Quick, what was the name of that new colleague you were introduced to last week? Who won the Super Bowl in 2008? What was the name of that cool website you saw last month? Your passport number?
Do questions like these leave you grasping in the dark? Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you that I have an incredible memory for some topics and a horrendous memory in others. So I have spent some time researching and trying out some methods to improve my memory. In today’s post, we’ll review the types of memory your brain has and then we’ll look at some easy hacks to improve your memory. Here we go!
The Types of Memory
I want to focus on 3 distinct types of memory that you have – working memory, declarative long-term memory, and procedural long-term memory.
Working memory – this is the short-term memory that you use every day for tasks like do basic mathematics without a pen and paper or remembering a sequence of info like a phone number or an address or directions to someone’s house. It’s like a whiteboard in your head. Once you move on to a new topic, you’ll erase whatever was in your working memory. Your working memory is very limited. That’s why you can do 12 X 9 in your head, but will struggle to do 139 X 462 and will find it impossible to do 23,987 X 45,391. You simply do not have much “space” in your working memory.
Procedural long-term memory – this is one of the key types of long-term memory. It is your ability to remember how to do things. For example, you remember how to walk, how to run, how to hold a fork, how to jump, etc. All the physical skills you have are thanks to your procedural long-term memory. When you sink that perfect put on the 9th hole, when you catch nothing but net on your 3-point shot, when you dance, play pool, or so coolly toss a crumpled piece of paper into the waste bin – all these are your procedural long-term memory at work.
Declarative long-term memory – This type of memory is what wins you a game of Jeopardy or makes you a legend on pub quiz night. Basically, everything fact, date, name, or number you know is resting in your declarative long-term memory. Those questions I asked at the top of this article are questions that you must count on your declarative long-term memory to answer. When people claim they have a great memory (or lament that they don’t) this is usually the kind of memory they are referring to.
How to Improve Each Type of Memory
Working memory – Our working memory can be improved a bit. Again, it is a very limited “space” in our brain, so you can’t expect to drastically increase it. Also, be very wary of sites that want to charge you money to improve your working memory. There are many out there sporting rather dubious claims. Here’s the story of one popular online brain training site paying $2,000,000 to settle a deceptive advertising case.
If you want to improve your short-term memory, try the n-back test. You can play it for free here. I warn you, it gets brutally hard very quickly. Here’s the research on it from the National Academy of Sciences for those of you who want to understand how it works and to see some scientific proof of its effectiveness.
Procedural long-term memory – There are no short-cuts to improving your procedural long-term memory. But there are some things we can do over the long-run to have a stronger procedural long-term memory. Let’s break them down.
- Repetition – Tons of evidence suggests that we can improve our procedural memory by repeating the movements associated with the task. This is why athletes practice and performers rehearse. They are strengthening their procedural memory. However, different approaches to practice can improve their effectiveness. I strongly recommend that you get Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers to see how some people become experts in their field. However, some recent research is suggesting that his idea that 10,000 hours of practice is what leads to mastery may be incorrect. But this book is a fantastic starting point to understand how some people wind up outperforming others, particularly at skills that rely on procedural memory.
- Mental Rehearsal – Strangely, evidence indicates that by merely rehearsing a physical activity in your mind, you increase the chances of performing well at it. There is some debate whether the mental rehearsal itself is at work or whether the rehearsal is affecting something else such as the performer’s overall level of confidence. However, whether the influence is direct or indirect, you can’t go wrong by visualizing your performance step-by-step to improve your results.
- Sleep – Scientists are still trying to understand why we sleep and what happens while we do. But one thing is certain. Sleep has a significant impact on a variety of cognitive functions, including memory. While the image of sleep may be laziness, it is reasonable to argue that the athlete who sleeps best is operating with a distinct advantage.
Declarative long-term memory – All right, here is the part of the article you have probably been waiting for. How do you improve your declarative long-term memory? Here are some tips. Try them all for a month and by July you’ll be able to describe yourself as a memory master.
- Repetition – If you want to remember something such as someone’s name, you need to use it repeatedly. You won’t remember it easily unless it hits your brain multiple times. Use it a few times when you first meet them. Then write it down in your notes and check it a couple of times over the next day or two. The repeated exposure to it will take it out of your short-term working memory and lock it away in your long-term memory. This tips works for students who are studying for a final exam. Six 20-minute study sessions over a few days will beat one 2-hour session because the six sessions provides repetition.
- Verbal Elaboration – Science suggests that the act of writing or speaking about the thing that you want to remember will increase your chances of retaining it. This is why note-taking is vital for students or for meeting attendees. Of course you get the benefit of checking your notes later (repetition) but an added bonus is that the very act of writing the notes in the first place will help you remember it. Basically, taking notes reduces the need to even have notes. Get yourself a great-looking notebook and watch your recollection soar. What if you can’t takes notes? Paraphrase or summarize out-loud the contents that you wish to remember. “So you are saying that the 3rd quarter won’t be as good as the 2nd quarter due to price cuts by our competitors?” By verbalizing the facts you want to remember, you stand a better chance to retain them. You can take advantage of this when you are alone by reading out loud to yourself when you study.
- Sleep – Yes, sleep. Cramming isn’t the best way to remember things because it sacrifices repetition, but worst of all, it usually means cutting down on sleep. Sleep is vital to all forms of memory, including long-term declarative memory. It isn’t a very exciting answer, but increasing sleep quality is the single best way to improve memory for many sleep-deprived people out there.
- Supplements – I take Omega-3 every day. Actually there are lots of solid benefits of taking Omega-3. But one of the best ones is that it is meant to improve cognitive functions including memory over the long-term. I lived in South Korea for awhile and many Koreans swear by the effectiveness of taking Ginseng. Try them both, and just as importantly, cut out low-quality food like fast food, simple carbohydrates, and sugars. These leave you lethargic which can damage your concentration and memory.
- Emotional learning strategies – Research indicates that a positive emotional state while experiencing something increasing the chances of remembering it. That’s why you can’t remember the name of the client you met yesterday but you do remember the name of that cute girl you met in the coffee shop weeks ago. Put this fact to work for you. Have fun when you study. Listen to some peaceful, pleasurable music. Make jokes about the contents that you want to remember. Study with a friend and have fun quizzing each other. If you get a positive vibe going on, you’ll find it so much easier to remember it. Locking yourself in a drab room all day to study is just plain counterproductive. Enjoy the process and you’ll master the material!