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How To Dramatically Improve Your Memory

Memory isn't about stuffing your head with facts; it's about honing your creativity. Here's how.

[Photo: Flickr user Cranston Alexander]

Ever wandered into a store and quickly realized you’ve forgotten what you need? Or been introduced to someone and forget their name by the time they walk away?

Don’t worry; you’re not alone. A 2007 survey conducted at Trinity College in Dublin found that one-third of British people under age 30 can’t even remember their own phone numbers. Although this forgetfulness happens to the best of us, if you’re one to blame your "bad memory," you should know that your refusal to train your memory is the reason it’s gone awry.

In his book, How to Develop A Super Power Memory, memory training specialist Harry Lorayne says "there is no such thing as a bad memory" and that "there are only trained and untrained memories." Although there are a number of science-backed strategies when it comes to making connections and enhancing your memory, when you really think about the underpinnings of a strong memory, it has everything to do with creativity.

Basically, saying that you have a bad memory is like saying you're not creative.

In the book Moonwalking With Einstein, author Joshua Foer (also a record-holding memory champion) writes about his quest to improve his own memory by studying "mental athletes." At one point, he writes about Tony Buzan, an educational consultant, who says the following about memory:

In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory, we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. In other words, you rammed it in until your head was stuffed with facts. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental processes directed with a different focus.

Think of your memory like a creative project

If your ability to remember something and create something both rely on your ability to associate information with meaning, then the two use the same part of your brain. Think about it this way, what is the best way to remember someone’s name? We’re often told to use mnemonics to memorize larger pieces of information, such as a verse, a formula, a list, or a name.

But to enhance your memory, instead of coming up with devices that have no association in your brain, pretend you’re working on a creative project and come up with a story about the names, list, or whatever it is you’re trying to remember. These exercises might sound ridiculous and time-consuming, but they actually train the brain to get better. Like every other function in your body, the brain is no different when it comes to training to get stronger and healthier.

Dale Carnegie’s leadership training program teaches professionals to associate names with a personality trait, occupation, or even a visual cue to help you tell your story. Carnegie says:

Paint a mind picture of the person whose name you wish to remember doing something that reminds you of the person’s name. Have the face and body of the person you wish to remember in the picture so that, when the picture comes to mind, you get both the face and the name.

The better your visualization—the more creative you are—the deeper ingrained that memory is in your brain.

According to Luca Lampariello who speaks over 10 languages, context is king when it comes to building memory. Our brains don’t remember isolated facts. Instead we remember the stories—the context—behind those facts. When you look at random pieces of information, it makes no sense in your brain, but when you attach a story to it, your brain is more likely to retain that information.

Use bizarre visualizations for better context

Studies say humans remember pictures and images more than they do text. Creativity is all about coming up with these visualization techniques to be the foundation of your memory mnemonics. When you’re learning a new language, try to come up with visualizations for the new foreign word you’re learning. When trying to remember a list—even something as boring as a shopping list—come up with a bizarre story to help you remember that list. For instance, think of a long hallway and have different items on that list pop up during your walk down the hallway in strange ways.

Foer says in the New York Times:

The point of memory techniques is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren't that good at holding on to and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. [They create] memorable images for your palaces: the funnier, lewder and more bizarre, the better. When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.

Emotional stories are the best ones

Think back at the strongest memories you have and there’s a good chance those memories are linked to some kind of strong emotion or feeling. For instance, you probably have a memory of a time when something really funny or really exciting happened. Those emotions are exactly what made the facts surrounding that time or day memorable.

A study from 1969 found that when it comes to memorization, motivation is not a factor. Instead, it's feelings and senses that make the difference. In the study, researchers James Jenkins and Thomas Hyde gave two groups of students the same list of words. One group was instructed to memorize the list for an upcoming test and the other was told there would be no test. Additionally, one group was told to make a mental note when the letter "E" appeared in a word while the other group was asked to determine whether the word was pleasant or not to them. The researchers found that telling students they have an upcoming test didn’t affect their memorization skills, but asking them to determine pleasantness in a word allowed them to make associations with it and hence, had a larger impact on their memory abilities.

Lastly, once you have it all down, don’t forget that you need to repeat, repeat, and review. There is no point in learning something new if you don’t repeat it and get it into your memory.

There are a number of tricks you can follow like eating berries, exercising, drinking coffee, and meditating—all proven to help you enhance memory—but when it comes to the bedrock of training your brain and defeating forgetfulness, memory training comes down to unlocking creativity and your ability to turn all of life into a string of bizarre stories.

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