Your Memory

######How It Works and How to Improve It

The book, Your Memory by Kenneth L Higbee, has a balance between layman techniques and scientific research. Higbee himself is fascinated with the area of memory and follows many of the newly developed techniques to improve it. He’s also a psychologist whose area of study is in memory.

Ten Myths

* Memory is a thing
* There's a secret to good memory
* There's an easy way to memorize
* Some people are stuck with bad memories
* Some people are blessed with photographic memories
* Some people are too old/young to improve it
* Memory benefits from exercise
* A trained memory never forgets
* Remembering too much can clutter your mind
* People only use 10% of their mental potential

What is memory?

Memory isn’t a physical structure, most scientists can’t even define where we store our memory. Memory can actually be thought of in stages and processes.

The 3 stages are:

  1. Acquisition or encoding, when you first learn the material
  2. Storage is keeping the material as needed
  3. Retrieval is getting the material when needed

The 2 processes are:

  1. Short-term memory (aka primary or working memory)
  2. Long-term memory (aka secondary memory)

Information stored in short-term is often forgotten within 30 seconds, less if there are any sort of distractions.

There are tricks to improve your short-term memory. For example, numbers are easy to forget when presented in one chunk (4501235678). But when presented in multiple chunks like a phone number, it becomes easier.

Short-term memory is desirable because:

  1. Imagine how cluttered our minds would be if we remembered everything.
  2. It helps us maintain the current state of the world around us.
  3. It keeps our intentions in active memory, guiding our behavior.
  4. Keeps track of recent topics in conversation or reading. So if you read a passage that mentions a “John”, your mind can infer any usages of “he” as meaning “John”.

Higbee compares short-term memory to the registers in a CPU.

Long-term memory is composed of 3 types:

  1. Procedural - how to do something (ie Math)
  2. Semantic - remembering factual information (ie word meanings)
  3. Episodic - personal events

Long-term memory is not as easily interrupted as the ongoing, active short-term memory. Its storage is virtually unlimited (short-term has a limited capacity). Retrieval from short-term is automatic, retrieval from long-term is often more problematic.

Information goes through short-term and gets stored permanently in your long-term memory. That makes short-term the bottleneck. Information must be coded before they’re stored and that coding takes time. A systematic approach is needed to improve your long-term memory.

Higbee compares it to a filing cabinet. We all have the same size filing cabinet. Remembering new things won’t push old ones out. But some of us place files in an organized fashion (like alphabetical) whereas others just toss files in. If the filing cabinet is organized, it’s much easier to retrieve it. If it’s a mess, retrieval becomes hard or even impossible.

Measuring memory can be done via:

1. Recall
2. Recognition
3. Relearning

How does it work?

The most common explanations for forgetting are:

  1. Decay, like a physical trace of your memory in your brain is slowly decaying over time
  2. Repression was suggested by Sigmund Freud that we don’t want to remember and push it down into our unconscious mind
  3. Distortion, memory can be affected by our mind and we remember what we want to believe
  4. Interference occurs when you learn new facts that might interfere with the ones you already remember (such as trying to remember multiple names and getting them mixed up)
  5. Cue dependency happens when a memory doesn’t fade away, but it depends on the correct cue to set it off

Information can be recorded in either visual form or verbal form. Concrete words are stored differently than abstract words. Many studies have shown that using pictures is a better way to memorize than just words. Many people are able to recall/recognize pictures better than words as time passes.

Eidetic memory is what most people call “photographic memory”. It has a few misconceptions:

  1. The “photo” fades soon after viewing the scene, it’s not kept forever
  2. The “photo” is heavily influenced by the subjective view or the viewer
  3. The person requires more than a split-second, studying is required
  4. Images cannot be brought back after they are forgotten

There are some people with exceptional eidetic memory that do not have those limitations. A woman could remember a poem in a foreign language and repeat it forwards/backwards one year later.

Higbee touches a little bit about sleep-learning. Some conditions of it are:

  1. You cannot learn anything during deep sleep, the subject must be at the correct stage of drowsiness or light sleep
  2. No complex materials that require reasoning may be learned
  3. It’s usually not sufficient in itself, but can work as an aide to daytime learning

Some research shows that people remember better when they go to sleep right after they acquire knowledge. They remember worse in the reverse order, if they wake up and then acquire knowledge.

Remember anything, basic principles

The basic principles for better memory are:

* Meaningfulness
* Organization
* Association
* Visualization
* Attention

It’s much easier to remember something simple/meaningful than something that is complex/meaningless. Remembering meaningless things is called rote memory, and techniques such as repetition is used for it (remembering many digits like Pi, or remembering random strings of characters). For example, it’s much easier to remember words with meaning than random syllables.

