I'll make a note of dat!

I Can’t Recall…

Can you actually improve your memory? Maybe we should look a little more deeply into the Idea of this before we decide “yes” and “how to…”

What is it we mean by memory? Is it what we memorize or notice to begin with, or is it what we recall from that memorization? Usually we think of it as a combination of both.

Is it our ability to recall that we are trying to improve, really? Let’s try an analogy. Let’s say you took a picture with a camera. But the picture is blurry. You moved the camera, or there was not enough light, etc.

When you look at that picture later, you are going to see exactly what is there. It’s not your ability to see the original scene that is the problem, it’s that the camera never really saw it clearly in the first place. It can’t re-member what it never membered. In other words, you can’t re-collect what you never collected. You only forget what you never get to begin with.

I’m sure there are some wise guys who are going to want to tell me all about image-enhancing software, yadda-yadda-yadda. But as a reasonable person, I’m sure you see that it would be better to simply take a clearer picture than to clean up a sloppy shot. Let’s leave the image-enhancing to the neuroscientists, and do what we can to be better collectors.

There are many ways to improve your original perceptions. Just the fact that you are now aware that it is part of the solution may keep you on your toes the next time you have to “member” something. That’s not enough, though. Here’s where we enter the realm of mnemonics.

What is mnemonics? It is a way to remember material using a made-up device, like a rhyme (“i before e, except after c”) a phase (“My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas,” “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour”), an acronym (PEMDAS), or a visual construction.

We’ll be talking a lot about visual constructions, because you can use them to memorize almost anything, and there are many interesting and useful systems for using them.

First, though, let’s talk about the difference between noticing and memorizing. I’m sure you noticed the second sentence of this article. Without looking, can you tell me what it is? Probably not. Even I can’t, and I wrote it!

But if I asked you back then, as you were reading it, to remember it for later, you probably could have done it. You could have kept it in your working memory for at least a little while.

So there is a massive difference between noticing and memorizing. If you had really noticed it (made a mental note of it) your chances of recalling it later would have been better.

Now we get to the crux of this post – making mental notes.

In a way, making a mental note is like making a written note. Did you ever quickly write a note to yourself and couldn’t read it when you looked at it later? Ever take a note right before you went to sleep, or as you were waking from a dream, and tried to make sense of it when you were fully awake? It’s often blurry, or written in chicken scratch. If you write a note too quickly, and think, “I’ll know what that says later,” you are often disappointed when you look at it a few days later, aren’t you?

Well, it’s the same with mental notes. If you just give something some fleeting attention and figure, “Oh, of course I’ll remember that!” you often get a frustrating surprise when you try to recall it. It’s because we make sloppy notes that we can’t recall them.

So when you decide to make a mental note of something, take a breath and make a picture of it in your mind. Not a sloppy, blurry picture, but a clear one. Take your time.

Let’s say you want to make a note that cousin Harry’s birthday is next Thursday. You could see yourself putting Harry’s birthday on a calendar. But really see it. Imagine your hand writing on a calendar. How does it feel? What is the texture of the paper? The color? Are you writing with a pen, pencil, marker? Where is the calendar? On a wall? Where on the page are you writing? Is it a monthly or weekly calendar?

Put as many details in there as you can.

This is not a mnemonic device, per se. It’s just a way to build more precision into your memory, and make your mental note stronger.

Later we will get into how to make a mnemonic picture that will remind you that it is cousin Harry, and the exact date, and how to connect that to a time of day and place where you’ll be putting it into the calendar, so you won’t forget to actually do it when you want to.

The point of this exercise is to get you to notice what you want to remember. To get you to “member”, or “collect,” it to begin with so you can remember and recollect.

For now, though, practice making sharp, clear visualizations of a few things you want to notice. You can even try it with the following list.

Normally, if I asked you to memorize ten things, it would be a hit-and-miss affair. But if you make a clear mental picture of each of these things, you’ll have an easier time of it. Try it yourself.

  • a pair of pants (Let’s try this one together. Don’t just picture a generic pair of pants. What color are they? Do they have a zipper or buttons on the fly? Are they jeans, khakis, dress pants, or (god forbid) elephant bells? What texture are they? How many pockets? Do they have cuffs? Make up anything you want about them, but the more and clearer, the better.)
  • the Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • The Brooklyn Bridge
  • a hot buttered biscuit
  • a dolphin
  • a bagpiper
  • a stick of dynamite
  • your grandmother
  • an old Prussian helmet with a point on the top
  • a chair
  • The Budapest String Quartet

Now give it a few minutes.

While we wait, let me mention that it is OK if you don’t remember all the specifics about the objects. If you remember a bit about each, that will be alright. It will probably remind you of the rest.

Now try and recall the list. It doesn’t have to be in order.

How many did you get? I’ll be you got more than you would have if you didn’t make a clear picture. I’ll also bet that you remembered more about each object than you would have otherwise.

Practicing making pictures is a great exercise that we will use to build upon for more useful techniques. Try this any time you have to notice something for awhile. If you do this, you will have a lot better success with techniques we will cover in the future.

Drop a line in the comments section below and let me know how you are doing with this, and if there’s anything I need to clear up for you.

All the best for your continued success,

~ Brian

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