How to Improve Memory

Memory is undoubtedly one of the most important functions of the brain. It allows us to interact socially with other people, study and retain what we have learned, and create meaningful relationships between information from past experiences and information from current happenings. Memory is an integral part of our daily lives. It shapes who we are and how we perceive everything that we see, hear and do.

Though many people think of memory as something that is static, there are a few ways to improve your memory’s capacity and efficiency. One easy way to improve memory performance is to get some exercise. For most people, going for a quick walk is not a huge time investment, and from what research tells us, it can be very beneficial. The increased flow of blood to the brain (that results from exercise) helps send more nutrients and oxygen to the brain. With more fuel, the brain is able to store more information and encode data more efficiently. Good nutrition also plays a part in keeping the brain working how it should. Foods that are rich in Vitamin B, Omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants (such as spinach, blueberries and fish, respectively).

Another way to improve your retention of memories is to work on your attention span. Some scientists call attention the “bottleneck” to how much information you can store in memory. If this is true, then it is very important to try to minimize distractions when you are studying or committing anything important to long-term memory. One way to improve attention span is to listen to classical music. Research has shown that certain qualities in classical music improve cognitive performance as well as retention of memories. The complex nature of the music helps to expand a person’s analytical abilities, which also contributes to cognitive performance.

Additional ways to improve memory exist in the form of memory tricks. Mnemonics, the Method of Loci, music and rhymes are all ways to improve the way that the mind encodes information, especially with respect to long-term memory. Many high school and even some college teachers use mnemonics to help students remember abstract concepts. Most of these are used in science classes (such as acronyms), but memory tricks can be applied to just about any series of data that contains words. For things that contain numbers, the trick known as “chunking” is a great way to break down a series of numbers for memorization. One good example is how phone numbers are set up. Research showed scientists that people could remember seven (plus or minus two) numbers well. They also found that grouping the numbers into sections of three, three and four helped people recall them better.
So, exercising, eating healthfully, improving your attention span and using memory tricks are all ways that you can help you mind when it comes to memory. Taking care of your mind and body and constantly taking in information will help your memory work like a well-oiled machine . . . or hard drive.

photo by Richard0

When Memory Fails

Forgetting and why the brain allows forgetfulness has been a subject of study for quite some time. Though it is frustrating when we lose track of a necessary piece of information, studies show that the brain may have a good reason not to hold on to some things. Sigmund Freud, the famed psychologist, suggests that people forget certain things in order to repress them. His idea was that the human brain uses forgetting to get rid of unpleasant memories. But what about the things that we want to remember and can’t?

Most scientists agree that when someone forgets information they want to remember, it is caused by retrieval failure or decay. Retrieval failure is also called the “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon. This usually happens when someone tries to recall a seldom-used fact. Decay is probably the most common reason for forgetting. When a memory is committed to long-term storage, decay is less likely. But in short-term memory, decay happens rapidly, as short-term memory isn’t meant to hold large amounts of information. Interestingly enough, human memory can be compared to computer memory. Computers were designed to mimic the human mind, and scientists are now using discoveries in computer science to help decipher processes of the computer’s biological predecessor. RAM (random access memory) works similarly to short-term memory. Its capacity is very limited, and storage for any memory in that stage is generally fleeting. A computer’s hard drive is similar to a person’s long-term memory. Information is encoded and stored in a much more permanent fashion for later retrieval. The encoding of the information is what makes the difference in whether it is stored in short-term memory or long-term memory. Long-term memory requires more time and repetition, among other things, to further encode and store a piece of data.

Forgetting can happen if information isn’t encoded properly. Usually what determines the effectiveness of encoding is a person’s attention span. If someone is distracted by noise or visual stimuli while studying, then the information is more likely to have errors in encoding.

Even if a memory is properly encoded, it still takes some work for most memories to remain accessible for recall. There are two types of rehearsal needed to maintain a memory: maintenance rehearsal and relational/elaborative rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal is just a quick skim back over the information to keep it fresh in the mind (such as memorizing a telephone number). Relational/elaborative rehearsal involves the mind making connections among pieces of data to strengthen its associations with the information.

