Improving Memory


Good memory is critical for most aspects of inner success and creativity.

The brain is constantly encoding, storing, recalling, and reinforcing information.

Our brains are relatively unreliable at storing factual information unless it has a future purpose.

Quite a few healthy lifestyle decisions can positively improve long-term memory.

There are a wide variety of tricks to remembering things, which all involve mnemonics to make boring information interesting.

Make studying extremely effective:

  1. Accommodate your studying time to the best way that you naturally learn.
  2. Make sure your mind is in a mental state that’s open to learning.
  3. Choose a location that’s conducive to studying well.
  4. Manage your time efficiently.
  5. Prepare for your study time beforehand.
  6. Use a note-taking system that works well for you.
  7. Take notes that you’ll remember, not just transcription.
  8. Stay alert and focused during the study/learning session.
  9. Practice healthy post-study habits to keep everything fresh in your brain.

Learn to rule out incorrect answers on tests.

How does the brain work?

In many ways, a good memory is the foundation for all wellness:
  • Good memories allows us to fully absorb and understand ideas, which is critical for us to connect concepts.
  • A reliable memory is not only necessary for success, it also makes us happier.
  • Like weight management, memory can be trained, and high-powered memory competitions (e.g., trivia, quizzes) are people with normal brains who worked hard to build mnemonics.
  • All aspects of understanding and learning are connected with a good memory.

The thing we call “memory” is actually 4 distinct steps.

A. Encoding:
  1. Take every piece of sensory data:
    • General body and skeleton:
      • Inner ear and skeletal sensors detect acceleration, direction, gravity, and changes in body movement.
      • Skeletal sensors detect the body’s orientation related to other body parts.
      • Skeletal sensors also detect bone and joint pain.
      • Water sensors detect thirst.
    • Specific organs:
      • Each body organ has sensors that detect pain in it.
      • Stomach sensors detect hunger.
      • Muscles have sensors that detect muscle tension.
      • The digestive and respiratory systems have sensors that detect blood vessel dilation.
      • The skin has many sensors that detect itchiness, pain, pressure, temperature, touch.
    • The brain has many varieties of sensors:
      • Chemoreceptors that detect drugs and hormones, as well as vomiting.
      • Various sensors detect magnetic fields and sense of direction.
      • While it’s debatable how time works, we’re amazingly accurate at observing it.
    • The face picks up many senses as well:
      • Rods in the eyes detect brightness.
      • Cones in the eyes detect color.
      • The nose has chemical receptors to detect smell.
      • The eardrums detect vibration that we call sound.
      • Taste buds in the mouth detect bitterness, saltiness, sourness, sweetness, and umami (savory/fatty).
  2. From all this information, subtract everything unimportant.
    • People tend to remember smell in particular far more than any other sense, generally followed by sight and sound.

B. Storage:
  1. Hold the information in short-term memory for 15-30 seconds.
  2. Move everything that’s deemed essential in some way for the future to long-term memory.
  3. The memory is associated and linked with other experiences and memories.

C. Retrieval/Recall:
  • Recall is a typically unconscious association to something else, and is part of the mechanism of habit triggers.
  • Often, recalling can trigger more recall, which is how a small experience (e.g., a scrap of paper) can bring back a flood of memories.
  • Every time we retrieve that information, the connections through that path of information is strengthened and easier to recall.
    • We most easily recall information from the parts of the brain that navigate space and visually comprehend things.

D. Retention/Fading:
  • While memories themselves never “fade”, their connections with other associated habits fray when they’re not used.
    • If we keep using something regularly, it becomes a “core” memory and will take a much longer time to fade.
  • Over time, a memory is officially “lost” if there are no more connections to that set of neurons.

Memory also has various forms:
  • Procedural memory, or motor memory, is how we work through body movements and build muscle habits.
  • Working memory is “short-term memory”.
  • Episodic memory is a snapshot of each particular experience we’ve had.
  • Autobiographical memory combines episodic memory to create a story about ourselves and the world around us.
  • Semantic memory is long-term storage of simple information.
  • Prospective memory is how we store information we imagine.

