Improving your memory: an overview

So many ways to forget! We forget names and faces; appointments and anniversaries; where we left the car keys; what we read; what we said; what we were doing before we were interrupted. Not to mention all the numbers we have to memorize nowadays: cell phone numbers, PINs, password and user IDs, Social Security numbers, which five of those 100 cable channels we actually use.

How does our memory handle it all? And how can we get it to be more reliable?

Our memory is like a computer. Material has to be inputted properly, saved in storage, and retrieved efficiently. How effectively your brain performs each of these steps depends on three things:

  • How recently the remembered event took place
  • How vivid, spectacular, or striking an impression it made
  • How frequently the event recurs

In addition to these factors, attention, concentration, imagery, organization and mood all play key roles in what could be called the chain of memory: need or interest motivates the brain to remember; motivation generates attention; attention demands concentration; concentration permits organization; and organization allows for the efficient processing of information.

There are ways we can strengthen the process such as rote memorization and mneumonic devices. 

Rote memorization involves going over a list of items over and over again until we can remember the whole thing.

Another, more efficient way, is to use mnemonic devices. These techniques strengthen the connections between various pieces of information by using the most under-exercised portion of the brain –the imagination. Using a mnemonic device is as simple as exaggerating the features of what you want to remember until it's as silly as a cartoon. The ridiculous image you construct, and your participation in its creation, combine to make mnemonics surprisingly effective.

Mnemonic devices are systems that use images and associations to aid our memories. Your mind grasps the new image and association easily, and then remembers the information that it represents. You probably learned a few mnemonic devices in grade school the rhyme of I before E except after C, or ROY G BIV, an acronym for the colors of the rainbow.

The key to every mnemonic system is association. You create an image that connects you to the information you want to remember. The more vivid, involved and outlandish the image, the better. If you wanted to remember to pay your credit card bill first thing tomorrow morning, you might imagine yourself opening your eyes at dawn to find a duck-billed workman standing in the middle of your bedroom, cutting up your credit cards. The patch on his work suit would read "Bill" (of course).

The essential first step in improving your memory is analyzing how you learn. There are three types of learners:

  • Visual learners do best by mentally picturing what they want to remember. A visual learner would picture Bill, the duck-billed workman in specific detail, down to the buttons on his clothes.
  • Auditory learners are most comfortable hearing information. He might imagine the sound of scissors slicing through credit cards while Bill sings a song about paying bills.
  • Kinesthetic learners remember by doing. The kinesthetic learner might imagine herself getting out of bed in the morning and following Bill as he dances her over to her checkbook.

When you forget, it's usually not your brain's fault. It's more likely due to outside factors that prevent you from recalling the information as quickly or with as much detail as you'd like. These distractions usually come from three sources:

  • Our environment (distractions or being rushed)
  • Our bodies (fatigue or anxiety)
  • Medications or other conditions that interfere with our normal functions


What's Your Learning Style?

If you want to maximize the benefits of mnemonic devices, it's in your best interest to figure out what type of learner you are. Then, you just have to build your mnemonic devices around your strengths.

Visual learners learn best by watching: They recall images easily, visualize the spelling of words or facts to be memorized, and use color coding to organize notes and possessions. Visual learners tend to be most effective in such skills as written communication and symbol manipulation.

Auditory learners learn best by hearing. They prefer lists, summaries, quotations and audio tapes; have the best long-term recall of material paraphrased in their own words, style, and voice; and use verbal and rhyming mnemonics devotedly. Auditory learners say their mnemonic cues aloud to reinforce the message. They tend to be superior public speakers.

Kinesthetic learners, also called "spatial learners," learn best by hands-on experience. They record and recall data holistically and memorize or drill while walking or exercising. Kinesthetic learners may appear to learn slowly because information isn't usually presented in a style that conforms to their learning techniques. Indeed, mnemonics is best suited to visual learners, since it relies so heavily on mental imagery. If you're a kinesthetic learner, it might help to imagine touching things, using tools and moving through space.

Mnemonic Devices and Techniques

Designed specifically to aid memory, mnemonic devices use images, words or a combination of both. There are four commonly used types of mnemonics:

  • Acronyms are made up of initial letters. NASA, for instance, stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Mnemonic acronyms use the first letters of items in lists. So the initials of the Great Lakes Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior form the acronym HOMES.
  • Acrostics are similar to acronyms, except that with acrostics, whole sentences provide strings of initials. The acrostic "Would a jolly man make a jolly visitor?" supplies the first letters of the last names of the first eight U.S. presidents.
  • Poems are easier to remember than normal prose: "Thirty days hath November …"
  • Association uses images to link concepts. The more imaginative the image, the better. If you want to remember that Burkina Faso's main exports are cotton and gold, you could visualize seeing Burkina Faso on the Earth from space, and then visualize a massive catapult flinging gold-plated shirts all around the globe. Imagine the clatter as they crash to the ground.