Other causes of forgetting involve trauma and disease. Most notably, diseases such as Alzheimer’s cause an accelerated decay of the memory. The exact causes of Alzheimer’s disease haven’t been discovered, but some research indicates that a build-up of plaque between nerve cells as well as “tangles” in the cells cause them to die.

Other causes of forgetting involve trauma and disease. Most notably, diseases such as Alzheimer’s cause an accelerated decay of the memory. The exact causes of
Forgetfulness may be frustrating, but as scientists have found, sometimes the brain has a reason for losing information. It may be frustrating, but with current knowledge and memory tricks, we can maximize the use of our memory’s abilities.

photo by Richard0

How to Memorize

Memorization is a key component of our every day lives. From our first day at school to the end of our lives, we constantly feed our minds with a steady stream of information. The mind’s ability to store information is truly astounding. Just like every other data storage device, the mind requires proper encoding so that it can reference the information later.

Usually our brains do a pretty good job of taking care of this without help. However, if we try to store away massive amounts of information at once, sometimes it needs a little help. That is where memorization aids come in handy. There are several different types of memorization aids. Most popular memorization aids can be categorized as mnemonics.

Mnemonics are aids that work off of the mind’s ability to create associations to pieces of data that help it retrieve the information. These associations can be achieved through using any of the senses, but the most common is through verbal interaction with the data. There are several different ways to achieve this.

When most people think back to their days of education, usually the first memorization aid that comes to mind is the acronym. This device takes the first letter of each important term and creates a more memorable word in its place. Acronyms are often used in such classes as math and science to remember order of operations and other important practices. One common acronym from chemistry helps students remember that oxidation is loss of electrons and reduction is a gain in electrons—OIL RIG. What does an oil rig have to do with chemistry? Other than the fact that it’s a handy acronym for the mind, nothing! Studies have shown that the mind remembers absurd things much more easily than something that seems normal, so many common acronyms are absurd and humorous.

Another popular memorization method is to create rhymes with the information to be memorized. Orators from early times often told epic tales by using rhyming stanzas to spur their memories. Again, this method uses verbal constructs to build associations in the brain. The more associations the mind has made to a certain piece of data, the more likely a person is to remember that information when it is recalled. Though rhymes and acronyms are the two most common methods for memorization, there are a few more that merit attention.

One less-common method is called the “method of loci.” As the name suggests, this device has to do with using locations as tools to trigger associations with data to be remembered. A person can imagine a pathway that is familiar to them (such as a walk around a favorite park) and mark locations or landmarks along the way. These associations tend to be stable, as one half of the data is already familiar to the person.
One last method for memorization is chunking. Interestingly enough, when the United States’ telephone system was developed, it was found that people tended to remember numbers best in “chunks” of three, three and four. That is why the area code is three numbers in a group, the next three digits are grouped together, as are the last four. The general rule is that a person can remember seven (plus or minus two) digits in short-term memory. However, this technique can also be used to store long-term information, though arbitrary lists of numbers are very difficult to commit to permanent memory.

Each of these techniques have been proven to work well in creating associations and “footholds,” so to speak, for the mind to aid it in recall. Usually, one method or the other will work better for certain people, as everyone learns in his or her own fashion. Fortunately, there are many memory aids to choose from, and each may be modified to suit a person’s own preferences.

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Memorize with Mnemonics

Memorizing large amounts of information is something that every person has to face at one time or another. From the time that we step into a school building to the time that we graduate, our minds are continually being used to store away information for later use. When we go to recall that information, sometimes a hiccup in memory happens. We’ve all experienced it. It is that dreaded, Oh, no!” moment when an important piece of information just won’t come to us. Luckily, educators and students throughout history have come up with a few methods to help today’s student with memorization.

One of the most popular ways to remember a long string of terms or other such information is to use a mnemonic device. The word “mnemonic” is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of memory, and the device was first used by the Greeks as a memorization aid. A mnemonic can take on several different forms. The most common form is an acronym or first-letter mnemonic. Most biology majors or high school biology students will remember the silly acronyms given to them by teachers. Examples such as “King Philip Couldn’t Order Five Good Sandwiches “ for the classification of organisms or “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” for the order of the planets in our solar system are two common sayings. These memory devices may seem silly or even absurd. However, because the mind tends to remember absurd things, making up your own, silly acronyms to remember information for other subjects is a viable way to improve test performance.

