New Sandi Toksvig-fronted series Can I Improve My Memory? is set to debut on Channel 4 from tonight (July 15), and will see celebrities attempting to bone up on niche subjects at breakneck speed. But can you improve your memory too? Potentially you can, with these mind-magnifying tricks…
1. Pay attention
We promise we’re not trying to be glib, but the best way to remember something is just… concentrate. Concentration is a deliberate process – info doesn’t enter your brain by osmosis – and reading or listening to something isn’t the same as actually paying attention to it. When you actively marshal your mind, you may find it’s surprisingly effective.
Practice makes perfect, and repetition is route one to learning in almost every walk of life. Write it on your hand, put a pop-up on your phone, put a post-it on your bathroom mirror. It will eventually go in.
We’re sure you crossed swords with mnemonics at primary school. Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain (the colours of the rainbow); Big Elephants Can’t Always Use Small Exits (the spelling of ‘because’); My Very Easy Method Speeds Up Naming Planets (the planets plus Pluto).
The trick when learning new facts now is to make up your own mnemonics, using sentences you personally are unlikely to forget. Adding in some startling images and even a few rude words may help it stick!
4. Word association
We all have weird little associations that help us recall information, whether it’s simple wordplay, or being in some way linked to your existing knowledge or memory. Stalag-tites hold on tight-ly, stalagmites might reach the ceiling. It barely even makes sense, but if it helps, it doesn’t have to.
5. Visualise it
Different people memorise best in different ways, and while some are especially attuned to words and audio, others find vivid visual aids far more conducive to processing information. Instead of remembering that your niece’s birthday is October 15th, remember a calendar with the relevant date ringed in red, alongside a brightly-coloured birthday cake.
6. Tell someone else
A trick often used by students and schoolkids revising for their exams, the best way to remember something is to explain it to someone else. This serves three purposes: first, it makes you repeat all the salient points, second, it exposes your blind spots, and third, it makes you feel like you’ve got the facts at your fingertips. If you think knowledgeable, you’ll be knowledgeable.
7. Break it down into bits
Your short-term memory can only handle so much complexity, so it’s worth breaking information down into manageable chunks that put the bigger picture into context. No one remembers their phone number as a single entity, they remember it as three or four numbers back-to-back.
Study after study has shown that meditation and relaxation techniques can improve short-term memory and processing power in people of all ages, even when not practised regularly. Research from 2009 even suggested that meditation increases the amount of grey matter in the brain.
9. Sleep on it
It’s an old adage that you remember best what you see before you sleep, and for once an old adage is actually true. A bulk of research shows that if you study new material then sleep, you remember said material better then if you’d stayed awake for the equivalent amount of time. In other words, use your all-nighters wisely.
10. Have a healthy lifestyle
This sounds super-obvious, but you’ll struggle to retain information if you’re sleep-deprived, you won’t concentrate effectively if you’re low on blood sugar, and exercise sharpens the mind and strengthens neural pathways. And if you drink too much, you’ll affect some memories very directly indeed.