By Terrance Balousek, Contributing Writer
Most people take their memories for granted. We wake up every morning and go about our daily routine without giving our actions a second thought. We read news articles and discuss them in class after a long weekend. We watch YouTube videos and tell our friends all about them over a drink. Without even thinking about it, our memory is influencing the way that we react and interpret the world around us.
Human memory functions by utilizing three primary steps. To start, our brain turns an external stimulus into a neural code. This process is called “encoding”. During the next step, the encoded memory is organized and placed in the mind. The second step is called “storage”. Finally, we gain access to the stored memory through a process called “retrieval”. Encoding, storage and retrieval all serve a pivotal role in the accurate recollection of a memory. Luckily, there are many things you can do to improve and exercise your memory.
Organize Your Mind
Consciously organizing your memories is extremely important for accessing them at a later time. Think about it. If you place a cookbook on the political science shelf in a library, it will be nearly impossible to find when you actually want to give cooking a try. Similarly, if you store a memory in a part of the brain that isn’t relevant, it will be difficult to locate when you need it.
To overcome this issue, think about new information thoroughly and repeatedly when you first commit to remembering it. Try connecting the new memory to one that you already have in your mind. It is easier to retain information if it is similar to something that you already know.
Organizing memories and knowledge by location can also be very effective for studying. Try preparing for each of your classes in a unique, location. For example, every time that you study Spanish, go to a Mexican restaurant. The information will be organized in your mind according to topic and location. Thus, you’ll have double the chance of effective memory recall.
Record and Practice
People are often confident about the reliability of their memories. Unfortunately, the contrary is also true: the human brain can create false connections in order to understand complex situations. Also, our current knowledge and mentality affects the way that we reflect on prior experiences. Thus, our memories become progressively altered over time.
One way to increase the accuracy of your memories is to take detailed notes. Transcribe memories using the most descriptive, sensory-driven language that you can. Write down specific details about the way the scenery looked, how it smelled and how you felt. Reading these notes down the road will transport your mind back to that time and place.
You can also practice your long-term memory retrieval skills by making to-do lists. But there’s a catch: try not to read them. Visualize the list in your mind and picture each bullet point while accomplishing your daily tasks. Test yourself to see how much you can remember. If you make a routine out of this activity, you will notice an improvement in your memory recollection rates.
Learn and Repeat
What was your best friend’s phone number when you were in elementary school? Can you remember? You probably called it hundreds of times and this repetition stored it in your mind to be easily accessed years later. The effects of repetitive behavior have long been linked to increased memory retention and recall.
Today, you can use this same technique to give your long-term memory a boost. Try learning a new language or pick up an instrument that you’ve always wanted to play. The repetition required to master an instrument or foreign language has been shown to increase the effectiveness of your long-term memory and its organization.
Use Your Senses
Close your eyes and think about freshly-baked cookies. Can you imagine their smell? Linking a piece of information to your sensory experience has been shown to increase memory retention.
Sound can be used to efficiently store information in your mind. Try playing a specific musical genre when you want to chunk memories together. For example, listen to Bach while studying math. Mathematics will become linked with Bach in your mind. You can also increase the effectiveness of sound-linked memory recall by playing listening games like “guess the musical artist” when listening to the radio.
Most people have memories tied to the way things taste. When you eat something that you ate frequently in your youth, your mind can be instantly transported to a different time and place. This shows how strong the connection is between taste and memory. You can strengthen this connection by playing the game “guess the ingredients in this dish.” Try to reverse engineer recipes to connect previously tasted foods with what you are currently eating.
Can you do the Macarena? Although that song came out over 20 years ago, many people still remember how to do it. Movement is another great way to exercise the link between our senses and memory. Practicing dance routines can help improve your long-term memory retrieval. Plus, you’ll get a workout at the same time.
Play Mind Games
Have you ever felt unproductive while playing your favorite game? No need to worry about that anymore. If you want to improve your memory, try playing a memory game. These days, there are tons of free resources that can stimulate your mental prowess while letting you blow off a little steam.
To start, you can play free Sudoku puzzles, crossword puzzles and jigsaw-puzzles. People who regularly play these types of games have impressive long-term memories. The mind gets stronger when it is stimulated through mental strain. You could also try one of the thousands of memory apps available on your smartphone. I recommend an app called “Lumosity”, which uses repetitive games specifically designed to exercise the encoding and retrieval steps in the memory process.