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10 Steps to Improve Your Memory


by Betty Fielding


Understand How Your Memory Works

Understanding how memory works will give you insight into ways of taking control in order to increase your memory power. A summary of the major factors involved in memory functioning:

• Memory is the process of registering, consolidating, storing, and recalling information and also is the result of that process.

• Memory is an electrochemical process of the brain and nervous system in which specialized brain centers receive, consolidate, store, and respond to new information.

• The more memory traces you amass from sensory experiences, thoughts, feelings, and actions, the more ways you have to recall a particular piece of information.

• A stimulating environment makes a major contribution to improving your memory.

• People learn incidentally in the process of living and intentionally through deliberate study.

• New information becomes a memory by moving from sensory memory to short-term memory. There working memory creates the connections to consolidate it into long-term memory.

• Memory contains two kinds of material: knowledge—both general and personal—and procedures. Procedures do not require conscious attention in order to function.

Equip Your Memory Tool Chest

Natural abilities which you can use to maintain and improve your memory are:

sensory awareness
mental images
words and messages
making associations and connections
rehearsal and review
using memory aids as reminders

Sensory awareness involves collecting information from your senses to amass the memory traces which help you remember people, places, or events.

Mental imaging is to visualize in your mind an image of something or someone you want to remember.

Words can be used to help you remember in a number of ways. Talking to yourself creates verbal memory traces. Acronyms, rhymes, or jingles may help jog your memory.

Making new connections is the process which relates new information to what you already know thereby making the new information easier to recall.

Sorting and grouping are ways of categorizing data to provide memory traces to aid in recall. Relationships among major groups and among the items in each subgroup create the connections which make all items memorable.

Repetition helps you to hold information in your short term memory as your working memory organizes and integrates it into long term memory.

Rehearsal and review, both reinforced by repetition, help you to remember tasks or events that will take place in the future and to recall information or events from the past.

Spacing is the practice of leaving intervals between learning sessions in order to reinforce memory traces.

Memory aids are concrete reminders—notes, calendars, pill safes—which help you remember. Other people may also be effective memory aids if they have ways of remembering to remind you.

Find the Motivation and Commit Yourself

Improving your memory relies on motivation. When people are motivated, they pay attention and concentrate in order to consolidate what they are experiencing into lasting memories. When people are motivated, they often set goals.

We are motivated by seven urges which push us toward goals. These urges are: the urge to live, with goals of survival, comfort, and to find meaning in living; the urge to be free with a goal of self-determination; the urge to enjoy with a goal of happiness; the urge to understand with a goal of knowledge; the urge to create with a goal of originality; the urge to connect with a goal of love; and the urge to transcend with a goal of unity.

Your goals for your memory project are determined by your goals for your life. In looking at the natural urges of all of us, you may choose to set goals related to your health or your lifestyle habits or you may decide to find greater meaning in the events and circumstances of your personal experiences. Often a desire for self-determination or a desire to be free of the discomfort of memory lapses works as the driving motivation for goal-setting.

Making the decision to work toward a goal frees up energy and allows you to become action-oriented. Yet like water in a river, energy necessary to reach goals may be limited by dams, drains, or constrictions. These limiters, such as illness, excess responsibilities, and worry, need to be identified and alleviated or eliminated.

Working toward your goals may require a variety of personal resources including hope, courage, curiosity, imagination, enthusiasm, caring and concern, and an openness to new or different ideas.

In the end, motivation is the force behind the decisions, commitments, self-discipline, and patience required to reach your goals.

Enjoy Life and Continue Growing

Your natural urges to enjoy, to understand, to create, to connect with others, and to transcend also may come into play as motivators in the execution of your memory project.

It is important to decide to enjoy living. But to do that you must deal with any pain or grief you are experiencing and move on.

Most of us have a natural curiosity about the world we live in and the people who populate it. This urge to understand can lead us to search for new information and to want to remember this information. Honing our skills in retaining what we read and hear and working to build on new information as we obtain it are important parts of a sound memory project. This natural learning goes on throughout our life.

Creativeness may be expressed in the arts, in our jobs, or even in how we make the bed in the morning. Memory is necessary in all creative projects, and being creative improves our memory capabilities automatically.

