Mark Twain said: “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” It is also true that everybody wants a better memory but nobody does anything about that either. We can’t do anything about tomorrow’s weather. But we can memorize better, today. So, why don’t we?
Here are eight forces that combine to create a powerful barrier to our great memory potential.
1. Print and Electronic Media
We have virtually outsourced our memories. There is very little that is not available in print or electronically. Remember when we needed to know the phone numbers of friends and family? No more. Some people can’t even recall their own phone number. Remembering directions? GPS devices are everywhere. The Gettysburg Address? Google it.
In Ancient Greece, students memorized Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Not the CliffsNotes versions, but the complete works; and not just the genius students. Educators felt memorizing these would imbue students with the virtues and nobility of the characters in the stories. Plus, very little existed in writing. To retain something, to pass it on to others or through time, it had to be memorized. We have the same level (actually more) of memory capability as those Greeks. But we don’t even know we have it so we never use it.
2. Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmatic and Remembering
Those Greek students, in 500 BC, were not just told to memorize. They were also taught how. We have the three Rs: reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic. They also had “remembering”. The memorizing method the Greeks learned had different names: Memoria, The Art of Memory or Memory Method (the term I use). It relies on the creative linking of images.
Today, in our schools, there is only one sure time when teachers use creative methods to help us with memorizing. It’s when they teach us the ABCs. Tots are introduced to the alphabet with song, rhymes, finger play, movement, music, colors and silly images. Every memory method imaginable is used to help tots memorize their ABCs.
After that, we’re on our own. But it worked great for the alphabet. So, why stop there? Our schools have. And yet they keep asking us to memorize more. For example, in Intro. to Chemistry, students are asked to learn the Periodic Table of the Elements, all 112 of them. Fortunately, there is a website that uses Memory Method, and in a creative and humorous way, shows you how to memorize all the elements in as few as two hours. Unfortunately, the method is rarely introduced. Schools should be teaching us how to memorize. Look how well we learned our ABCs.
3. Aging Brains and Memory
As you get older, you may find yourself saying that your memory “isn’t what it used to be”. Unfortunately, too many people think they have no choice. And then they rely more on their smart phone or post-it notes or they just resign themselves to not remembering. It is true that our natural ability to remember can diminish with age. But if you don’t buy into the attitude that a diminished memory is an unavoidable part of aging, there are things you can do.
Your brain has memory potential that will surprise you, if you give it a chance. I call it “feeding the hippo”. It’s the hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. It thrives on images and will do all your remembering – when you feed it right.
“But, when I was younger, I had a great memory, without using a method.” That may be true. And you would have had an even better memory using Memory Method.
4. Mnemonic Device or Trick
These are common terms used to describe Memory Method. Disappointingly, even many memory trainers call what they teach a “trick” which makes it sound trivial or even deceitful. Memory Method calls on our visual imagination to help us remember. This is a basic function of our brain. It’s no trick. It’s our brain doing what it is supposed to do, what it is wired to do.
And then there’s that word, “mnemonic”. It comes from the Greek word for remembering. “Mnemonic” looks like pneumonia, has a silent first letter like pneumonia, and rhymes with “demonic”. It’s not a name you eagerly embrace.
5. Twelve Things Doctors Recommend to Improve Memory
The Harvard Medical School Guide to Achieving Optimal Memory (McGraw Hill, 2005) suggests these 12 things. In order: Exercise, No Smoking, Vitamins, Socialize, Nutrition, Sleep, Learn Something New, Moderate Alcohol, Pursue Interests, Manage Stress, Organize and – last on the list – Memory Techniques.
The first eleven are indirect approaches. But your ability to remember improves with the direct approach. Memory Techniques should be first on the list, not last. Maybe people don’t learn how to memorize because they’re too busy following the doctor’s advice and jogging to improve their memory.
6. Memory Champions
Memory Method has been popularized by memory champions who demonstrate, talk and write about their colossal feats and how they do them. A recent best-selling book was written by a journalist who researched U.S. memory competitions, studied the method and then won the U.S. championship. While these memory champs do us a service by letting us know about Memory Method, their feats make some think that a championship memory is important and should be a goal.
But you can significantly improve your memory without striving to be a champion. You don’t need to have a competitive, colossal memory. Your achievable goal should be to have a much better memory than you now have.
7. Brain Training Games
If you’re not out jogging to improve your memory, maybe you’re playing brain games. Crossword puzzles, sudoku and especially online games are growing in popularity for memory improvement. Although these games may help to sharpen your mind, they don’t help your memory. In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission imposed a $50 million judgment against the most prominent brain game website for falsely claiming their games would help with memory loss.
Supposed “memory improvement” games don’t work because just remembering something doesn’t make you better at remembering the next time. What will make your memory better is: 1) learning to use a method for remembering and then 2) practice using the method. The more you use the method, the better you get, the better your memory becomes.
8. How Can Something Silly Help Me With My Serious Memory Tasks?
Memory Method has you work with silly images because they’re more memorable. It may seem counter-intuitive. A lot is at stake with your memory challenges. You’re in a serious mood about it. You want serious help. When you are presented with a method that asks you to think of silly things, you may resist. But it works. Memory Method is an activity that, when you let your “silly” out, lets you remember things you never thought possible.
One of my memory students pushed back: “I am a data cruncher in my job. Everything I do is serious and very straight-forward. It would be hard for me to think in a silly way, at this stage of my life.”
My response: “Your ‘silly’ is dormant, not dead. Let’s revive it.”