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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."

Next: Rely on your memory, not digital devices. >>

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