If you think your memory is getting worse, you’re probably right. There’s considerable research that as we rely on technology for information retrieval, we’re losing our ability to keep content in our heads and access it at will. It wasn’t long ago that being able to recite apt quotes or to rattle off historical details was a mark of intelligence. These days, we decry such memorization as old school, and want education to teach problem solving over rote learning.
I’ve written about memory a few times, and follow the topic with interest. I’m sure this is in part because my own memory constantly disappoints me. It’s also because I’m fascinated by the plasticity of the brain — what neuroscientists call our ability to change and shape it. So when a client recommended Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einsten, I was interested if a bit skeptical of finding new information.
Foer’s claim to fame is that he went from being a partially employed journalist with an average memory to winning the U.S. Memory Championships within a year. He did it by hanging out with a group of memory competitors and learning their techniques. These techniques, as it turns out, were created in Ancient Greece and still work. Memory champs are able to memorize entire card decks in a matter of minutes and recite hundreds of digits of pi. (You can watch Foer discuss his techniques on TEDx here.)
As a person with spotty performance remembering a small shopping list, I figured there had to be some kind of takeaway. In fact – there were plenty. Here are a few of Foer’s suggestions that work for anyone who wants to boost their memory:
1. Build a memory palace.
This idea first struck me as too out there. After all, if I’m trying to remember a few points to a speech, what does a palace have to do with it? Turns out, it’s an amazingly powerful tool. Within seconds of learning it, I was able to memorize a list of 20 items. A month later, they are still there.
The term comes from Ancient Greece and works with our very strong spatial memories. While we’ve not evolved well to remember lists of facts, we have an uncanny ability to retain places. This is why you can still perfectly see all the items in your childhood home, for example.
A memory palace is basically a visualization of a place that you know well in real life – say, your current house. In each room of this virtual site, you can place segments of things to remember, with as much visual elaboration as possible. The idea is that, by focusing on tracing your steps through its rooms, you will come across these concepts and remember them. This informative article gives advice on how to create a memory palace step-by-step.
While this technique is one of the most common among memory competitors, its simplicity works for anyone. Consider the next time you’re in a position to remember a list or points you want to make in a meeting or talk – if you don’t want to be reliant on notes, give the memory palace a try.
2. Practice chunking numbers.
While certain memory-building strategies may seem unusual or complicated, chunking numbers is something most of us do already. As About.com psychology writer Kendra Cherry points out, it’s how we organize phone numbers, breaking a long series of digits into smaller groups.
As effective and simple as this tactic is, we don’t routinely chunk numbers that aren’t already broken down for us. If you have to remember a series of numbers and letters, like a Wi-Fi password, chunking can help greatly.
3. Make visual associations.
Most of us will remember things better if we have some kind of image to go with them. Memory training site Memorise.org suggests repeating someone’s name when they introduce themselves, which will reinforce it in your mind. Then, choose a physical feature of that person to associate with their name.
Or as I discussed here, associate the person you meet with a famous person (or someone famous to you) that the person resembles in some way. It’s the best trick I’ve found to lock in their name./>/>
4. Be an active listener.
This point made me reexamine my own ideas about what’s useful knowledge. As much as we may feel that memorizing facts and figures is becoming obsolete, it turns out that having a foundation of retained facts helps us contextualize new information, and thus fosters learning. Foer cites studies showing that when school children possess a basic understanding of an historical event, like dates and key details of a war, they are better able to integrate and retain new knowledge about it. Otherwise, without the context, future information tends to slip out.
For anyone wanting to continue strengthening their memory, having a wide and growing bank of retained, specific knowledge about the topic will help that pursuit. I’ve tended to not bother to memorize specifics but focus on themes, because I feel I can always go back and look the details up. But I’ve begun to rethink that. For example, if I’m reading up on an international conflict, I’ll try to pause and “lock in” some of the dates and specifics using the techniques discussed above.
5. Continue purposeful practice.
Turns out all of those advertisements for older adults to play games to enhance memory have a point — our memory gets better when we use it. If you want to get better at remembering names, practice. Use the association techniques whenever you meet someone new. Similarly, if you’d like to be able to retain lists, stop writing down your shopping lists and try to store the items in a memory palace instead.
When honing your memory skills, give yourself concrete goals – for example, try to memorize a series of numbers of a certain length, within a certain time. Don’t let yourself plateau; if you keep practicing and trying new things, your memory can continually improve.
How do you try to strengthen your memory? Comment here or @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of title="Power of Presence">Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.