Memory: Six tips to master yours. By Christian Jarrett
Want to remember, or forget things, at will? These tips will show you how
Read more: ”The ultimate guide to memory”
MEMORY is a wonderful gift, but it’s clearly one that came without a user guide. Who hasn’t felt facts slip through their mind like sand through a sieve as they crammed for an exam? At other times, forgetting may be the difficulty, as we struggle to banish the memories of painful events. Thankfully, a growing understanding of the human mind offers many ways to help you make the most of your innate abilities.
1. Hit the sweet spot
When trying to memorise new material, you may find yourself staring endlessly at the page in the hope that its contents will somehow seep into your mental vault. One of the most effective ways of learning for an exam, though, is to test yourself repeatedly, which may be simpler to apply to your studies than other, more intricate methods, such as the formal mnemonic techniques used by expert memorisers (see “Secrets of a memory champion”).
It’s important to pace yourself, too, by revisiting material rather than cramming it all in during a single session. When doing so, you should make the most of sweet spots in the timing of your revision. If you are studying for an exam in a week’s time, for instance, you will remember more if you leave a day or so between your first and second passes through the material. For a test in six months, revision should come about a month into your studies.
2. Limber up
Besides keeping your body - and therefore your grey matter - in generally good shape, a bit of exercise can offer immediate benefits for anyone trying to learn new material. In one study, students taking a 10-minute walk found it much easier to learn a list of 30 nouns, compared with those who sat around, perhaps because it helped increase mental alertness.
Short, intense bursts of exercise may be the most effective. In a recent experiment, participants learning new vocabulary performed better if their studies came after two 3-minute runs, as opposed to a 40-minute gentle jog. The exercise seemed to encourage the release of neurotransmitters involved in forming new connections between brain cells.
3. Make a gesture
There are also more leisurely ways to engage your body during learning, as the brain seems to find it easier to learn abstract concepts if they can be related to simple physical sensations. As a result, various experiments have shown that acting out an idea with relevant hand gestures can improve later recall, whether you are studying new vocabulary of a foreign language or memorising the rules of physics.
It may sound dubious, but even simple eye movements might help. Andrew Parker and Neil Dagnall at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, have found that subjects were better able to remember a list of words they had just studied if they repeatedly looked from left to right and back for 30 seconds straight after reading the list - perhaps because it boosts the transfer of information between the two brain hemispheres. It’s worth noting, however, that this only seems to benefit right-handers. Perhaps the brains of left-handed and ambidextrous people already engage in a higher level of cross-talk, and the eye-wiggling only distracts them.
4. Engage your nose
Often it’s not just facts that we would like to remember, but whole events from our past as we reminisce about the good ol’ days. Such nostalgia is not just an indulgence - it has been linked to a raft of benefits, such as helping us to combat loneliness and feelings of angst. If you have trouble immersing yourself in your past, you could borrow a trick from Andy Warhol. He used to keep a well organised library of perfumes, each associated with a specific period of his life. Sniffing each bottle reportedly brought back a flood of memories from that time - giving him useful reminders whenever he wanted to reminisce. Warhol’s approach finds support in a spate of recent studies showing that odours tend to trigger particularly emotional memories, such as the excitement of a birthday party; they are also very effective at bringing back memories from our childhood. Some have even suggested that you could boost your performance in a test by sniffing the same scent during your revision and on the day of the exam.
5. Oil the cogs
Everyone’s memory fades with age, but your diet could help you to keep your faculties for longer. You would do well to avoid high-sugar fast foods, for instance, which seem to encourage the build-up of the protein plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
In contrast, diets full of flavonoids, found in blueberries and strawberries, and omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish and olive oil, seem to stave off cognitive decline by a good few years - perhaps because the antioxidants protect brain cells from an early death.
6. Learn to forget
Sometimes we are haunted by unwanted memories: a moment of embarrassment perhaps, or a painful break-up. Banishing such recollections from our thoughts is difficult, but there may be ways of stopping fresh memories of painful events from being consolidated into long-term storage in the first place. For example, Emily Holmes at the University of Oxford asked subjects to watch a disturbing video, before asking them to engage in various activities. Those playing the video gameTetris subsequently experienced fewer flash-backs to unpleasant scenes in the film than those taking a general knowledge quiz, perhaps because the game occupied the mental resources usually involved in cementing memories. Playing relaxing music to yourself after an event you would rather forget also seems to help, possibly because it takes the sting out of the negative feelings that normally cause these events to stick in our mind.
Christian Jarrett is the author of The Rough Guide to Psychology (Rough Guides, 2011)