I have previously touched on the subject on enhancing memory by paying more attention to how we encoded information and experience. Here, I want to move on to how we retrieve information to enhance our memory. To heighten your awareness of your own memory improvement system.
Last week I spoke about encoding information better so that we can access it more readily when required to do so. Encoding information with your own memory improvement system of course means processing it internally; and internal processing involves your senses. A number of things emerge from this:
1. We tend to find it easier to remember using certain preferred senses. So if you are strongly visual, make sure when you are being introduced to someone new that you take a mental picture of their face and perhaps see their name on their forehead, or like a badge or necklace close to their face. If you know you find it easy to remember sounds, hear the sound of them saying their name and make sure you record it internally alongside their image, so that when you see them next the visual image calls up the sound of the name. I always make a point of saying the persons name several times within the first few sentences out aloud to really get it in my mind. Looking in the appropriate direction to access the representational system you want to store the information in will help ensure you store the information in the most appropriate way too.
2. The more of your senses that are involved, the richer your internal representation and the storage will be. You can do this deliberately to help with encoding. Involve as many of your senses as possible, in order to make a memory really rich a retrievable by multiple routes. (Anything memorable about the temperature, moisture and pressure of their handshake for example)
3. Some things are best encoded using particular senses, which means attending in that system before attempting to encode anything. Consistently good spelling in English, for example, depends on visual processing. Researchers have investigated what good spellers did, and found that they all store mental pictures of how the words look. When they need to spell the word, they refer to that internal picture to get the right spelling.
People who are good at physical skills will tend to store information about them kinaesthetically, and they may not be able to explain what they do in words. I know someone who is a genius at carpentry; he does lots of work for me. When asked by his friend to explain how to use a lathe, he found that he was quite unable to explain or even remember how he did it. He had to sit down at the machine and actually work with it himself: his hands seemed to know what to do.
When developing your own memory improvement system, you can develop a facility with any of your senses if you practise. This can seem remarkable to others who have not bothered to do so. And this is true of entire cultures as well. Any culture reliant on oral transmission, for instance, will have highly developed auditory memory strategies such as rhythm, rhyme and mnemonics. So while it seems amazing to us, it was perfectly natural in ancient Greece for epic poems thousands of lines long to be committed to memory and accurately recited. Such skills still exist in parts of Africa where literacy and computer ownership are low, and also in India.
Conversely, imagine how strange it would be trying to learn a dance by reading a book about it, or learning to sing by looking at pictures of people singing. You need the right tool for the job. So check if you have the right senses alerted for what you want to learn.
Before I go further, here is a little quiz, to help you find out more about your own memory:
Exploring Your Memory:
– Get really curious about your memory. What do you find easy to remember? What do you tend to forget? Do your own patterns tell you anything about what is important to you and what is less so? Or what kinds of representation come most naturally and you store most easily? Or where your self-limiting beliefs are?
– Find out how you go about remembering. Do you: make pictures of the information? Tell yourself stories? Hear someone telling you? Try it on and experience? Like to get your hands dirty?
– What has to happen for you to forget something? Does your mind Just go blank? Do you steer away from something and find yourself thinking of something else? Do you say to yourself, I must not forget this in which case your wording itself is directing your attention to forgetting rather than remembering. Remember this is far more progressive by the way.
– How do your remembering and forgetting relate to your interest in the information and your feelings about it?
– What kind of things do you have a poor memory for, and why?
– Do you have a good memory for things you would rather not? I knew someone who easily remembered everything that went wrong and every time he was ridiculed by others. If you do, how are you encoding these experiences? Are you replaying a video? Listening to a tape? Feeling the feelings? See if you can pinpoint how you are doing this.
So let’s get on to the subject of memory retrieval.
Encoding and retrieval are closely linked. Bruce Chatwin recounts a really good example of how the two processes interact in his book The Songlines. Visiting Australia, Chatwin learnt how the Aboriginal culture and history was encoded and passed on through songs that related to invisible paths winding across the land- the Songlines. So the land itself and all its natural features, every hump and hillock, encoded the stories of the ancient Dreamtime from generation to generation.
The Aborigines sing their Songlines as a series of couplets that match the length of time it takes to walk a particular stretch of land. So the land and song are one. In fact, according to Chatwin, they believe that they are singing the land into existence as they walk over it, in a wondrous mixture of geography and mythology. Each tribe has its own territory and Songline, and each knows about the history of its neighbour because of the way their Songlines interlink.
While travelling in the back country, Chatwin gave a lift to a man called Limpy, who wanted to visit a place he had never been to, which was of immense importance on his Songline. After seven hours driving, and about ten miles away from the valley, Limpy began muttering and gesticulating rapidly as he stared out of the window. He had begun to recognise places he had only previously heard about, and he was singing the Songline to himself. But he was forced to do this in great haste because of the speed of the car: the Songline he knew went at walking speed.
The Songline had been encoded through singing and walking through a landscape with close attention to detail, and in a linear sequence. Every note of the melody was linked to a feature of the landscape, and this made remembering the Songline and passing it to all tribe members and down generations much easier.
When the car journey intersected with the Songline, Limpys memory of the whole Songline was triggered, but where the man-made road deviated from the Songline Limpy switched off and only resumed the experience when the road met the line again.
A somewhat similar process was used by Roman orators when they memorised complex speeches. They would mentally link each heading of their speech in its correct sequence with the features of another sequence they already knew well such as the landmarks of a particular building or route. By linking the sequencing of the newly created speech to a sequence they already knew, they highjacked an existing memory to help them remember the new speech.
If you want to use this pattern to help remember a story, or a presentation, think of a route you know really well. Take yourself along it in your mind, stopping at each major landmark and finding ways to link the sequence of the headings in your story or presentation with the sequence of landmarks. Inventing links will help you create the links you need, and the more ridiculous or vivid the links the easier you will find them to remember.