Improving your memory

I know people who don’t trust their memory and don’t rely on it as much as people who do. It can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. I also know  people who habitually misplace things like wallets/purses, keys and cell phones. Just as you can strengthen a muscle by exercising it, I believe that you can strengthen your memory by actively using it. You can learn to rely on it more often by using mnemonic devices. These are images, acronym words and phrases, or rhymes and songs, used as memory aids. The more you use them, the more confident you can be about your memory.

Teaching college courses in psychology, when we studied memory, I’d demonstrate a mnemonic device that uses imagery to quickly memorize a list. I’d ask the class to name ten items on a food shopping list, taking a few seconds between items to conjure up an image. Later in the class I’d recall and recite all ten items, in order. I never once failed to remember all of the items. The technique I used requires memorizing ten words, each of them rhyming with a number between one and ten: bun, shoe, tree, door, hive, sticks, heaven, gate, line and pen (as in pig pen). If the first shopping item is bananas, I quickly visualize  a whole banana in a hamburger bun. If the second item is honey, I visualize a shoe filled to overflowing with honey. If the third item is chicken, I visualize a chicken tree. And so forth. The weirder the image, the better. Each of the ten words/images I use serves as a mental “peg” to hang an image of the item on. Try it out; impress your family and friends.

A variation, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, is called the method of loci (Latin for places), or the memory palace. You visualize a building you’re very familiar with, such as your home or the house you grew up in. Memorize ten locations, in the order in which you’d see them, coming home, i.e. the driveway, the walkway to the front door, the front porch, the doorway, the table against the wall in the hallway where you stash your keys, etc. Each location is a visual peg on which to hang an image of an item on your list. If the first item is eggs, you might imagine a giant fried egg covering the driveway. Etc.

The use of acronyms (i.e. NIMBY for “not in my back yard”) is also a kind of mnemonic device. It’s easy to remember the colors of the spectrum by memorizing the invented name “Roy G. Biv”: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. You can remember the names of the planets in our solar system, in the order of their distance from the sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) by memorizing the sentence, “My very educated mother just served us noodles,” or by coming up with your own sentence. Once you grasp the technique, you can memorize lists by crafting acronym words or sentences.

Short-term memory is limited to approximately seven numbers/items at a time, but chunking – breaking up a longer sequence into chunks – makes memorizing easier. It takes a while to memorize a ten-digit phone number (8054769238), but it becomes easier to remember in the form 805-476-9238. Rhyming and singing can also be used as memory aids. I still use the rhyme I learned as a child to remember the number of days in each month: “Thirty days hath September/ April, June and November./All the rest have thirty-one/except the second month alone./To it we twenty-eight assign/’til leap year gives it twenty-nine.” Many children learn the letters of the alphabet, in order, by singing the “ABC song,” to the tune of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”

You can use mnemonics and a behavior modification strategy to become more mindful and change bad habits. I used to leave stove burners on after cooking – a bad habit that could potentially ignite a kitchen fire. So, I did two things to modify my behavior. I got in the habit of turning on the stove light whenever I used a burner or the oven. I would only turn off the light after I’d checked, and turned everything off. I used the stove light as a mnemonic device. That helped me to decrease the frequency, but I still left a burner on sometimes. So, I got in the habit of making a mark on the kitchen calendar every time I left a burner or the oven on. Not only was it (in the language of behavior modification) a mildly “aversive consequence” to admit and record each failure, it was an exact record of the frequency of my failures. Over time, I saw a decrease in the frequency, and it’s been over a year since my last failure.

I set a goal, made a plan, and modified my behavior. You can do that, too. Rubber bands can be helpful in modifying some undesirable behaviors. If you tend to lose track of where you put your cell phone, wrap it in a rubber band between calls. When you use your phone, wrap the rubber band around several fingers, tight enough that you feel it. When you finish the call, the rubber band reminds you to be mindful of where you put the phone, before you transfer the rubber band from your hand, back to the phone. You can learn to be more mindful about keeping track of your phone, and eventually do away with the rubber band.

Set a goal, make a plan, and you can improve your memory and replace bad habits with good ones.



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