attention to your surroundings. How can you expect to remember something if you never noticed it in the first place? In his philosophical Walden, Henry David Thoreau comments that he “never met a man who was quite awake.” An early Western advocate of mindfulness, Thoreau was remarking that many people seem to live out their lives disconnected from the present moment. The same could be said of our observational habits these days: in our multitasking society, we often try to pay attention to several things at once and end up not remembering much about any of them.

Have you ever walked or driven somewhere familiar like work or school, only to find once you arrived that you remember almost nothing about how you got there? It’s easy enough to do: the route is just so familiar that you navigate with half your attention, and let the other half drift in and out of daydreams and thoughts about the day ahead. Our daily haunts might not change much from one day to the next, but if you want to achieve a better memory, one of the best ways to train it is to practice noticing the details in your everyday environment. This will prime your mind to automatically observe your surroundings more closely.

Really noticing your surroundings involves more than vision, of course: experts in memory improvement recommend that if you want to really fix a piece of information in your mind, you should examine it using as many senses as possible. For instance, if you’re attending a spoken lecture, write down what the professor says as you listen to activate tactile memory. Study any visual materials provided, such as graphs or diagrams. Bringing in as many senses as you can will ensure that whatever you’re trying to remember is encoded across multiple regions in your brain, making it that much easier to retrieve later (such as during that all-important exam).

Quick tip: smell is one of the most powerful senses for stimulating the memory. This explains why people often experience a flood of related memories in response to certain smells. Although it obviously won’t work with everything, you can take advantage of the memory-evoking properties of smell by trying to associate the thing you’re trying to remember with a smell that is related in some way.

Everything we’ve described thus far is related to mindfulness training, a concept originally found in Buddhism that is also beginning to gain influence in Western psychology. Mindfulness, or sati, involves focusing one’s attention on their experience from moment to moment. In mindfulness practice, one tries to perceive and acknowledge all the emotions, thoughts, observations and so on passing through their awareness. Mindfulness practitioners try to acknowledge these observations without passing judgment on what they’re thinking or feeling. Besides training you to notice more, mindfulness training can also relieve stress and anxiety, resulting in a better memory.

Another effective way to kick start your memory is to better organize your exterior life. There’s no shame in using planners, calendars or a notepads to write down dates, events, people and other things you want to remember. After all, once you write something down, the paper will “remember” that information perfectly; it will be there whenever you need it, with none of the distortion or fading that often occurs with memories we don’t write down.

Then again, what happens if you misplace that important planner, with all its perfectly recorded names and dates? The other half of the organizational equation is in arranging items in your living space so that you can retrieve them easily when you need them. Store important items like your glasses and keys in the same place so that you will always know where to find them. Taking small steps like these to organize your living space will help your brain create a mental map of your surroundings.

Time-proven tricks like mnemonic devices, association, and even just writing things down can all help pave the way to a better memory. Perhaps more than all the rest, by actively trying to remember things better, we give the brain a head start in doing its job, usually resulting in a better memory for you. The same is true of dietary supplements that aid your brain’s processes, providing you with a better memory by giving your brain a boost.

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