From where you parked your car to the password for your Facebook account, the sheer number of things you have to remember each day is pretty astounding.
So if you are having trouble keeping some of these details sharp, chances are you’re not alone.
But there is a group of people whose main goal is to make what you see and hear stick. These “memory athletes” travel the world to showcase their skills — and a group of them is set to compete this June 24-26 in San Diego, California as part of an event called the Extreme Memory Tournament.
But these memory champions also have some great advice for the rest of us. Here are five simple strategies for remembering things you’ve learned.
The memory palace is based on the idea that our spatial memories are much stronger than our memories for specific words or objects. You can probably easily recall, for example, where in your home you store your holiday decorations or your office supplies, says World Memory Champion Alex Mullen. And you can apply this innate ability to other harder-to-recall things, like a list of groceries.
Try it: Take your list (let's say it includes apples, paper towels, bread, and milk) and, as you walk through your home in your mind, create a scene of each grocery item in each space. In the living room, for example, you might imagine a group of kids bobbing for apples, while in the dining area you picture each furniture item covered in rolls of paper towels. Next you approach your bedroom, where you picture a giant laying on your bed while snacking on loaves of bread. In the bathroom, you see the sink and bathtub overflowing with milk.
We form visual memories much like how a camera records an image: What we see gets imprinted, kind of like a photograph, in a specific set of brain cells in our hippocampus, deep inside the brain. This process is called encoding.
The reason we misplace things like our keys, wallet, phone, or car so often is because we store so many similar versions of those memories. Think of how many times you've parked your car or tossed your keys somewhere. Your brain has encoded thousands of those memories. Over time, they begin to blur.
To improve your memory, you have to be able to keep those recollections apart. Next time you set down your keys, try creating a precise scene in your head, suggests US Memory Champion Joshua Foer. Take note of the surface on which you're resting it. Is it wood, steel, or concrete? Red or blue? Is there a photograph or an object nearby that you can keep in mind?
Having a sense of connection with an object or a place can help us remember details about it.
In a recent review, Harvard and MIT scientists compared how well people could remember photographs against how well they could recall the colour of a few simple squares. Overall, people were far better at remembering details about the photos than they were at recalling details about the squares. Researchers think this discrepancy has to do with people's ability to link things in the photos with their own feelings or memories, and therby keep the memory sharper.
If you're trying to remember words in a particular order, try making an word out of each of the item's first letters. One infamous example is using the name Roy G. Biv to remember the colours of the spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).
'Mnemonics are not tools for learning per se, but for creating mental structures that make it easier to retrieve what you have learned,' write Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, in the book 'Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.'
Someone told to recall a man who is a baker is more likely to hold on to that memory than someone told to remember a person with the last name Baker, Foer says in a TED talk.
Because 'the name Baker doesn't actually mean anything to you,' Foer says. 'It is entirely untethered from all of the other memories floating around in your skull. But the common noun baker, we know bakers. Bakers wear funny white hats. Bakers have flour on their hands.'
'The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge,' the authors of 'Make It Stick' write, 'the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.'
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