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How to Improve Your Memory

Remembering Places, Names and Dates

It's not unusual to forget where you've parked the car. Here's how to remember where you parked it: After you park your car in a big parking lot, don't just get out of the car and head straight for your destination. Stop. Look around and make a mental note of where you are. Find something that will help you remember: Did you park next to a tall lamp post? Is there a parking number or letter posted to help you find your way? Check to see if there's a sign on the store or in the store window that aligns with the row you parked in, and repeat what the sign says to yourself as you enter the store. Better yet, write a description of the location on the parking garage ticket or other paper and put it with your keys. Don't rely on a description of the cars parked around you; they could very well be gone when you come back for your car.

If you tend to lose your way as you walk, ride your bike, or travel in a car, you need to better register the way as you go:

  • As you travel, try to take mental snapshots along the route. Flash back to them in your mind once in a while.
  • Record visual "cues" from both directions if you can (things might look different from the opposite direction). Look for that big red barn, the funny sign, the crooked tree.
  • Use all your senses. Pay attention to unusual smells or noises; the more senses you involve, the stronger the memory trace will be.
  • Use maps. And if you're not good at reading maps, write down directions, and study them thoroughly before you leave.

Remembering Quantities

If you've ever been in the midst of baking brownies and suddenly realized you have no idea how much flour you've dumped in the bowl, you need help in paying attention to amounts.

Try visualizing the amount of flour in the measure. Pour it in while saying out loud the amount you're using, "One cup, two cups..." You'll find that when you comment out loud on how many cups you've put in, you're less likely to forget or get sidetracked.

You may want to resort to a backup strategy. For every cup of flour you pour, set aside an object to represent that cup: a coffee bean, a raisin, a spoon. Each time you add another cup of flour, set aside another bean or raisin. This way you can visually check exactly how much you've added, even if you're continually interrupted.

Remembering Names

There you are at a business party, chatting with someone whose name you've forgotten. A third person comes up and you're expected to make an introduction, but you can't remember the name.

This is certainly not unusual. Most of us can remember faces quite easily, even if we've only seen them once or twice. But when it comes to attaching a name to that face, that's another matter entirely. We tend to remember faces more readily because it involves the process of recognition, whereas attaching a name to the face requires a process called recall. What's the distinction? Recognition is much easier for the brain to accomplish, because recognition simply requires you to choose among a limited number of alternatives that are present in front of your eyes -- sort of like a multiple-choice question. But to recall a name, the brain has to go digging for it, which is a much more complex process. Recall, then, is more like a fill-in-the-blank question.

The process of recall is generally easier if we have some retrieval cues -- or hints -- that give the brain some direction as it searches through our memory banks for a name. One way to do this is to associate an individual's name with another piece of information that you already know. For example, when you first meet a person and hear their name, you might tell yourself that this person has the same name as your mother-in-law or the same name as your favorite baseball player.

You can also use the verbal technique to help implant a person's name in your memory when you first meet them. To do this, simply:

  1. Register the person's name: Pay attention to it as it is said!
  2. Repeat the person's name to yourself.
  3. Comment on the name.
  4. Use the person's name out loud as soon as possible.

Another strategy for remembering names is to use the visual technique. There are three simple steps to get the name right every time using this technique:

  1. Associate the name with something meaningful. That's easy with a name like "Bales" (picture two bales of hay). If it's something more difficult, like Sokoloff, think of "Soak it all off" and picture a giant sponge sopping up spilled milk.
  2. Note distinctive features of the person's face.
  3. Form a visual association between the face and the name. If you've just met Jill Brown, and she has very dark eyes, picture those brown eyes as you say the name to yourself.

After you've done all you can to remember the name, you need to rehearse the name if you're going to remember it. Repeat the name to yourself again in about 15 seconds. If you've met several people, repeat the names to yourself while picturing the faces before the end of the event. The more often you can repeat the names early on, the more likely they will stick in your head.

Remembering names can be an important social skill; we all like to think that other people remember us. The ability to remember names of even slight acquaintances is highly regarded.

Mnemonic Strategies

If you're interested in greatly sharpening your memory, there is a range of more sophisticated methods called mnemonic strategies that have been proven to aid memory. Some of them are fairly complex and take practice to learn, but they do work.

On the next page, learn about linking and chaining strategies, which involve making associations, to improve your memory.

To learn more about the various aspects of memory, see: