A memory expert shares tips for improving your recall abilities

Working on your trained memory can help with everything from names to long-term learning.

Working on your trained memory can help with everything from names to long-term learning

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

"I'm sorry, what's your name again?" It's an embarrassing question for both parties, but especially frustrating for the forgetful one. With all the information we take in on a daily basis, these little lapses are irritating but inevitable, right? Maybe not. 

While it's unlikely that you can remember every day crystal clearly (like those who have HSAM, Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory), there are strategies for improving memory retention outside of fighting memory loss associated with aging. We asked Francis Blondin, two-time Canadian Memory Champion and board member of the Canadian Mind Sports Association, for his insight on the different kinds of memory and where we might be able to focus our brain building efforts.

Natural vs. trained memory

Blondin highlights the distinction between "memory as a natural ability that we all possess to varying degrees, versus memorization, as a skill that you can learn to get better at." He says, "It's not the same thing, and you can become extremely good at memorizing stuff, even if you happen to be born with below average memory." Though you can improve your natural memory through lifestyle, Blondin says natural memory abilities are largely dependent on your genes. Your trained memory, however, "can be spectacularly improved almost without limits." 

"I can spend hours reciting all the thousands of things I have stored in various memory palaces," he says. More on memory palaces later. "When I'm at my peak, I can memorize 100 digits in less than a minute. And yet, I swear that my natural memory is still, to this day, nothing special at all. Just yesterday I ruined my coffee maker by forgetting it on the stove long enough for the plastic handle to melt." So, even if you don't think your natural memory is all that great, there's still a lot you can do.

Types of memory

Blonding took us through the different kinds of memory and their functions.

Implicit and explicit memory

"Explicit memory is what you can say out loud: 'Newton was an important scientist'" says Blondin. "Implicit is everything else." He offers these examples: "The feeling that you probably should avoid falling off a cliff or putting your hands on a hot stove is a form of implicit memory. So is every ability you've learned to perform, like riding a bike or tying your shoelaces."

Procedural memory

Procedural memory describes a specific kind of implicit memory that includes all the abilities you've developed. Blondin says these include "how to read and write, how to hold a fork and again, how to ride a bike." To better develop these abilities, Blondin points to K. Anders Ericsson's concept of deliberate practice — focused, systematic practice to optimize performance.

Sensory memory

"That's all the thousands of bits of data that we're perceiving all the time through our senses," says Blondin. "Of this almost-infinite amount of data, 99+ per cent will be forgotten in half a second, but your brain will select a few things that, for various reasons, seem to be worthy of attention." This isn't typically the kind of memory you try to improve, but Blondin offers the example of "people who are passionate about cooking, over time, will develop a more powerful sensory memory for different tastes."

Short-term and working memory

Short-term and working memory are terms often used interchangeably, though the two have complex distinctions that are still being analyzed. In simple terms, working memory can be seen as a pattern or a process, while short-term memory is more focused on duration. "Working memory is what you use in real time to consciously remember something, analyze something or perform an action," Blondin says. Working memory also involves your ability to group data into chunks. Blondin uses the example of learning how to speak French. "At the beginning, saying the word bibliothèque might necessitate most of your working memory capacity." You might need to break the word into multiple chunks: bi - blio - thèque. With time and practice, you'll be able to say a full sentence containing the word bibliothèque, while also thinking about what comes next. "Improving your working memory is like improving your IQ," he says, "it's pretty damn hard. I think it's possible, but it's not something most people should focus on."

Episodic memory

Episodic memory is everything involved in "remembering your life and what happened to you," Blondin says. "Although episodic memory is stored in your brain differently than factual knowledge, there isn't much difference between the tips and tricks I would give to someone hoping to better remember their life."

Semantic memory

Semantic memory covers areas like factual knowledge, words, numbers, concepts and so on. Blondin says, "This is most people's main area of focus when they say they worry about their memory. All the tips I've provided will help tremendously."

