What you'll learn to do: recognize and apply memory-enhancing strategies
Figure 1. In some ways memory is like file drawers where you store mental information. Memory is also a series of processes: how does that information get filed to begin with and how does it get retrieved when needed? [Photo: Jason Carpenter]
In 2013, Simon Reinhard sat in front of 60 people in a room at Washington University, where he memorized an increasingly long series of digits. On the first round, a computer generated 10 random digits—6 1 9 4 8 5 6 3 7 1—on a screen for 10 seconds. After the series disappeared, Simon typed them into his computer. His recollection was perfect. In the next phase, 20 digits appeared on the screen for 20 seconds. Again, Simon got them all correct. No one in the audience (mostly professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students) could recall the 20 digits perfectly. Then came 30 digits, studied for 30 seconds; once again, Simon didn’t misplace even a single digit. For a final trial, 50 digits appeared on the screen for 50 seconds, and again, Simon got them all right. In fact, Simon would have been happy to keep going. His record in this task—called “forward digit span”—is 240 digits!
When most of us witness a performance like that of Simon Reinhard, we think one of two things: First, maybe he’s cheating somehow. (No, he is not.) Second, Simon must have abilities more advanced than the rest of humankind. After all, psychologists established many years ago that the normal memory span for adults is about 7 digits, with some of us able to recall a few more and others a few less (Miller, 1956). That is why the first phone numbers were limited to 7 digits—psychologists determined that many errors occurred (costing the phone company money) when the number was increased to even 8 digits. But in normal testing, no one gets 50 digits correct in a row, much less 240. So, does Simon Reinhard simply have a photographic memory? He does not. Instead, Simon has taught himself simple strategies for remembering that have greatly increased his capacity for remembering virtually any type of material—digits, words, faces and names, poetry, historical dates, and so on. Twelve years earlier, before he started training his memory abilities, he had a digit span of 7, just like most of us. Simon has been training his abilities for about 10 years as of this writing, and has risen to be in the top two of “memory athletes.” In 2012, he came in second place in the World Memory Championships (composed of 11 tasks), held in London. He currently ranks second in the world, behind another German competitor, Johannes Mallow. In this section, we will explain the general principles by which you can improve your own memory.
Recognize and apply memory-enhancing strategies, including mnemonics, rehearsal, chunking, and peg-words
Most of us suffer from memory failures of one kind or another, and most of us would like to improve our memories so that we don’t forget where we put the car keys or, more importantly, the material we need to know for an exam. In this section, we’ll look at some ways to help you remember better, and at some strategies for more effective studying.
What are some everyday ways we can improve our memory, including recall? To help make sure information goes from short-term memory to long-term memory, you can use memory-enhancing strategies. One strategy is rehearsal, or the conscious repetition of information to be remembered (Craik & Watkins, 1973). Think about how you learned your multiplication tables as a child. You may recall that 6 x 6 = 36, 6 x 7 = 42, and 6 x 8 = 48. Memorizing these facts is rehearsal.
Another strategy is chunking: you organize information into manageable bits or chunks (Bodie, Powers, & Fitch-Hauser, 2006). Chunking is useful when trying to remember information like dates and phone numbers. Instead of trying to remember 5205550467, you remember the number as 520-555-0467. So, if you met an interesting person at a party and you wanted to remember his phone number, you would naturally chunk it, and you could repeat the number over and over, which is the rehearsal strategy.
You could also enhance memory by using elaborative rehearsal: a technique in which you think about the meaning of the new information and its relation to knowledge already stored in your memory (Tigner, 1999). For example, in this case, you could remember that 520 is an area code for Arizona and the person you met is from Arizona. This would help you better remember the 520 prefix. If the information is retained, it goes into long-term memory.
Mnemonic devices are memory aids that help us organize information for encoding (Figure 2). They are especially useful when we want to recall larger bits of information such as steps, stages, phases, and parts of a system (Bellezza, 1981). Brian needs to learn the order of the planets in the solar system, but he’s having a hard time remembering the correct order. His friend Kelly suggests a mnemonic device that can help him remember. Kelly tells Brian to simply remember the name Mr. VEM J. SUN, and he can easily recall the correct order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. You might use a mnemonic device to help you remember someone’s name, a mathematical formula, or the seven levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.
