December 9, 2012

5 ways to strengthen your memory muscle

Studies suggest boosting brainpower can keep you clean.

By Bill Hatton

Imagine this scene: The dinner table’s home to a week’s worth of mail. The bathroom looks like a gas station restroom. And the kitchen sink—forget about it. Here’s how two individuals look at the solid hour of cleaning that’s ahead.

Studies suggest boosting brainpower can keep you clean. Bob: “I really have to do something about that, but I feel lousy.” Bob is drained because he feels no emotional reward coming, just drudgery.

Debbie: “Yeah, I have to do it, but I love how I feel when I finish cleaning the house.” Debbie is energized because she knows she’ll feel better when it’s clean. She can feel the reward coming.

Scientists say addicts tend to react more like Bob than Debbie. The Bobs of the world discount the emotional rewards of a job well done—even the job of recovery. They may instead find immediate gratification through addictive substances or through other activities such as eating a box of cookies, shopping or taking a nap. A recent study of recovering addicts indicates there may be a way to boost your ability to wait longer for rewards, thus avoiding instant gratification that could lead to a wrong path.

Addiction researchers at the University of Arkansas started with two pieces of knowledge: Addicts discount rewards earlier than non-addicts, and memory and motivation overlap in the brain.

The researchers gave 27 addicts memory-building exercises. They tested whether exercising addicts’ memories would improve their motivation to wait longer for rewards, and scientists found some evidence to support their theory. Addicts who completed the memory exercises were more motivated to wait longer for rewards than those who didn’t. Essentially, the addicts remembered the positive associations of the rewards to the degree that they were motivated to wait.

Build Memory Muscle

To strengthen your recall, try the following memory exercises:

1. Visualization.

Let’s take the kitchen-cleaning example above. Bob doesn’t feel any pull of an emotional reward. He’s forgotten the feeling of satisfaction the past few times he cleaned the kitchen. So he closes his eyes, takes a few deep breaths and visualizes how the kitchen looked the last time he cleaned it. He intentionally remembers how good finishing up that task made him feel. Next, he visualizes himself after cleaning the kitchen. He imagines how good it feels to have this job done. That should help motivate him to do the job.

2. Chunking.

Let’s say Debbie dreads meetings with new clients because she usually has trouble remembering names. She discounts the successes of the past and how good she’ll feel once she settles into helping a new client.

One memory-exercising technique she can try: Don’t try to remember, individually, first and last names. Instead, chunk them together. Working memory can handle about seven discrete things. If you are introduced to four people—Michael Shymanski, John Tillman, Lori Gould and Lisa Campo—you will overload your working memory and probably forget Mike’s first name by the time you learn Lisa’s last name.

Instead, chunk the names MikeShymanski, JohnTillman, LoriGould and LisaCampo. Now you have four items to remember, and all you did was expand the size of each item in your memory.

3. Bizarre associations.

Link the name to an image in your mind, and connect the image to something the person is doing or something about them. This is easy if you’re dealing with Mr. Redbeard. But what about Gould? Well, Gould sounds like Good. Think LoriGood, and imagine her doing something good, but make it memorable, like helping the poor in India in a Missionaries of Charity habit. JohnTillman—you can visualize JohnTillman working the till of a boat heading up the Congo River.

This is called memory encoding. The key is is to link a word or image to something so unique and bizarre that it’s memorable, particularly if the thing you are trying to remember is dull—like a row of numbers. We remember images better than we remember words, numbers and instructions. With some practice around the office, Debbie may be more likely to have confidence in her ability to remember names and thus less likely to discount the rewards of performing well in the meeting.

4. Build a place for memories.

To remember longer lists of items, create a structure for them in your mind. For best results, it should be something familiar to you. (As much as possible, remember something pleasant, so in the following example, if the childhood dinner table isn’t a good memory, pick someplace else.) It works like this: Imagine your Thanksgiving table as a child, where you can no doubt remember who sat where. Replace the people with one item in each place. Maybe you are trying to remember your grocery list. Pick one item on the list, and place it around the table. Complete your list by replacing all the guests. Our minds are designed to remember spaces well. If you create a space, and practice, you’ll get better at putting things into this structure, then remembering them.

5. Use cross-sensing.

Try to add as many senses as you can to the item you are remembering. Let’s say you want to remember to pick up chain lube for your chain saw, a new chain, gasoline and the oil additive and a sharpener for your used chains. You imagine a logging road with a hardware store and a gas station. You hear the chain saw buzzing against a tree near the road, then you hear it grind because the chain is dull and you smell the wood starting to burn. You recall the black mark on the sawed off log that a dull chain creates. You remember the sputtering sound of the engine going dry. You recall the dripping of the chain lube. You remember the gasoline from the gas pump splashing into the pump. You remember how the gas darkened when you put in the additive. Each item gets as many associations as possible, and if you can create a chronology, that’s even better.

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Once you’ve created your story, you can go to the hardware store and get all your items without a list. And because you’ve visualized it, imagine how good it will feel sitting around a summer campfire with the sawed wood. That will motivate you to complete the logging and have you looking forward to a camping trip.

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