If you are seriously trying to improve your memory, you should understand how the basic function of memory works. It is a highly complex process which still isn’t completely explored by our scientists. But lack of academic knowledge about its functions doesn’t mean we cannot learn how to use it effectively. Mnemonic technicians throughout history used varies methods to drastically increase their memory. A crucial part of all of them is how to remember anything. Basically these are the basics of the basics.
What is memory?
I will keep this answer short because this could easily fill a whole cyclopedia and go with the definition of Wikipedia:
Memory is an organism’s mental ability to store, retain, and recall information.
From an information processing perspective there are three main stages in the formation and retrieval of memory:
- Encoding or registration (receiving, processing and combining of received information)
- Storage (creation of a permanent record of the encoded information)
- Retrieval, recall or recollection (calling back the stored information in response to some cue for use in a process or activity)
Our whole personality is based on the collectivity of our memories. A person who is suffering from a neurodegenerative disease like “Alzheimer” isn’t just loosing the memory but the whole personality. If you are happy with the person you are right now, you should be thankful for every single memory of your life, no matter if good or painful – because altogether they are YOU.
We are receiving millions of information every day. Each smell, each color and each single sound we hear is passing the channels of our senses. If we would recognize all of them at the same time we hardly could concentrate on anything. It would be a sensory explosion. Hence our subconsciousness is filtering most of the information based on importance. Our experience (memory) defines which information is of interest and which isn’t. To be able to decide the importance of each input it has to pass our sensory memory. This happens in milliseconds. Therefore it is also called ultra-short-term memory.
Everything that passes this hardcore selection of 99.99% will jump in our consciousness. This is the point when we are getting aware of it. We are able to juggle with about 7 +/- 2 information at the same time. This is the capacity of our consciousness. If you hear 7 digits in a row and you repeat them in your mind you will most certainly be able to recall them correctly. But if you are listening to ten digits, it gets much harder. You probably still are able to do it but in most cases you already are using a certain method even if you are not aware of it because it is very natural to do so. Instead of memorizing the digits 2749839472 you will create chunks out of it like 274 83 94 72. This process is called chunking and the most basic memory technique.
Every information which passes this short-term memory will be stored in your long-term memory. Some scientist are claiming that every single piece of input will be stored even if you cannot recall it. For us it doesn’t really matter because if we cannot recall an information it is like it would not exist. But what about the very common situation where we KNOW that we know but we simply don’t remember? The information is on the tip of our tongue but we are struggling with the recall. We are trying hard to think about it but nothing happens.
And then, hours or days later, we instantly know the answer as if our subconsciousness relentlessly has searched in our massive memory storage and finally found it. But although this is always a kind of relief it is also filled with a bitter aftertaste: We couldn’t produce the recall when it was necessary. If we look at the three stages of the information process we failed at number three. This is because we simply relied on our natural memory – which already is amazing. But if we help it in stage two, or even before that in stage one, we will improve the chances of a perfect recall drastically.
What do we remember?
You should try to remember five things from your live. Take a few seconds to think about it. After that compare your results with my suggestions by clicking on the toggle box below.
What have you remembered?
- Your first kiss?
- Your graduation?
- Your marriage?
- The birth of your children?
- The death of a beloved person?
I am sure that you remembered something like that. Most certainly you did not recall what you had for lunch at the 26th of March in 1998. But why not? The reason is that we will always remember something meaningful to us. This can be good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Or important to you but insignificant for the people who shared the very same situation with you. It is 100% personal. Again, it is YOU and what defines your personality.
The right question now should be: How does this help us to remember on purpose? Your french vocabulary lessons might not have the same impact on you like the smell of you grandmothers apple pie. But it could not just even have the same impact, but also smell as your grandmothers apple pie. Don’t you think you would remember eat = manger so much better if you think about the delicious smell of apples and cinnamon every time you say the word “manger”? Of course this is by far not the best solution for this problem but you see where I going with that.
The 7 mental elements
Let’s have a look at the most important elements to give a single memory the necessary importance to be recalled easier. These are the absolute basics you should always keep in mind. They will accompany you in all your memory techniques, they even might accompany you for the rest of your life!
What have all my five examples above in common? These memories are full of emotions. It is something that all our positive memories have in common. They are “dear” to us and we feel nostalgic when we think about them. Even the “bad” memories are very strong. A bad emotion is also an emotion – sometimes even stronger. Only if a memory becomes too painful the mind saves itself by blocking it. This is often part of a “trauma”.
Your imagination and creativity is probably the most important element for a mnemonic technician. We use it for all our stories, mental pictures and every single mnemonic trick you will come across on this website. Try to remember a fairy tell – it is very easy.
If something is resulting from something else it is easy to remember. The whole process of recalling is improving when there is just no other possibilty for the answer. We will use this as much as possible for our techniques.
Do you remember your way home from your elementary school? Can you draw a basic map of your flat? Do you know where the yogurt in your super market is? We remember locations nearly perfectly even if we don’t “learn” them. It is a primary instinct to make sure we will always find back to our cave.
“I can see your point”. Visualisation is the ability of imagination – and therefor very close to fantasy. But instead of creating something new you will simply “see” it in your mind. This is a powerful ability to strengthen your memory. Because it is such an essential element we speak of mental images when we talk about a mnemonic construct.
This particular element is most certainly the strangest one. It is abstract and at first look feels unnatural to us. We use it to break something complicated into nice little bits of memorable information. We will use this especially for numbers. But it also helps to memorise difficult vocabulary or the countries of the world.
Yes, all seven elements are very important. But this one is probably the most basic of them all. It happens with every information we store: We associate it with another information in our memory. ALWAYS! We are even born with a fully connected brain and simply get rid of unnecessary associations over the time. Each time we learn something new it will be connected somehow to something else. This is also a big problem for us: Often we simply don’t know the right association for our memories. If we would know them all, this whole website would be meaningless.
All the facts above will form our basics. We will learn more about them in future articles. Alone they will not help us very much. Together they will forge the amazing tools of mnemonic technicians. These tools are what makes us MEMORY MASTERS.