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.

Quotebooks

When I was in grad school, studying psychology, my first wife and I (who are still good friends) kept a spiral notebook in our bathroom for guests to record thoughts and quotes. Some of them, inspired by what they’d read, brought the “bathroom book” out to the kitchen or living room to make their own entries. I still have the original book, and one of the final entries was, “I hope this book starts a movement.” Clearly, it has not, but it got me started.

I liked so many entries in the bathroom book that it fueled my subsequent habit of keeping quotebooks. (I’m sure that my father’s ability to recite poetry and quote Shakespeare had something to do with it, too.) I developed the habit of copying meaningful quotes in blank “anything books,” for future perusal. Not only does that give me easy access to my favorite quotes, as a thinker and a writer; but over the years I given unique, personalized quotebooks to people I love, hand-written in anything books, collated from my own collection.

As a wordsmith, I constantly learn from other writers. Keeping quotebooks has helped me to grasp concepts and to refine my own craft, in expressing my thoughts and beliefs. The quotes I record are from recognized thinkers and writers, and from people I’ve never heard of before. I have full pages of quotes from people like Lily Tomlin and George Carlin, various quotes from luminaries like Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde, and pithy or funny observations by a wide variety of writers. I have long quotes and short poems, too. I sometimes embellish quotes with simple drawings. I illustrated Howard Nemerov’s “You don’t have ideas; ideas have you.” with a drawing of a lit-up lightbulb.

Having introduced the concept of quotebooks, I’ll share some of my favorite quotes – perhaps to seed your own quotebook. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “. . . make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in your reading have been to you like a blast of triumph.” I invite you to make your own Bible. You can hand-write it or store the quotes digitally. Here are some of my own favorite short quotes, in no special order:

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” – Oscar Wilde

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Ghandi

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.” – Ursula Le Guin

“Unless some one like you/ cares a whole awful lot,/nothing is going to get better./ It’s not.” – Dr.Seuss

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Dorothy Parker

“Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin

“Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

“A poem should not mean, but be.” – Archibald MacLeish

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche’

“Soft is stronger than hard, water stronger than rock, love stronger than violence.” – Hermann Hesse

“The reward of patience is patience.” – Saint Augustine

“Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” – anonymous

“Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.” – Soren Kierkegaard

“Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world; it is accepting that they go away.” – zen precept

“Beware of the naked person who offers you clothing.” – African proverb

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

“Paranoia is having all the facts.” – William Burroughs

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

“Discipline is knowing what you want.” – anonymous

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde

“I caught a happy virus last night/when I was out singing beneath the stars./It’s remarkably contagious./So kiss me.” – Hafiz