Our memory system is prone to errors

The most common memory failure is not reliably recording the information:
  1. Not gathering information in the first place by not perceiving.
  2. Distractions during encoding that override short-term memory.
  3. Information being considered unimportant, which means not converting from short-term to long-term memory.

We also have trouble recalling the information on command when we don’t reinforce long-term memory:
  • The information must have some future use, or we’ll slowly forget it.

Over time, the brain condenses our specific and detailed information into vague “summaries”:
  • The information we encode is to give us general wisdom on what to do in the future, not to accurately hold everything as an archive.

Sometimes, a brain will get stuck repeating specific bits of information:
  • When we have post-traumatic stress, we replay the experience incessantly until we come to closure with it or the memories fade from other experiences.
  • If you have a song stuck in your head, distract yourself with something brain-intensive like a puzzle.
  • When a memory keeps persisting against your preference, find creative ways to rearrange and remix the perspective to get to whatever answers you subconsciously haven’t discovered.

Lifestyle decisions can improve memory

Our brains tend to stay quick and alert until around age 60.

In general, we can fight the decay of our memories by learning self-awareness and making sense of our thoughts:

Make new hobbies and create frequently.

Enjoy and create music frequently:
  • It increases general focus and decreases the risk of a brain tumor.
  • Playing musical instruments builds neural connections that span across many domains of the brain.

Exercise regularly:
  • Exercise has been scientifically proven to dramatically improve memory.
  • Physical activity helps us discriminate between familiar objects.
  • Exercise helps us retain long-term memory.

Play a musical instrument:
  • Musical skills improve executive functions.
  • Playing music increases verbal fluency, makes thinking faster, and slows brain decay.

Play games:
  • Depending on the game, most games teach our brains motor skills, how to organize information, navigate in space, and plan.
  • Improving hand-eye coordination helps our spatial recognition and concept of time.
  • While many “brain training” games like BrainHQ or Lumosity directly help, most games improve our brain power in some way.
  • 30 minutes a day is enough to see a change in gray matter.

Learn a new language:
  • Learning words improves executive function.
  • You can use a service like Memrise or Duolingo.
  • Bilingual people are better at solving puzzles, planning, and managing tasks.

Read more:
  • Reading increases the ability to think of words, as well as our vocabulary.
  • Readers experience mental connections that mimic physical activities.
  • If you want to, try writing to get even more involved in the brain’s language management.

Encoding better

Focus heavily on the present moment:
  • Stay aware of the world around you, and avoid thinking about anything else when you should be paying attention.
  • To more easily remember what you read, speak it out loud.
  • To remember someone else’s name, say it out loud verbally several times when you first hear it.
  • Avoid listening to videos/podcasts at 1.5x or 2x speed unless you’re simply reviewing information you already know.

Build reinforced patterns in the brain by reviewing and re-reviewing important information.

Focus on smaller chunks of information as you observe:
  • Replace smaller words for bigger words as you listen:
    • “Inundation” becomes “flood”, “exacerbate” becomes “annoy”, “profundity” becomes “deep”.
    • Try to swap out trade jargon for commonplace words.
    • This has a two-way effect as well, since it makes it easier to use big words as well.
  • You can remember 346842052731 more easily by splitting it out:
    • 346
    • 842
    • 052
    • 731

Incorporate as many senses into the experience as possible:
  • Physically act out with your body as you listen or see things you want to remember.
  • If you can use expressive body language (which may look like interpretive dance) you can create a strong connection to the words.
  • Try to associate the experience to as many other experiences you’ve had in your past, and focus on things that tie to your feelings.
  • Some of the most memorable experiences are tied to jokes.
  • If you must remember specific information, write it down by hand instead of typing it.

Create associations between abstract and concrete experiences:
  • Associate numbers to letters or the sounds of letters:
    1. 4 can represent the “j” sound while 3 can represent the “r” sound.
    2. 43, therefore, sounds like “jar”.
    3. Further, you can remember 43 as a “jar” you had a hard time opening and had to smash to get the contents inside.
  • Associate numbers with nouns:
    • One Run
    • Two Doo
    • Three Sea
    • Four Drawer
    • Five Hive
    • Six Wicks
    • Seven Drive-in
    • Eight Date
    • Nine Wine
  • Use an existing association system for numbers:
    • Mnemonic major system links numbers to sounds.
    • Person, Action, Object (PAO) links images of people, actions, and objects for all numbers 0-99.
      • Then, all numbers 0-999,999 can be tracked with [person]-[action]-[object]
      • e.g., 514398 is 51-43-98, or “Brad Pitt throwing an orange”.
      • This is very useful to memorize decks of cards as well.
    • Whatever your system, it must appeal to your own emotional connections.

