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The Science of Memory: Top 10 Proven Techniques to Remember More and Learn Faster

Melanie Pinola
Melanie Pinola / September 13, 2016

I've always been envious of people with exceptional memories. You know, the kind of people who amass encyclopedic knowledge with seemingly little effort, while we mere mortals struggle to remember the name of the person we were just introduced to.

There's hope for all of us, though. Just as we can strengthen any other muscle in our bodies, we can train our brains to remember more and learn anything faster. You don't need to be born with a photographic memory (and, in fact, with few notable exceptions, virtually no adults actually have a photographic memory).

Whether you need to study for a test, want to learn a new language, hope to avoid embarrassing memory lapses (what's the name of your manager's spouse again?), or simply want to stay mentally sharp, improving your memory is easier than it sounds. All it takes is trying out new memorization techniques or making key adjustments in your lifestyle. Here are 10 of the best tips and tricks to help boost your memory for both the short and the long term.



The Science of Memory

First, let's talk about how memory works, so we can understand the science behind these memorization techniques.

If memory–or how our brains make and recall memories–seems mysterious to you, you're not alone. Scientists and philosophers have been trying to figure out how human memory works for at least 2,000 years–and they're still making new discoveries. For example, British scientists recently won the largest prize for neuroscience in the world (1 million Euros) for their work on memory–the discovery of a protein in the brain that plays a key part in memory formation and memory loss. There's still lots to discover and understand.

Still, we do know that there are basically three stages or steps to memory processing:

Encoding

The first step to creating a memory is called encoding: It's when you notice an event or come across a piece of information and your brain consciously perceives the sounds, images, physical feeling, or other sensory details involved. Let's take, for example, your first trip to Las Vegas. Your memory of that event is formed by your visual system (noticing extravagantly designed buildings and lush landscaping, for example), your auditory system (the ringing of the slot machines), and perhaps smell (the distinctive scents pumped into each casino).

"Research suggests we remember things better and retain them longer when we associate meaning to them using semantic encoding"

If you attach meaning or factual knowledge to any of this sensory input, that's called semantic encoding. For example, if you associate the Bellagio Resort and Casino in Vegas with its location on a map or the fact that the dancing fountain show takes place every 30 minutes, you're encoding the Bellagio with semantic memory. This is good to know because research suggests we remember things better and retain them longer when we associate meaning to them using semantic encoding.

Storage

All of these little bits and pieces of information are then stored in different areas of your brain. Your neurons (the nerve cells in your brain) pass signals to each other about what you perceived, effectively "talking" with each other and building either temporary or long-lasting connections. It's that neural activity and the strength of those connections that make a memory, neuroscientists believe.

Brain neurons
The network of neurons in our brains are the key to storing and retrieving memories

There are two kinds of memory: short-term and long-term. Short-term or working memory is like your brain's scratchpad. It's when your brain temporarily stores information before either dismissing it or transferring it to long-term memory—for example, remembering what you want to order for lunch before calling the takeout place. Once your food is delivered and eaten, your brain can let go of that info. Long-term memories are those memories you hold on to for a few days or many years–things like how to ride a bike or the first dinner you had with the first person you fell in love with.

Both kinds of memories can weaken with age because the brain loses cells critical to those connections between neurons over time–but that's not inevitable. As with muscle strength, you can exercise your brain; with memory, it's "use it or lose it."

Recall

And finally, to retrieve a memory, your brain "replays" or revisits the nerve pathways created when the memory was formed. Repeatedly recalling information helps strengthen those connections and your memories, which is why techniques like reviewing your notes or using flashcards help you retain information.

However, when you remember something, it's not an exact reproduction of the first time you experienced an event or came across a fact, because your own awareness of the current situation gets mixed in with the memory. As The Human Memory explains: "memories are not frozen in time, and new information and suggestions may become incorporated into old memories over time. Thus, remembering can be thought of as an act of creative reimagination." That's also why people can have false memories, or their memories of events might change over time.


Now that we know some of how memory works, we can use that understanding to improve our memory retention and learning. We'll start with the lifestyle changes we can make, since they can improve more than just our memory, and then go over specific memorization techniques.

Lifestyle Changes That Can Improve Your Memory

In general, increasing your overall health with better sleep, regular exercise, and better nutrition will improve your brain health–including memory–as well as your physical health. These three things will give you the biggest bang for your buck in preventing memory loss and improving your memory overall.

1. Sleep on It

Sleep

Here's an easy way to boost your memory: Get a good night's sleep or take a power nap after learning something new. One recent research study found that people who slept for 8 hours after learning new faces and names were better able to remember them compared to those who didn't get the sleep opportunity. And in an analysis of two research datasets, psychologist Nicolas Dumay determined that not only does sleep protect our brains from forgetting memories, it also helps us retrieve memories better.

Why is this? It appears that sleep "resets" our brains and is critical for memory and learning. If you're sleep-deprived, the brain's neurons become over-connected with so much electrical activity that new memories can't be saved.

So this makes the case against late-night cramming for a test or staying up all night to rehearse your presentation. As the New York Times explains:

Hit the hay at your regular time; don’t stay up late checking Instagram. Studies have found that the first half of the night contains the richest dose of so-called deep sleep — the knocked-out-cold variety — and this is when the brain consolidates facts and figures and new words. This is retention territory, and without it (if we stay up too late), we’re foggier the next day on those basic facts.

Naps count too! Researchers found that taking a nap of about 45-60 minutes immediately after learning something new could boost your memory 500%. So sleep on it. If your boss or co-workers catch you napping at work, just show them these findings.

2. Get Moving

Exercise

Just as sleep is important for both your physical and mental health, so too is that other pillar of health: exercise.

Our brains rely on oxygen to function properly, and to get that oxygen, we need a healthy flow of oxygen-rich blood to our brains. Guess what? Exercise improves blood flow to the brain. Researchers at the National Institute on Ageing discovered that aerobic exercise, such as running, is linked with improved memory. Exercise such as this triggers high levels of a protein called cathepsin B, which travels to the brain to trigger neuron growth and new connections in the hippocampus, an area in the brain believed to be critical for memory. The tests were done on mice, monkeys, and 43 sedentary university students who were forced to get fit for the study. Those subjects with the largest improvements in memory? You guessed it: those with the largest increase in cathepsin B after physical activity.

Don't rush to get your running shoes on just yet, though. After studying or learning something new, it might pay to wait. Exercising about 4 hours after learning might be better for improving memory than exercising immediately after. Scientists are still unsure why delaying exercise is more effective than working out immediately, but perhaps our brains need time to soak in new information before that brain-boosting exercise.

3. Improve Your Diet

Vegetables

We don't mean to sound like your mom or doctor with all this advice, but here's the last lifestyle-based recommendation: Eat healthier.

You've probably guessed it, but saturated and trans fats–the kind you get from red meat and butter–are linked to poorer memory. Just as cholesterol can build up in your heart's arteries, it can build up in your brain. Harvard Health explains: "The buildup of cholesterol plaques in brain blood vessels can damage brain tissue, either through small blockages that cause silent strokes, or a larger, more catastrophic stroke. Either way, brain cells are deprived of the oxygen-rich blood they need to function normally, which can compromise thinking and memory."

Diets rich in healthy unsaturated fats, on the other hand–specifically the Mediterranean diet which consists mostly of vegetables and fruit, olive oil, seafood, and nuts–have been linked in numerous studies to improvements in memory and lower rates of memory decline across age groups and ethnicities.

Mnemonics Help You Remember More

Beyond living a healthy lifestyle, specific techniques will help you better remember details of anything you're learning. Of all the many types of memory aids you can use, mnemonics may be the best. "Mnemonics" refers to any system or device designed to aid memory–usually, patterns of letters, ideas, or associations, such as ROYGBIV to remember the colors of the rainbow.

Here are some of the most common and helpful mnemonics:

4. Try Common Mnemonics

The most common mnemonics help you quickly remember words or phrases. For example, to remember the order of the planets orbiting the sun, you might have learned in grade school "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" (where the first letter of each word stands for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, respectively).

