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.



Motivation, perception and memory

We rely on our perception – our senses – to keep us aware of what’s going on around us. What we perceive through our senses is the raw data for our cognition, which is the sense we make of that raw data. Cognition is an individual thing. Two or more people may witness the same event and come away with different versions of what happened.

Memory isn’t like a tape recorder that accurately records all the events we witness or experience. It’s affected by many factors, one of which is your motivations (if any) regarding the event.  When I studied perceptual psychology in grad school, I learned the principle “motivation affects perception.” What you want – if only at that moment – affects what you see and hear. What we’re motivated to think or believe, for whatever reasons, unconsciously affects our perceptions. This determines what we subsequently think or believe about the event or situation, shaping our memory of it. For example, if a foul is called on your team at a sporting event, you’re more likely to perceive that it was a bad call than if you were rooting for the other team. If you witnessed a car crash in which friends were injured or killed, you’re more likely to perceive – and recall – that the driver of the other car was at fault. It’s human nature.

In grad school I audited a perceptual psychology course taught by a husband and wife team (Dr.s Fred and Anne Richards) who had co-authored with another psychologist an authoritative textbook on the subject. They were excellent teachers, but free expression by students was encouraged in the psychology department, and some of the students took exception to our professors’ habit of responding to questions about perceptual phenomena with “according to the book _____.” Fred and Anne didn’t seem to “get” the objection, and continued to refer to their book in response to questions.

So, one day before class a student I’ll call Steve asked if he could have the last fifteen minutes of the session, and Fred and Anne graciously agreed. At the appointed time, Steve led us outside, where a friend had been tending a hibachi grill filled with burning charcoal. Steve asked for silence until we returned to the classroom, and proceeded to burn a copy of the textbook before our startled  eyes. I recall a wide variety of reactions, from shocked looks and gasps, to laughter. We returned to the classroom and had the best discussion I remember in the whole course. What we learned was that no two of us who’d witnessed the book-burning had had the same experience! Some had responded viscerally (“I can’t believe I’m WATCHING A BOOK-BURNING!”), some had appreciated Steve’s statement in different ways, and others felt concerned about Fred and Anne’s feelings, as they conjectured about what those might be. I think it’s fair to say that our teachers were stunned, but they handled the event with grace, and we all learned something from it.

Motivation affects both our cognitions and our subsequent recall. Juries in criminal courts tend to be impressed by eye-witness testimony, but trial  lawyers know well how unreliable it can be. Whether one’s motivations come from underlying attitudes, beliefs, and personal values relevant to the issues at hand, or conscious bias, or personal relationships involved, they affect perception and all that follows. The emotions that may be attached to events and situations also affect our memories at an unconscious level. Jerzy Kosinski put it this way: “What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along, we create little fictions, highly subtle and elaborate scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings.”

In prior posts I’ve written about cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapy, and will be writing more as I continue to review theories and therapies. Our cognitions aggregate into beliefs, whether or not those  cognitions were logical or rational. These therapies help people to become more aware of their thoughts and beliefs, and to distinguish between those that are rational and those that aren’t. To understand human behavior, it’s important to grasp that what we see and hear is affected by what we want. I submit that a baker, a painter, and a starving man, seeing the same loaf of bread, see different things. What we bring to a situation partly determines what we take from it.

James Taylor wrote: “Painters use their eyes to show us what they see/ But when that canvas dries, we all see it differently.”