I live in a two-story house. Quite often, I think of something I need from upstairs and jog up the staircase only to have my mind lose the memory of what it was I raced up to retrieve. If such a blur persists for longer than a minute, my solution is to scurry back down the stairs and return to the place in the house I started from. Invariably, returning to that spot successfully helps me recall my original thought. This triumphant return to the spot of origin is a simple demonstration of memory linkage. My mind links a location to a small bit of memory. Without any fanfare, our brains are constantly making such associations. When someone says: “It’s on the tip of my tongue”, that person really means “it’s trapped in the outskirts of my mind”. The tongue is merely a metaphorical bystander in such instances.
So what possible significant lesson can we glean from this rather common occurrence of forgetting and remembering pieces of minutia? The answer is memory linkage. Learning to master the art of linkage is the key to improving memory. Our brains have multiple ways and places to encode inputs and store information, as they use various combinations of the five senses in this process. Bits of memory can be linked to sights, smells, tastes, sounds (especially music), touch, and/or emotions. Often, pieces of a memory are stored in different locations and need an external stimuli to fully form. Emotion plays a pivotal role in memory retention and recall. Traumatic events can create indelible memories, or cause the brain to bury traumatic memories for long periods of time. Strong positive emotions always assist memory.
The way to take advantage of this knowledge is to link incoming information to multiple senses in order to facilitate their eventual recall. Effective memory requires efficient input, storage, and retrieval. Without proper input technique, storage and retrieval become increasingly difficult. Years of memorizing facts as a trivia game show host have taught me the importance of establishing an input system that works consistently. This is also where the art of storytelling becomes prominent. Linking stories to facts is a powerful memory booster. Stories recall facts, and facts recall stories. Stories have the added benefit of infusing emotional content into the equation. While different individuals may have varying systems of absorbing knowledge, here are a few essential guidelines everyone should observe.
1) First of all, RELAX. Clearing the mind at the moment of input is very helpful. It is essential to avoid distractions. Distractions cloud the input of information.
2) One method many find helpful is to WRITE IT DOWN. Personally, this is my key method for memorization. There seems to be a direct connection from my writing hand to my brain. If I write something down without distraction, I will remember it.
3) When possible, CREATE MULTIPLE LINKAGES. That means, link each incoming fact to more than one other fact, feeling, smell, sound, location, or story. Multiple linkage requires finding connections between bits of information. This is especially useful when trying to remember a chain of facts, which brings to mind the clichéd phrase “one thing leads to another”. When people ask me how I can provide extensive trails of trivia questions ‘off the top of my head’ while hosting a game show, multiple linkage connections is what makes it possible. Everything is linked to something else. In the instance of my show, the information is cross-referenced so that categories can shift in midstream. Questions about history somehow find common ground with music, which find references to geography, which overlaps into sports. Such trails can continue indefinitely as ‘trains of thought’. In this case, the metaphor of a train stands for a series of connections. Search for logical connections everywhere. Facts that live in isolation are usually destined for obscurity. Be creative and establish connections between facts and ideas, as connectivity is the key to effective memory.
4) Another helpful hint for improving memory is to BUNCH. My wife recently solved her long-lasting battle to find her keys by bunching. I would often find her standing outside the house unable to unlock the front door because she couldn’t find her house key in the rather large pocket book she carried. That pocket book had at least fourteen compartments all filled with various items to the point of resembling an overstuffed suitcase. One day, my wife decided she couldn’t stand it any more. She realized that carrying loose keys in a large purse made it ridiculously difficult to find them. She decided to purchase a small red zipper pouch and keep all her keys in it. Now she finds her keys in less than ten seconds. They are all in that red pouch. She should get a Ph.D in bunching! In this example, the overstuffed pocket book is a brain and the red purse is a collection of important data. For those inclined to be technological, the pocket book is a computer, with the red purse being a folder. Organizing memory inputs by ‘bunching’ them into distinct groups makes them much easier to retrieve. A slightly more advanced exercise is combining bunches by creating linkages between them. This technique allows you to geometrically increase the amount of information you can recall from the same number of memory triggers.
Remember: It is just as important to relax when attempting to recall information as it is when inputting information.
5) A key word for enhanced recall is MENTAL FLEXIBILITY. In scientific terms, this is called neuroplasticity. If you allow your mind the freedom to roam, this will enhance your ability to access what your brain has stored. While the amount of information a brain can store is infinite, the amount of RAM (computer term for Random Access Memory) is much more limited. The brain needs stimuli to trigger memories. Staying flexible and relaxed allows multiple linkages to provide additional stimuli to trigger memories. It increases your RAM capacity, so that when your brain goes into ‘search mode’, there are more routes for it to take.
Without getting technical about brain composition and chemistry, the above discussion reveals useful guidance for improving memory. Awareness of the five key steps described above builds a solid foundation for sharpening memory. I heartily recommend focusing on undistracted input and multimedia linkage when attempting to absorb information for future use. While there are many complex memory enhancing programs and formulas, honoring the above fundamentals and establishing your own simple systems can prove sufficient in creating a high-functioning memory.
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