Never forget – improving memory

When I first started lecturing, I asked myself a question, what’s the point in saying something if no one can remember what’s said? Didn’t I have a responsibility to present the knowledge in such a way that it was more memorable? If not, then all I was doing was putting it out there for each student to figure out the best way of getting it into their head.

What followed has been a lifelong interest in learning and memory.

How memory works
Although there is a strong link between working memory and intelligence, they are not the same. Memory is our ability to encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information, it’s the recalling of information to solve a problem that makes memory so useful in terms of intelligence.

A great memory does not make a mind, any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.
John Henry Newman

The brain takes information in by way of the five main senses, what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, this is known as sensory input. But we are bombarded with sensory information potentially at the rate of 11 million bits per second making it impossible to consciously capture everything, that is if we should want to.

The result is that much of this information is lost, however if you turn your attention towards a piece of information, effectively concentrating on a sound or image whilst ignoring the rest, it will move to short term memory where it can be stored, but not for long. Although short term memory is only part of working memory in this context they can be thought of as the same.

The true art of memory is the art of attention.
Samuel Johnson

As you might imagine short term memory is by definition short, around 15 to 30 seconds, its also limited in terms of capacity. In 1956 George Miller* famously defined the capacity as being 7 plus or minus 2, although recent research suggests the 7 might more accurately be 4. The implication being that you can only hold around 7 pieces of information in short term memory at any one time. You can test this by looking at the letters below for about 20 seconds and trying to memorise them.

SHNCCMTAVYID

Then take a 5-minute break and on a blank piece of paper write down as many as you can remember.

There are 12 characters and you would be in good company if you remembered around 6 or 7, with those at the start and end being the easiest. This is known as the primacy (start) and recency effect (end). But more importantly how did you memorise the information, perhaps by repeating the letters over an over in your head or looking at the shapes each one made, picturing them in your minds eye? These are examples of techniques you have learned to help transfer information from short to long term memory, they may not be the best but they work.

Long term memory – it’s all about the input
The repeating of a word is a type of encoding, effectively labelling the information as a means of moving it from short to long term memory. Think of it as a type of filing system, if you don’t file it correctly, when you come to look for it at a later date it might be there but you won’t be able to find it. If you would like to learn more about what’s happening in the brain when you create these connections read this previous blog – The learning brain.

There are many ways in which you can encode information, they form the basis for the most common memory techniques. I have written about some of these before although it was over 10 years ago and they are sufficiently important to cover again.

1 Association and organisation – the brain needs structure and works well when information is added with an association or link to something that came before. This is why acronyms are so effective, if you already know the word SMART, then it is easier to remember Specific Measurable Realistic and Timely because your simply adding new words to something already in long term memory.
Association also works with dates, ask yourself what day the 15th of February fell on this year? Chances are you will remember that the 14th was Valentine’s day which was a Friday, you will then be able to figure out that the 15th must have been the Saturday.

2 Repetition – continually repeating something fires neurons in the brain until they form a long-term connection. This is the reason you can remember your times table so well. However continually repeating something in a short space of time which is called mass repetition is not as effective as spaced repetition. The spacing makes recall more difficult requiring additional effort and it is the effort that strengthens the long-term memory.

3 Visualisation – one of the most powerful senses for recall is your ability to visualise, with some arguing that it’s the main way in which memories are stored. However, researchers would most likely award that accolade to your sense of smell. But few would disagree that picturing something in your “mind’s eye” is an important way of bringing the past into the present.

Ask yourself what colour your front door is, can you see it, where is the letter box positioned, towards the top, in the middle or at the bottom? When you try to answer these questions it’s your visual memory you will be using. Images have also been proven to be effective when used with a verbal commentary. The theory of dual coding suggests that people process verbal and visual information separately but interestingly at the same time making the input of information even more powerful. Mind maps use many of the principles of memory but rely heavily on the use of related colourful and imaginative pictures. Click here to learn more.

4 Rhythm and Rhyme – the ability to remember music and even more fundamentally rhythm helps encode information. Remembering the lyrics to a song will not be as easy as remembering the tune that carries the words. There are lots of examples of memorising using rhythm, think about all those nursery rhymes or how Matilde remembers how to spell difficulty

Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY.

5 Chunking – and lastly the one we started with, remember those numbers from before? You would have had a much better chance if you had chunked them down into smaller pieces of information and associated them with existing knowledge. Look at the letters below for about 20 seconds and try to memorise them.

DIY VAT MCC NHS

You should find this a whole lot easier, even though they are the same letters as before but just backwards. You might even have found yourself visualising the blue of the NHS. Click here for more on chunking.

Lest we forget – It is perhaps no mistake that in order to remember those who died in the first world war and all subsequent wars, an image of a poppy was chosen. And who could forget – The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

*Based on psychologist George Miller’s paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” (1956)

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