SE­CRETS TO A SMARTER YOU

Im­prove your mem­ory by har­ness­ing the power of words, im­ages and mnemon­ics

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - News - AN­DREA AU LE­VITT AND BRAN­DON SPECKTOR

Mem­ory cham­pi­ons share tech­niques to im­prove mem­ory and never for­get any­thing.

In an age when your re­frig­er­a­tor can help you man­age your shop­ping list and your phone can an­swer al­most any quest ion, you don’t re­ally need to re­mem­ber any­thing any­more. Which makes the feats of mem­ory cham­pi­ons – who can re­call hun­dreds of names and faces, strings of num­bers or words or the ­or­der of mul­ti­ple decks of cards – seem more su­per­hu­man than ever.

But here’s a nifty lit­tle se­cret about peo­ple with phe­nom­e­nal re­call: in a study re­cently pub­lished in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Neu­ron, re­searchers found that su­per mem­o­ris­ers don’t have un­usu­ally large cere­bral re­gions that al­low them to ab­sorb and re­tain prodi­gious amounts of in­for­ma­tion. Their brain struc­tures are es­sen­tially the same as those of the rest of us.

Com­par­ing brain scans of 23 mem­ory cham­pi­ons (all placed in the top 50 at the World Mem­ory Cham­pi­onship) with those of 23 av­er­age peo­ple of the same age, gen­der and IQ, the sci­en­tists found only one dif­fer­ence: in the mem­ory champs’ brains, the re­gions as­so­ci­ated with vis­ual and spa­tial learn­ing and the re­gions as­so­ci­ated with mem­ory lit up in a spe­cific pat­tern. In the nor­mal peo­ple’s brains, these same re­gions were ac­ti­vated dif­fer­ently.

Why is this im­por­tant? Be­cause we learn by see­ing, and the more we see, the bet­ter we re­mem­ber things. These su­per mem­o­ris­ers have per­fected a method to con­vert items they want to re­mem­ber (num­bers, faces, cards, even ab­stract shapes) into pictures they ‘see’ in their minds. It’s a process called build­ing a mem­ory palace.

Here’s how it works: f irst, you trans­form your tar­get items into an im­age – any­thing you’ll re­mem­ber. For in­stance, to re­mem­ber card se­quences, Ed Cooke (recog­nised as a Grand­mas­ter of Mem­ory by the World Mem­ory Sports Coun­cil) told Amer­i­can au­thor Tim Fer­riss that he as­signs each card a spe­cific celebrity, an ac­tion and an ob­ject; each three-card com­bi­na­tion then forms a unique im­age with the celeb from the first card, the ac­tion from the sec­ond and the ob­ject from the third.

In his sys­tem, the jack of spades, six of spades, and ace of di­a­monds be­comes the Dalai Lama wear­ing Lady Gaga’s meat dress and holding Michael Jor­dan’s bas­ket­ball. Cooke’s sys­tem is built on the idea that your mem­ory hangs on to un­usual cues bet­ter than mun­dane ones.

Then, men­tally place that picture some­where fa­mil­iar to you: in your

MEM­ORY CHAM­PI­ONS’ BRAIN STRUC­TURES ARE ES­SEN­TIALLY THE SAME AS THOSE OF THE REST OF US

house or a point along your com­mute, for in­stance. Fi­nally, make up a story about the items, which will help you con­nect them in the cor­rect or­der.

Here are a few of our favourite tricks that can help you to re­mem­ber things in your ev­ery­day life.

To Re­mem­ber: New words

Tech­nique: Change rou­tine

In a clas­sic study con­ducted at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan in the 1970s, a group of stu­dents stud­ied a list of words in two sep­a­rate ses­sions. Some stud­ied in a small clut­tered room and some in a space with two win­dows and a one-way mir­ror. One group of studiers spent both ses­sions in the same room, while the other split the ses­sions be­tween the two en­vi­ron­ments. Dur­ing a test given in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent room, the stu­dents who stud­ied in mul­ti­ple places re­called 53 ­per cent more than those who stud­ied in just one room.