Here are some other examples:

  • Acronyms or Expression Mnemonics: Similar to the planetary example above, thinking "Every Good Boy Does Fine" can help you remember the lines of the treble clef in music (EGBDF). One expression I learned from watching a cooking show: "Looks the same, cooks the same"–a reminder to chop and dice ingredients uniformly for even cooking.

  • Music Mnemonics: Music is a powerful mnemonic because it provides a structure for information and encourages repetition. It's a lot easier to remember a catchy song than it is to remember a long string of words or letters, such as your bank account password. (It's also why advertisers often use jingles to make their messages stick in your head. Don't get me started with that Kars4Kids jingle.) You probably learned the alphabet through the ABC song, and if you're studying a popular subject, chances are there's a song for that–like learning the 50 states in the USA with the Fifty Nifty United States song or learning all the elements with the periodic table song.

  • Rhyming Mnemonics: Perhaps you're familiar with the rhyme that starts with "30 days hath September, April, June, and November"? Rhymes are similar to music mnemonics. When the end of every line rhymes, it creates a song-like pattern that's easy to remember.

  • The Rhyming Peg System: You can use number rhymes to memorize a list of items using the "peg system" (also known as the "hook system"). In this system, for each number, you memorize an image of a word that rhymes with it. That image provides a "hook" or "peg" for things you want to remember, especially in order.

So, for example, let's say you had a grocery list of items to buy: milk, cookies, bananas, and bacon. With the peg system, you'd:

  1. First learn or create the rhyming peg. One = bun. Two = zoo. Three = tree. Four = Door. And so on.
  2. Form a vivid mental image of the rhyming object for each number. (What does that bread bun look like? What kind of shoe is it? What color are the leaves on the tree? What kind of hardware does the door have?)
  3. For each item on your grocery list, picture the rhyming object with your list item. For example, if the first item on your list is "milk," "one" = "bun", so envision a container of milk being squeezed between a giant bun of bread. Then see a box of cookies falling into a lion's cage at the zoo, a maple tree inside the store with bananas hanging off of a branch, and slices of bacon stuffed in the mailbox slot of a black door.
Mnemonic
The rhyming peg system helps you remember a list of items

It takes some work and creativity to memorize a list this way, but you'll retain that information much longer than if you just tried to memorize the words in order. And once you've got the basic rhyming peg down, you can reuse this for any future lists.

5. Create a Memory Palace

"The number one technique that we top memory athletes use is still and will always be the memory palace. If someone were to learn one thing, it should be that."- Nelson Dellis, four-time USA Memory Champion

The memory palace is a mnemonic device that's as tried-and-true as it gets–and deserves a section of its own. Invented by orators in ancient Roman and Greek times, the memory palace (or mind palace or "method of loci") technique is both effective and enjoyable to use, whether you're trying to remember a speech you have to give, details of a case you're working on (a la Sherlock Holmes), or your grocery list. In fact, four-time USA Memory Champion Nelson Dellis–who claims to have an average memory–says that "The number one technique that we top memory athletes use is still and will always be the memory palace. If someone were to learn one thing, it should be that."

With the memory palace technique, you associate a location you're familiar with–such as your apartment, the block you grew up on, or the route you take to work or school–with the items you're trying to remember. It works because you're visually pegging (or "placing") representations of what you want to remember in places you already have strong memories of.

To use the memory palace technique:

  1. Imagine yourself standing your memory palace. Your home is a great one to start with, even if it's not a palace.
  2. Mentally walk through this palace noticing distinctive features you can use to store things you want to remember. Each stop on that path is a "loci" you can peg the idea or object to. For example, your front door might be one loci, the table in your foyer a second loci, a lamp in your living room another. Commit those features to memory so when you think of your palace, the route and objects in it will be imprinted in your mind.
  3. Associate what you need to remember with the loci in your palace. If you had a grocery list, for example, at the front door you could picture milk flooding over the door from the inside, like a waterfall of milk. Then you get to the foyer and the table is buckling under the weight of all the chocolate chip cookies stacked on it to the ceiling. And instead of a lightbulb in your living room lamp, you see fluorescent yellow bananas.