Recalling better

Make new connections by rearranging the order of events or sequence of ideas to shift perspective.

If you can’t remember a word, clench your fist.

To remember where you left something in the room, scan in the opposite direction from how you typically scan (left to right or right to left).

Try to gain personal experience about whatever you’re trying to memorize:
  • Most of our experience gives us the means to quickly make sense of what we’re observing.
  • Even a few days interning at a job or watching a documentary on the subject is enough to give us context.

Make mnemonics

Create associations across words and ideas:
  • We must attribute meaning to make ideas stick in our minds.
    • Connect the ideas to tangible, emotionally relevant experiences instead of simply trying to memorize them.
  • Whenever possible, link ideas together like a “chain”.
    • Start with broad ideas, then work your way down to smaller ones.
  • To improve your creativity and memory, make connections across diverse and unrelated things that you’re intimately familiar with.
    • Use your body parts to remember numbers.
    • Link colors to letters.
    • Associate colors with smells.

Group things into categories:
  • Take an unrelated list and reorganize the items into categories.
  • e.g., cookies, grapes, cheese, can opener, chicken, pie, butter, bananas, bread, pork, gum:
    • dairy – butter, cheese
    • bakery goods – cookies, pie, bread
    • meat – chicken, pork
    • fruit – grapes, bananas
    • other – can opener, gum
  • The list order matters for what you’ll remember:
    • The middle of the list is generally harder to memorize than the first or last.
    • If you can, try to place the most meaningful items in the middle of the list.

Compress ideas with acronyms, rhymes and mental diagrams:
  • Remember π (3.1415926) by counting the letters in the sentence: “May I have a large container of coffee?”
  • Remember the general arithmetic order of operations (Parenthesis/Exponents/Multiplication/Division/Addition/Subtraction, or PEMDAS) with “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”.
  • If you can make a jingle or poem from the concept, it becomes very easy to remember.

Rebuild each connection into an image:
  • Draw pictures or doodles.
  • Make lists as sequences of pictures.
  • Create a “dictionary” of visual associations for words:
    • “And” as a circle (“and” rhymes with “rund”, a German word for “round”).
    • “The” is a right-facing arrow (“the” rhymes with “duh”, meaning it points to something obvious).
    • A period is a hammered nail because it holds the sentence together.
    • Use rhyming words for abstract concepts (e.g., “ephemeral” becomes someone named “Emeril”).
  • Focus on the image more than the associated meanings.
  • This can even work well for speeches.

Our minds use stories to understand the world, so make everything into silly, elaborate stories:
  • To remember lists of things, convert it into a silly story.
  • We remember the story to the degree we feel it.
  • Use as much variety in your story as possible to spread the experience across many sensory perceptions:
    • Bizarreness
    • Personal connection to events in the story
    • Large numbers that can be daunting
    • Senses and sensory perceptions
    • Unique characteristics of objects
    • Disgusting or revolting parts of the story
    • Humor
  • For memorizing car, hair, sweetener, milk, Yale University, and dinosaur:
    • I was driving in my car, but then my hair set on fire. I pulled to the side of the road but ran over a small packet of sweetener right before I crashed into a gigantic truck of milk right outside Yale University. The driver was a dinosaur who drank the milk as he screamed at me.
  • This method seems ridiculous, but has been scientifically proven as the easiest way to remember random facts.

How to study

Studying is devoting time to remembering things.

As you gather the materials, observe how you remember things best:
  • Do you connect your ideas to reality around you or use abstract symbols and comparisons?
  • Do you retain more through seeing or hearing?
  • Do you need more hands-on experiences or thoughtful re-assessment?
  • Do the ideas flow as an ordered series of steps or a global idea working downward?