Your own associations will work most effectively for you. When you start to create your own mnemonics, you might want to keep the following tips in mind:

  • The mnemonic should clearly relate to what you want to remember.
  • The more imaginative the better. Picturing your spouse marching off to work with the Seven Dwarfs could help you remember that your anniversary is March 7.
  • The image or language you use should be vivid enough for you to recall easily. You can exaggerate your image, use humor, rudeness or risqué visuals anything that will help you remember.
  • Color your mnemonic with things like sounds and smell; include emotions if you can.

One particular form of association that works quite well is a method called peg words. This mnemonic device makes it easy to remember numbers. Peg words either rhyme with the number they represent (a bun symbolizes one), or visually represent it (a conductor's wand could represent one). If your peg word for "nineteen" is "knighting," you can remember that the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote by mentally fashioning a picture of a suffragette in shining armor riding her white horse to the voting booth.

Other Memory Boosters

Sometimes you can improve your memory just by paying more attention and concentrating on what you're doing. So switch off the automatic pilot:

  • When you park your car at the mall, look around. What level are you on? How can you remember that? Are there landmarks that will tell you you're in the right place? (Be sure to choose a landmark that won't drive away before you get back.) To be on the safe side, write down your location on a piece of paper and put it in your wallet, or wherever you put your car keys.
  • Keep all your important papers, lists and calendars in one central location, like a kitchen drawer.
  • If you have something to do, do it now. If you can't do it right away, leave notes for yourself in places where you know you'll see them.
  • Solve one problem at a time. Multitasking is inherently distracting, which makes it easier to forget things.

Why We Forget

Our brains are pretty reliable stores of information. Of course we forget, but that's because we forged a weak link in the chain of memory processing when our brains were first inputting the data. These breaks happen for several reasons, including:

  • Influence of alcohol or nicotine
  • Vision or hearing loss
  • Fatigue, stress, depression or anxiety
  • The disorganization of our daily lives
  • Being rushed or interrupted
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Being in a familiar environment, where our brains can be lazy
  • Illness

However, the leading cause of long-term memory failure is what psychologists call "interference." Simply put, we most often forget information because other, similar information interferes with our ability to remember.

There are two types of interference:

  • Proactive interference, in which similar information learned in the past interferes with learning new information
  • Retroactive interference, in which new information interferes with memories of previously learned information

For example, say you recently bought a new car. At first, you might have trouble remembering where the controls are – lights, radio, heater, and so on – because you keep confusing the controls' location and operation with those in your old car. This is proactive interference.

But after driving the new car for a few days, you might find it difficult to remember where the controls are when you sit down in the old car. This is retroactive interference.

Prescription medicines, including blood-pressure medications and tranquilizers, can severely affect memory. If you're taking medication, check with your doctor.


I interact with customers a lot, and I'm really good at it, but I can't remember names and faces. Any ideas?

When you're introduced to someone, look for an unusual feature an odd hairline or ears that stick out. Then make a link between that feature and the name. This is tough to do at first, but with practice it becomes second nature. You can also repeat the customer's name as soon as you're told it, then try to use it in the conversation as soon as possible.

If you're a visual or kinesthetic learner, you could exchange business cards.

When you encounter someone whose name you've forgotten, you'll do fine if you can remember other details: "Yes, of course. The last time we spoke, you were on your way to Burkina Faso." If you can remember all that, your acquaintance isn't very likely to be insulted that her name has slipped your mind.

I have to give a relatively short but important speech in a week. I have a terrible time memorizing, but I don't want to read it.

You're right reading a speech can turn the best presentation into something intolerably boring. On the other hand, if you seem to be speaking extemporaneously, you'll gain credibility as a confident speaker who knows his material well, is an expert, and is very sure of himself.

Prepare an outline for yourself that you can refer to when you must. If you have a memory slip, take a few seconds to check your outline and figure out where you are. It'll feel like a huge silence, but it'll only be a second or two.

Here's a useful technique. Visualize your home or some other very familiar place. Then put things there mentally, things that will remind you of what you want to say in your speech. Place them so that as you mentally walk through your home, the main points of your speech come to you in the proper order. Practice this mental stroll silently, then try it out loud before you actually give your speech.

When I was in college, I remembered everything the first time I heard it or read it. I graduated 15 years ago, and my memory has really slipped. Is something wrong with me?

Not at all. It's just that when you were in a challenging educational setting, you constantly exercised your learning and memorizing faculties, so they were in peak form. In your job you still learn a lot, but it's far less structured or constant. If you want to sharpen your memory, you might want to take a course at a nearby college or community center. The more you learn, the more potent your memory will become.


Your program is here to help you along the journey of life. No situation is too big or too small. When you and your household members need assistance, reach out anytime and we will help get you on the right path to meet your needs.

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