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.

The Peace Corps experience

Have you ever considered serving in the Peace Corps? Even before we got married in 1990, both Maria and I had, and we’d both lived abroad (Maria in Korea and me in Austria and Germany). Within weeks after our wedding we applied to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). At that time only one-in-three applicants was selected to serve. Would-be PCVs don’t typically choose where they’ll serve, although fluency in the language spoken is a given host country can be a determining factor. The more open you are to serving wherever your skill set is needed, the better your chances of selection. We were approved for service after a lengthy application process, and were selected by Jamaica. We had two weeks to decide if we’d accept Jamaica’s invitation, but it didn’t take us an hour after reading about our assignment to call Peace Corps headquarters in D.C. and accept. We put all of our belongings in storage, and sold our cars around the time we got our plane tickets in the mail.

The Peace Corps is an independent government agency, not a branch of the State Department. It currently has volunteers in over sixty developing countries around the world. PCVs aren’t sent to these countries to advance or influence American foreign policy, but rather to share their skills with host country nationals, in the service of sustainable development. Each volunteer serves within one of six sectors: education, health, agriculture, community economic development, youth in development, or environment. The host country, not the Peace Corps, decides how many volunteers in each sector they need, and where they will serve. Most PCVs serve for two years, after training.

In order to qualify for Peace Corps service, you have to be at least eighteen and in good general health. Most volunteers have at least a bachelor’s degree, but exceptions are made for people with experience in certain areas, including construction, business and forestry. To be accepted, you have to pass a physical (which the Peace Corps pays for) and establish that you’re not fleeing indebtedness or legal charges. People who’ve served in intelligence agencies like the CIA need not apply. You have to have a skill set (and in some cases, appropriate certification or licensure) that people in host countries need to support development projects. The largest sectors are education and health.

Some personal qualities that make for a good PCV are good people skills, self-confidence, autonomy, flexibility, and persistence in the face of obstacles. Peace Corps service is always an adventure, and sometimes an uphill struggle. As I wrote in my book, Two Years in Kingston Town: A Peace Corps Memoir, Peace Corps service can be likened to climbing a mountain; you wind up knowing more about yourself than about the mountain.

In most host countries, accepted applicants have to have three months of in-country training, including language lessons, before they’re sworn-in as PCVs and start their assignments. But since English is Jamaica’s official language, Maria and I only had six weeks of in-country training before we were sworn in (the same oath as when I joined the Army) and started working. Two things stand out from our training as development workers in Jamaica. The Peace Corps Country Director said something to the effect of, “If you think of Peace Corps service as ‘giving up’ two years of your life, Jamaica doesn’t need you that badly. You’re here to live in Jamaica for two years, and to learn as well as to teach.” A Swedish guest lecturer with years of experience in international development work said something like this: “For at least the first six months, keep your mouth shut, and your ears and mind open. Nobody needs to hear you telling them the right way to do things. You need to establish trust and credibility before you start offering advice.”

Maria taught psychiatric nursing, but had to get licensed as a Jamaican nurse before she could join the faculty at the School of Nursing. When we applied, having no idea where we’d serve, I thought I’d end up teaching English somewhere, as I have a B.A. in English. I never dreamed that I’d serve as a psychologist. But the University Hospital of the West Indies had just opened a detox/rehab ward for Jamaican addicts, and my skill set was just what they needed. So I served as the ward psychologist, and helped to develop a relapse prevention model for the ward.

As a PCV you don’t get paid a salary, but you get a living allowance that allows you to get by on the local economy. Every month you serve, a modest amount of money ($200 when we served) is set aside for your readjustment allowance, after you complete your service. Not all PCVs fulfill their two-year obligation. Some volunteers leave behind a lasting accomplishment,  however small, in terms of sustainable development in their sector; others don’t. But I still think that the Peace Corps gives more “bang for the buck” in terms of winning friends for the U.S. in developing countries than aid agencies like U.S.A.I.D., because Peace Corps service is all about developing helping relationships within host country agencies and Non-government Organizations (NGOs).

PCVs are citizen “goodwill ambassadors,” because they work at ground level with host country counterparts. After I was robbed on a bus in downtown Kingston, I heard a fellow commuter sympathetically refer to me as “jost a workin’ mahn” because – although white – I rode the bus to work, just like them. It was one of the best compliments I received while working in Jamaica.

Maria and I didn’t serve simply out of altruism or idealism. Peace Corps service was an opportunity for cultural enrichment and personal growth. We got to know the beautiful island of Jamaica, it’s people and culture. Not all PCVs leave behind an identifiable accomplishment in terms of sustainable development in their host countries; but Maria helped Jamaican nursing students to view mentally ill people as human beings first, and not as “mental patients.” I recently learned that the relapse prevention model I introduced on the detox/rehab ward is still being used at the University Hospital of the West Indies. Maria and I still echo what’s been called the “Peace Corps mantra”: we got more than we gave.