This article was originally published in StartsAt60 magazine here. I wrote this back in 2015 but for some reason never got around to sharing it here. Well, for those of you who missed it the first time around, here it is!
Memory can become an increasingly important issue as ageing occurs. Not only is there a wide prevalence of memory disorders such as dementia, but even those with regular aging brains encounter issues with memory. Losing keys, misplacing things, and forgetting a name become more frequent occurrences. However, memory is something that can be exercised and strengthened.
My name is Daniel Kilov and I am a Memory Athlete who has actively improved my memory. I went from having a poor memory which impacted on studies and day-to day life to now being capable of memorising the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, and over 100 random digits in five minutes.
This is not a product of some innate ability. It is the result of learning a few techniques which greatly improve encoding and recall.
One of the most vital components of successful remembering is that you put energy into the thing you are trying to remember. Just as the best jokes are those with the most surprising punch lines, the most memorable associations are those that do violence to our expectations. For example, you are trying to remember a shopping list: which is the more memorable mental image, a regular packet of sausages, OR a string of sausages, which, when accosted by a hungry dog, rears up like a cobra and tries to take a bite out of the surprised pup? The point here is that by making the image energetic and surprising, I am exercising my creative muscles and transforming the mundane into the memorable.
So how, then, should one bring one’s mental energy to the task of memorising? There are three key steps to making things memorable. The first step is to be mindfully aware of whatever it is that you are trying to learn; the second step is visual encoding; and the third is organisation.
Without cheating, try answering the following question: on the one dollar coin, which way does the queen’s head face? How did you go? If you got it right, were you sure, or did you have to guess? Even though hundreds of coins pass right under our noses (and through our fingers) each month, and have done for many years, because we have never really made ourselves aware of the direction the queen is facing, most of us do not know. You cannot remember something you never knew in the first place, so the first step to remembering is being mindfully aware. And for the record, she faces to the right.
The next two steps, those of visual encoding and organization, go hand in hand. We all have naturally fantastic memories for certain tasks; no one, for instance, after being given the ‘grand’ tour of a friend’s house then has to sit down with a blueprint to rote learn the layout. A few minutes of wandering around and we can mentally navigate the house without any difficulty. Our brains are primed for this kind of learning. Another example we can all relate to: a well-constructed film with an engaging narrative will resonate with us long after we leave the movie theatre. We make no special attempt to memorise the movie, but we may recall the film or a particularly engaging or graphic scene with great clarity even years after only a single viewing. Thus, the key to memorising is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form. An easy way to do this is to visualise a story involving the things you want to remember – and remember, the more energetic (and so more creative) the story is, the easier it will be to recall later.
Investing more mental energy into your memory will boost your creativity, and hopefully, help you remember the name of that movie you wanted to see, or where you left your keys.
In summary, here are my top five tips on how to improve your memory:
- Practice mindfulness – remember to remember. Most failures of memory are actually just failures of attention.
- Think visually. Construct visual mental movies of things you want to remember.
- Be creative. Bring colour to your mental stories to transform the mundane into the memorable!
- Organise your memories. How we organise information (or fail to do so) dictates how easily we can recall it later. Use mnemonics and acronyms.
- Look after your body. Regular exercise and sleep are vital for cognitive function, as is proper nutrition.