All memories are recovered memories, and we recover them through associations: We remember a past event because something currently in our awareness -- something we're looking at, hearing, tasting, thinking about, whatever -- reminds us of something, which reminds us of something else and so on back. That's why recent events are easy to remember: The environment is still loaded with cues and the chain of links is short.
Good memory, then, is all about processing information properly as it goes into storage. Psychologist William James summarized the fundamental principle in a single phrase: "The secret is … forming diverse and multiple associations with every fact we care to retain."
Here, then, are 12 concrete steps you can take to remember particular facts and improve your general capacity to retain what you learn. Note that only the last step is one you can take when you're actually trying to remember. All the rest have to do with how you absorb information and how you convert it into memory.
1. Pay attention. You can't remember what you never knew, so don't be multitasking when you're trying to learn or memorize something: Give it the spotlight of your full attention at least once.
2. Understand. The more completely you get it, the less likely you are to forget it. (If you don't understand football, you're not likely to remember the scores.)
3. Repeat and apply. Directly after learning something, repeat it, preferably out loud. Even better, use it in your own way. If you want to remember a joke, for example, tell it to someone and try to make them laugh.
4. Chunk. Although short-term memory can deal with only about seven items at a time, you can finesse this limit by grouping items together and thinking of each group as a unit. Later, you can unpack those units. Remembering the numbers 5, 4, 6, 1, 9, 8, 6, 5 and 8 is harder than remembering the numbers 546, 198 and 658.
5. Make meaning. Nonsense is hard to remember. Compare this:
disease reported control Chicago mumps the for of center an in outbreak
The Centers for Disease Control reported an outbreak of mumps in Chicago.
To make meaning where none inherently exists, the experts recommend embedding the information in an invented narrative. The license plate 3PLY981 thus becomes: Three carpenters cut a piece of plywood into nine pieces and ate one. Yes, I know, no one eats plywood; but that's actually a strength of the narrative in this case. (See step 7.)
6. Look for patterns. Stanford researchers have found that forgetting is a key aspect of good remembering, but not because you have to clear out space; rather, it's because forgetting the less relevant details reveals the more meaningful underlying structure.
7. Visualize. Search the information for some element you can turn into an image. If you've just met a Bridget Brooks and want to remember her name, you might picture the Brooklyn Bridge spanning her face from ear to ear. The more striking or ridiculous the image, the more likely it is to stick in your mind.
8. Hook it to something funny. Stalagmites or stalactites -- which ones go up? Well, it's like ants in your pants: The 'mites go up, the 'tites come down.
9. Hook it to a melody, chant, rhyme or rhythmic motion. Remember singing A-B-C-D-E-F-G to the tune of "Baa Baa Black Sheep"? How about: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue"? Or try pacing rhythmically while memorizing a table of data.
10. Associate new with old. Greek and Roman orators had a trick for remembering a speech. They would create a striking image for each topic they meant to cover, mentally put these images in the rooms of their home, and then, while giving the speech, picture strolling through their home. Each next room would remind them of their next topic, and in the proper order. Note that they didn't have to remember the order of their rooms, because this knowledge was already imprinted in their brains.
11. Link learning to environment. The memory tends to associate information with the environment in which one learns it. If you're going to be tested on something and you know where the test will occur, study the material in the same sort of place. If you don't know anything about the test site, study in a variety of locations so the memories won't get locked into cues from one environment.
12. Let 'er drift. If a memory is staying out of reach, stop fishing for it, the experts say. Instead, let your mind drift to the general area: to friends you knew then, to the school you went to, the car you drove ... with luck, you'll happen into the end piece of a chain of links leading to the memory you're after.