You'll have heard about the usual methods for improving memory, like using imagery, chunking and building associations with other memories. If not Google it and you'll find millions of websites with the same information.
The problem with most of these methods is they involve a fair amount of mental effort.
So here are seven easy ways to boost your memory that are backed up by psychological research. None require you to train hard, spend any money or take illegal drugs. All free, all pretty easy, all natural!
1. Write about your problems
To do complex tasks we rely on our 'working memory'. This is our ability to shuttle information in and out of consciousness and manipulate it. A more efficient working memory contributes to better learning, planning, reasoning and more.
One way to increase working memory capacity indirectly is through expressive writing. You sit down for 20 minutes a few times a month and write about something traumatic that has happened to you. Yogo and Fujihara (2008) found that it improved working memory after 5 weeks.
Psychologists aren't exactly sure why this works, but it does have a measurable effect.
2. Look at a natural scene
Nature has a magical effect on us. It's something we've always known, but psychologists are only just getting around to measuring it.
One of nature's beneficial effects is improving memory. In one study people who walked around an arboretum did 20% better on a memory test than those who went for a walk around busy streets.
In fact you don't even need to leave the house. Although the effects aren't as powerful, you can just look at pictures of nature and that also has a beneficial effect (I describe this study in detail here).
3. Say words aloud
This is surely the easiest of all methods for improving memory: if you want to remember something in particular from a load of other things, just say it out loud. A study (described here) found memory improvements of 10% for words said out loud, or even just mouthed: a relatively small gain, but at a tiny cost.
4. Meditate (a bit)
Meditation has been consistently found to improve cognitive functioning, including memory. But meditation takes time doesn't it? Long, hard hours of practice? Well, maybe not.
In one recent study, participants who meditated for 4 sessions of only 20 minutes, once a day, saw boosts to their working memory and other cognitive functions (the study is described here, also see my beginner's guide to meditation).
5. Predict your performance
Simply asking ourselves whether or not we'll remember something has a beneficial effect on memory. This works for both recalling things that have happened in the past and trying to remember to do things in the future.
When Meier et al. (2011) tested people's prospective memory (remembering to do something in the future), they found that trying to predict performance was beneficial. On some tasks people's performance increased by almost 50%.
6. Use your body to encode memories
We don't just think with our minds, we also use our bodies. For example, research has shown that we understand language better if it's accompanied by gestures.
We can also use gestures to encode memories. Researchers trying to teach Japanese verbs to English speakers found that gesturing while learning helped encode the memory (Kelly et al., 2009). Participants who used hand gestures which suggested the word were able to recall almost twice as many Japanese words a week later.
7. Use your body to remember
Since our bodies are important in encoding a memory, they can also help in retrieving it. Psychologists have found that we recall past episodes better when we are in the same mood or our body is in the same position (Dijkstra et al., 2007).
This works to a remarkably abstract degree. In one study by Cassasanto and Dijkstra (2010), participants were better able to retrieve positive memories when they moved marbles upwards and negative memories when they moved marbles downwards. This seems to be because we associate up with happy and down with sad.
If all these methods seem a bit lazy, then you can always put in a bit more effort.
Probably the best way of improving your overall cognitive health is exercise. Studies regularly find that increasing aerobic fitness is particularly good for executive function and working memory (check out this previous article on which cognitive enhancers work).
Conversely, stay in bed all the time and your working memory gets worse (Lipnicki et al., 2009).
Take your memory training to the limit and an incredible study by Ericsson et al. (1980) shows what can be achieved. Our typical short-term memory span is about 7 things. In other words we can hold around seven things in mind at the same time. These researchers, though, increased one person's memory span to 79 digits after 230 hours of practice, mostly using mnemonic systems.
Shows what you can do if you put in the hours. That said, I'll be sticking to a nice walk around the park.
Image credit: Krischan Schallenberger
Making Habits, Breaking Habits
In his new book, Jeremy Dean--psychologist and author of PsyBlog--looks at how habits work, why they are so hard to change, and how to break bad old cycles and develop new healthy, creative, happy habits.
→ "Making Habits, Breaking Habits", is available now on Amazon.Reviews
The Bookseller, “Editor’s Pick,” 10/12/12 “Sensible and very readable…By far the most useful of this month’s New You offerings.”
Kirkus Reviews, 1/1/13 “Making changes does take longer than we may expect—no 30-day, 30-pounds-lighter quick fix—but by following the guidelines laid out by Dean, readers have a decent chance at establishing fulfilling, new patterns.”
Publishers Weekly, 12/10/12 “An accessible and informative guide for readers to take control of their lives.”