It sounds pretty absurd, but as we'll discuss in more detail later, the more visual, animated, and outrageous you can make your memories, the better.

Here's a video from 2016 World Memory Championship winner Alex Mullen describing in great detail how to "attach" words to objects and locations in with the memory palace technique. You'll find yourself remembering these 20 words long after you watch the video:

6. Remember More with Chunking

Chunking is another mnemonic device that can make large amounts of information more memorable. You probably use it already. To remember or share a phone number, chances are you chunk the numbers so they're easier to remember: "888" "555" "0000"–rather than the more memory-intensive "8 8 8 5 5 5 0 0 0 0." Research suggests that on average the human brain can hold 4 different items in its working (short-term) memory. But by grouping information into smaller sets, we can "hack the limits of our working memory," as The Atlantic puts it, to remember more.

The chunking technique involves grouping items, finding patterns in them, and organizing the items. You might group items on your grocery list by aisle, for example, or look for connections between events in a historical period to create chunks of them, such as moments in the 1920s that involved the US Constitution.

Chunking works because our brains are primed to look for patterns and make connections. Brain Pickings explains: "Our memory system becomes far more efficient, effective—and intelligent—than it could ever be without such refined methods [as chunking] to extract useful structure from raw data."

To put this into practice yourself, you could group vocabulary words for a new language you're learning by topic, organize items in a list by the first letter or by the number of letters they have, or associate items with the larger whole they might be involved in (e.g., apples, pie crust, brown sugar, butter = apple pie).

Everyday Memorization Techniques

In addition to memory aids or tricks like the ones above, there are also broader strategies that will help you better remember what you come across everyday–techniques that work no matter what you're trying to memorize.

7. Make New Connections That Are Visual (and Perhaps Outrageous)

Name badge

Shattered glass. Stinky socks. Screaming, swaddled babies. When Dellis gave me a crash course on memorization techniques in preparation for the 2012 USA Memory Championship, the one thing that stood out to me across all of the methods he shared was how vivid–and often absurd–the images you create need to be to become fixed in your memory.

Visualization is a key skill when it comes to memory. Names and numbers are hard to remember because they're abstract and our brains can't easily latch onto them. But our brains store and recall images much more easily.

Here are some visual tricks that work well:

Turn the sound of names into images: As soon as a stranger says, "Hi, I'm Mike," and you say, "Hi Mike"–poof! You forget this person's name, because you haven't really associated that word with anything about that person (maybe it's been stored in your short-term memory, but probably not). You need to connect "Mike" to something more.

With the memory palace technique and other memorization techniques that deal with symbols (such as letters and numbers), the best strategy is to turn something abstract into a sound and visual representation. Use the sounds in the word to turn it into an image. In the case of "Mike," you can think of a picture of a microphone. For multi-syllable names, create an image for each syllable. For "Melanie," you might think of a melon and a knee crushing it.

Then, the second step is to peg (or anchor) that image onto the place you will remember it. If your new friend Mike has unusually big eyes, you might imagine microphones bulging out of each of his eyes.

It's similar to the memory palace technique, but instead of anchoring new visual information to a location, you anchor it to a physical feature of whatever you're trying to remember.

Animate the images: The more animated and vivid you can make these images, the better. Doing this creates stronger, novel connections in your brain between that word or number and an image.

Engage as many of your senses as possible: Remember how the brain begins the encoding process through your senses? You'll remember abstract things like names and numbers more if you tap into your sense of hearing, taste, and smell. In the Mike example, perhaps you'll hear audio feedback from the microphones. In the Melanie example, perhaps some of the fruit is gushing out of the melon and you can actually smell it.

When it comes to numbers, similar techniques apply. You can associate numbers 0-9 with images, which will help you better remember long strings of numbers. 0, for example, might be a donut; 1 could be a flagpole; 2 might be a swan. To remember the number 210, then, picture a swan swimming past a flagpole to pick at a donut. (Memory champions such as Dellis encode double- or triple-digit numbers with images so they can memorize hundreds of digits in five minutes. For example, 00 equals Ozzy Osbourne, 07 is James Bond.)