If you have ever watched the television show Modern Family, you might have seen Phil Dunphy explain how he remembers names:
The other day I met this guy named Carl. Now, I might forget that name, but he was wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. What’s a band like the Grateful Dead? Phish. Where do fish live? The ocean. What else lives in the ocean? Coral. Hello, Co-arl. (Wrubel & Spiller, 2010)
It seems the more vivid or unusual the mnemonic, the easier it is to remember. The key to using any mnemonic successfully is to find a strategy that works for you.
Link to Learning
Watch this fascinating TED Talk titled “Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do.” The lecture is given by Joshua Foer, a science writer who “accidentally” won the U. S. Memory Championships. He explains a mnemonic device called the memory palace. You can also watch this video as Foer gives an example of how he uses the memory palace to memorize the digits of pi.
Some other strategies that are used to improve memory include expressive writing and saying words aloud. Expressive writing helps boost your short-term memory, particularly if you write about a traumatic experience in your life. Masao Yogo and Shuji Fujihara (2008) had participants write for 20-minute intervals several times per month. The participants were instructed to write about a traumatic experience, their best possible future selves, or a trivial topic. The researchers found that this simple writing task increased short-term memory capacity after five weeks, but only for the participants who wrote about traumatic experiences. Psychologists can’t explain why this writing task works, but it does.
What if you want to remember items you need to pick up at the store? Simply say them out loud to yourself. A series of studies (MacLeod, Gopie, Hourihan, Neary, & Ozubko, 2010) found that saying a word out loud improves your memory for the word because it increases the word’s distinctiveness. Feel silly, saying random grocery items aloud? This technique works equally well if you just mouth the words. Using these techniques increased participants’ memory for the words by more than 10%. These techniques can also be used to help you study.
Consider the case of Simon Reinhard. In 2013, he sat in front of 60 people in a room at Washington University, where he memorized an increasingly long series of digits. On the first round, a computer generated 10 random digits—6 1 9 4 8 5 6 3 7 1—on a screen for 10 seconds. After the series disappeared, Simon typed them into his computer. His recollection was perfect. In the next phase, 20 digits appeared on the screen for 20 seconds. Again, Simon got them all correct. No one in the audience (mostly professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students) could recall the 20 digits perfectly. Then came 30 digits, studied for 30 seconds; once again, Simon didn’t misplace even a single digit. For a final trial, 50 digits appeared on the screen for 50 seconds, and again, Simon got them all right. In fact, Simon would have been happy to keep going. His record in this task—called “forward digit span”—is 240 digits!
Simon Reinhard’s ability to memorize huge numbers of digits. Although it was not obvious, Simon Reinhard used deliberate mnemonic devices to improve his memory. In a typical case, the person learns a set of cues and then applies these cues to learn and remember information. Consider the set of 20 items below that are easy to learn and remember (Bower & Reitman, 1972).
is a gun. 11 is penny-one, hot dog bun.
is a shoe. 12 is penny-two, airplane glue.
is a tree. 13 is penny-three, bumble bee.
is a door. 14 is penny-four, grocery store.
is knives. 15 is penny-five, big beehive.
is sticks. 16 is penny-six, magic tricks.
is oven. 17 is penny-seven, go to heaven.
is plate. 18 is penny-eight, golden gate.
is wine. 19 is penny-nine, ball of twine.
is hen. 20 is penny-ten, ballpoint pen.
It would probably take you less than 10 minutes to learn this list and practice recalling it several times (remember to use retrieval practice!). If you were to do so, you would have a set of peg words on which you could “hang” memories. In fact, this mnemonic device is called the peg word technique. If you then needed to remember some discrete items—say a grocery list, or points you wanted to make in a speech—this method would let you do so in a very precise yet flexible way. Suppose you had to remember bread, peanut butter, bananas, lettuce, and so on. The way to use the method is to form a vivid image of what you want to remember and imagine it interacting with your peg words (as many as you need). For example, for these items, you might imagine a large gun (the first peg word) shooting a loaf of bread, then a jar of peanut butter inside a shoe, then large bunches of bananas hanging from a tree, then a door slamming on a head of lettuce with leaves flying everywhere. The idea is to provide good, distinctive cues (the weirder the better!) for the information you need to remember while you are learning it. If you do this, then retrieving it later is relatively easy. You know your cues perfectly (one is gun, etc.), so you simply go through your cue word list and “look” in your mind’s eye at the image stored there (bread, in this case).
