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4 Tips for a Better Memory — and a Better Life

Joshua Foer's new book supplies memorable advice

Techniques for improving memory go as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. The same strategies that Cicero used to memorize his speeches, medieval scholars used to memorize entire books. These memory pioneers figured out that the brain is more likely to retain visual or spatial information, so if you want to remember something your best strategy is to transform it into something else so colorful, exciting and different that you can’t possibly forget it.

Brain Quiz: After age 20, thousands of brain cells die every day. True or False?

A woman with post-it notes all over her body and her desk.

To improve memory, exercise your brain, don't depend on outside help. — Photo by Kate Mitchell/Corbis

1. Associate hard-to-remember facts with some familiar space
One trick, known as the journey method or "memory palace," is to conjure up a familiar space in the mind's eye, and then populate it with images of whatever it is you want to remember. (For a shopping list, imagine a dancing can of soup on your front steps, rolls of toilet paper covering your front door, laundry detergent strewn across the foyer, etc.)

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Memory palaces don't necessarily have to be buildings. They can be routes through a town or station stops along a railway. They can be real or imaginary, as long as there's some semblance of order that links one place to the next (front steps, door, foyer, etc.), and are intimately familiar.

2. Use "chunking" to remember numbers, such as passwords, credit cards or bank accounts
Chunking is a way to decrease the number of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item. Chunking is the reason that phone numbers are broken into two parts plus an area code and that credit card numbers are split into groups of four.

The classic explanation of chunking involves language. If you were asked to memorize the 22 letters HEADSHOULDERSKNEESTOES, and you didn't notice what they spelled, you'd almost certainly have a tough time with it. But break up those 22 letters into four chunks — HEAD, SHOULDERS, KNEES and TOES — and the task becomes a whole lot easier.

The same can be done with numbers. The 12-digit numerical string 120741091101 is pretty hard to remember. Break it into four chunks — 120, 741, 091, 101 — and it becomes a little easier. Turn it into two chunks, 12/07/41 and 09/11/01, and they’re almost impossible to forget. You could even turn those dates into a single chunk of information by remembering it as "the two big surprise attacks on American soil."

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3. Conquering the OK plateau
The "OK Plateau" is that place we all get to where we just stop getting better at something. Take typing, for example. You might type and type and type all day long, but once you reach a certain level, you just don’t get appreciably faster. That’s because it’s become automatic. You’ve moved it to the back of your mind’s filing cabinet.

If you want to become a faster typist, it’s possible, of course, but you’ve got to bring the task back under your conscious control. You’ve got to push yourself past your comfort zone.

In the same vein, when you're trying to improve your memory, it's also important not to get stuck. For example, if you go to a lot of parties, you may have set yourself the goal of remembering the names of three or four new people you meet. How about doubling that number at each party, or adding the names of their children, or where they were born? Maybe your goal can be to remember all this new information a week later.

This seems like simple advice, but you would be surprised how often people practice only what they are good at. Conquering the OK Plateau is how I improved my memory.

4. Pay attention

Once upon a time, people invested in their memories. They cultivated them. Today, of course, we’ve got digital cameras, and computers, and smartphones to hold our memories for us. We’ve outsourced our memories to digital devices, and the result is that we no longer trust our memories. We see every small forgotten thing as evidence that they're failing us.

We've forgotten how to remember, and just as importantly, we've forgotten how to pay attention.  So, instead of using your smartphone to jot down crucial notes, or googling an elusive fact, use every opportunity to practice your memory skills. Memory is a muscle, to be exercised and improved.

From the book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Joshua Foer.

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