Take advantage of how we recall more easily in the same state of mind we encoded (“state-based memory”):
  • As much as possible, put yourself in the same frame of rest, hunger, clothing selection, mood, and physical position when you study as when you take the test.
  • If you were tired and hungry while memorizing the information, recalling it is easiest while tired and hungry.
  • Use a specific flavor of gum while studying, then take it to recall during the test.

Make studying a new experience each time:
  • We learn best with new experiences, especially if they’re interesting.
  • New experiences can be as small as studying in a new venue or eating something unfamiliar.
  • Sometimes, being uncomfortable can heighten our memory if we’re not too distracted.

We learn well when we enjoy what we’re studying, so try to make learning fun (or at least interactive):
  • Build something out of the information.
  • Make a summarized format of all the material.
  • Connect what you learn to practical matters in the rest of your life.
  • Try studying with friends to enjoy it more.

If you want to deeply understand the information, add variety:
  • Textbooks are usually written sequentially, but we connect memories through experiences and feelings.
  • The modern academic style of staring at a book for hours at a time is terrible for good study, so do whatever will make you more comfortable with the experience.

Study in the right location

Try to study in as close an environment to where you’ll need to recall the information.

If you can choose, sit in a blue room to focus more.

If you’re listening to anything, sit in the most acoustically pleasant part of the room.

If you’re in a large lecture, sit near the front (which also makes the lecturer think you care about the material).

Lying down will help you think faster.

Whenever possible, read the hardest possible information on the subject you’re studying:
  • By reading advanced-level information, you save tons of time trying to understand content.
  • Even if you don’t fully understand what you’re reading, you’ll slowly ramp up through “soft” understanding.

Read the history of the subject you’re studying, which often helps you understand why things are how they are.

Manage your time

If you don’t care about the information and just need to cram, focus on the material most likely to show up on the test:
  • Focus only on information referenced by the syllabus.
  • Tests tend to pull most of their questions from the first and last 20% of the syllabus or textbook.
  • Only consider ideas that might be a test question, especially short lists and numbers.
  • If you can, find copies of old tests that have their questions.
  • If the teacher has a political opinion, write everything as if you were defending that opinion.

To avoid test anxiety, prepare for the test with earlier deadlines than the test date.

Studying takes repetition, so spread out the studying across the most time as possible:
  • Start studying as early as possible.
  • Avoid cramming, since it disrupts retention.

Instead of watching a video once, you will learn more if you watch it twice at twice the speed.

Schedule a routine, fixed study time across multiple days:
  • Synchronize your study time to sunrise or sunset to link it to your circadian rhythm.
  • Space out your study sessions and swap out subjects to keep it interesting (which will make you remember things better).

Consider the time of day for studying:
  • On a typical circadian cycle, our analytical capacity peaks around late morning or noon, so schedule your mentally challenging classes or study sessions in the morning.
  • If you study in the morning your mind is uncluttered, but studying in the evening means you’ll meditate on it while you sleep.

Before you start

Eat a healthy meal to peak your blood sugar beforehand:
  • Eat a balanced diet with an emphasis on healthy fats.
  • To stay steadily supplied, have a healthy, slow-digesting food like oatmeal.
  • On the other hand, an empty stomach has been scientifically proven to help focus.
  • Stay well-hydrated with water or herbal tea.
  • A few various foods and drinks have been linked to better memory:
    • Zinc (found in oysters)
    • Chocolate
    • Caffeine

Get plenty of sleep or take a power nap if you can’t sleep.

Meditate and focus yourself.

Since it harms memory development, cut out all multitasking:
  • Turn off anything like a phone or TV that could distract you.
  • Since it disrupts deep focus, avoid listening to any rhythmic music.

“Prime” your brain by keeping study tools ready:
  • Keep all your materials ready in your usual spot.
  • Chewing gum is a great way to focus, especially cinnamon gum.
  • Drink peppermint tea or eat peppermint leaves.

Mentally warm up with small, stimulating exercises such as addition, counting backward or doodling.

Note-taking formats

While you can do whatever system works best for you, there are only a few popular styles.