Sub­se­quent stud­ies showed that vary­ing other as­pects of your en­vi­ron­ment (the time of day, the mu­sic in the back­ground, whether you sit or stand, etc.) can also help re­call. The the­ory is that your brain links the words to the con­text around you, and the more con­tex­tual cues you as­so­ciate with the words, the more your brain has to draw upon when it’s try­ing to re­mem­ber them.

To Re­mem­ber: Your PIN

Tech­nique: Count it out

You could use your birth­day, of course, or your phone num­ber, but iden­tity thieves have a way of fer­ret­ing those out. In­stead, try this tip from Do­minic O’Brien, an eight-time World Mem­ory Cham­pion. Write a four-word sen­tence, then count the num­ber of let­ters in each word. For in­stance, “This is my PIN” = 4223.

To Re­mem­ber: Facts and fig­ures

Tech­nique: Give your­self time

Mum was right: cram­ming is not the best way to mem­o­rise things. To learn and re­call sta­tis­tics (or pretty much any kind of fac­tual in­for­ma­tion), re­view­ing the ma­te­rial pe­ri­od­i­cally over a longer span of time is far more ef­fec­tive than re­peat­ing it in a shorter one.

This tech­nique dates as far back as 1885, when psy­chol­o­gist Her­mann Eb­bing­haus dis­cov­ered that he could learn a list of non­sense words if he re­peated them 68 times in one day and

seven more times be­fore be­ing tested the next day. But he could learn the same num­ber of words equally well by re­peat­ing them a to­tal of 38 times over the course of three days.

More re­cent re­search has demon­strated op­ti­mal in­ter­vals for study ses­sions: if your exam is one week away, study to­day and then again in a day or two. If it’s a month away, study to­day and then wait a week be­fore your sec­ond study ses­sion. Three months off? Wait three weeks to restudy. The fur­ther away your exam, the longer the op­ti­mal in­ter­val be­tween your first two study ses­sions. (A fi­nal re­view the day be­fore the test is also a good idea.)

To Re­mem­ber: A new lan­guage

Tech­nique: Read and lis­ten

In a study con­ducted at the Univer­sity of Puerto Rico, 137 Span­ish-speak­ing stu­dents were sep­a­rated into two groups. Over the course of eight weeks, one group read a book in English while si­mul­ta­ne­ously lis­ten­ing to an English au­dio ver­sion; the other just read the book silently. Each week, all the stu­dents took a quiz. Those who both read and lis­tened outscored the read­ing-only group on all eight quizzes.

To Re­mem­ber: Faces

Tech­nique: Fo­cus on noses

While some su­per mem­o­ris­ers spe­cialise in as­so­ci­at­ing names with faces (one of the dis­ci­plines in the World Mem­ory Cham­pi­onships), the mem­ory-palace tech­nique doesn’t work as well if the im­age of the face is cropped, nor­malised for colour, or changed in any other way.

Re­mem­ber­ing faces and recog­nis­ing them in dif­fer­ent con­texts may be a spe­cial skill that sev­eral stud­ies have linked to per­son­al­ity: ex­tro­verts are much bet­ter at recog­nis­ing faces than in­tro­verts, for ex­am­ple. One trick that may work: rather than fo­cus­ing on some­one’s eyes, as most peo­ple do, fo­cus on the cen­tre or to the left of the nose. The the­ory is that do­ing so al­lows you to take in the whole face at once.

To Re­mem­ber: A shop­ping list

Tech­nique: En­gage your body

How of­ten have you writ­ten your list – and then for­got­ten where you put it? In this vari­a­tion on the mem­ory palace, picture the items on your shop­ping list with dif­fer­ent parts of your body. For in­stance, imag­ine balanc­ing a pack­age of cheese on your head, an egg on your nose and a bot­tle of milk on your shoul­der.

RE­MEM­BER­ING AND RECOG­NIS­ING FACES MAY BE A SPE­CIAL SKILL LINKED TO PER­SON­AL­ITY

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