Mnemonics work by creating associations among various pieces of data in a person’s mind. Using our science class acronyms, above, we see that the first letter of each word in the acronym corresponds to the first letter of every word in the list of terms that we are attempting to recall. This principle works off the function of the long-term memory to create schemas (frameworks) into which we can assimilate, organize and categorize incoming information. Long-term memory requires the most encoding of the three levels of memory. This also means that, if an error occurs in the encoding (for example, the student is distracted by a television show or other stimuli) the information may not be available for instant recall. The more associations and connections in the mind that the person can make concerning the data to be learned, the more effectively the information is encoded, and the more easily that information is referenced.

Another interesting mnemonic method that works off the mind’s ability to perceive spatial relationships is the “method of loci.” The method of loci was first used by the ancient Greeks, but was rediscovered by several authors in the 1960s. When using this method, the subject visualizes the layout of a certain building or other structure. Each room or designated area in that layout contains a certain type of information. By grouping specific types of information into imagined “rooms,” a person can “walk through” each room, retrieving the data that is “stored” in that particular area.

Mnemonics vary in complexity, from the simple and widely used acronym method to the complex method of loci. However, each is a useful way to put large amounts of data to memory.

photo by Richard0

How Memory Works

Most people are aware that the brain is a very complex structure. However, few stop to think about the complexity and intricacy of the human memory. If we stop to consider the varied nature of the information the memory must capture, the true nature of the mind’s ability to store data emerges.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Memory’ labels a diverse set of cognitive capacities by which we retain information and reconstruct past experiences, usually for present purposes.”

For practical purposes, memory can be categorized into three sections: sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory.

Sensory memory acts as a receptor and buffer for incoming information. Sights, smells, sounds and other data of this sort is processed in sensory memory, then routed to other areas if the brain deems it necessary. One thing that sets sensory memory apart from the other two categories is that it has a fairly large capacity, but does not necessarily interpret any of the data. When sensory information is processed by the brain, that action is called “perception.” After the information is received, sensory memory encodes the information for transmittal to the short-term memory.

Short-term memory, also known as working memory, is the mind’s workspace for daily interactions and processes. When you look up a phone number in a directory and recall that number a few seconds later, it is the short-term memory that holds the information. The capacity of short-term memory is very limited, especially when compared with sensory memory. Unless information in short-term memory is further processed and encoded, the data will be lost in a matter of seconds. However, short-term memory performs other functions other than data recall. It also allows us to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, and general cognitive processes. This awareness is also called “consciousness.”

Long-term memory is the final and most complex level of memory. Information that has been encoded and processed to the highest level is the data that a person can retrieve from this stage. Long-term memory has a very large capacity, much higher than that of short-term memory. In fact, some scientists consider it’s capacity to be unlimited. If you compare that amount of data storage ability with what is currently available in the world of technology, the result is mind-boggling. Long-term memory stores a lifetime’s-worth of memories, incidents and even perceptions and feelings. This information gives human beings a framework in which they interpret information for the rest of their lives.

Long-term memory has two distinct functions: Semantic memory and procedural memory. Semantic memory is the function that most people think about when they consider the concept of memory. It includes such abilities as storing general facts, problem-solving skills and concepts. So, all the theories and data from your college physics class would be stored in semantic memory.

The second function of the long-term memory is to store procedural information (Procedural memory). The title “Procedural memory” is directly indicative of the role that this function performs. This kind of memory is a kind of “how-to” manual for the mind. When a person learns to ride a bicycle or perform a task with sequential steps, procedural memory encodes the order and content of the data as a series of steps, each of which trigger the next step in the process.

By combining the procedural and semantic functions, the long-term memory serves as a powerful reference tool that continues to astound researchers and scientists with its ability and complexity.

The memory is truly one of the most amazing functions of the human mind. No other aspect of the mind has such a marked effect on learning and cognitive development. Lifelong learning, social and cognitive processes all depend on the memory and the many functions that it performs.

photo by Richard0