Memory Made Easy

Ever wonder how memory trainers manage to rattle off hundreds of names and long number sequences? They've mastered the use of mnemonic techniques, tricks and shortcuts that help us capture information and store it in memory. Most of these tricks work by consciously increasing the amount of mental processing around any single piece of data. Ironically, although many of the standard memory -enhancement techniques are age-old, they are supported by the latest findings on how the brain processes new input. The principal techniques are association, visualization, imagination, and organization. See how they come into play in these everyday memory challenges.


Name that face. Names are everyone's No. 1 memory bugaboo. The next time you meet a new person, scan his face and pick out a single feature -- perhaps freckles, a dazzling smile, or a receding hairline. Now make a conscious link between that feature and the person's name. Say you meet a man named Tom Shipley. Notice that his blue eyes are the color of the ocean, and imagine him as the captain of a ship, with a tomcat as his first mate. The more ridiculous the image, the better, because exaggeration can make a visualization even more memorable. The key is to make a strong association between the name and the visual image so calling forth one will trigger the other. Strengthen that memory track by repeating the name several times during the conversation. You might also try picturing what the name looks like in print.


Finders, keepers. Association and visualization can also help you avoid misplacing your reading glasses or losing your parking stub. To fix some piece of information in your memory, associate it with a visual image or at least one additional sensory cue. For instance, when you put your glasses on the bathroom counter, notice how the lenses pick up the reflection of the lights over the vanity. As you tuck that parking stub into your raincoat pocket, note how the yellow ticket contrasts with the olive cloth and feel the stiff outline of the ticket against the soft fabric of the pocket lining. To remind yourself to buy lemons at the store, imagine their tartness on your tongue as you add them to your mental shopping list.


Sentence the subject. Take the first letter of the words you want to remember and construct a new word or sentence. Remember how your piano teacher taught you the notes in the G clef? Every good boy does fine. Use the same technique to commit a short shopping list to memory: milk, eggs, lemons, lettuce, oranges, walnuts. Male eagles look lively over Washington. You can also try to spell out a word or two from the first letters of your shopping items. This list, for example, spells out mellow.


Chunk it. Long number sequences -- credit card numbers, Social Security numbers -- are organized into subsets to make them easier to remember. Most telephone numbers worldwide consist of just seven digits (broken into two or three subsets) because that's all that short-term memory can handle at one time. The same technique can be applied to words. Say Thursday's to-do list has these random jottings: eggs, pick up clothes at cleaners, newspaper, bread, buy a nightgown, fill up car, drugstore, ketchup. Here's one way to chunk the information for memory efficiency:


Chain it. Think serially, making up a mini-story that strings together the items you want to remember. The sillier and more outrageous the story, the better. You might memorize Thursday's to-do list this way: As I drive into the gas station I almost hit a man leaving the drugstore. He gets mad and throws eggs and ketchup at my car. As he runs off, he knocks down a woman leaving the cleaners, carrying her nightgown. The incident is written up in the newspapers.


Be a reporter. Have something important to remember? Pretend you're a reporter and write a story lead that zeroes in on the who, what, where, when and why of the information. Exaggerating some aspects of the story will make the information even easier to remember.