Read an Excerpt
Improve Your Memory
By Ron Fry
Career PressCopyright © 2012 Ron Fry
All rights reserved.
Start Your Memory Banks
Which do you think you're more likely to remember—your first date with your future spouse (even if it was decades ago) or what you had for breakfast last Thursday?
Probably the former (though not if last Thursday was your first experiment with yak butter).
Which event conjures up the most memories—the Blizzard of 1996 or the last time it rained (unless, of course, it really poured cats and dogs)?
Which name would you find difficult to forget—Joe Smith or Irina Khakamada? We'll deal with how to remember spelling Ms. Khakamada in Chapters 5 and 7.
What do all the "memorable" names, dates, places, and events have in common? The fact that they're different. What makes something memorable is its extraordinariness—how much it differs from our normal experiences.
The reason so many of us forget where we put the car keys or our glasses is that putting these objects down is the most ordinary of occurrences, part and parcel of the most humdrum aspects of our lives. (Believe it or not, according to Reader's Digest, the average adult spends 16 hours a year trying to find his or her keys.) We have trouble remembering facts and formulas from books and classroom lectures for the same reason. To be schooled is to be bombarded with facts day in and day out. How do you make those facts memorable?
Beef Up Your RAM
In order to understand how to make the important facts memorable, how to keep them stored safely at least until final exams, let's first take a look at how the brain and, more specifically, memory work.
Think of your brain as a computer—an organic computer, wired with nerves, hooked up to various input devices (your five senses), and possessed of both ROM (read-only memory) and RAM (random-access memory).
The ROM is the permanent data you can't touch—the information that tells your heart to pump and your lungs to breathe.
On the other hand, RAM is much more accessible. Like most PCs, your brain stores RAM in two places: short-term memory (cache or virtual memory) and long-term memory (your hard drive).
Okay, so what happens to input in this system?
Let's Play Memory Tag
Given the bombardment of data we receive every day, our brains constantly are making choices. Data either goes in one ear and out the other, or it stops in short-term memory. But when the cache or vitural memory is overloaded, the brain is left with a choice—jettison some old information or pass it on to the hard drive.
How does it make a decision about which information to pass on and where to store it?
Well, scientists aren't positive about this yet, but, of course, they have theories.
The most readily stored and accessed is data that's been rehearsed—gone over again and again. Most of us readily access our knowledge of how to read, how to drive, the year Columbus "discovered" America, the name of the first president of the United States, and other basics without any difficulty at all. (At worst, you remember "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492." And aren't we lucky he did? Otherwise, if only in the interests of historical accuracy, we'd have to remember something like "Leif Eriksson landed at L'Anse aus Meadows, Newfoundland, somewhere between 997 and 1003.") We've worn familiar paths through our memory banks accessing this type of information.
Why, then, can some people recite the names, symbols, and atomic weights of the elements of the periodic table—while they're playing (and winning) Trivial Pursuit—as easily as they can the date of Columbus's dubious achievement?
To return to our computer analogy, this information has been "tagged" or "coded" in some way so that it can be retrieved easily by the user. For instance, before storing a file in your computer's long-term RAM, you give it a name, one that succinctly describes its contents. In other words, you make the file stand out in some way from the host of other files you've stored on your disk drive.
For some people, myriad bits of data are almost automatically tagged so that they can quite easily and handily be stored and retrieved. But most of us, if we are to have exceptional memories, must make a special effort.
Can You Twist and Shout ... And Remember?
First and foremost, there are three very different kinds of memory—visual, verbal, and kinesthetic, each of which can be strong or weak, and only the first two of which are associated with your brain. (This is, of course, a gross simplification of what we term "memory." Surveys have found more than a hundred different memory tasks in everyday life that can cause people problems, each of which require a different strategy! Sorry to break it to you, but just because you've learned an easy way to remember a 100-digit number [see Chapter 8] does not guarantee that you won't spend days looking for those darned glasses.)
Most people have the easiest time strengthening their visual memories, which is why so many memory techniques involve forming "mental pictures."
To strengthen our verbal memories, we use rhymes, songs, letter substitutions, and other mnemonic gimmicks.
Finally, don't underestimate the importance of kinesthetic memory, or what your body remembers. Athletes and dancers certainly don't have to be convinced that the muscles, joints, and tendons of their bodies seem to have their own memories. Neither does anyone who's ever remembered a phone number by moving his fingers and "remembering" how it's dialed.
