Memory is key to accomplishing just about any task. We often have to remember a number of steps to complete a task. It seems some people are born with excellent memories and some aren’t, but is there a way of improving our memory? What does neuroscience have to say?
We’ll explore evidenced based suggestions on how to improve memory, as well as how working memory training could be the key to improving recall.
Get rid of distractions
It’s commonsense, but with all of us getting barraged with information from our environment and devices all the time, it’s important to remember one of the best things you can do to aid your memory is get rid of distractions. But from a neuroscience perspective, how do distractions affect memory?
Your brain has limited attentional resources – which means no-one can truly multitask. Like a computer with too many apps open, when you are trying to remember something in an distracting environment, your attentional resources – the brain power you can devote to attention – is spread too thin. This affects your ability to remember.
Working memory – your brain’s post-it note for solving problems – is affected too. Stress from distractions also has a detrimental effect on forming memories.
How to do it: Where possible, find somewhere without distractions to learn new things. That may not be possible in the workplace, but if you work from home or study, you can try to tackle tasks that involve memorisation at a time when you won’t be distracted by those you live with.
Organise and structure information
Your brain finds it much easier to digest information if it is in a logical format. The brain is great at pattern recognition, so having information presented in patterns or categories leverages your brain’s pattern recognition abilities. The very act of organising information takes cognitive effort, which helps you remember it.
Breaking down information into smaller chunks, or “chunking”, makes it easier for the brain to handle. The brain has limited capacity for working memory, and chunking allows you to manage and remember more information by grouping related items together.
How to do it: For example, if your role is accounts payable for a business, you might find remembering vendor information to be tricky, especially when you first start. You can create your own list or spreadsheet to organise the vendor information, by grouping vendors by business type, location, account size, or some other parameter. This leans into your pattern recognition ability.
A mnemonic is a memory aid you use to help remember something more easily – it could be an acronym, rhyme, a sentence, an image, a song, or something else. The more it sticks out and is relevant to you the better. A common mnemonic you probably already know is the rhyme “I before E, except after C” to remember how to spell certain words. To remember exceptions to this rule, you could use the mnemonic “except if you’re a weird, beige, foreign neighbour”.
This trick is a neuroscience bonanza – rhyming taps into the auditory processing abilities of the brain, and many mnemonic create mental images, engaging different areas of the brain. Working memory is optimised too, as many mnemonics are a form of “chunking” which reduces working memory load.
How to do it: any way you like, as long as it’s memorable. To remember a list of vendors in a business segment, you might create an acronym or rhyme based on the first letters of the company names.
Use visual aids
Visual aids like charts, drawings or explosion charts lean into your brain’s natural strength – processing visual information. Also, visual aids engage spatial memory, as your brain has a fantastic ability to remember things based on where they are in relation to each other.
How to do it: to make sense of new information, draw a picture or a diagram. To remember a group of vendors, draw a diagram showing how they are related, or create a rough map with their locations.
Read it out loud
This method might not work for everything – after all, at work or school you might not be able to read out loud without attracting attention. Reading aloud is very effective at promoting recall, as it stimulates dual coding – using two separate pathways to encode new information, in this case your auditory and verbal systems. Reading with feeling also makes you emotionally engaged, involving the amygdala, which is involved encoding emotional memories.
How to do it: If you need to remember the contents of a chapter or article, read it out loud. Make sure you read with feeling, emphasising the key words, so your emotional memory is engaged too.
Train your brain
The methods described above should be in the toolkit of anyone who wants to know how to improve memory. However, they mostly fall into the category of ‘compensatory strategies’ – accommodations for an underlying weakness, rather than treating the cause. To improve working memory, we need to target the cause of working memory problems with a three pronged approach which includes skill building strategies. Most health professionals now agree that a three-pronged approach to intervention is most effective, involving a combination of individualised compensatory strategies, learning environment modifications and skill building strategies.
Training to improve memory deals with the root cause of many memory issues. In 2008, psychologist Susanne Jaeggi conducted a ground-breaking research study; her research showed evidence that working memory training actually improved participants’ fluid intelligence (the ability to adapt to new situations and solve novel problems rather than accumulating knowledge). This was an important breakthrough, as fluid intelligence is considered one of the most important factors in learning. It is also closely related to educational and professional success, particularly in challenging learning and working environments.
Builds auditory working memory and other critical processing skills.
Most suitable for people who struggle to focus particularly in noisy places or when being given verbal instructions. Very suitable for students with auditory processing, language or reading weaknesses.
Builds visual and auditory working memory
Most suitable for people who do not have language or reading difficulties and whose main difficulties are visual memory, organisational skills and maths.
Know how to improve memory using neuroscience
Understanding how to improve memory involves effective neuroscience-backed strategies. Eliminating distractions, organising information, using mnemonics, incorporating visual aids, and reading aloud are valuable compensatory strategies. However, to address the root cause of memory issues, a comprehensive approach is recommended, involving compensatory strategies and skill-building strategies. Sonic Learning’s working memory programs offer a groundbreaking approach to working memory backed by research. These programs, such as Fast ForWord and Cogmed, have demonstrated the ability to enhance participants’ fluid intelligence—an essential component for adapting to new situations and solving novel problems.
Struggling to retain information or stay focused? Sonic Learning’s personalised programs can help. Train your brain, improve listening skills, and conquer everyday challenges with engaging online activities. Discover how learning can be enjoyable and effective.
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