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How to Improve Your Memory

Linking and Chaining Strategies

The most basic strategy for remembering is called the link method (or "chaining"), which is particularly good for memorizing short lists. It's a form of visualizing, but with this system you must link the items together by thinking of images that connect them. Here's how it works:

1. First, form a visual image for each item on the list.

2. Associate the image for the first item with the image for the second, and then link the second with the third, and so on.

3. To recall the list, begin with the first item, and then proceed in order as each item leads to the next one.

When using the link system, don't try to associate every item with every other item on the list; just associate the items two at a time. While a grocery list does not necessarily have to be remembered in order (although it sometimes helps you to find things faster), let's use it as an example:

  • cabbage
  • pickles
  • potatoes
  • orange juice
  • bread

1. Form a visual association between the cabbage and the pickles. You might, for example, imagine a pickle trying to roll a giant head of cabbage up a steep hill.

2. Next, create a link between the pickles and the potatoes: Imagine one giant dill pickle in a bow tie and tails dancing with a potato dressed in an evening gown.

3. Then, link the potatoes with the orange juice, perhaps by imagining the potato in a jogging suit swigging down a frosty glass of orange juice.

4. Finally, tie the orange juice to the bread, say, by visualizing a slice of bread with a sail, battling waves in a vast sea of orange juice.

Why such zany visuals? Well, we tend to notice and more easily remember things that are out of the ordinary. When you're creating images, the more vivid they are, the more likely they will stick in your head. It's also important to use the first association that pops into your mind, since this, too, will make it easier for you to remember the same association when you are trying to recall the list.

Here's a bigger list of words to try to chain:

  • shoe
  • piano
  • tree
  • pencil
  • bird
  • bus
  • book
  • dog
  • pizza
  • flower
  • basketball
  • door
  • rabbit
  • spoon
  • eye
  • chair
  • house
  • computer
  • rock

One problem with this strategy is that, while each link is associated with the one before it, you have to be able to remember the first item on your own. And if you have a really bad memory for lists, you may find that quite difficult to do. To solve this problem, you should cue the first item in some way, preferably in a way that is related to the purpose of the list. If you're trying to remember a grocery list, for example, link the first item with the front door of the store. Using our previous shopping list, you could imagine a big green cabbage handing out sales fliers at the front door of the grocery store or perhaps sitting in a grocery cart and waving at you.

If you have a really bad memory, it's still possible that if you forget one item on the linked list, it may drag the item that it's linked to into oblivion as well. For you, another mnemonic strategy, such as the method of loci, may be a better choice. The method of loci, discussed later in this article, has an advantage over the link method because all of the items are linked to a place, not to each other.

On the other hand, one nice thing about the link system is that once you are good at using it to remember a few items, you can move on to remember 20 or 30 items. Don't think so? Take this test and find out:

  • Have a friend give you a list of 20 items (the words should be nouns, not verbs or adjectives, and they should be concrete objects rather than abstract concepts).
  • Write down the first word, and associate it visually with your partner (for example, if the first noun is CHAIR, imagine your partner balancing a chair on their nose).
  • As you write down each consecutive noun, create a mental image that links it to the previous noun in the list.
  • Then give the list back to your partner, and try to recall the list using the mental images you created. You are likely to be amazed at how many items you can remember.

The more you practice this linking system, the more efficient you'll become at creating mental links between words in a list and the better your memory for lists will become.

On the next page, learn how telling yourself a story can be an effective way to remember lists of information.

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