In this post on memory, we talked about the key principles that make remembering easier. We took a look at the first three of the ingredients that go into making the perfect conditions for our memory to do its work. We used the recipe analogy to help us (here is why). Let’s move on to the rest of the ingredients that complete our recipe:
The Last 3 Key Memory Ingredients
Fourth Memory Ingredient: Knowledge Base
This principle to remembering is based on the notion that it is easier to process information that feels familiar rather than something we come across for the first time. While facing something new may be exciting and engages our attention, this alone does not make it easier to commit to memory. It needs some context from which to operate in order to make connections between what we are learning and what we already know. The bigger that distance, the harder it is to make those connections and it is less likely to be meaningful.
So when faced with information you need to remember, assess its newness factor. It is hard to remember random facts, but it is easier to remember them if they relate to what you already know. Ask yourself whether you already have some prior knowledge that can serve as a context for the new information coming in. It is actually easier to do than it sounds. Precisely because our brain is efficient, it has built-in systems to look for patterns and connections, and so, as we examine the information before us, see if you noticed yourself saying “yeah, it’s kind of like that thing” or “I remember so-and-so mentioning this a while back”. The more more background information you have, the larger is the context of your knowledge base, and the easier it will be to add new information into it.
Now, we know it is easier to integrate information into an existing context than to start from scratch, but what if you are indeed starting from scratch and the information is very new to you? What then? In this case, you would need to make an effort to create context around it. This will require additional time and can be accomplished by studying relevant information in addition to the initial piece you were trying to memorize.
For example, it is a lot of work to remember the names of all Greek philosophers off of a list, unless you have spent some time studying their key tenets. If you have not and you want to commit their names to memory, it is well worth it to spend some time learning about what each one of them said, what they had in common and how they differed in their views. In this context, remembering their names would feel like a piece of cake (pun intended). If some time in the future you need to remember the names of European philosophers, you’ll already have the base of your earlier studies and will make many connections easily, seeing that much of what you are learning about them connects to the earlier ideas of Ancient Greeks.
Fifth Memory Ingredient: Mental Space
Our brains need space in order to remember. It is going to be really hard to learn something and to remember it if you do not have the mental space for it. If you are already tasked with remembering many new things, learning additional facts will be challenging. Like with everything else, here too, everyone is different. If you reflect on your capacity to pay attention and how much you can focus at any given time, you will be better able to schedule your learning and give yourself the necessary breaks.
Regardless of each of our individual differences in how much time each one of us needs to process the information, we all need this processing time and need to create mental space for it. An overwhelmed brain will not integrate new information and it may have a negative impact on what you learned just prior to adding more to your plate. Think of it as eating. If you eat just the right amount, not only will you enjoy it, but you will also feel re-energized and will be able to move on with the rest of your day. If you eat too much, you may end up feeling sick and will not benefit as much from your meal.
Sixth Memory Ingredient: Wow Factor
How many times did you call something “memorable” and why? Most likely because that movie, book, or event was noteworthy and striking in some way that made it stand out of the ordinary. Something so impressive is hard to forget. It is no surprise then why this principle is included in our list of ingredients. Our attention is automatically drawn to unusual things, though they do not need to be absolutely extraordinary. So long as they are slightly out-of-the-norm and break our expectations, we are drawn to them.
You can recall such moments yourself — just think about the many times a day that you went “woah, look at that!” (it could be a beautiful bird you saw, a speeding car, a long line at the register, etc., etc.). This is how our attention is activated, but attention alone will not make us remember that. It is the degree of significance of the unusual that will impact how likely we are to remember it. For example, if besides going “woah!” you also thought “I need to tell so-and-so about this,” it is an indicator of importance. Try this for yourself, do a mental walk-through of your day. What stands out? It is most likely the less ordinary things, something that was different from your routine and caught your attention. Think of a movie you’ve seen… Why did you think of this particular one? What about it was impressive and memorable?
So, in order to use this ingredient in your memory pie, the information you are trying to remember needs to become unusual in some way. The more unusual, the better and you can exaggerate certain things on purpose in order to make ordinary information have a little bit of that wow factor. So what can you do to the information you are trying to commit to memory in order to make it stand out? Can you make it funny and ridiculous? Can you make it bright and colorful? Can you make it loud or heavy?
The final take-away
Basically, the most important take-away from here is that in order to remember something it has to be integrated into what you already know. In other words, in order to remember — one has to know. To achieve that, whenever you are in a situation where you have to remember something, find out as much as you can about the topic so that you create context around it and make it meaningful and useful.
This is how you make a proper memory pie, with proper ingredients, in order to benefit from your efforts to the fullest. However, there are times when we reach for a fast-food option. In the world of memory and remembering an equivalent to this would be the mnemonic devices. Even though over time you may lose the information you learn this way, these tricks and tools do help memorizing something in the shortest period of time possible.
If you are in a fast-food situation, learn about what you can do here.