Is a picture really worth a thousand words?
Take a moment to recall every relative at your last family reunion. Now, try to list all the professional football teams. When you’re finished, see if you can name every state in the U.S.
Did you see your family as a written list of names, or did you recall their faces? Were the team names you remembered accompanied by colors, logos and mascots? Did an imaginary map of America help you remember all 50 states?
For most people, memories come in pictures. You’re likely to find your car keys after your brain provides a “mental snapshot” of them resting on a magazine on the coffee table. When you compose a grocery list in your head, you visualize a bunch of bananas, a box of cereal and a roll of paper towels rather than a list of words down a page.
When we remember facts, they’re usually associated with visual images.
What is photographic memory?
True photographic memory, like the ability to quickly memorize a page from the phone book, is an extremely rare gift. Only a handful of people in history have had that kind of memory, and most were savants.
As far back as 90 B.C., however, great minds were discussing ways to improve memory. A manuscript penned by Cicero distinguishes between two kinds of memory, natural and artificial. Even this brilliant Roman orator had to train for reciting his long speeches without using notes.
You, too, can become a better mental “photographer.” The same habits and training exercises that worked for Cicero can help you strengthen your memory.
How should I start?
First, address your lifestyle. The importance of diet, sleep, exercise and stress management can’t be overstated. Your brain relies on them. A healthy lifestyle not only enhances memory, but it contributes to good judgment, creativity and the ability to grasp new ideas.
The following habits are proven brain boosters:
Ditch the sugary sodas and fatty fast-foods. The brain loves anti-oxidants like asparagus, fish, watermelon, green tea, nuts and eggs. Drink plenty of water to keep your brain supplied with oxygen. Ongoing substance abuse impairs memory and cognitive ability.
Getting a good night’s sleep
During deep sleep, your brain performs memory consolidation. It sifts through old and new information. It prioritizes some facts and stores other for future reference when you need them. In short, it makes room for new learning. Skimping on sleep will result in disorganized thinking and poor recollection.
Regular exercise stimulates the growth of brain cells by sending a steady flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
Keeping an active social life
Studies show that socially engaged people have better memories than those who spend most of their time alone. Making new friends, joining clubs and volunteering are stimulating to the brain.
Scientists have found that laughing engages several regions of the brain. Brain hubs of thinking and memory show increased activity during laughter or listening to jokes. Maintain your sense of humor.
Dealing with stress
Chronic stress destroys brain cells in the hippocampus, the region where most memories are formed, stored and retrieved. Stress is also hard on the heart, a vital role player in good brain health. Identify sources of stress and address them. Left unattended, depression, anxiety and anger also take a toll on memory function.
In addition to combating stress, meditation improves logical thinking, concentration and memory. In an experiment at the University of Wisconsin, Tibetan monks underwent MRIs during meditation. Their brains showed heightened activity in the areas concerned with discipline and focus.
All these practices will make you more mentally alert and create a healthy environment for learning.
Are electronics useful for better memory?
Sadly, people have come to rely on electronics for remembering things. Consider the store of knowledge you used to access in your own brain: phone numbers, birthdays, Christmas lists and routes around town.
Forcing yourself to memorize phone numbers or the grid of downtown streets is a great way to challenge your brain and improve memory. If you get lazy, your brain does, too.
Taking advantage of online resources isn’t a bad thing. However, much information is presented in bits and pieces, likely to be forgotten the second after you read it. Taking the time to pay attention to what you read is crucial to remembering it.
If you want to learn about India, for instance, don’t visit as many websites as possible in the shortest amount of time. Choose one or two reputable sources and read in-depth articles. Eliminate distractions, concentrate and pause frequently to absorb what you’ve read. Review sections at a time. Make some notes and memorize interesting facts. Before you know it, you’ll be able to hold your own on the subject of India.
The vast ocean of electronic information is impressive, but use it wisely.
What are the oldest methods for improving memory?
Ancient writings by Greek and Roman philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, refer to mnemonics. Mnemonics is just a fancy word for memory aids. The most common mnemonic, still widely used today, is the Method of Loci, also known as the Memory Palace.
Let’s say you’re a teacher struggling to remember the names of every student in your new class. Choose a place that’s very familiar to you, such as your house. Physically or in your imagination, open the front door and walk through each room. “Place” each student somewhere in your house.
Oliver is sitting on your ottoman. Hillary is hopping in the hallway. Brittany locked herself in the bathroom. Cameron is cooking carrots. As you go through your day, touring the house in your mind will help you recall each student.
The more creatively you imagine them, the more likely you are to remember their names. Coming up with funny or bizarre images will make your Memory Palace more useful. Even shopping lists or facts for a history exam are easily memorized in imagined settings.
What are other tricks for memory improvement?
• Ask a friend to randomly place several objects on a table. These could include a cotton ball, pen, apple, battery and other small items. Take a moment to memorize the layout, and then cover the objects with a cloth. See if you can remember all the objects, their color and where they were located.
• Flip through a deck of cards and try to memorize card order or count suits. While this is not advisable in Vegas, it’s a fun exercise in the carpool line.
• Starting with subjects you’re interested in, memorize lists. If you like rock music, try to memorize the top 10 hits of the month in which you were born. Do an Internet search of topical lists and try to memorize a different one every day.
• Round the prices of items in your grocery cart and keep a running tab. At the checkout, you’ll see how close you came. On your way home, try to remember each item you bought and its cost.
• Practice reciting the alphabet in reverse or eliminating every other letter.
• Memorize the U.S. states and their capitals. Then memorize as many country names as you can on each continent. Keep expanding your knowledge until you can name oceans, rivers, mountains and landmarks.
• Make a timeline of major historical events. Memorize the places where they occurred and the prominent people involved. As you get better at remembering, add more details.
• Use flashcards to remember things. Make them colorful and doodle pictures to trigger your memory. Again, linking information to a visual picture helps you remember it.
To help children study, have them hold the notes or flashcards and quiz you. This not only tweaks your memory of what you learned in school; receiving the information visually will help your children remember it.
• Keep a diary of daily events. Jot down the names of new people you meet or significant bits of news. Review details and commit them to memory as you’re falling asleep.
How can I stay motivated?
Even the best players in pro basketball struggle to make their free throws. Many spend whole days of practice trying different stances, using different muscles, shooting over and over. It’s lonely there in the gym, but they know that winning an NBA championship may come down to one lousy free throw.
They eventually hit on the most successful technique. Through grueling repetition, they train their bodies to remember it. They practice until it becomes habitual, second nature.
Few, if any, of the players are texting or watching television during practice. They aren’t having afternoon snacks. They’re not updating their Facebook profiles.
Think of yourself as a mental athlete. Set goals and objectives. Ask yourself why you want to learn something, how you plan to train and what you’ll do with your new knowledge.
Eliminate distractions and keep practicing. Soon, learning and remembering will become second nature.