Improving your memory, Part 2

As regards memory, I believe there’s something to the notion “use it or lose it.” People who are convinced that they don’t have a good memory often don’t work to improve it. Excepting those who have a neurological memory deficit, it can become a negative cycle, a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you don’t trust your memory, you don’t use it; and because  you don’t use it, you don’t trust it.

In my last post I gave examples of mnemonic devices that you can use to improve your recall. I also described how I used a mnemonic device in concert with a behavior modification technique to change a targeted behavior problem. In this post I’ll share some things I’ve discovered about other mnemonic aids.

For instance, I’ve had a bad habit of leaving the stereo amplifier on – sometimes for a day or more – after playing a cd. I just didn’t notice that the little red power light was on. So I “amplified the signal”  by putting the cd jacket on the floor beside the sound system, and not picking it up until I’ve turned off the stereo.  Temporarily placing things where they don’t belong, but where you’re bound to notice them, is a simple mnemonic aid, when associated with a specific behavior.

Turning routine behavior patterns into mindful rituals has saved me a lot of frustration. I’ve programmed myself to always put my car key and my house key in the same place when I come home. This is probably obvious to most of my readers, but I’ve known a lot of people with memory problems who haven’t developed this simple habit. You can learn to do something mindfully until it becomes automatic. I have some obsessive-compulsive traits, and if I’m “on autopilot” when I leave the house, I might have anxious thoughts after I drive away: “Did I lock the door?” So, I’ve learned to lock the door mindfully, recording the act with the camera of my eyes. It’s a ritual, and it works. Teach yourself to be more frequently mindful of common tasks, and you’ll simplify your life. Never in my life have I lost a wallet, a credit card, or an important key. If I have a good memory, it’s because I’ve worked at it. You can, too.

As a writer, I’ve developed my own system to help me remember things and to connect ideas. I always keep index cards and a pen handy – in my shirt pocket when I’m out and about. If I have an  idea or come across something I want to remember, I jot it down. When the card gets crowded with ideas, it goes on The Pile, on my writing desk. Recent ideas are easy to find, near the top of The Pile. Then, every few weeks, I break out a legal pad and go through The Pile. Some pages on the pad are labeled, by topic or writing project. I record some items/ideas on the pages, line through others that I can’t use (“why did I write that down?”), and trash the index cards. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, describes using a similar system in his follow-up book, Lila.

Sometimes I tear a blank page from a legal pad and use it to organize my thoughts for a project. I write down a working title and the first words that come to my mind (or from my index cards) on the topic. Then I “shotgun” any key words or related ideas from my head, onto the page. When I see associations, I may draw lines to connect items; or I may number items, to form a sequential outline. Most of my blog posts start with key words or index card notes, and what you read is a polished third draft. I write my first draft on a legal pad, my second on WORD, on my PC, and continue to refine from the WORD document as I transcribe my finished post.

Journaling is an excellent memory aid, especially if you’re a writer. Recording both thoughts and events aids your recollection of details in the months and years that follow, and is very helpful if you ever want to write a memoir or an autobiography. We tend to subconsciously edit our memories, and an honest journal can help you to remember what really happened. I kept a journal for the two years I served in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, and it enabled the writing of my first published book: Two Years in Kingston Town – A Peace Corps Memoir.

I’ve kept quotebooks since I was in grad school, so I have access to all of my favorite quotes. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that you “. . . make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like a blast of triumph.” Over the years, I’ve started personalized quotebooks as unique gifts for family members and close friends, seeding them with quotes that I think will mean something to them, and leaving the bulk of the pages blank, to be filled with their own favorite quotes.

Finally, I’ve learned over time to use calendars as memory aids. Not only do I use the wall calendar in our kitchen to record upcoming appointments and trips, but I record birthdays for the coming year, and things like the date when the hummingbirds arrived last year – so I’ll know when to put out the hummingbird feeder. I now save each year’s calendar, as a historical record of when we did what. I hope that some of these suggestions have been useful in helping you to learn to trust, and improve, your memory.