8. Write It Down, Don't Type It Out

Notebook

Put away your laptop. You're more likely to remember notes you write by hand than those you type.

There are a few reasons why handwriting is preferable to using your laptop when it comes to memory. First, the physical act of writing stimulates cells at the base of your brain, called the reticular activating system (RAS). When the RAS is triggered, your brain pays more attention to what you're doing at the moment. When you're writing by hand, your brain is more active in forming each letter, compared to typing on a keyboard where each letter is represented by identical keys.

Also, research has shown that when people take notes on their laptops, they tend to transcribe lectures verbatim. Conversely, when taking notes by hand, we tend to reframe the information in our own words–a more active kind of learning.

Perhaps even better: Create mind maps for topics you're learning. It combines the visual element–remember, our brains latch onto images–with handwritten words.

9. Use Spaced Repetition

You know how you can study for a test or learn something new, like interesting facts from a book, and then immediately forget what you learned? Unless we actively work to retain that information, chances are we'll lose it–in a matter of days or weeks. That's the natural exponential nature of forgetting, as depicted by the forgetting curve:

forgetting curve
Our chances of remembering anything new we learn drops greatly if we don't revisit the material

If you want to remember something for the long term, such as vocabulary in a foreign language or facts you need for your profession, the most efficient way to learn that material is spaced repetition. As Gabriel Wyner explains in his excellent book on learning languages, Fluent Forever, "At its most basic level, a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) is a to-do list that changes according to your performance."

You'll begin with short intervals (two to four days) between practice sessions. Every time you successfully remember, you'll increase the interval (e.g., nine days, three weeks, two months, six months, etc.), quickly reaching intervals of years. This keeps your sessions challenging enough to continuously drive facts into your long-term memory. If you forget a word, you'll start again with short intervals and work your way back to long ones until that word sticks, too. This pattern keeps you working on your weakest memories while maintaining and deepening your strongest memories. Because well-remembered words eventually disappear into the far off future, regular practice creates an equilibrium between old and new.

The way to defeat forgetting is to use a spaced repetition system, with your own physical flashcards or with an app such as the Anki or Pauker. Digital apps are more convenient, naturally, but the act of creating your own cards–including finding images to tie to what you're learning–is a powerful learning experience. For both methods, daily reviews are ideal, but any type of regular routine will help you learn and remember faster.

10. Share What You're Learning

Finally, there's the old adage that "the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else." When I asked the Zapier team what their favorite memorization and learning technique was, most people mentioned teaching, explaining, or even just mentioning something they learned to someone else.

This is the The Protégé Effect. As demonstrated in one study:

As [students] prepare to teach, they organize their knowledge, improving their own understanding and recall. And as they explain the information to [a computerized character that learns from the students called Betty's Brain], they identify knots and gaps in their own thinking. A 2009 study of Betty’s Brain published in the Journal of Science Education and Technology found that students engaged in instructing her spent more time going over the material and learned it more thoroughly.

Bonus Tip: Offload the Stuff You Don't Need to Memorize

The human brain is incredible. Because our neurons can store many memories at a time, our mental storage capacity is somewhere around the 2.5 petabytes (million gigabytes) range–enough to hold three hundred years' worth of nonstop TV shows.

That said, while we don't run the risk of our brains getting full, there's tons of information we come across that we can simply offload to our digital tools. Memorizing information takes effort, so we should focus on the information that we really need to commit to memory. Evernote can stand in for your second brain to help you remember just about anything, or you could use one of the plethora of other note-taking apps to do the same.


Memory might still be a mystery to us, but studies have shown that the techniques above will help you retain more of what you learn. I don't have a photographic memory and sometimes still struggle to remember where I left my keys, but when I try to commit something to memory using at least one of the techniques above, it tends to stick in my brain. At least, I've had fewer "What's your name again?" moments.

Try them out and let us know what you think or share your favorite memorization techniques with us in the comments.

Forgetting curve image via Cambridge University Press. Brain network image by Bob Holzer. Sleep photo by planetchopstick. Exercise photo by Fit Approach. Food photo by Moyan_Brenn. Name tag photo by quinn.anya. Notebook with pen photo by Neil Conway.

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