How Can We Improve Our Memory? Expert Advice

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Moonwalking With Einstein" by Joshua Foer. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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How can we improve our memory? Is it even possible? Are these methods or techniques you can use?

Learn more about the concept of “how can we improve our memory” by understanding how memory works, and the best methods for strengthening it.

Can We Improve Our Memories?

If our brains are naturally good at remembering certain things and naturally bad at remembering others, is there anything we can do to improve our memories? Is memory like vision or height—you’re stuck with what you’ve got—or more like a skill you can improve? For a long time, scientists thought our memory abilities were fixed, but in a study that took place from 1981-1983, K. Anders Ericsson and Bill Chase found that people can train and improve their memories.

Ericsson and Chase tested the memory of SF. SF took digit span tests, which measure a person’s ability to hold numbers in their working memory, for 250 hours over two years. In the test, someone reads out a new number every second and the test subject must remember the sequence. 

Initially, SF, like most people, could only remember about seven digits. He remembered them by chanting them over and over to himself, which is called a phonological loop. So, how can we improve our memory?

Can We Improve Our Memory With Skill Acquisition, Plateaus, and Practice?

In asking the question, “can we improve our memory?” Ericsson has studied experts in different fields and discovered some commonalities between them.

Stages of Skill Acquisition

There are three stages of skill acquisition:

  1. Learning. In this stage, you’re experimenting and learning what’s most efficient.
  2. Streamlining. In this stage, you’ve got a handle on the activity. You’re making fewer mistakes and learning faster.
  3. Autopiloting. In this stage, you’re proficient at the skill and you don’t have to concentrate to do it anymore. Once you hit this stage, it’s actually possible to see the change in your brain in an fMRI scan—the parts of your brain that you use for consciously reasoning don’t light up as much.
Plateaus

It takes conscious effort to improve, so once you reach the autopiloting stage, you’ll plateau. Psychologists used to think that plateaus were inherent human limitations, but they’re usually not. To improve at something, we have to practice attentively and bring ourselves back to the first stage of skill acquisition. There are four ways to stay out of the autopiloting stage:

  1. Concentrate on technique.
    • For example, high-level musicians practice exercises and work on the hardest parts of pieces, rather than the easier parts.
  2. Focus on goals.
  3. Solicit feedback.
  4. Practice failing.
    • For example, if you want to improve your typing speed, it’s helpful to make yourself type faster than your usual pace and allow mistakes. Once you’ve figured out why you’re making mistakes, you can fix them.

The human race as a whole hasn’t hit any plateaus. Every Olympics, people beat existing records. Students in high school learn math that ancient philosophers spent thirty years studying. This might partly have to do with improvements in technology such as better equipment, but it probably has more to do with improvements to training methods.

Barriers tend to be psychological—for example, until Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, no one thought it was possible. Then, only six weeks later, John Landy beat it too. These days, the four-minute is simply an expectation if you want to be a professional middle-distance runner.

Practice

Of course, learning how we can improve our memory takes practice just like anything else. Studies have found that how long you’ve spent doing something isn’t a great indicator of how good you’ll be at it. (However, it usually takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert.) Your practice method is more important than how long you spend doing it.
Even if you’re already an expert, if you don’t practice deliberately, you can actually get worse. For example, mammographers don’t tend to get any better at their jobs as time goes on. This is because mammographers don’t get any feedback—if they miss a tumor, they won’t find out until much later, when they’ve probably forgotten the details of that particular mammogram. They can overcome this by evaluating old images that have a known outcome to test their skills.

We learned in Part 1 that the human brain is naturally good at remembering images and places but bad at remembering semantic memories like lists of numbers of words. In Part 2, we’ll learn how to use memory techniques to transform information into a form that our brain is naturally inclined to remember.

Additionally, we’ll learn to transform information into something meaningful that relates to memories we already have. We remember new things better when we can associate them with what we already remember.

Anyone can learn the arts of memory. But how can we improve our memory? Creativity helps because it allows you to quickly create images, but you don’t have to be a genius or a savant. You just need to pay attention to life and learn the techniques.

The goal of memory techniques is to transform information into a format the brain is naturally good at understanding—meaningful images and places. To do this, you’ll use the method of loci, which is the foundation for the memory techniques that follow.

The method of loci involves placing images of whatever you need to remember inside a “memory palace,” which is a memory of a real place you know very well, such as your childhood home. For example, if your shopping list contains blueberries, crackers, cereal, and beer and you wanted to memorize this shopping list, you might mentally place the blueberries in the mailbox at the end of your driveway, the crackers on the front lawn, the cereal in front of the front door, and the beer on the entranceway mat. When you need to remember the list, you simply mentally tour your memory palace and look for the objects you left in significant locations.

Some things you need to remember might not lend themselves well to imagery. There are some more structured techniques for remembering cards, numbers, and words below, but in general, you can transform abstract things to remember into images using creativity. You’ll remember images best if you can harness the brain’s natural strengths and interests. Try to make images:

  • Novel. If you’ve seen something before, you’re less likely to remember a specific instance of it. 
    • For example, if you need to remember to charge your phone, imagine your phone and charger having a silly conversation.
  • Lewd or funny. The brain is naturally interested in both of these things.
    • For example, if you need to remember to go to the bank, imagine a bunch of nude bank robbers.
  • Multisensory. The more cues you can create for a memory, the easier it will be to recall it.
    • For example, if you need to remember to pick up horseradish, imagine the smell, taste, and texture of it as well as the visual image.
  • Personal. You’ll remember things better if they relate to what’s already in your head because they have a web to fit into. 
    • For example, if you’re interested in military history, use tanks and planes in your images.

In addition to the method of loci, there are five additional memory techniques. You can combine any of them with the method of loci—once you’ve used the technique to transform information into an image or more memorable form, you can store it in your memory palace.

Now that you know the answer to the question “how can we improve our memory, make sure to practice. It’s important to make sure your memory stays sharp; it can help you be more efficient in your daily life, and have better recall for other situations.

How Can We Improve Our Memory? Expert Advice

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Moonwalking With Einstein summary:

  • The memory techniques that took the author from novice to US memory champion in one year
  • The 6 key types of memory we use everyday
  • Why memory isn't just genetic, and how you can improve your memory with the right techniques

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