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Sometimes it is easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of information that we must commit to memory. After all, our memory defines who we are. With age our memory changes but it is a myth that memory deteriorates with normal aging. With age it takes more time to recall things. This is normal as we have more information to sift through to get to the piece of data that we need. The truth is that with age, research shows that our memory becomes more accurate and our complex problem solving abilities become more attuned. If your memory is changing with age you can do something about it. Take control of your memory and accept the changes that come with age.
If you feel that your memory isn’t what it used to be you’re not alone. In fact, you’ve got approximately 60 million Americans to commiserate with. That’s the number of folks currently over 50 and many of them are alarmed at the growing gaps in their memory. The following is an excerpt from Memory Workbook (Mason and Kohn). “Understanding the changes in memory with age is the first step in streamlining your memory during the twilight years.” Below are some of the specific tips the authors offer to improve your memory:
Twenty Memory Tips for a More Effective Memory:
Self Fulfilling Prophecy--If you view yourself as having a poor memory you will. It will become a self fulfilling prophecy. Tell yourself that you have a good memory and that it is improving everyday. Praise yourself for remembering but never punish yourself for forgetfulness. Absentmindedness is a chosen state of mind. It is the result of choosing to focus on only a limited portion of your external environment and to forger to organize. Approach your daily tasks with enthusiasm. Excitement fuels attention and concentration which are the cornerstone to good memory.
Organize-–Find a central location to place the things that you use in your daily routine. Keys, calendar, wallet, purse can all be placed in a specific area. Find a scent that you like (such as an air freshener or a “Glade Plug In”) and place it in that location. Smell enhances your memory. Being organized enhances your memory and decreases stress. Another example is to place your checkbook, calculator and bills in a central location so that when it comes time to pay bills everything you need for the task is together. Associate and simplify the components of daily routines together. If you have to make a phone call in the morning place a reminder next to your tooth brush. Making lists and recordings of what you want to remember can also be beneficial. Outline what you want to remember and incorporate this into your daily routine.
Focus–Pay special attention to information that you wish to commit to memory. Form a mental picture of the grocery items that you need, write it down or use a tape recorder to jog your memory. Take the time necessary to rehearse the information immediately after hearing it in your mind. Repetition makes it easier and reinforces the learned material. Concentrate on the task at hand.
Relax–-Memory will be better if we take the time needed to store and recall the information. As we age it takes a little more time to retain and recall memories. Don’t panic if you can’t immediately recall something. Take your time, relax and allow it to come to you rather than beating yourself up in the process of forcing it. It is important to allow yourself the time necessary to complete a thought, to express yourself, or to complete a task. When we are rushed for time our memory often fails us. Examine any internal conflicts that may be hampering your memory. Look for patterns in your memory difficulties such as names, places or events. Memory always works better when we are well rested and not tired. Take control and limit your responsibilities and expectations to a level that is comfortable for you.
Limit Distractions–-It is much more difficult to access your memory when you surrounded by contradictory stimuli from your senses. Find a quiet place, limit distractions and allow your memory to work for you.
Categorize–-Placing information into categories makes it easier to remember. For example, when remembering items to be picked up at the grocery store we can place them in specific categories. Lunch meat and hamburger can be placed into the category of meat. Eggs and milk can be placed into the category of dairy products. Doughnuts and candy can be placed into the category of treats. We now only need to remember three categories rather than six separate items.
Sense It–By using the different senses to aid in our memory we are physically utilizing different portions of our brain to aid in this task. Your sense of smell is much deeper in the brain than your vision. Visualizing the brightness of an object uses different cells than imagining the color or it. Imagine yourself in the grocery store collecting the items within the three categories defined above. See the items being put into the cart. See the colors, openly verbalize the items, feel the textures and smell the scents associated the food groups. Actively utilize all of your senses to aid in the details of memory. The more effort put into the imaginary component of the task the greater will be the fruits of your labor.
Attach It-–It is easier to remember things if they carry some significant meaning. Try to decide why what you want to remember is important. Perhaps the above grocery items are part of a special dinner that you are preparing for a friend. Attach the food items to the dinner and the emotion associated with that evening.
Preparatory Set (Attention Preparation)--Prepare your mind in the same way an athlete prepares prior to engaging in sports. For example, if you have to give a presentation do a mental warm-up before presenting. Rehearse everything that will be involved with making the presentation. Close your eyes and envision what the room will look like; do a mental inventory of all the materials that you will need; imagine some questions that the crowd may ask of you. Mental visualization may not only be empowering, it can help you be prepared and organized.
Use Humor–-Compose a humorous phrase, song or mental image to assist in remembering. When humor is attached to the item to be remembered, it is both entertaining and more easily recalled. This will also serve to help you to relax, stay positive and to become less burdened with stress and tension. Creativity goes a long way toward remembering.
Use it or Lose it–-Memory is improved through practice. Upon retirement many people find that their recall begins to become rusty. This is in part due to the fact that they are not using their memory in the same manner that they once did. Doing crossword puzzles, reading, taking a college course all serve to enhance your memory and aid in your confidence about yourself. Practicing drawing or doodling can also enhance your visual imagery skills. Just simply drawing what ever comes to mind allows you to place a visual representation of what’s in your mind on paper (thus establishing a better memory). Finally, find a way to teach others. By teaching we are enhancing our own memories.
