Six Tips: Memory


Don’t forget to read the memory-boosting advice from our interdisciplinary experts.

1. Remember to remember.
The challenge with prospective memory — remembering to do something in the future — is not that we forget our intention, but that we forget to call it up at the right moment. Take extra steps to provide cues to remember the intention at the ­appropriate moment: ­Create an ­attention-grabbing external cue (e.g., sticky note) and position the cue in a prominent place; create imaginary cues in interaction with a landmark that is ­pertinent to your intention (e.g., to remember your ­umbrella at a restaurant, imagine the exit door blocked by a giant umbrella); imagine exactly where and when you will ­perform the intention (e.g., imagine taking the medication at your ­office desk, during your coffee break).
Mark McDaniel, PhD, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, is co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Belknap, April 2014) and ­co-author of Memory Fitness: A Guide for Successful Aging (Yale, 2004).

2. Practice retrieving information.
When asked how they study, students report poring over their books and their notes, reading and reviewing, trying to get it “into” memory. But research shows retrieval practice (a strategy of repeatedly recalling information from memory) through quizzing provides a much greater mnemonic benefit than rereading the same information. Another benefit of quizzing is that you can monitor what you know and what you do not know and return to restudy the latter. Further, if you test yourself at spaced intervals (giving yourself feedback when you miss something), you will retain the information much longer and be able to use it when you need it.
Roddy Roediger, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University ­Professor in Arts & Sciences, is co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Belknap, April 2014). In 2012, he received the William James Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Psychological Science for his work in fundamentally shaping the science of memory.

3. Share your tips with your kids.
Children begin to form lasting memories that are carried into adulthood at around 3 years of age, but it’s not until they’re quite a bit older that they can effectively remember to brush their teeth or feed the dogs without ongoing ­reminders. As children reach school age, lasting ­memories become more numerous. This is also the developmental point at which executive strategies play an increasingly crucial role in memory. Simplified strategies we use to enhance memory as adults ­(mnemonic devices, pictorial representations, categorical cues, creating lists) work well for children, and helping your children to use such strategies will increase their success in the home and at school.
Desirée White, PhD, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, is co-director of the Human Clinical Core within the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center. Her research focuses on cognitive development in typically developing children and children with damage to frontal brain regions.

4. Learn from the champs.
Memory champions appear to have powerful attentional control abilities that allow them to practice focused memorization for hours each day. They rely on principles that were originally used by the Greeks and Romans, who used memory instead of text to communicate long passages. But we can all benefit from these strategies to organize and recall information. For example, the Method of Loci technique involves envisioning a well-established route (such as the walk from your front door to your bedroom) to mentally imagine each item you want to remember at particular locations. During retrieval, one merely “walks” through the house, “seeing” each item in its stored location. The richness of the imagery is critical to the benefit.
— David Balota, PhD, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and professor of neurology in the School of Medicine, studies memory in young adults and older adults, in memory champions and people with Alzheimer’s-impaired memory.

5. Think about yourself.
We are all experts in thinking about ourselves, and this can be used to great advantage in trying to remember information. Encoding new information with respect to its relation to you is a powerful way to retain the information over time. Want to learn the date the Berlin Wall fell? Think about how old you were at the time, what you might have been doing at that time of the year. This phenomenon, known as the self-reference effect, is a highly effective technique for encoding new information.
— Kathleen McDermott, PhD, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, studies memory in expert memorizers and in typical, healthy young adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and psychological techniques.

6. Know when to worry about memory loss.
Many people express concern about memory decline, about walking into a room and forgetting why or not being able to recall a proper name or word. These are age-related changes in memory and not a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. When a consistent change in memory or thinking impairs day-to-day function (e.g., driving, cooking, managing finances), we call that a dementia. Dementia is a syndrome and has many causes, such as B12 deficiency, depression, medications and Alzheimer’s. If warranted, it is ­important that you have an appropriate and thorough workup from your physician to diagnose the specific cause.
— David B. Carr, MD, is professor of medicine and neurology, clinical director of the ­Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional ­Science in the School of Medicine, and a ­clinician with the Memory Diagnostic Center.