Strengthen Your Memory

Do you remember, in a previous issue of ICT Connect, I had explained that memory is not a unitary construct but consists of different systems? If you would like to jog your memory, here is the link to the previous article. In this issue, I am going to outline strategies provided by Andrew Budson and Elizabeth Kensinger in Why We Forget & How To Remember Better for strengthening memories in each system. By adopting these tips, hopefully, your memory in your personal and professional lives will be sharper and more robust. 

Let’s start with working memory or the mental sketchpad that allows us to attend to and manipulate a finite amount of information at a time. To shore up your working memory, foremost you need to pay attention to what you intend to remember. Multitasking is detrimental to working memory so focus on only one thing at a time. Notice the various sensations be it of sight, sound, smell, taste or touch if you want to remember them later. If possible, chunk information into meaningful units. If a colleague is making a presentation on this year’s budget, group items into meaningful categories. Stay calm as a worried mind is too preoccupied to focus on external information. 

Procedural or muscle memory involves learning motoric routines. Learning to ride a bike, skate or play the guitar tap into this memory system. So, when learning a new skill, do it right the first time so that you don’t need to unlearn incorrect motoric sequences. Take lessons to learn a skill instead of trying to teach yourself. For procedural memories to become automatized, where you don’t have to consciously think of the various sub-steps involved, you need to practice with breaks in between. Instead of practicing the keyboard for three hours at a stretch on Saturday, do an hour every other day. Avoid interference by mastering one tune at a time. Start with simple routines and add complexity as you become more adept. 

Episodic memory is memory for life events, both prosaic and profound. Was your boss in good spirits during today’s meeting? You remember giving your colleague the pen drive in the cafeteria yesterday, though he’s sure you didn’t. To enhance your episodic memory, be present to your internal sensations, feelings and thoughts. Focusing on multiple sensations such as sight, sound and smell as you experience them will help you encode the memory into long-term memory. Further, if you want to remember today’s meetings vis a vis other weekly meetings, attend to what was different and special about today’s session. Try to find “distinguishing features” be it of people present, the venue or the topics discussed. If it’s a particularly salient event that you’d like to store in long-term memory, like your engagement or participating in a panel discussion, run through the happenings in your mind after the event is over.  

Your memory for facts and information constitutes semantic or declarative memory. This is the memory system that you tap the most as a student and possibly as a working professional as well. For memories to become part of the declarative system, they have to be first encoded in your episodic memory. So, buttressing your episodic memory is the first step towards a more robust sematic memory.  

Next, two processes help memories shift from the episodic to the declarative system. First, during consolidation, which usually happens when we sleep, connections between different aspects of the memory are strengthened. The personal or episodic aspects of the memory may be lost as memories move from episodic to declarative. Memories in the declaractive system are “generalized” as they contain only the gist or an overall concept. Getting adequate sleep is essential to forming robust semantic memories.  

Forming memories are only one part of the story. Budson and Kensinger also remind us that we need to exert effort to keep them there. The authors offer the following general tips, that can be remembered by the acronym FOUR,  to help you form and store stronger memories. First, FOCUS on what you wish to remember. If you attention strays, direct it back to the object of focus. Second, ORGANISE information meaningfully. If you need to remember items on a list, see if they can be grouped into categories. If you want to memorize the features of two products, what are the similarities and differences?  

Next, UNDERSTAND the significance of what you are trying to remember. If it’s factual information, do the concepts make sense? If it’s personal, episodic information, zero in on the relevance of this to your life. Also, RELATE what you need to remember to things you already know. If you’re reading a story or some historical facts, try to inject emotion into how the characters or historical figures might have felt. Evoke and create multisensorial images in your head. If you’re reading about a railway station, imagine the smorgasbord of sensations that bombard you.  

Finally, space out your reviews so that you gradually lengthen the gaps between review and retrieval. The more effort you expend in retrieving memories the more robust they become. By using these tips repeatedly, hopefully they’ll get easier and easier to remember.  

About the Author 

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is a psychologist & writer. She is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at

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