INCREASING YOUR MEMORY ABILITY

Why is it that some birds can remember months later the places where they stored seeds for the winter and squirrels can remember the locations where they buried nuts, but we may forget where we left our phone an hour ago? Yes, many of us complain of a faulty memory. Yet, the human brain, though imperfect, has an amazing capacity to learn and remember. The secret is to make the most of what we have.

Enormous Potential

The human brain weighs about three pounds [1.4 kg] and is roughly the size of a grapefruit, yet it contains some 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, all of which form an incredibly complex network. Indeed, just one neuron may be connected to 100,000 others. This wiring gives the brain the potential to process and retain a vast amount of information. The challenge, of course, is for a person to recall the information when it is needed. Some excel at this, including many with little if any secular schooling.

For example, in West Africa, nonliterate tribal chroniclers called griots can recite the names of many generations of people in their villages. Griots enabled American author Alex Haley, whose book Roots won a Pulitzer prize, to investigate his family tree in Gambia back through six generations. Haley said: “I acknowledge immense debt to the griots of Africa—where today it is rightly said that when a griot dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground.”

Consider, too, the famous Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was “discovered” at the age of 19 when called upon to substitute for another conductor. In spite of his poor eyesight, he was able to conduct the entire opera Aidafrom memory!

Such feats may amaze us. Yet, most people have the potential to remember much more than they think they can. Would you like to enhance your memory?

Improving Your Memory

Memory involves three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Your brain encodes information when it perceives it and registers it. This information can then be stored for future retrieval. Memory failure occurs when any one of these three stages breaks down.

Memory itself has been divided into various kinds, including sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Sensory memory receives information from stimuli through the senses, such as smell, sight, and touch. Short-term memory, also called working memory, holds small amounts of information for brief periods. Thus, we can add up numbers in our head, remember a telephone number long enough to dial it, and remember the first half of a sentence while reading or listening to the second half. But as we all know, short-term memory has its limits.

If you want to store information indefinitely, it must go into your long-term memory. How can you put it there? The following principles will help.

Interest Cultivate an interest in the subject, and remind yourself of the reasons for learning it. As your own experience in life may tell you, when your emotions are involved, you enhance your memory.

Attention “Most ‘memory failures’ actually represent failures in attention,” says the book Mysteries of the Mind. What can help you to pay attention? Be interested and, where possible, take notes. Note-taking not only focuses the mind but also enables a listener to review the material later.

Understanding  When you do not understand a teaching or concept, likely you will not remember it well, if at all. Understanding illuminates the relationship between the parts, knitting them together to form a logical whole. For example, when a student of mechanics understands how an engine works, he will better remember details about the engine.

Organization Categorize similar concepts or related ideas. For instance, a grocery list is easier to remember when we categorize items—meats, vegetables, fruits, and so on. Also, divide the information into manageable chunks of not more than five to seven items. Telephone numbers are usually divided into two parts so that they can be remembered more easily. Finally, it may help to put your list into a certain order, perhaps alphabetical.

Recitation, or verbalization Repeating aloud what you want to remember (a foreign-language word or phrase, for example) will strengthen the neural connections. How so? First, saying the word forces you to pay close attention. Second, you may get immediate feedback from your teacher. And third, listening—even to yourself—calls into play other parts of your brain.

Visualization Make a mental picture of what you wish to remember. You might also find it helpful to draw it or map it out. Like verbalization, visualization makes use of different parts of your brain. The more senses you use, the deeper the information is embedded.

Association When learning something new, associate it with something you already know. Linking thoughts to memories already stored makes encoding and retrieving easier, the association serving as a cue. For example, to remember a person’s name, link it to some unusual feature of his appearance or to something else that will call the name to mind. The more humorous or absurd the association, the better the recall. In short, we need to think about the people and things we want to remember.

The book Searching for Memory states: “If we operate on automatic pilot much of the time and do not reflect on our environment and our experiences, we may pay a price by retaining only sketchy memories of where we have been and what we have done.”

Consolidation Allow time for the information to be processed, to soak in, as it were. One of the best ways to do this is to review what you have learned, perhaps by repeating it to someone else. If you had an interesting experience or read something upbuilding in the Bible or in a Bible study aid, share it with someone. In that way both of you will benefit—your memory will be reinforced and your friend, encouraged. For good reason, repetition has been called the mother of retention.

Mnemonics—A Useful Tool

In ancient Greece and Rome, orators were able to deliver long speeches without referring to a single note. How did they do it? They used mnemonics. A mnemonic is a strategy or device that helps us store information in the long-term memory and recall it when needed.

A mnemonic device used by ancient Greek orators was the method of loci, or the location method, first described by Greek poet Simonides of Ceos in 477 B.C.E. This technique combines the principles of organization, visualization, and association with something familiar, such as a landmark on a road or an object in one’s room or house. People who use the loci technique go for a mental walk, associating each piece of information that they want to remember with certain landmarks or objects. When they want to recall the information, they simply take that same mental walk again.

Research done on people who ranked high in the annual World Memory Championships found that their superior memories were not due to exceptional intellect. Moreover, most participants were between 40 and 50 years of age. What was their secret? Many attributed their skill to their effective use of mnemonics.

Do you need to remember lists of words? An effective mnemonic for this is the acronym—combining the initial letter or letters of a group of words to form a new word. Many North Americans remember the names of the five Great Lakes—Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior—by the acronym “HOMES.” A similar memory aid is the acrostic, which was used extensively by the ancient Hebrews.

You can train and improve your memory. As studies have shown, our memory is much like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it gets.

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