Strengthening both your natural memory ability and your trained memory is the way to obtain the most powerful memory it is possible for you to have.
There is no single secret to improving your memory, which I suppose is the bad news. The good news - and this may be the actual "secret" - is that there are many things you can do to improve your memory.
Memory improvement strategies may as well be secrets, because so few people seem to know about them. No matter, the important thing is that you are about to find out!
There are two ways you can improve your memory, and you should take advantage of them both.
The first is to improve what Mother Nature has given you: your "natural memory". The second is to learn memory techniques to develop your "trained memory".
Below I explain these two approaches to memory improvement.Natural Memory. There are several ways to improve your natural memory. These involve the formation of new habits that strengthen your brain.
The more you make these a permanent part of your lifestyle, the better your memory is likely to become.
These lifestyle changes include learning to consume a diet rich in brain foods, doing regular, intense aerobic exercise, optimizing your sleep patterns, and practicing mental exercises that build concentration and attention span.
However, while you should explore all of these, don't expect an overnight miracle - just look for noticeable improvement over time. The miracles are possible, though - they come when you build your trained memory.
Trained Memory. By mastering mnemonics and in particular the memory systems, you can take what you think of as your "terrible" memory and begin to easily memorize any type of information. With memory systems you can memorize long lists, complicated math formulas, scientific terminology, foreign vocabulary, people's names, business concepts - absolutely anything.
So if you want your best memory possible, invest time improving both types of memory. Strengthen your natural memory and learn to use mnemonics and the memory systems. Both approaches build on each other. A strong natural memory will make the memory tricks and systems even easier to learn and use.
Here's a little more detail about each.
Everyone has what might be termed their natural memory ability. Natural memory is what you use when you just remember things without trying. It is what people are talking about when they say that someone was simply "born with a great memory."
Some people are born with a better natural memory ability than others. Also, how well something is remembered naturally may depend on the type of material. For example, a math professor might easily recall a new math formula later on, but the another person who may have no interest in math formulas would have more trouble remembering the formula.
The natural memory remembers things passively, without any effort. Information that has great meaning to you is often remembered in this way. Suppose three days after you watch an episode of your favorite TV show, your friend asks you what happened during the show. Details remembered from that episode are recalled naturally, without an attempt to "memorize" anything.
Contrary to some opinions, your natural memory can be improved, to a certain degree, especially if you are deficient in one area or another. This is done by changing the ways you care for and feed your brain and body, and also with certain mental exercises that build concentration and other brain attributes.
These strategies are discussed in detail on the following pages:
So if you can do so, start working each of these strategies into your lifestyle. Everyone is different, so if you try these, take it slow and experiment at your own pace. In any case, there are certainly worse things you could do than learning how to eat right, exercise, and get proper sleep!
Now for the other approach - building a trained memory.
Your trained memory is what you use when actively studying new material - either for a class, or just because you want to learn the information. It is here that you can develop a huge advantage over others.
Of course everyone knows about using "repetition" to remember information. Repetition simply means says the information over and over again until you remember it. This method is often boring and not usually very effective.
Then there are the "memory tricks" and "memory systems". Some experts lump these together, calling all such techniques "mnemonics" (which just means "memory aids").
But to me it is a lot more useful to separate the "tricks" from the "systems". I separate them because the "tricks" are used more passively and are generally less useful, while the "systems" you use actively and are highly effective in any situation where memorization is required.
A very smart person might be able to get along well using their natural memory alone. Therefore they might never become motivated to learn any techniques for remembering. However, learn the memory systems, and you've just doubled your brain power! Instead of having only one way to recall information (the natural method, which happens automatically), you now have two ways.
One well-known educator has this to say about using memory systems:
A person of average intelligence who uses memory techniques can often remember material better and faster than a person of high intelligence who does not use these techniques.
That is the real promise of memory systems - by using the systems, you can leap frog ahead of people who are much smarter than you are! Many of those people are probably too comfortable with their naturally good memories to try and improve them.
Memory systems let you to absorb massive amounts of information quickly, and with excellent long-term retention. The results really do seem like magic. Every time I tell a friend about a huge new set of information I've memorized, their eyes grow wide with amazement. But my "natural memory" has always just been average.
So to summarize, there are basically three ways to you can actively try to remember something:
Let me quickly clarify what each of these is all about.
Almost everyone understands that one way to memorize information is by simply repeating it over and over. That's how most of us learned the multiplication table, for example.
You simply said (or wrote) "8x4=32, 8x4=32, 8x4=32," over and over and over again. That was so much fun, wasn't it?
Repeating something many times over is called learning by rote.
Learning by rote is still the most "popular" memorization method, in that most people use it when trying to remember something or learn something new.