The next time you have to remember a list, any list, say each item out loud and move some part of your body at the same time. A dancer can do the time step and remember her history lecture. A baseball pitcher can associate each movement of his windup with another item in a list he has to memorize. Even random body movements will do. For example, if you have to memorize a list of countries, just associate each one with a specific movement. For Burundi, lift your right index finger while saying it. For Zimbabwe, rotate your neck. Bend a knee for Equador and raise your left hand for San Marino. Kick Latvia in the shins and twirl your hair for Kampuchea. When you have to remember this list of countries, just start moving! It may look a little strange—especially if you make your movements a little too exotic or dramatic in the middle of geography class—but if it works better than anything else for you, who cares?
You can also use this newfound memory as a backup to your brain. While you may still memorize key phone numbers, for example, you may also accompany each recitation with the hand movements necessary to actually dial the number. You'll probably find that even if you forget the "mental" tricks you used, your "body memory" will run (or lift or squat or bend or shake) to the rescue!
Once You Learn the Tricks ...
Students, of course, must possess or develop good memories, or they risk mediocrity or failure. The mere act of getting by in school means remembering a lot of dates, mathematical and scientific formulas, historical events, characters and plots, and sometimes entire poems. (I had a biology teacher who made us memorize the 52 parts of a frog's body. All of which, of course, have been absolutely essential to my subsequent career success. Just kidding.)
Practically, there are two ways of going about this. The most familiar way is rehearsal or repetition. By any name, it is the process of reading or pronouncing something over and over until you've learned it "by heart."
But a much easier way—getting back to our computer analogy—is to tag or code things we are trying to remember and to do so with images and words that are either outrageous or very familiar.
For instance, have you ever wondered how, in the days before index cards, ballpoint pens, or teleprompters, troubadours memorized song cycles and politicians memorized lengthy speeches? Well, in the case of the great Roman orator Cicero, it was a matter of associating the parts of his speeches with the most familiar objects in his life—the rooms of his home. Perhaps the opening of a speech would be linked to his bedroom, the next part to his yard. As he progressed through the speech, he would, in essence, mentally take his usual morning stroll, passing through the rooms of his home.
This simple method works very well for a relatively short, related list, such as what you need at the grocery store. You can use the rooms in your house, the items in a particular room, even the route you drive to work. Use the landmarks you see every day to remind you of various items you need to buy at the store: Start right in the garage—remember the garbage bags! Turn the key—that's right, the broccoli. As you pass the dry cleaner's, picture soap suds spilling out the door (laundry detergent); McDonald's should remind you to pick up the hamburger meat (and, hopefully, the buns and ketchup!); picture a roll of paper towels hanging off that traffic light. Turn on your windshield wipers. Oh, yeah, the French bread! Oops, and the bananas. If you're going to use landmarks to remember lists, write down those you're going to use beforehand. That way, you won't get mixed up by others you notice along your route.
Why limit your list? Well, unless you live in a 35-room mansion or drive three hours to work, there are only so many rooms and landmarks you can easily use!
In other cases, more outrageous associations work much better. The more ridiculous or impossible the association, the more memorable it is. Although absentmindedness is not one of the problems we will try to solve in this book, a common cure for it illustrates my point.
If you frequently have trouble remembering, say, where you put down your pen, get into the habit of conjuring up some startling image linking (a key word later on in this book) the pen and the place. For example, as you're putting your pen down on the kitchen table, think about eating peas off a plate with it or of the pen sticking straight up in a pile of mashed potatoes. Even days later, when you think, "Hmm, where did I leave that pen?" the peas and plate (or mashed potatoes) will come to mind, reminding you of the kitchen table.
... The Rest Is Easy
These are the essential principles of memory for which the computer analogy is particularly apt. After all, when dealing with the mind, as with the machine, the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) rule applies. If you passively allow your brain's processes to decide what and how items are stored, you will have a jumbled memory from which it is difficult to extract even essential bits of knowledge.
On the other hand, if you are selective and careful about assigning useful tags to the items headed for the long-term memory banks, you are on the way to being able to memorize the Manhattan telephone directory!CHAPTER 2
And Now for a Little Quiz
I know what you're thinking. You bought this book so you could improve your memory and perform better on exams and those darned pop quizzes, and now I turn around and throw some more tests your way. I could note that "Them's the breaks!"
