Peter Allegretti - Memory
June really is a great month if you’re a grown-up. Long daylight hours, nature blossoming in full force, the possibility to travel reasonably quietly while children are still in school. Ah but for those still in school it can be a month of exam torture between the revision and the cramming. It has always surprised me that something as important as improving memory techniques has rarely had a place in the school curriculum. Traditionally, we’ve been told the key to learning is to get your head down and study study study. So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised when I get emails around this time of year from people asking if I can help them improve their memory. Indeed, there are many ways to make memorising and study time more efficient.
I was recently invited to the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain, and Language in San Sebastian. The Centre’s prime mission is to study learning and the brain with special emphasis on communication, language and bi-lingualism. No surprise then in that in the Basque country, with more than 2-million people speaking Spanish and Basque, two completely unrelated languages, there is an excellent opportunity to see how the bi-lingual brain works. Thanks to a technology called functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) researchers are able to 'see' inside that brain and find out which parts light up when learning takes place.
A researcher there told me that their tests have shown that study study study is good, but it’s only part of the answer. A better method, he suggests, is study, retrieve, study, retrieve, study retrieve. What he’s saying is that studying something and then trying to retrieve it from your memory is more effective than simply studying it over and over. The act of retrieving the information helps strengthen the learning, and they’ve seen evidence of it using fMRI.
Memory is also improved when you can connect something that you are learning to something you already know. A classic memory tool is the Journey System. You can use this to remember and retrieve a sequence of events or even a to-do list. The idea is to choose something in your life that you know well, such as your journey to work or school, or even the walk from your home to the metro. As it’s something with which you are very familiar, you will know the route without even thinking about it. Along the route, you may choose five things which stand out in the order that they appear, for example, the front door to your building, the café, the shoe shop, the big tree, and the entrance to the metro station. Now, if you needed to remember five things, you would mentally “attach” the first thing to the front door, the second to the café, the third to the shoe shop and so on. By “attach,” I mean to create a mental link between the item that you already know and the item on your list that you want to remember. So let’s say your list was a shopping list and on it you had milk, coffee, a mop, cheese and bread. The first item, milk, you would “connect” with the front door by using the power of your imagination. How? Well I might imagine two enormous tetrapak cartons of milk replacing the two metal doors, and as I walk through the front door, I imagine pushing open a big carton of milk. For the coffee, fairly obvious, I would have an image of the pouring of the coffee beans into the grinder and smelling it as I passed the café. For a mop, I would have to connect it with the shoe shop. A little less obvious—But I might imagine mopping the floor and then walking over it while it’s still wet and leaving scuff marks. That way I connect the idea of shoes with the mop. And so on. The best way to use this method is to let your imagine play and create outrageous scenarios. Try it and you’ll see how effective it is. Then try to retrieve the information tomorrow and see how much of the information you’ve retained. Children love this, by the way. There are many books and websites on the subject that detail other popular memory methods, such as the link method. Once you learn a few, you will find the ones that work best for you. Once you master a memory tool, you’ll have something that will serve you a lifetime