The problem, of course, is that rote memorization does not work well. Unless you have an very good memory to begin with, information learned by repetition tends to fade away - usually pretty fast. You have to refresh the information every once in awhile by once again repeating, repeating, repeating it. How boring! No wonder so many people dread studying.
Now for the good news. It turns out there are methods you can use that work much better than the rote method. None of these methods are difficult to use. Some of them do require more practice than others, however.
What I am talking about are mnemonics (memory tricks) and memory systems. They work much better than rote memorization. And they are a lot more fun to use, as you will see if you take just a little time to learn them.
So here is what I consider Rule #1:
Most of the time, forget about using rote memorization.
Instead, use mnemonics and memory systems.
Note - There is one exception to that rule. When using mnemonics and memory systems, it is helpful to use some repetition. Especially with complicated information, going back after one day and then after three days and quickly running through the mnemonic or system in your mind can really help solidify the material in long-term memory.
Next, on to mnemonics...
Mnemonics are also known as "memory tricks" (my definition). Mnemonics is one of those slippery words that can mean different things to different people. I am using it to mean all the memory tricks that more or less do not require much visualization. Often mnemonics are tricks other people have thought of to remember certain information, such as the rule "i before e, except after c".
In general, I lump all the following into the mnemonics category:
Generally speaking, mnemonic rules do work well. Who could ever forget the order of the planets of the solar system after hearing "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos"? Mercury-Venus-Earth-Mars-Jupiter-Saturn-Uranus-Neptune (poor Pluto having been demoted to dwarf planet status, as you may know).
In my experience, though, unless someone has already worked out a good mnemonic for a certain piece of information, it can be time-consuming to create them on your own. When you are studying for an exam or trying to remember information on the fly (like the name of someone you just met, or information someone is telling you verbally), the temptation is often to abandon mnemonics and try to muddle through by rote.
Also, some mnemonics work better than others. For instance, I've found that the acronym technique can work well short term, but a month later will you really remember what the "SOMRWD" acronym you made up to remember something means? Maybe, maybe not.
So there is a place for mnemonics, definitely, but they only scratch the surface of what is possible! I talk more about mnemonics on the Mnemonics page.
Moving on to....
Much of this website covers how to use the memory systems. There are also a number of books about these techniques, the most famous of which are probably those by memory-guru Harry Lorayne.
Why the emphasis on systems? Because they work extremely well. In fact, variations of these have been used for centuries to memorize difficult information.
I look down on rote memorization, and I look at mnemonics as kid's play. When you've got some heavy-duty memorization to do, break out the memory systems.
You can memorize a few sentences by "rote" and remember them for a few days perhaps (or maybe only a few hours). And you can use a "mnemonic" to forever remember the names of the Great Lakes. But if you need to remember a speech, or an entire lecture, or a list of 100 items, or hundreds of words of foreign language vocabulary, or the names of the dozens or hundreds of people you meet over the years, or anything else very substantial - the memory systems are what you need.
Here's how they work. Most memory systems are based on visualization and what is known as the "Substitute Word" method.
There are several variations of the Substitute Word systems. Some examples are the Link Method (the most basic one), the Journey Method, the Roman Room (Method of Loci), the Story Method, and several peg-type techniques.
Essentially all these require the use of your imagination along with your ability to visualize creatively. These are both skills in themselves that you can easily build by practice.
I'll use the Link Method to illustrate how most of the Substitute Word methods work. The idea is that to remember information for the long term, to really remember it, three things must happen.
Fortunately, with the Substitute Word techniques, Original Awareness takes care of itself. Just by using the techniques you are forced to be orginally aware (in other words, understand) the information. Steps 2 and 3 both occur when you apply the techniques.
The specific way the Substitute Word techniques work is that you break down the information into a series of memorable mental images of familiar things. You then actively "associate" those images with each other.
The several different variations of the Substitute Word technique (Link, Journey, Story, etc.) all use these same simple steps. The reason there are different systems is that certain methods are better for memorizing certain information. One classic example is using the Roman Room method for memorizing the main points of a speech you must give. That exact technique has been used by orators for over 2,000 years.
Enough said about the Substitute Word techniques in this overview. To get the details, see the Using Association page.
Now you should understand the difference between your natural memory and trained memory. It should also be clear that for your trained memory there are three approaches - using repetition, mnemonics, and memory systems.
To begin improving your natural memory, try following the suggestions on the pages that discuss diet, exercise, sleep, and brain games. You might also want to check out my brief guide on how memory works.
For building your trained memory, I've made it clear that repetition is the method of last resort, so what you should do next is learn more about mnemonics, and most importantly learn how to use the memory systems.
Keep in mind that memory is more than just the methods you use. To memorize anything, you must be alert and able to concentrate. This requires proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Explore the pages on this site that provide memory-specific tips for all these areas.
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