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  1. 1. Article 4How To Remember ThingsProven strategies to improve your Alex Lickerman, M.DPsychology Today, November 16, 2009I once came up with a metaphor I thought perfectly captured the sheer massof material my classmates and I were expected to memorize in our first twoyears of medical school: it was like being asked to enter a grocery store andmemorize the names of every product in the store, their number andlocation, every ingredient in every product in the order in which theyappear on the food label, and then to do the same thing in every grocerystore in the city.When I look back now I cant imagine how any of us were able to do it.And yet we did. The minds capacity to store and recall information is trulywondrous. Since I attended medical school weve learned a lot aboutmemory and learning. Though much of what follows are techniques I usedto survive my first two years of medical school, much of the science thatproves they work is new.STRATEGIES FOR REMEMBERING1. Become interested in what youre learning. Were all betterremembering what interests us. Few people, for example, have adifficult time remembering the names of people they find attractive.If youre not intrinsically interested in what youre learning or tryingto remember, you must find a way to become so. I have to admit Iwasnt so good at this in medical school. The Krebs cycle (I provided
  2. 2. the link only to prove how immensely boring it is) just didnt exciteme or relate to anything I found even remotely exciting (though Imade myself learn it anyway).2. Find a way to leverage your visual memory. Youll be astoundedby how much more this will enable you to remember. For example,imagine youre at a party and are introduced to five people in quicksuccession. How can you quickly memorize their names? Pick out asingle defining visual characteristic of each person and connect it toa visual representation of their name, preferably through an action ofsome kind. For example, you can remember Mike who has large earsby creating a mental picture of a microphone (a "mike") clearingthose big ears of wax (gross, I know—sorry—but all the moreeffective because of it). It requires mental effort to do this, but if youpractice youll be surprised how quickly you can come up withcreative ways to create these images. Heres another example: howoften do you forget where you left your keys, your sunglasses, oryour wallet? The next time you put something down somewhere,pause a moment to notice where youve placed it, and then in yourmind blow it up. If you visualize the explosion in enough detail, youwont forget where you put it. Remember: memory is predominantlyvisual (unfortunately, I cant think of a good image to help youremember this fact right at this moment).3. Create a mental memory tree. If youre trying to memorize a largenumber of facts, find a way to relate them in your mind visually witha memory tree. Construct big branches first, then leaves. Branchesand leaves should carry labels that are personally meaningful to youin some way, and the organization of the facts ("leaves") should belogical. Its been well recognized since the 1950s we remember"bits" of information better if we chunk them. For example, its easierto remember 467890 as "467" and "890" than as six individual digits.4. Associate what youre trying to learn with what you alreadyknow. It seems the more mental connections we have to a piece ofinformation, the more successful well be in remembering it. This iswhy using mnemonics actually improves recall.5. Write out items to be memorized over and over and over. Amongother things, this is how I learned the names of bacteria, whatinfections they cause, and what antibiotics treat them. Writing out
  3. 3. facts in lists improves recall if you make yourself learn the listsactively instead of passively. In other words, dont just copy the listof facts youre trying to learn but actively recall each item you wishto learn and then write it down again and again and again. In doingthis, you are, in effect, teaching yourself what youre trying to learn(and as all teachers know, the best way to ensure you knowsomething is to have to teach it). This method has the added benefitof immediately showing you exactly which facts havent made it intoyour long-term memory so you can focus more attention on learningthem rather than wasting time reinforcing facts you already know6. When reading for retention, summarize each paragraph in themargin. This requires you to think about what youre reading,recycle it, and teach it to yourself again. Even take the conceptsyoure learning and reason forward with them; apply them toimagined novel situations, which creates more neural connections toreinforce the memory.7. Do most of your studying in the afternoon. Though you mayidentify yourself as a "morning person" or "evening person" at leastone study suggests your ability to memorize isnt influenced as muchby what time of day you perceive yourself to be most alert but by thetime of day you actually study—afternoon appearing to be the best.8. Get adequate sleep to consolidate and retain memories. Not justat night after youve studied but the day before you study as well. Farbetter to do this than stay up cramming all night for an exam.WHY MEMORY MALFUNCTIONSOne of the most common complaints I hear in clinical practice is aboutmemory loss. Unfortunately, as a normal part of the aging process, manypeople start to find they cant bring to mind names, places, and things aseasily as they used to be able to do and worry theyre facing the beginningof dementia. "Benign forgetfulness" is the name we give to a process thatoccurs with normal aging in which a memory remains intact but our abilityto retrieve it becomes temporarily impaired. Usually we try to describe thename or thing we cant recall and when someone names it for us weinstantly remember the word we wanted. As long as this is age-appropriateand doesnt significantly interfere with normal functioning, there is noincreased risk for progression to dementia. However, the trick lies in
  4. 4. assessing what is and isnt "age-appropriate." Formal testing is sometimesnecessary in ambiguous cases. Reassuringly, in one study, patients over theage of 50 who initially presented with what was considered to be benignforgetfulness had only a 9% chance of progressing to dementia.Unfortunately, cognitive impairments other than memory loss arecorrelated with a higher risk of progression to dementia.Another reason people often have trouble remembering things is becausememory is a function of concentration. Which means when you multi-taskyou tend to forget more easily. Have you ever entered a room only to forgetwhy you did so? More likely youd remember if you werent simultaneouslyplanning your dinner for that night and trying to remember the phonenumber of the person who just left you a message. This also explains whypeople who suffer from depression or anxiety have a harder timeremembering things: both conditions interfere substantially with the abilityto concentrate. The strength of a memory is also determined by theemotional state that accompanied the original event. Emotion, negative orpositive, tends to embed events in our memory like a chisel carves lines instone.