Organization plays an important role. A dictionary provides alphabetical organization so it’s easy to look up the definition of a word. When you’re recalling the states, it’s usually easier to do it in order of geography or alphabet. When you remember new facts, you usually organize it so you can recall it later on. Higbee notes that not all data structures provide equal look-up time, for instance an alphabetically organized dictionary is not optimized to find all words that rhyme with “stealthy”.

Association is a technique used when you encode a memory. For example, a golfer always remembers his wife’s birthday because it is exactly one week after his first hole-in-one.

“Think around it” is similar to association, where you think around what you want to remember to trigger a memory. For example, in police investigations it’s useful to ask any witnesses to recall everything about a crime-scene to trigger the memory of a once forgotten license-plate. Whereas association occurs during the encoding step, “think around it” occurs during retrieval.

Visual memory is often better than semantic memory. It’s much easier to visualize your house to remember how many windows there are instead of just remembering the fact.

Attention is required to actually record the memory in the first place. Higbee asks us if we remember if Lincoln had a tie on the penny. Not many people can recall it because it’s unimportant - we never pay attention.

Remember almost anything, more principles

More principles that can be applied towards a better memory are:

* Repetition
* Relaxation
* Context
* Interest
* Feedback

Repetition alone may not be enough to remember everything, but it’s a great technique to use. Studies show that people who relearn will remember better than others who do 0% overlearning. For instance, after a subject repeats a series of words until he memorizes it - overlearning occurs when he repeats it again 100% of the time.

Relaxation helps while you’re trying to retrieve information. Anxiety will usually cause difficulties during recall.

Context has been shown to help or hinder retrieval. Research has shown that if a subject is in the same physical location as where the material is learned, there is a higher rate of recall. Higbee suggests that you study where you’ll take your exam. If that’s not possible, then study in a similar environment. During recall, you can imagine and place yourself into the environment where you first encoded a memory to help recall it (“think around it”).

Just like how attention is required to learn something, interest in a subject will usually help memorization.

Feedback is very helpful for the learning process. It’s much easier to learn something when you can measure your progress towards a goal. It helps sustain your interest in the subject and will help you make adjustments to improve your techniques.

Effective learning

Higbee gives readers tips to improve their learning abilities. This chapter was written specifically for students but is general enough to apply to most learning situations.

To learn more effectively, you should:

* reduce interference
* space out learning sessions
* decide to either break up the learning material or learn it as a whole
* recite it
* use a study system (SQ3R is recommended)

Reducing interference means eliminating distractions while you’re encoding new memories. You can also minimize the harmful effects of interference by making sure any activities between encoding/recall is as dis-similar to the learning material as possible.

Studies have shown that multiple short study sessions split over a period of time is much better for memorization than one single massive study session. Higbee goes on to give reasons why this might occur, such as letting your memories settle during sleep or having breaks causes better attention.

The 2 approaches to learning is either break down the materials into sections and learn one at time, moving on when a section is mastered, or learning it as a whole and repeating until the material is mastered. Each has their pros and cons, for smaller/simpler subjects it’s usually easier to break it down (as this provides feedback). Some material needs to be understood as a whole.

Reciting is repeating out-loud what you’ve learned from memorization as opposed to repeating it directly by reading. It helps via repetition but is also practice for the recall/retrieval process, which is its major benefit.

Higbee recommends the SQ3R study system: survey, question, read, recite, review.

Intro to Mnemonics

Mnemonics refer to general techniques that improve memory, but most people only consider narrow/unusual methods that aid memory as mnemonics.

Common mnemonic techniques use acronyms and acrostics (first letter of every word in a sentence represents something). Rhymes and other sentences with rhythms may also be used (when did Columbus sail the ocean blue?)

An example mnemonic to remember the lakes in North-East US:

Hudson Ontario Michigan Eerie Superior

Mnemonics help with basic principles:

Research tells us that we should make our own mnemonic strategies. Names are easier to remember when you’ve named something yourself, as is the case with memory strategies. This “generation effect” has been found true for product names, computer commands, etc…

Mnemonics limitations

Some of the limitations listed by Higbee are:

Pseudo-limitations are critiques that are not as valid/serious as the previously listed limitations. Some of them aren’t valid at all:

Mental filing systems

Our filing system is disorganized as if our memories were written on 3x5 cards and thrown across the floor.

Using mnemonic devices helps us organize and retrieve memories. Higbee describes two basic systems: the Link and Story systems. These two work ideally for concrete word lists.

If you had to remember a list of words:

The Link system works by linking two words at a time to form visual imagery. So in this case:

  1. A car driving on paper tires
  2. A tire running over a doctor
  3. A doctor operating on a rose

The Story system works by integrating all the words sequentially in a single overarching story:

A paper tire ran over the doctor who happened to be operating on a rose.

Psychologists have done research on these systems by giving subjects lists of words to remember. The retrieval rate is much higher after they’re taught to use these two mnemonic systems.