This peg word method may sound strange at first, but it works quite well, even with little training (Roediger, 1980). One word of warning, though, is that the items to be remembered need to be presented relatively slowly at first, until you have practice associating each with its cue word. People get faster with time. Another interesting aspect of this technique is that it’s just as easy to recall the items in backwards order as forwards. This is because the peg words provide direct access to the memorized items, regardless of order.
How did Simon Reinhard remember those digits? Essentially he has a much more complex system based on these same principles. In his case, he uses “memory palaces” (elaborate scenes with discrete places) combined with huge sets of images for digits. For example, imagine mentally walking through the home where you grew up and identifying as many distinct areas and objects as possible. Simon has hundreds of such memory palaces that he uses. Next, for remembering digits, he has memorized a set of 10,000 images. Every four-digit number for him immediately brings forth a mental image. So, for example, 6187 might recall Michael Jackson. When Simon hears all the numbers coming at him, he places an image for every four digits into locations in his memory palace. He can do this at an incredibly rapid rate, faster than 4 digits per 4 seconds when they are flashed visually, as in the demonstration at the beginning of the module. As noted, his record is 240 digits, recalled in exact order. Simon also holds the world record in an event called “speed cards,” which involves memorizing the precise order of a shuffled deck of cards. Simon was able to do this in 21.19 seconds! Again, he uses his memory palaces, and he encodes groups of cards as single images.
How to Study Effectively
Based on the information presented in this chapter, here are some strategies and suggestions to help you hone your study techniques (Figure 3). The key with any of these strategies is to figure out what works best for you.
Use elaborative rehearsal: In a famous article, Craik and Lockhart (1972) discussed their belief that information we process more deeply goes into long-term memory. Their theory is called levels of processing. If we want to remember a piece of information, we should think about it more deeply and link it to other information and memories to make it more meaningful. For example, if we are trying to remember that the hippocampus is involved with memory processing, we might envision a hippopotamus with excellent memory and then we could better remember the hippocampus.
Apply the self-reference effect: As you go through the process of elaborative rehearsal, it would be even more beneficial to make the material you are trying to memorize personally meaningful to you. In other words, make use of the self-reference effect. Write notes in your own words. Write definitions from the text, and then rewrite them in your own words. Relate the material to something you have already learned for another class, or think how you can apply the concepts to your own life. When you do this, you are building a web of retrieval cues that will help you access the material when you want to remember it.
Don’t forget the forgetting curve: As you know, the information you learn drops off rapidly with time. Even if you think you know the material, study it again right before test time to increase the likelihood the information will remain in your memory. Overlearning can help prevent storage decay.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse: Review the material over time, in spaced and organized study sessions. Organize and study your notes, and take practice quizzes/exams. Link the new information to other information you already know well.
Be aware of interference: To reduce the likelihood of interference, study during a quiet time without interruptions or distractions (like television or music).
Keep moving: Of course you already know that exercise is good for your body, but did you also know it’s also good for your mind? Research suggests that regular aerobic exercise (anything that gets your heart rate elevated) is beneficial for memory (van Praag, 2008). Aerobic exercise promotes neurogenesis: the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain known to play a role in memory and learning.
Get enough sleep: While you are sleeping, your brain is still at work. During sleep the brain organizes and consolidates information to be stored in long-term memory (Abel & Bäuml, 2013).
Make use of mnemonic devices: As you learned earlier in this chapter, mnemonic devices often help us to remember and recall information. There are different types of mnemonic devices, such as the acronym. An acronym is a word formed by the first letter of each of the words you want to remember. For example, even if you live near one, you might have difficulty recalling the names of all five Great Lakes. What if I told you to think of the word Homes? HOMES is an acronym that represents Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior: the five Great Lakes. Another type of mnemonic device is an acrostic: you make a phrase of all the first letters of the words. For example, if you are taking a math test and you are having difficulty remembering the order of operations, recalling the following sentence will help you: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” because the order of mathematical operations is Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction. There also are jingles, which are rhyming tunes that contain key words related to the concept, such as i before e, except after c.