All of us have things we need to remember on a daily basis, and many of us have tried different ways of committing them to memory with variable levels of success.
Why a Pie?
What do pies and memory have in common, you may wonder. We are going to use pie as an analogy. A good pie requires some key ingredients, and so does our memory in order to serve us effectively.
Have you been using specific strategies and were they effective for you? Do you know why they work? Knowing why and how something works is the most important key to improving one’s memory performance.
While there is no shortage of specific mnemonic devices, not many of us know exactly why they work. Understanding a few core principles behind successful remembering, will help you better use your cognitive resources in the future. And when things don’t work as well, you will know why and what to change in your individual situation in order to improve the performance of your memory. Better yet, you will be able to come up with strategies of your own, personalized and tailored specifically for your mind.
I love analogies because of their power to illuminate a concept and help highlight the point I am trying to make. For this discussion, the recipe analogy seems most fitting because it helps us understand that, in order to control the outcome of what we are cooking, we need to know the right ingredients.
When it comes to memory in particular, how much of each ingredient to use is actually up to you and your unique brain. This is similar to our taste preferences. Some of us prefer less salt in their dishes, and some want more. So, in order to figure out exactly how to tailor these ingredients to your taste, you will have to do a little bit of your own homework. Just know that each one of these ingredients is important. After using this recipe (and if you make sure to use all of the ingredients), you will find that you don’t need any specific tricks for your memory. So let’s get going! (Or, to stay true to our metaphor, let’s get cooking!)
The First 3 Key Memory Ingredients
First Memory Ingredient: Utility
We have all heard the phrase “use it or lose it” and know what it means to forget what we once knew. Usually that happens because we did not apply the information or knowledge we had. It has lost its utility and has become abandoned. Therefore, in order for something to be remembered it needs to be valuable, in that, it is useful and applicable.
How relevant is the information you are trying to learn? How soon and how often will you apply it? The more useful and the more frequently applied is the information, the easier it will be to remember and then to recall when needed. Knowing ahead of time in which ways the information you are trying to remember is going to be used and how it is applicable to you, will make a huge difference in how well you will be able to remember it. Thinking “I am trying to remember this because (insert purpose) and I will use it for (insert application)” can further help you focus on remembering all the necessary details.
When something is frequently recalled, it becomes automatic and requires no extra mental effort. For example, learning math facts is going to be very hard if they are not applied on a daily basis and in actual problem solving. Of course, using drills and flashcards may help, but the key point here is to understand the difference between a core principle and a specific tool. In other words, usefulness is one of the ingredients that makes remembering more successful and long-lasting. Whereas specific mnemonic devices (like drills, for example) are tools that can be pulled in as a last resort. These devices can help us learn something that feels random and useless. More on that here.
Second Memory Ingredient: Urgency
This ingredient is similar to the first one in that urgency makes something meaningful. However, not all meaningful things are urgent, but all urgent things are likely to be remembered.
Utility signifies that something is useful to us and, therefore, important to remember. Urgency, on the other hand, indicates that something is a priority and needs to be remembered now. In other words, if the information is vital to moving us ahead in our project — and we are stuck without it — it becomes urgent and is more likely to be remembered. This is especially true when information we are trying to remember has direct connection to a problem we are struggling to solve.
Now, be careful of the emergency trap. While the urgency heightens motivation, emergencies do quite the opposite. They often make us feel paralyzed and heighten our sense of anxiety, which is not conducive to learning. Worry-filled minds are more likely to struggle finding the right information and remembering details. For example, a case of urgency is trying to remember a password to a file that contains information without which you cannot finish your project. An example of an emergency may be trying to remember the phone number of the fire department when your house is on fire. Thank goodness that number is pretty simple to remember! I know this may be an exaggeration, but you got the point.
Third Memory Ingredient: Motivation
Here is the thing. Put simply, motivation is really a combination of utility and urgency, which we already covered. However, motivation deserves its own attention because, without it, little gets done. Motivation is often fueled by our understanding of what outcomes and consequences will result from our actions.
The information we need to remember may be meaningful and useful, and may indeed speed up our progress, but if the consequences of not remembering it are not great enough, we will not be motivated to commit it to memory. Our brain is constantly taxed with processing a lot of information. Because of that, one of its important functions is sorting out the things we do not really need to do. In this way, the brain is preserving its state of equilibrium and is conserving energy. When we need to remember something, we are asking our brain to exert a great amount of energy. In order for us to be able to deploy all that cognitive potential, there needs to be a big enough reward or consequence for it.
An additional factor to motivation is ease because, again, our brain likes to be efficient. If the action is easy to take, we are more likely to be motivated to do it because it requires less mental energy than a challenging task. If the information is not easy to remember, we may not be motivated. We may need a higher reward or a scarier consequence to get us going (keeping in mind, though, that too much anxiety will not make it effective).
It will be easier to remember a piece of information that is simply organised and, therefore, quick to master. It will require a lot more effort to remember what is perceived as a big mess of tangled concepts and random ideas. When we are dealing with a lot of information to remember, it needs to be broken down to smaller sections. Then, it can be processed sequentially in these bits and chunks. It looks more manageable this way and therefore more motivating. Just like you wouldn’t shove the whole sandwich in your mouth. Instead, you would eat it one bite at a time. It is more efficient this way.
Continue reading here for the rest of the “memory pie” ingredients. I hope that this complete recipe will help you consider new strategies in order to remember better long-term.