Connecting with others creates meaningful memories. But failure to pay attention and other factors often interfere with our relationships. As time progresses, old relationships sometimes need to be replaced with new ones. This often comes with challenges relating to shyness, to difficulty in getting around, and to being close-minded. Relationships add to the wealth of our lives and play an important part in our memory program.

The desire to transcend, to grow more whole with the years, and to use more of our potential is within us all. This urge is easier to satisfy if we are open to all the alternatives and possibilities our world has to offer.

Increase Your Power to Focus

Attention is essential for memory. Focusing your attention allows you to keep items in your mind as long as you choose. You are surrounded by external stimuli calling for your attention. They may be in conflict with internal sensations, thoughts, and feelings which also demand attention. Both external and internal distractions may interfere with memory.

To concentrate is to sustain attention while ignoring distractions and interferences. Strategies to deal with distractions and interferences are to increase your use of memory aids, develop strong habits of attention and concentration, focus on one thing at a time and to set your own pace. In this way, you can accumulate a great deal of information and relate it to what you already know. The new material then becomes a part of your long term memory.

Organize Your Learning and Your Life

Your memory is already organized. Memory traces are stored in an organized fashion, and you recall incidents, people, and knowledge in organized units. Therefore, you more easily learn information that you have consciously organized.

To organize material is to think about it, to relate it to what you already know, and to take any necessary action. Further organize your learning by breaking complex learning tasks into manageable units.

Besides organizing your learning, organizing your time and your surroundings will improve your memory because there will be fewer items forgotten or mislaid, fewer appointments missed, and less clutter and other distractions in your daily life.

Take Care of Your Health

Beginning at about age 30, there are slight cumulative changes in all body systems, including the brain and nervous system. In addition, any illness or disease can affect memory. Making a commitment to a health maintenance plan is essential for good memory functioning. This plan includes a balanced diet, exercise, minimizing contact with toxic substances, and having regular medical checkups.

Keeping mentally active—finding new ways of learning and new fields to explore—is as healthy for your brain and nervous system as physical exercise is for your body. Most learning does not take place in a classroom. Having one or more absorbing interests in which you are continuously acquiring new information can provide the challenges and activities on which to build and maintain a good memory.

Deal with Stress and Depression

Moods and feelings affect memory. They will reinforce a related memory but can interfere with remembering other events. Strong feelings often distract your attention from what is currently going on around you.

When feelings such as fear, worry, or anger drain personal energy, finding ways to cope with the resulting stress, large or small, is essential to maintaining a good memory. Some of these ways are:

possessing a sense of control
progressive relaxation, meditation or prayer
gaining insight into the predictable outcome of that which is generating the stress
social supports
outlets for the emotional energy which accompanies stress

Your inner mentor who relies on reality-testing for making recommendations may be helpful in all of these tasks.

Understand and Cope with the Aging Process

Your age alone does not predict how well you remember. Memory is closely related to motivation levels, to habits of attention, to how organized you are and to your health.

However, dealing with any age-related sensory changes you encounter is essential. Good eyesight and hearing are both important to how well you remember. Any significant decline in either should be treated or compensated for.

Slowing of the central nervous system, increasing distractibility, and more shallow processing of information are all natural occurrences as we age. Each of these may be counterbalanced with recognition that they are a fact of life, with pacing ourselves, with concentration, and with in-depth thought and review and other strategies.

Become Your Own Mentor

Your inner mentor acts to provide support and guidance by supplying three assets: permission, protection, and potency. As a result, you can make the kinds of changes in attitudes and lifestyle which create a better memory.

Empowering this inner mentor will contribute greatly to your success in determining which memory tools and habits will be most effective for you and which memory aids will save time and prevent memory lapses.

Your mentor then will be supportive as you make the kinds of changes in your attitudes and lifestyle that will improve your memory. The contract is a useful tool for this purpose.

From The Memory Manual: 10 Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Your Memory After 50, by Betty Fielding. Copyright 1999 by Betty Fielding. Excerpted by arrangement with Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press, Inc. $14.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-497-4909, or click here.