Are you overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge that you are expected to remember every day? The Digital Age can leave us feeling like we are in a constant state of information overload. We have so many things competing for our attention, that it can be hard to stay focused. Your memory is one of the first things to suffer in the communications bombardment. Luckily, there are a few strategies that you can adopt to improve your memory without having to turn into a supercomputer.
Hack your brain’s storage system by understanding the basics of memory
Our brains have an incredible capacity for storing data. If we defined the limits of our minds in technological terms, we can store about 2.5 million gigabytes of information in our heads.1 If this is true, then why do so many of us routinely forget why we walked into a room or what we had for breakfast? We can store loads of information, but if we want to improve our memory we have to maximize our brain’s filing system.
If you’ve ever had to recall items that you need to pick up from the store without writing them out, you’ve likely forgotten a few things on your mental list. This is because your brain routed your shopping list to your short-term memory. The short-term memory can hold seven to nine items for a period of about thirty seconds.2
Your brain can hang on to some memories for an extended period of time. Not all long-term memories are created equally – some last for several hours or days, and you carry others with you for a lifetime. The clarity of the memory depends on your level of alertness at the time in which your brain was encoding the event.3
If your brain stored everything you ever saw or heard with equal importance, it would have lots of information clogging its filing system. The memory that you use to process and reflect on your world is your working memory.4 Your brain is like a giant hard-drive, and your working memory consists of the files open on your desktop. Just like the files on your computer, items in your long-term memory can change when we access them through our working memory.
4 Useful Memory Boosting Techniques to Try
As busy and productive people, we are constantly working to improve our recall and get things to move into our long-term memory so that we can easily retrieve them. Here are some excellent ways to help your brain encode information.
Give Up All-Nighters and Rely on Spaced Repetition
When we need to memorize large quantities of information before an exam or presentation, it can be tempting to review all of it in a cram session. This technique is ineffective for two reasons. If you want to remember more, you need to give your brain time to process, and since your brain doesn’t assign equal importance to all data, you won’t be effective by treating all your information the same way.
When you space out your study intervals over several days or weeks, you can commit more information to memory with fewer repetitions.
You can use flashcards to take advantage of spaced repetition. Quiz yourself, and separate cards into piles related to how well you know the material. If you know the information well, you’ll need to review that card less frequently. You’ll have to look at cards with challenging concepts more often. Ultimately, you’ll spend more time reviewing challenging cards and less time on ones that you know.
Understand That You Can Memorize Different Information in Concentration Mode and Diffused Mode
When we store information in concentration mode (sometimes known as focus mode), we set the stage for expanding our knowledge.7 In concentration mode, you build a memory framework by actively working to make sense of concepts.
You can’t stay in that state of intense concentration forever, but that doesn’t mean that you have to stop learning. In diffused mode, your brain continues to take in information in a casual manner. If you are trying to figure out a novel solution to a research question, you’ll begin your work in concentration mode, but you’ll likely come up with your answer in diffused mode.
For example, when you begin to study a foreign langue, you’ll have to spend time learning the grammatical structures and vocabulary in concentration mode. You may repeat phrases out loud or rewrite sentences and constructions until you have developed a framework for your understanding.
If you are immersed in the language, you’ll continue to take in information and build connections in diffused mode. Eventually, you will not only be able to understand and reply to people using phrases you memorized, but you’ll learn how to string together new phrases.
Use the Chunking Technique to Make Concepts Meaningful
Using this technique allows you to commit many items to memory by assigning them to meaningful groups.8 You can establish chunks of information by creating mnemonic devices such as acronyms or phrases.
It is much easier to recall the time periods in Greek history (Neolithic Period, Bronze Age, Dark Age, Archaic Period, Classical Period, Hellenistic Period) by remembering a simple phrase such as “Never Be Discouraged About Calling Home.” In this case, the first letter of each word corresponds to the first letter of a time period. Schoolchildren are commonly taught the acronym, “ROY G. BIV,” to help them remember the colors of the rainbow.
This brain hack works because you can assign meaning to things for which you may not have a strong sensory memory or emotional connection. By associating terms to the preexisting framework of your own language, you make it much easier to recall these items later.
Access Digital Mind to Enhance Your Memory Capacity
The Digital Age has inundated us with information, but it has also offered us tools for coping with this influx of data. Apps which allow you to make notes, such as Evernote can help you connect ideas and improve recall.
You may be thinking, “I could use a sticky note or an old-fashioned planner for that.” You certainly could, but in Evernote, you can add tags to your notes to help you track down the thing that you want to remember.9 When you add multiple tags to your note, you build connections and increase the likelihood that you will be able to recover the information you want. No more misplaced sticky notes for you!
Evernote is just one example in a sea of productivity apps that can improve your memory. Flashcard apps can allow you to take the concept of spaced repetition into the digital sphere. Dropbox and cloud servers make it possible for you to capture information in one place and access it later in another location. Each time we retrieve the information, we increase the likelihood of it becoming part of our long-term memory.
You don’t need a photographic memory
It would be nice if we could look at something once and remember it, but only a small percentage of us have brains that work like that.10 That’s no reason to despair, though. By using memory techniques and tools, you can unlock your own potential and harness your brain’s power.