How to Make Your Brain Better: Memory

Imagine you have a new friend. Your friend lives a few blocks away from your home. The first time you go to visit you walk from your home to your friend’s home. You are paying attention as you go. You know you’ll want to return to your home and also to your friends home at a later date. Now, ask yourself: how many times do you need to repeat this process before you know the way to your friends home, and how to get back? Do you remember after just the first time? Does it take a couple of times? If your memory is usual it won’t take many times, maybe only once, for you to remember the way, even though the journey may involve several turns at several specific places. What do we learn from this?

Memory systems in human brains are the result of eons of development. These systems are driven by only a few parameters: risk, relevance, need, “sense”, connection, oddness and practice. Where risk is high it usually takes only one experience to plant a memory. We’ve all had the experience of remembering precisely – with one exposure – where we saw a poisonous snake, a dangerous-looking “thug”, or had an injury.

We also remember easily things, experiences or people that are directly relevant to us. When something or someone is clearly a part of our relevant situation then memory is enhanced. For example, if you meet the boss of your company once you are not likely to forget her or him.
Need also drives memory. If you are thirsty, in the desert, and someone tells you where there is water you are not likely to forget the directions to get there.

We also remember based on “sense”. When things “make sense” they are connected to other information or perspectives we already have. This drives memory also.

Memory training systems often work by connecting information so that one thing triggers another – recalling something that we know and having that trigger the memory of something we wish to remember.

Oddness is an interesting enhancer of memory. When a thing is of normal type or normal perspective we tend to pass the information to automatic brain systems, perhaps with a “ho-hum” response. Conversely, when a thing is odd in some notable way then it tends to “stick out” and is more likely remembered. Oddness is often used intentionally by advertisers to enhance product memory. An image may be taken from an odd angle, or only partly revealed, or consist of odd juxtapositions. By many approaches something can be made odd and it will more likely be remembered. This is probably evolutionary also because it we may be vulnerable to things we cannot explain (an opening to a much larger discussion of our extensive attempts to explain crop failures, life, the universe).

Last, we remember with practice. The more that the above factors are operative the less practice is generally needed. The more that information is not really relevant, useful, or does not make useful “sense” in the context of our personal life then the more that practice is needed to pound the information into memory.

So, if you want to remember more easily try to utilize one of these inherent memory-features to make the job easier.

But what about “I don’t have a good memory”? Of course, memory systems in the brain are like all other systems in the brain: some people have great ones, some people have average ones, some people don’t have very good ones. We do not know precisely what biology creates great memorization systems versus those that are not as good. And, because we don’t know what creates great systems we don’t know precisely how to enhance the systems we have, other than making them work better by invoking the above ideas.

Intentionally, I’m not going to talk about any memory-training products. I’m not selling anything and I don’t want to get into confrontations over product values.

There are centuries-old techniques, such as mnemonics, that do help us memorize things. The “memory palace” or “method of loci” technique has been recognized for a couple thousand years, and is basically the technique you might use to remember the turns when walking to your friend’s house, as in the introduction. You can read about it in Wikipedia under “method of loci”. Clearly, using memory tricks and memory techniques can clearly improve our ability to memorize information that doesn’t automatically “stick” based on one of the above processes. As for the comparative value of different commercial products, I advise you to do your own research in order to make your choices.

Can we do something that generally and inherently makes our memory better – that is, automatically better, as if our brain structure for memory was inherently improved? Outside of what is discussed above the most likely answer is “doubtful”. Of course, people selling products will likely disagree. However, most memory enhancers work on one of the above techniques. There is now some evidence of adult brain neurogenesis (formation of new neurons), but this is very limited. There is actually logic to this. The brain is a complex array of interconnected cells. It is those connections that determine who you are. If you were to stick a bunch of new neurons in there – disrupting your current “orchestration” then the person you are would begin to change. While some people might find that appealing evolution apparently did not. So, we don’t develop much in the way of new neurons over the course of adult life. This is probably good overall.

In the end, the best enhancer of memory is being interested. When we are truly interested in things we tend to remember them much better. If we think information is irrelevant to us and “academic” then we don’t tend to remember it very well (maybe long enough to get past the test, then forgotten). So, if you want to remember better then think of the above listing of “pro-memory” situations and try to bring them more into your life (except possibly risk).

Go HERE to visit the third page of this series, on Intelligence