Or, as one of my high school teachers used to say, I could encourage you to think of tests as your best friends (no, it wasn't the crazy biology teacher I told you about in Chapter 1). In this book, and throughout your academic career, tests will give you the measure of how far you've come ... and how far you've got to go. Follow the advice in this book and your score on similar tests in the last chapter should be 25 percent higher.
Test 1: Numbers
Look at the number directly below this paragraph for no more than 10 seconds. Then cover the page (or, better yet, close the book and put it aside) and write down as much of it—in order—as you can.
Test 2: Words and Definitions
Below are 15 obscure words along with their definitions. Study this list for 60 seconds. Then cover it up and take the test following the list. Allow yourself no more than 90 seconds to complete the quiz ... and no peeking.
Harmattan A dry, parching land breeze
Doggo Concealed, out of sight
Ihram Dress worn by male Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca
Iiwi A Hawaiian honeycreeper with a red body, black wings, and very curved red bill
Posticum Back part of a building
Tamandua A tree-dwelling anteater
Jinker An Australian sulky (cart)
Millilux A unit of illumination
Elision The omission of a vowel, consonant, or syllable in pronunciation
Caudate Having a tail
Ubisunt A poetic motif
Tussah A tan silk from India
Squamous Covered with scales
Have you studied the words diligently? Okay, no cheating now, fill in the blanks:
1. ____________ is a dress worn by male Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca.
2. Monkeys would be considered ____________.
3. Writing poetry might involve the use of a ____________.
4. Most lizards are ____________.
5. If you're an ant, you would avoid a ____________.
6. Playing hide and seek, John was really ____________.
7. If you visit the Sahara, you'll undoubtedly experience a ____________.
8. An ____________is a Hawaiian honeycreeper with a red body, black wings, and very curved red bill.
9. In Bollywood movies, the female star might wear a ____________.
10. Using ____________ might help your roses bloom.
11. "Back off, buddy, and don't give me any ____________."
12. "Meet me around the corner by the ____________."
13. "What, are you trying to save a ____________? Turn that light up!"
14. The meteorological stations of Alaska are part of a single ____________.
15. "Hey, mate, bring that ____________ around."
Test 3: Names
Take three minutes to memorize the names of the following directors and their films (all Oscar winners for Best Picture, by the way):
Rocky John G. Avildsen
Chicago Rob Marshall
Kramer vs. Kramer Robert Benton
Midnight Cowboy John Schlesinger
Amadeus Milos Forman
Driving Ms. Daisy Bruce Beresford
The English Patient Anthony Minghella
American Beauty Sam Mendes
The Deer Hunter Michael Cimino
A Beautiful Mind Ron Howard
Dances with Wolves Kevin Costner
Platoon Oliver Stone
Ordinary People Robert Redford
The French Connection William Friedkin
The Last Emperor Bernardo Bertolucci
Time's up! Okay, cover the list and fill in as many of the blanks as you can. If you get last names only, that's fine. Take another three minutes to complete the quiz:
1. The French Connection: ________________________
2. Michael Cimino: _______________________________
3. Milos Forman: _________________________________
4. Rocky: ________________________________________
5. Robert Redford: ________________________________
6. Platoon: _______________________________________
7. Ron Howard: __________________________________
8. The Last Emperor: _____________________________
9. Sam Mendes: __________________________________
10. Chicago: ______________________________________
11. John Schlesinger: ______________________________
12. Dances with Wolves: ___________________________
13. Anthony Minghella: ____________________________
14. Driving Ms. Daisy: _____________________________
15. Robert Benton: ________________________________
Test 4: Dates
Here are the dates of 15 historical events. Take up to three minutes to memorize them, then cover the page and take the quiz that follows.
1865 The tallest mountain in the world is named after Sir George Everest, the British Surgeon General.
1588 Defeat of the Spanish Armada.
1762 Catherine the Great becomes Czarina of Russia.
1819 Spain cedes Florida to the U.S.
1620 The Plymouth Colony is founded and the Mayflower Compact signed.
1871 The worst forest fire in U.S. history destroys almost 4 million acres.
1797 John Adams inaugurated as the second U.S. President.
1918 The Bolsheviks kill the Czar.
2004 Mikhail Fradkov named prime minister of the Russian Federation.
1556 Akbar named Mogul Emperor of India.
1765 James Watt invents the steam engine.
1803 The Marbury vs. Madison decision, in which the Supreme Court gives itself the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional.
1682 Pennsylvania is founded.
Excerpted from Improve Your Memory by Ron Fry. Copyright © 2012 Ron Fry. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
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