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.



Improving your memory

I’m convinced that memory is something like a muscle – if you don’t use it, it shrinks. Over the years I’ve heard many people, in treatment and in my personal life, complain about their memory. Some folks make excuses in advance, don’t trust their memory, and consequently don’t rely on it. This can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. There are many factors- some biological – that affect memory. I’ve come to believe that one of these factors is a “reinforcement loop” involving (1) trusting your memory and (2) relying on its accuracy from experience and therefore exercising it more often. If you don’t have a biological or psychological impairment, you mostly remember the things you actively commit to short-term memory. This increases your trust in your memory and increases your reliance, which further increases your trust, etc. Part of having a good memory is cultivating good memory habits.

Another factor is mindfulness, as opposed to “being in your head,” lost in thought. I used the term “actively commit to memory” above. Actively committing something to memory is something like active listening: it requires mindfulness. Mindfulness is being present in the only time there is – this moment. I’ve admitted in a previous post to having obsessive-compulsive traits. There are times when I leave the house preoccupied with thoughts, and then worry because I can’t remember locking the door. But when I lock the door mindfully, it’s as if I have a video recording of the event in my head, and there’s no subsequent anxiety.

This is an example of committing something to short-term memory simply by paying attention, being mindful. But there are also memory aids known as mnemonic devices that can help you commit things to your short- or long-term memory. Acronyms can serve as mnemonic devices. Ever since I heard of Roy G. Biv ( a made-up name) I’ve been able to name the colors of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The first letter of each word in the following sentence is a mnemonic device for recalling the planets in the solar system, in order of their distance from the sun: “Molly very easily makes jam, sometimes using no pectin.” A sentence is often easier to memorize than a list of names, and this sentence is the key to remembering: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupitor, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. You can make up your own mnemonic sentences to memorize things. Rhymes can also be mnemonic devices, as with “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.”

Another mnemonic device – an ancient technique now known as image mnemonics – involves visualizations that serve as “pegs” to hang list items on. I’ll share two variations on that technique that will allow you to reliably store a ten-item shopping list in your short-term memory. The first variation is to memorize ten places in or around your home, in a specific order, such as the order in which you’d encounter them when you come home. Number one might be your driveway, number two the walkway to your front porch, number three the front porch, number four the hall table just past the door, etc. Once you have the places memorized in order, have somebody name random grocery list items – slowly, as you indicate you’re ready. When each item is specified, imagine it -perhaps in some altered or exaggerated form – in the sequential locations. The weirder the image, the better. If the first item is bread, you might imagine a giant loaf blocking the driveway. If the second item is eggs, imagine a row of colored Easter eggs on the walkway. If the third item is chicken, imagine a live chicken clucking on the front porch. Once you have an image for each grocery item pegged on one of the memorized locations, all you have to do to recall the items is to mentally go to the ten locations in order and name what you put there.

The other variation is to memorize these ten words that rhyme with the numbers one through ten: bun, shoe, tree, door, hive, sticks, heaven, gate, line (as in clothesline) and pen (as in pigpen). As you’re given the ten items, match each one of them with one of your ten images, in order. You might end up with a whole, raw potato in a bun, a shoe filled with milk, a tree hung with toilet paper, a giant fish standing at the door, a beehive buzzing with flying shrimp, a fried egg on a pile of sticks, a turkey at the gates of heaven, a gate made of cheese, bagels hanging from a clothesline, and a pen filled with bacon.

This mnemonic device works by allowing you to create an association between random items you want to commit to your short-term memory, and a fixed sequence of mental pegs on which to temporarily hang the items. I’ll be writing more about memory in future posts, but in the meantime you can amaze your friends with your ability to memorize lists. Once you understand the principles, you can create your own mnemonic devices, and work at developing good memory habits.