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7 Tricks to Improve Your Memory

How do you remember the names of new business associates?

Do you:

A) repeat their name five times in your head while shaking their hand?
B) try to cement the image of their face with their name by sheer mental power?
C) associate the name with a famous actress and picture her doing a headstand on a balance beam?

If you answered A or B, you are fighting an uphill battle, one that--if you're over 40, especially--you're probably losing.The best answer is C, according to journalist Joshua Foer, who has discovered and elucidated memory-enhancing strategies in his memorably-titled book, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, a story of his journey from Joe Average Memory to winner of the U.S. Memory Championship.

Foer stumbled into the world of memory athletics by chance, but was driven to delve into it because of what he and the rest of us are facing today in our hyper-technological world. On the one hand, we rely on our memory less as technology--cell phones, auto redial, Google searches, etc--provide us with a wealth of information at the tap of some keys. Yet we're also bombarded with information (passwords anyone?), and it would be nice to be able to remember at least some of it.

Foer said he was skeptical when he first started researching memory enhancement techniques and the promises from authors trying to profit on our fears of losing our minds. But he learned that memorizing techniques date back to the Ancient Greek Simonides. But he also learned that that's all they are, techniques. "You can't improve an underlying memory ability," he told WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate. "What you can do is, in certain limited ways, is learn techniques that help you remember more."

According to Foer's research, if you need an assist in remembering names at a conference, your credit card number, or to pick up milk on the way home, use these techniques and you'll be able trust your memory to come through for you (plus it is bound to make your day-to-day inner life more exciting):
  • Use graphic images to remember: Your brain is wired to remember visually and spatially, and the more erotic and exotic the images, the better your brain does. Foer writes that you have to "take the kinds of memories our brains aren't good at holding on to and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for." It's called elaborate encoding: "The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you've seen before that you can't possibly forget it," he writes in his book.
  • Associate hard-to-remember facts with your childhood home. In order to remember a to-do list, or even names of people, you need to place these things in something very familiar like the house you grew up in. Take a visual tour of your house starting with the front door, placing your first item on your list there, and wend your way through your house placing each item in different hallways or rooms. But don't just place "call Sophia," on the front stoop. Take the image to the extreme. Think of what Sophia reminds you of (Sophia Loren) and visually place her sitting on the lap of a she-male making a phone call (this is Foer's example, not mine). Or, suggests Foer, if you're trying to remember to buy cottage cheese, think of Claudia Schiffer swimming in a giant vat of it. After you've place down your memories, then retake that tour of your house and you'll visually pick up and remember each of the items you laid down.
  • Oh yeah, make the images very erotic--and absurd, according to 29-year-old Foer, and the centuries of mental athletes (mostly male) that came before him. That's pretty much how our minds are wired, so go with it. You're bound to remember absurdly lurid images more than you'd remember the mundane.
  • Connect the image to a celebrity or close relative or friend. Go back to that Sophia Loren example. When you meet someone, quickly think of an association--an actor, a model, the president, your grandmother--and think of that person in an outrageous situation, the more lurid the better.
  • Use "chunking" to remember passwords. Chunking--grouping numbers or letters into chunks--helps make it easier for a long sequence to be remembered. This is why credit card numbers are separated into groups of four and hyphens are inserted into phone numbers. Thus, the password Li34TH7 can be chunked as Li 34 Th7. And your memory will work even better if you put the chunks into a context. Long Island (Li), 34th street (34TH) and 7th avenue (7).
  • Code your numbers. To remember numbers, use an age-old technique called "Major System." It uses a code to change numbers into letters and then those letters can form easy-to-remember words, which can then be visualized. You'll have to read his book, p. 164 to get the code, but wrote Foer, "When I first learned it, I immediately memorized my credit card and bank account numbers."
  • Practice, practice, practice. Visualizing images, and doing it in a matter of seconds, takes practice. Your mental muscles get better at it the more you do it. One of the memory experts Foer interviewed told him that if he practiced one hour a day, six days a week, he could be in the top 3 of the U.S. Memory Championship. Which he did!
Have you used any techniques to improve your memory? What worked--and what didn't?

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
image courtesy of publisher.
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