We’ll give you the bad news first: Scientists say your working memory peaks in your mid-20s, then starts declining.
The good news? You can teach yourself how to improve your memory without putting in too much effort.
A recent article by Austin Frakt in The New York Times spotlights a memory technique called the “method of loci,” or the “memory palace,” which dates back to a text called The “Rhetorica ad Herennium,” written by an unknown author in the 80s BC.
The method involves associating each item you’re trying to remember with a specific image and place.
For example, say you’re trying to remember that you need to buy milk, eggs, and bread at the grocery store. You might picture taking a shower in milk, stepping out onto the bathroom floor which is covered in eggshells, and drying yourself off with slices of bread.
Weird, yes, but that’s the key — you want to make the items stand out in your mind.
As the English translation of The “Rhetorica ad Herennium” suggests, it’s all about which images are meaningful to you: An image “that is well-defined to us appears relatively inconspicuous to others. Everybody, therefore, should in equipping himself with images suit his own convenience.”
Ron White, a two-time national memory champion, told Business Insider’s Jacquelyn Smith that he taught a six-year-old girl to memorise the names of all 44 US presidents using much the same technique.
Here’s how it works, using presidents as an example: First, pick out furniture in your home; then assign numbers to each piece. Review the information until you know exactly which number goes with which piece of furniture. Then create images that incorporate a president’s name and a piece of furniture — so for example, if No. 1 is a table, then imagine someone washing the table with soap and water because it sounds like Washington.
Finally, practice until you have it perfect.
Frakt cites a whole body of research suggesting that the method of loci really works. In one 2015 study, for example, Goucher College psychologist Jennifer A. McCabe found that nearly twice as many of her students could remember all the items on a standard grocery list when they used the method of loci.
Specifically, about 60 undergrads were asked to remember a 12-item grocery list. Over the next two weeks, they read the book “Moonwalking with Einstein,” in which Joshua Foer describes how he used the method of loci to win the US Memory Championship.
For homework, all students were asked to draw a map of Goucher College’s campus, label 12 locations, and practice mentally walking the route. Back in class, they were given a new 12-item grocery list and were asked to use their mental maps to remember the list.
McCabe reports that the proportion of students who recalled the list perfectly or almost perfectly nearly doubled.
The technique is easy enough to master — and it could produce drastic improvements in your memory of everything from grocery lists to work assignments. Frakt says he spends every walk home from the train trying to remember details from the workday by assigning them to different locations he passes.
Bottom line? Memory skills aren’t entirely innate — they’re likely highly learnable.
You can practice using the method of loci and see how you fare on a memory test on The New York Times website.
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