Label Memory Files–-By consciously choosing key word connections within your mind in order to place memories, you are saving space in the hard drive of your mind and enhancing access. For example, when we hear a key word or phrase such as Pentagon we associate many thoughts and feelings to this word. We may remember key individuals, circumstances or events that fall within this label. We can also link our visualization, auditory memory, emotional memory and other sensory perceptions to this label to aid in recall. Labeling memory files allows us to link one word with whole concepts.
Create a Mental Calendar-–Utilizing a calendar to guide you through your daily activities creates self reliance and confidence and allows you to plan ahead and free up space in your mind for other important memories. Use one calendar to chronicle appointments, daily events, reminders, responsibilities and goals. Write down anything that is important to you. Keep this calendar accessible in a central location. This calendar becomes an external extension of your memory. Other external extensions of your memory can be beneficial. Leaving yourself notes or an empty milk jug next to the front door can serve to remind you to pick up milk at the grocery.
Mind Body Connection–-It is essential that you take proper care of your body if your memory is to function at its fullest potential. Exercise and diet are an essential part of keeping your memory working for you. Exercise relieves stress, enhances blood flow and provides needed nutrients to the brain. Avoidance of alcohol and other drugs will also enhance your memory.
Come in Through the Back Door-–Everyone experiences blocks to their memory at times. The more you try to recall a piece of data the further away it seems to get. This becomes more fueled by frustration and negative self talk. Replace any negative self talk with positive affirmations. Avoid the frustration by talking around the item to be recalled. Use words that are similar, express yourself in approximations, and keep the thought active. By doing so you can often pull out the item to be remembered. Remember, that the human brain contains billions of nerve cells that are intricately connected to form memories. It is okay that we are often unable to access a single pathway within this behemoth and intecral map of neural cells.
Time is on Your Side–-Our brain uses the element of time to chunk memories together. When you have difficulty remembering something try to reconstruct the time frame associated with that memory. By doing so you are tapping into the physical part of the brain where that memory is stored and activating the neural networks associated with that memory. For example, if you want to remember what you got for your birthday last year reconstruct that time frame in your mind. Picture what you were wearing, how the day began and who you were with. As you link memories in this manner other associated memories will gradually surface into your awareness. As we age, more and more memories are associated with more time frames.
Chunk It–-Chunking involves learning small portions of a concept and later putting them together to form the whole. A good example of this is your social security number. Many of us remember three chunks or sets of numbers (e.g. 143-79-3499). It is easier to remember three sets of numbers rather than one nine digit number. If you are trying to remember an article start with the main premise. Then associate related themes back to the main premise. By breaking down the information you are actually checking the accuracy of the information and thus enhancing your memory. Again, file this in your mind under one specific title.
Associate It–-Memories are stored through associating new memories with old ones. By knowing this we can use this natural process to our advantage. Information is associated in our brains together rather than in isolation. For example, if you just met someone with a unique name, associate it with similar sounding words that you already know. Visualize the associated words as you consciously commit the new name to memory.
Creativity and Flexibility–-Always ask yourself a simple question...”What is another way I can look at this problem?” Rigid thinking is often a precursor to poor memory. Examine the problem at hand. Turn it over and look at it from all angles. Put it down and do the same later. More memory associations are formed by examining things from different perspectives. Creativity and flexibility also allow us to find more ways to access the information to be recalled.
Focus on Your Strengths–-Many of us learn better if we first view the whole concept where others do better by first learning the individual parts. Recognize your preference and start there. If you are visually oriented utilize this strength in your retention and recall. Incorporate your individual personality style into your memory techniques. For example, a good sense of humor can go a long way in finding something unique about an individual to associate with his/her name. Go beyond your mind’s natural limits and plug in a detail that you may not have initially observed until you took the time and effort to do so. Remember good memory starts with the quality of the information that is taken in through your senses from your environment.
Overall Memory Improvement Using the RARE© Approach
Relax - includes relaxed body positioning either through deep muscle relaxation or mini-relaxation throughout the day.
Attend - means to focus on the material you want to remember and make it “stick out” more than other pieces of data.
Rehearsal - is similar to memorizing information – repeat it to yourself over and over and you are more likely to recall the information. Rehearsal forces you to pay attention to the memory.
Envision - means to elaborate on the memory. Make the memory come to life. You can utilize interactive imagery to creative a vivid picture in your mind. Perhaps you have a short grocery list of milk, eggs and bread. Picture the milk jug balancing the carton of eggs on top of a loaf of bread.
"The true art of memory is the art of attention" Samuel Johnson (1759)
Excerpts from: The Memory Workbook, New Harbinger Publications, 2002 The Memory Workbook is based on research conducted by Drs Mason and Kohn in which the RARE-DREAM memory enhancement program for elders was developed. The RARE-DREAM Memory Enhancement Program is the recipient of the International Neuropsychological Society's Graduate Research Award - 1998.
Douglas J. Mason, Psy.D., is a clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist. He completed his residency at Duke University Medical Center and is currently practicing in Central Florida.