Reverse the forgetting curve
The forgetting curve is a visual representation of how much we forget if we don’t try to remember what we learn (a lot, pretty much everything). To combat that, it is vital to test your recall intermittently. You don’t have to try to remember anything in particular: Nishant Kasibhatla, memory expert, grandmaster of memory and memory Guinness record holder, says you can improve your memory by practicing recall at any time. Try it the next time you have a cup of coffee: “Who were the people in line? What color was that poster? What else was on the menu?”
Make sure you get enough sleep
This isn’t just basic hygiene: Recent research seems to confirm the vital role sleep plays in memory consolidation. Like a mental Marie Kondo, some stages of sleep are crucial to sorting memories: choosing what to keep and what to throw away.
Use flash cards
If you’re learning something concrete, flashcards are a great tool for “spaced recall”: you learn when you make the cards and then use them intermittently to test yourself. Medical students swear by the Anki Flashcards app, which algorithmically works out which topics you should test more often.
Card-matching memory games are derived from Pelmanism, an early 20th-century brain training system that claimed to correct “tendencies toward slowness and inefficiency.” There are now some devilish versions, with subtly different Portuguese tile patterns, or Frank Lloyd Wright geometric designs. Alternatively, the Alzheimer’s Society can send you a monthly “brain workout” in exchange for a donation, or if puzzling is your problem, keep going: Research shows they are good for cognitive function.
Build a ‘spirit palace’
Loci, or ghost palaces, like Sherlock’s, were first mentioned in 80 BCE and the technique is still used by today’s memory athletes (yes, it’s a thing). Basically, you put what you want to remember along a “journey”. “Think of a range of locations that you know very well, such as rooms in your house or places in your city,” says race memory athlete Katie Kermode, who uses former homes and a vacation across the US for her. “Then place the objects in those places. Then, if you want to remember them, you go through your journey and you think, ‘What object was here?” I try a very simple version, where I ‘put’ a shopping list of five items on parts of my body. It works: “Shoulder, shallots, humerus, hummus!” I cry triumphantly in Waitrose, like a deranged middle-class bingo player.
Visualize data and events
For birthdays and other dates, Kermode suggests assigning an object to each month (“October might be a pumpkin; February a love heart”) and an image to the day. In memory of a birthday on February 4, Kermode suggests, “It could be as simple as the number 4 looks like a sailboat, so you can imagine they really like boats.” If you want to remember your schedule, associate each day of the week with an event or place: “Wednesday can be a wedding you went to, so all the things you should be doing on Wednesday, can you imagine it happening on Wednesday.” that marriage.”
Pump iron (if you are a mouse)
Osteocalcin, a hormone released by bones that can be stimulated by weight lifting, appears to play a key role in preserving memories in old age, research from Columbia University shows. However, if the excellent Twitter account @Justsaysinmice would emphasize, for results we are talking about rodents for the time being.
Find a hook for names
“Names generally don’t mean anything,” says Kermode, whose four world records include remembering 224 names in 15 minutes. That means you have to make them meaningful to you. If you’re introduced to someone, “Make up something that looks like that word, or something that rhymes with it: Brian could be ‘brain’, or Dominic could be domino; Dave likes to romp.”
Think like a pianist
Classical soloists play live for hours, by heart. Susan Tomes is a concert pianist and author whose strap-and-bracket approach to performance combines muscle memory built through repetition, visual recall of the pages of her score, and what she calls “an intellectual understanding of the form of the music”: knowing how a piece is structured. That can work for public speaking, too: learn the logical form of what you’re going to say, visualize where you are physically on your page, and practice with an audience. As Tomes says, “The presence of other people does extraordinary things to your consciousness and you have to learn to deal with it so you don’t get stuck.”
Reframe your memory
If your memory is failing, Kasibhatla says, tell yourself, “It’s okay, I’ll remember it next time,” because creating stress around your memory will inevitably make things worse. Conversely, if you remember something — and we do every day, even if it’s the lyrics to a one-hit wonder from 1986 — tell yourself, “I have a great memory.” “We all have memory successes,” says Kasibhatla. ‘Don’t allow yourself that. It’s unfair.”
Memorize a poem
Memories can be pure pleasure: remind yourself by learning a poem. “One of the absolutely beautiful things about poetry is the form, and the form lends itself very well to learning,” says Esther Sandys, English teacher and Poetry by Heart supporter and enthusiastic. Her tips? Learn in bite-sized chunks, pick a poem you love (“It will become a part of you, probably for the rest of your life”), and combine visual, auditory, and kinetic memory aids. That might mean retyping the poem with a convenient layout, recording it on your phone with gaps between the lines, and revising it as you walk, iron, drive, or wash the dishes. I spoke to Sandys on Friday and by Saturday night I had remembered one of my favorites (Snow by Louis MacNeice). I’m hooked and planning my next one – it’s like making your own mental Spotify.
Use eye-catching visuals
Derren Brown’s Memory audiobook provides a good example of this: the dusty, moth-filled closet that is my perimenopause brain can still remember its list of 12 random words (phone, sausage, monkey, button, book, cabbage, glass, mouse, stomach, cardboard, ferry, Christmas) effortlessly forward and backward. That’s thanks to the bizarre pictures Brown paints, associating each word with the following: calling a rotary telephone with a frankfurter; a monkey buttoning your shirt… The rules: choose vivid images, the weirder the better; you should feel some emotional involvement (funny or disgusting works well) and the two elements should interact in the image you create, actively if possible.
Improve – at any age
The average wannabe London taxi driver doing the Knowledge (25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks) is in his forties; a current candidate is in his late 60s. “Absolutely anyone can get through it,” says Transport for London Knowledge Manager and former taxi driver, Katie Chennells. The biggest challenge is ‘learning to learn’. After that, it’s all about commitment. There’s no magic involved: it’s about “repetition, repetition, repetition,” she says, until you can visualize each route. There are a few tricks, though: mnemonics, such as Little Apples Grow Slowly for the Lyric, Apollo, Gielgud, and Sondheim theaters; and by learning some city history, Chennells remembered stubborn places. Research shows that the process actually expands drivers’ hippocampi.
Research published earlier this year examines the “derring effect” (deliberate wandering): making conscious mistakes can promote deeper understanding and better memory, with students who insert and correct intentional mistakes learn about twice the size of those who give the correct answer the first time. Truly, the mind and memory are mysterious.