Top memory tips for old gits

Root of a wisteria tree that looks like a face

I don’t remember things as easily as I used to. I could have shrugged and accepted the loss. Instead I decided to do something about it. So here are some simple tricks I use which make my memory feel more focussed. I’m not claiming any scientific basis to this. I find these tricks useful. Your experience may be different.

These tricks are not skills that require years of practice. Anyone can use any of these tricks and succeed first time.

Here’s an example. Imagine that you get introduced to a man called James. Picture his face, and say James to yourself three times.

My unconscious memory is full

It feels to me like there are (at least) two distinct ways of remembering things. There’s an automatic mechanism that records my life as it happens. It doesn’t try to make sense of events, just remembers them. I’ll call this unconscious memory.

Then there is deliberate memory, where I associate new information with something that I already know. This happens if I’m paying attention and thinking about remembering things.

It feels like my unconscious memory is a write once, read many times device that’s full, so there’s nowhere to put the new memories. I don’t feel bad about this. I just recognise it and respond by practising deliberate memory, which seems to put the memories somewhere else. Deliberate memories feel stronger and they don’t fade away with time.

Memory Tricks

When I go out I sometimes lock the door automatically and I don’t remember doing it, so I go back to check. It’s always locked, of course. Checking is a deliberate act and I can remember that without any problem. If I repeat to myself  I am locking the door, I don’t forget. As I take my pill, I don’t forget as long as I repeat to myself I am taking my pill. It is 10:20am. If I want to remember to post a letter, I repeat to myself when you see the postbox, think LETTER. I associate the act with a trigger and I picture the trigger and the act together.

When I meet people I have to pay attention or I immediately forget their names. So I look at each person and say their name a few times.

If I want to remember a number (like a door code or my seat/carriage on the train) I break it down into series of 2-digit numbers and think of an image of each. So if I’m in seat 26 carriage 11, I think – my father’s year of birth (1926), Spinal Tap (turns up to 11). [Thanks to my daughter Anna, who introduced me to this trick]. With a door code I associate these images with a picture of the door in my mind. At an event this year, I learned several door codes this way. The younger people there had to write them down on scraps of paper.

If I want to remember lyrics I create a picture in my mind of each line, with a specific image of how each line starts. And then I drill the words in my mind while sitting on trains or buses. (Again thanks to Anna for this).

The memory palace is described in the wonderful book about memory Moonwalking With Einstein by Josh Foer. I use my own version of the memory palace to remember routes. And I do a lot of work to memorise tunes and their harmony.

It feels to me like these activities keep my memory fit; that if I use a satnav, read words / music or write notes on scraps of paper or on my phone, my memory is not being exercised and it will fade away. Memory is a muscle. The more I use it, the better it gets.

Now what was the name of that guy you memorised earlier on?