Experiment with the note-taking style that works best for you:
  • A variety of strategies and styles may help you remember everything more easily.
  • Each person’s brain is different, so each note-taking system works best for some personalities.

Outline system:
  1. Write general ideas with supporting ideas indented below them.
  2. Keep indenting as needed.

Cornell system:
  1. Write out all the main ideas from the source material.
  2. Create a summary at the bottom at least 24 hours later.
  3. Write out all the keywords and key phrases to the left of those notes.

  1. Make an idea, then circle it.
  2. Make another idea elsewhere on the page, then circle that as well.
  3. Connect the ideas with a line.
  4. Keep making bubbles for new ideas and drawing lines to connect them.

  1. Make notes on an index card or system as a hierarchy.
  2. Add “tags” to concepts as you go, combining them with other cards.
  3. Attach the cards together and move them around as the groups start making sense.
  4. Keep moving and restructuring the notes as you need or want.

Military photographic memory trick:
  1. Sit somewhere where you can turn the lights on and off without getting up.
  2. Cut a rectangular hole in a piece of paper roughly the size of the book’s paragraph.
  3. Position one of the paragraphs you want to memorize and turn the lights off.
  4. While staring at the paragraph, flip the light on for a half-second, then off again.
  5. When the imprint fades, keep flipping it on for a half-second and off again.
  6. If you do it right, you’ll eventually be able to see the paragraph and read it in your mind.

Condensation trick:
  1. Take plenty of notes about almost everything you don’t know.
  2. Later, condense that information by paraphrasing it.
  3. Keep paraphrasing it until you’ve distilled the entire subject to 3-4 pages.
  4. Paraphrase further until it can fit on 1 page.
  5. Paraphrase a summary onto an index card.

Reference tracking:
  1. Store all references on separate documents/cards:
    • Title each document to make it easy to organize.
    • Write the name of the author and the book/article at the top with the page number
    • Summarize 1-2 related facts on that document, and use separate documents for each associated idea.
    • Copy the idea word-for-word if you’re quoting it, or paraphrase it if you’re not.
    • Be obsessively specific and concrete as you can about facts, numbers, and dates.
  2. Organize the documents for review, and aim for re-creating another document with all the notes.

If you’re willing to take the time for it, use the Stucky Method to retain tremendous amounts of information across many domains.

During the study session

Try to focus on short spurts of study (5-10 minutes) with short breaks instead of longer ones.

Write down everything that stands out to you as worth remembering:
  • You’ll lose 60% of the information you don’t write out within 9 hours.
  • Handwriting is more effective at retention than typing.
  • Writing in blue ink or some other color is easier to remember than black ink.

Focus less on absorbing every piece of information and more on retaining what you do observe:
  • You should be gathering key themes and images instead of word-for-word transposition.
  • Only write summaries or something that jogs your memory.
  • Observe potentially critical information from shifts in inflection/tone or through repetitions.

Use shorthand or symbols to condense the ideas:
  • If you take notes with misspelled words or missing a letter, you’ll remember it better during review by trying to “fix” it.
  • Avoid making too many analogies or you’ll forget the original information.

You won’t retain much information unless you’re working your brain to the point of mental exhaustion:
  • Stress will temporarily boost your short-term memory, but use it sparingly because anxiety will ruin it.

Stay alert

You are only legitimately studying when you’re fully alert.

We can only stay alert for short chunks of time (usually no more than an hour), so focus on depth instead of breadth:
  1. Read through a page of notes once.
  2. Try to recall as much as possible.
  3. Reread until you’re happy with your retention.

There are ways to stay alert for longer:
  • Imagine that you’ll be teaching the information later.
  • Put pieces of candy on each page and eat them as you get to them.
  • Set an alarm to take routine breaks (every 30-45 minutes) and get physically active for at least a few minutes.
  • Add variety to your material if the subject doesn’t interest you by jumping between chapters or books/lectures.
  • Instead of passively consuming the information, think of new ways to explain or rephrase it/

Watch for Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS):
  • After a certain point, any further information will make us numb to any new information.
  • Go directly to sleep and tackle it again when you’re rested and fed.