Mark Twain used the link system to remember his speeches. Some other example usages include grocery lists or todo lists. Long items and/or abstract words should be translated to a concrete word before filing.

These systems rely heavily on memory cues to retrieve information. They’re also weak in that if you forget one item, you forget the rest of the list.

Loci Mnemonic

The Loci system uses locations to form associative pairs.

It was originated sometime in 500BC, “Loci” is the plural of “Locus” which means place or location in Greek. It’s also sometimes known as the Topical system.

First, memorize a set of locations by over-learning it and keep these locations in a sequence. For example:

  1. Driveway: I pull into my driveway
  2. Car door: I open the car door
  3. Font door: I open my front door
  4. Shoe area: I take off my shoes
  5. Closet: I place my coat into the closet
  6. Kitchen: I grab something to eat from the kitchen
  7. Couch: I sit on the couch in the living room

Now for any list of items/words, picture each word at each location:

  1. Driveway => large amounts of paper liter
  2. Car door => swung open and hit a huge tire
  3. Front door => doctor sitting and crying
  4. Shoe area => covered with roses to cover up smell

Now to retrieve your list, just visualize yourself walking through your locis and retrieve each associative pair.

Research has shown the loci system to be very effective. Subjects can learn multiple sets of locis (at home, at school, at work, or even their body parts). The more distinct the locations, the better. Higbee also mentions you can combine the Link system with the Loci system, just use linked imagery at each loci.

The Loci system can be used to memorize the same types of lists as the Link and Story systems.

The Loci system is sequential just like link/story. Higbee suggests that we index our 5th multiple and 10th multiple locations by associating them with a hand (with 5 fingers) and a 10 dollar bill. So for example, my bed could have a 10 dollar bill on it and the 12th location is just 2 locis after.

Peg Mnemonic

The Peg system is similar to the Loci system, but instead of using locations as keys we use real concrete words.

The words must represent numbers by looking like one, symbolic, or rhyme:

  1. bun
  2. shoe
  3. tree
  4. door
  5. hive
  6. sticks
  7. heaven
  8. gate
  9. wine
  10. hen

Then for any list, associate each pair of words with visual imagery. Whereas the loci system is sequential, the peg system allows you to retrieve items out of order.

It’s called the peg system because your concrete words act like pegs, on which you hang your items to be memorized.

The Loci system is said to be much easier/more natural to learn. Another limitation is it’s difficult to come up with concrete words beyond the number ten. Interference may also be a problem if you’re trying to remember multiple lists and re-using the same pegs.

Phonetic Mnemonic

The Phoentic system is the most complicated mnemonic system introduced in this book, but is very powerful. It’s similar to the peg system, you’ll have words which act as your pegs. But it solves the weakness of the peg system - you can easily create up over 1000+ pegs with a bit of practice.

Every number will have consonant sounds associated with it:

Number Sound(s) Memory Aid
1 t, th, d “t” has one downstroke
2 n two downstrokes
3 m three downstrokes
4 r last sound for “four”
5 l roman numeral for 50 is “L”
6 j, sh, ch, soft g reverse “j” looks like
7 k, q, hard c, hard g “k” makes two 7s
8 f, v script “f” resembles 8
9 p, b p is mirror image of 9
0 z, s, soft c “z” for zero

The table above works well because all consonant sounds are used except for “w”, “h”, “y” (why) - so most words can be used. The sounds are also mutually exclusive to prevent interference.

Higbee suggests using the consonant sounds as the first sound in your keywords. Sample keywords:

1. tie
2. Noah
3. ma
4. ray
5. law
6. jay
7. key
8. fee
9. pie
10. toes
11. tot
12. tin
13. tomb
14. tire
15. towel

The appendix has sample keywords for up to 100. Using adjectives, you can multiply your 100-word list into a 1000 phrase list:

1. wet (wet tie = 0101 or 101)
2. new
3. my
4. hairy
5. oily
6. huge
7. weak
8. heavy
9. happy
10. dizzy

The phonetic system allows you to pick a word in your list without going in order. It has the added benefit of encoding numbers in a more meaningful way with low interference. For example, you can use it to remember PI where each digit is translated to your keyword. Chunking it provides a lower amount of interference also.

Absentmindedness and Education

The major problem with absentmindedness is with attention. We don’t pay attention to what we’re doing either because it requires very little conciousness or we get distracted.

There are two types of absentmindedness, prospective and retrospective. Prospective concerns memory for future events whereas retrospective concerns memory for past events.

For example, remembering a task for later on is prospective memory. Sometimes, we forget a chore that we need to perform later. Higbee suggests using visual association to fix this. For example, if you need to call the doctor when you get into the office - visualize a doctor in your office. When you get in the morning, your office will trigger that memory.

An example of retrospective memory is forgetting where you last placed your keys. Higbee suggests announcing actions you commonly forget as you do them. By hearing them out-loud, you’re paying attention and are more likely to remember later on.

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