Tips for improving your memory

Learn to focus on just one thing at a time (at least for a moment)

"Your ability to concentrate is crucial for memorizing and for most important cognitively-demanding forms of work," Blondin says. "Your ability to focus can be trained and it can be improved. If you're a student and you want to learn and remember a lot, you need to get your cell phone and internet addiction under control. Those quick, 30-second checks of your email are much more damaging to your concentration than you can imagine." Blondin suggests giving yourself at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus before taking a short break. "Ideally those short breaks should be for walking around, breathing, chatting with someone or eating," he says, "not for your emails or anything that will keep capturing your attention when you try to go back to work."

Don't just listen or read — test yourself

"To remember something long-term, the two most important concepts you need to know are retrieval practice and spaced repetition," says Blondin. "Retrieval practice is basically just testing yourself. Don't just reread your notes, close your book and see how much you can recall without any aid. That's not just a way to verify what has been remembered, it's also an extremely powerful way to learn. You can read and reread a million books and spend a million years sitting in class, but very little of what you've read and heard will stick if you don't make an effort to actively process and recall the information." Even if your goals aren't academic, Blodin says, "You should still use retrieval practice by asking yourself questions like 'What's my credit card number?' or 'What's the name of that guy again?'".

Spaced repetitions for long-term learning

Spaced repetition is a systematic review system. Blondin says, "On the first day, you review [something] as much as you need to in order to make sure you won't forget it after a few hours. One or two reviews will be enough for that purpose most of the time. Then you review once the following day. Then you start spacing out the reviews." He suggests a three day interim, then seven days, then one month, two months, three months and so on. "Eventually, just two reviews a year can be enough," Blondin believes. "You can become really good at memorizing and at building memory palaces, but you'll still forget most of what you learn if you never review. That's not a problem if you just want to do something once, like a presentation or an exam, but for long-term learning, there's no getting around the fact that you need to review." Blondin also recommends using spaced repetition software (like Anki or Quizlet) to help you along. Spaced repetition and retrieval practice can be combined to help you "remember amazing amounts of information," says Blondin.

Mnemonics and memory palaces

"There are many things you can learn using just focused attention, direct associations, logic, understanding and your natural memory," Blondin says. "However, there are also a lot of facts, difficult words, names, numbers and concepts that won't easily stick." For those, Blondin suggests using mnemonics, where your brain transforms something difficult to remember into something "your strange brain can remember much more easily." 

With names he says, "It's easy enough if I just heard it and it's floating around in my short-term memory, but I'll forget it in a few seconds if I don't make an effort. How can I make this name more memorable?" He suggests adding associations and imagery. The name "Bob", for example, might conjure an image of bobbing for apples. Blondin says, "That quickly improvised image will transform what's initially a bunch of mostly meaningless sounds into something funny and easy to remember." He points to a New York Times article that breaks down the process in depth.

Similar in practice, the memory palace technique consists of vividly visualizing an environment you know very well, like your bedroom, and associating information you need to memorize with it (eg. your credit card number is in the sock drawer). Then, when you walk through that environment again in your mind, that information will be in place for you to retrieve.

These tips don't have to be flawless to have the desired effect. "To paraphrase someone else," says Blondin, "memory techniques work even when they don't work. Just the fact that you're paying attention to something and you're playing around with it is enough to drastically improve your odds of remembering."

Lifestyle practices

"Both meditation and physical exercise will help improve your memory and your ability to focus," says Blondin, "but that's just one of at least 50 different reasons why you should start developing those two habits." Blondin suggests that even one minute per day of meditation can have an impact.

"Diet is, of course, very important for all kinds of reasons," notes Blondin, "but as long as you have a relatively healthy diet, I don't think eating one thing instead of another has a big effect on memory. I know at least one former World Memory Champion with a terrible diet." 

Sleep is at the top of Blondin's recommended lifestyle practices. He thinks that getting sufficient sleep, and quality of sleep, is the single most important thing you can do for your health, your mood, your energy level and your ability to focus and memorize. Blondin highlights the work of Matthew Walker for more on the importance of sleep. "It will help a lot with every single thing in your life, including your memory. It's possible to cram for an exam all night long and perform alright, but don't confuse that with real learning. Real learning requires sleep both before, for focus, and after, for consolidation. Without that, nothing will stick."

Have any memory tips you'd like to share? Brain questions for our experts? Don't forget and let us know in the comments.

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