If you start drifting or getting frustrated, casually read ahead to get a feel for what you have to look at later, then stop.

After the study session

If you have time, sleep to encode the ideas into memory.

Review your notes within 24 hours:
  • Type out the notes or paraphrase them.
  • When typing, a weird font (e.g., Comic Sans) is easier to remember than a familiar font, but the easiest fonts to read are Times New Roman, Palatino, Bookman, Georgia, Garamond, and Courier.

Take practice tests to track improvements, increase your confidence, and find gaps in understanding.

Focus intently the next time on any gaps in your understanding:
  • You should be able to quickly paraphrase that section of the material.
  • Focus on one aspect at a time.
  • You should know the content well enough to teach it.
  • Reward yourself for accomplishing predefined milestones.

Find others who want to learn what you’re studying, and share your thoughts with them.

The scientifically easiest way to remember things requires recalling something precisely when your brain is about to forget it (spaced repetition):
  1. Write down ideas on opposing sides of cards, with only small bits of information on each card.
  2. Quiz yourself on each card:
    1. If it’s super easy, put it in a pile to review in 4-7 days.
    2. If you understand it but aren’t sure, put it in a pile for the end of your session.
    3. If you don’t understand it at all or missed it, put it in a third pile.
  3. Work through the pile, then take the third pile and repeat the quizzing.
    • Color the cards by topic or by pattern to help build further associations.
  4. At the end, quiz yourself on the second pile, then mark your calendar to review the first pile.
  5. As you become more and more familiar with the concepts, you can space the future piles out further.

When you train yourself correctly, you can often learn a year’s worth of material within a month or two.

At the same time, don’t deceive yourself about how much you know:
  • We tend to think we would have guessed the answer after we see it.
  • Quiz yourself and come to a complete answer before you see the correct answer.

During the Test

Before you go in, take a 20-30 minute break to eat, play, and socialize before the test:
  • Cramming right before the test will give you more stress and offset any benefits of what you’re cramming.

If the test permits a card or a page of notes, fill it with everything you weren’t able to memorize.

  • To make more room, use 3-D red/blue glasses to write notes with red ink, then with blue ink, then bring the glasses to the test.

Calculate how much time you’ll have for each question.

Before anything, go through a quick run-through and answer all the things you know instantly, then go back through and spend more time on the difficult questions:
  • Often, you’ll know 80% of the information and have trouble with the other 20%.

Logically eliminate the answers to multiple-choice questions:
  • You can usually remove absurd answers, which will also often remove “all of the above” answers as well.
  • If two answers can’t logically both be the answer, then “all of the above” is the wrong answer.
  • All-inclusive adverbs (always, never, must, only, merely) are less frequently the right answer, since most things in life aren’t all-inclusive.
  • Consider the lengths of the correct answers on the rest of the test:
    • If the correct answer is usually longer, choose the longer answer.
    • If the correct answer is usually shorter, choose the shorter answer.
  • If there are different number values, the correct answer is likely one of the ones in the middle.
  • When two answers have opposite meanings, the correct answer is likely one of those two.
  • If the grammar of one of the choices doesn’t match the question, that answer is usually wrong.
  • If there are similar words in both the question and the answer, the answer is usually correct.
  • Consider the singular/plural tense of the question:
    • If the form of the question or statement uses “is”, the answer is usually singular.
    • If the frorm of the question or statement uses “are”, the answer is usually plural.
  • If you can, ask the instructor for clarification on a test question.
    • You can usually infer some details based on how they answer that question.
  • On a 4-choice answer, if you can’t deduce it any further, choose the third option.
  • If you have an incredibly intelligent teacher who has a low pass rate, then do the reverse of most of these.

You can usually feel your way through an essay question you don’t know:
  • Write out ideas in the margins so you won’t forget them.
  • Drop in as many terms and jargon as you can remember.
  • Thoroughly write out as much as you can, since the reviewer is likely looking for a list of specific details.
  • If you do understand other essay questions on the same test, make sure you load up the useless jargon and bloated speech the same way.

Take your time, and use as much of the extra time as you need to think out and recall the answer.

If a wrong answer is the same penalty as a non-answer and you don’t know or are short on time, trust your intuition.