- “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” (Franklin P. Adams or Robert Benchley?)
Why the question mark after Benchley’s name? The answer is not that our memory is failing us it does look as if we don’t remember who said that line. The truth is, we had clipped that quotation from a newspaper which credits Franklin P. Adams as the owner of the quote, but in a book about memory written by Robert Allen, the same quote appeared but cites Robert Benchley instead.
Thanks to our memory, we remembered seeing that line before and all we had to do was go to our quote file and there it was. Either both men did utter the same sentence (highly unlikely) or it’s a mere typographical error (more likely). A bad memory is the last thing we’d want. We scold ourselves for forgetting to buy an important ingredient after we’ve come back from the supermarket. We scold ourselves because we forgot our wedding anniversary and hence got a severe reprimand and a cold shoulder in return. Unfortunately, even dentists act like policemen nowadays. One fines you for speeding, and the other penalizes you for not showing up. If we had to pay fines for everything we forgot, we’d be bankrupt by now. That does not bode well for our financial future; nor does it bode well for the future of our mind.
Brief Visit to Memory Lane
What exactly is this thing called memory?
It depends from what perspective we look at it. In Psychology, memory involves storing and recalling information, utilizing it when necessary. In the early 20th century, cognitive psychology integrated memory, which had previously been in the field of philosophy. Today, memory now properly belongs to a branch of science that combines cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Thus, it is now under the realm of cognitive neuroscience. Because the study of memory in cognitive neuroscience is complex, we won’t dissect and explore every facet.
This complexity led to a multi-classification system, categorizing memory by duration, type, and direction. For our purposes, we’ll start with the first duration classification, then address memory improvement. Under memory by duration, we have three types:
- Sensory memory
- Short-term memory, and
- Long-term memory
According to Wikipedia, sensory memory corresponds to the first instant that a person or object is noticed. This observation sometimes moves into the sensory store, and qualifies as short-term memory. Sensory memory means that the observation or perception lasts from milliseconds to seconds. Short-term memory, in turn, corresponds to memory that occurs from seconds to minutes. Our sensory memory constitutes immediate interaction with things, objects, and persons, as it processes information produced by our five senses. Touching, smelling or seeing are faculties that enable us to remember more easily.
Long-term memory is memory that is stored and then retrieved after days and years.
An example may help us understand this system of classification better: supposing someone gives us his number. We remember it for a few seconds – maybe even up to a minute or two, but soon forget it. This is short-term memory at work. On the other hand, we remember certain phone numbers that we use frequently. Our baby sitter’s number, the pharmacist’s, our husband’s office – these numbers are stored in our long-term memory.
Memory Improvement Techniques
Robert Allen wrote a useful manual on improving your memory and certainly does not read like a technical manual similar to those you receive when you purchase computer hardware. With craft and imagination (and lots of color), he sets out some techniques and actual practices on how to maintain horsepower for your brain. This section will cover general techniques that generate benefits for us in the short and long term, and in the worksheets in Chapter Fifteen, we describe some exercises that you can do. You don’t have to adopt all of them. Choose a couple or at least one exercise that you can do consistently to develop your memory. One exercise is better than none. As Robert Allen said, “If you start today and practice, practice, practice, soon your memory will be as a retentive as flypaper (though what gets stuck to it will, with luck, be more useful).”
It’s a pity that our memories don’t act the same way as computers. A computer-like brain would be a boon to our daily lives wouldn’t it? The human brain, although not as dazzling a performer as a Pentium IV, is far more complex; however, while it may not be able to spew out chunks of data in minutes, the human mind has been responsible for how humanity and civilization evolved. This makes memory a very valuable asset and tool. It is not mechanical; it’s the stuff we’re made of.
Before describing specific memory improvement techniques, we’ll take a quick refresher on two aspects of memory: learning and concentration. Each person has his own way of learning and concentrating. These two stages are prerequisites to memory building. Learning is the acquisition of data and actual skills, while concentration is the mind’s ability to focus well on something with the least amount of distraction.
Robert Allen says that individuals learn in three ways: looking, listening and doing. There are individuals who rely mostly on sight, others on their sense of hearing and still others who learn by doing. Certain measurements exist to gauge one’s most predominant learning style. We’ll deal briefly with some of these practical tests: For instance, after watching a movie, which part do you remember most the dialogue, the action sequences, or the things you did, like driving to the cinema, buying the movie pass and popcorn? If you answered “dialogue”, that makes you a listener. If you answered “action sequences”, you are a looker, and if you answered the “things you did”, that makes you a doer.
Another example: if you moved to a new city, how would you find your way around: (a) ask people for directions, (b) buy a map, or (c) walked around the neighborhood to familiarize yourself with the layout of the city? If you answered (a), you are a listener, if you picked (b), you’re a looker and if you chose (c), you are a doer. Of course we need more scientific tests to determine how a person learns and what type of learner he is a listener, a looker or a doer. Two or twenty two questions will not result in an accurate assessment, but Allen’s examples at least give you an idea of his learning theory; and as we said earlier, learning is an essential ingredient of memory.
A learner who listens is one who enjoys sounds – especially words – and finds powerful meanings in them. Listeners tend to remember best what they’ve absorbed through their sense of hearing, rather than from any other sensory perception. Lookers, on the other hand, react best to visual stimuli so anything they see is understood and retained more efficiently. The doers are individuals who like to roll up their sleeves and dig into the trenches. They put emphasis on practical experience; to them, doing things hands-on holds more meaning. Allen believes that it is rare for anyone to learn things exclusively in one style. He says the best form of attack would be to combine all three learning styles and adapt each one to a given situation.
You can have the best tutor for memory building, but if you can’t concentrate, it would be difficult to have much of an efficient memory. Concentrating is a difficult art to master; look how much technology has taken over our lives. In the mind-training courses he took throughout his life, Allen says there is one technique that might help some individuals develop their concentration skills. This one is adopted from a Far Eastern culture, he says, and is but is still valuable. It sounds easy enough but your a century-old practice, initial efforts at actually doing it may seem futile:
Light a candle and set it on a table where you can see it clearly; Stare at the candle for two minutes and take in every detail: color, wax, size, the flickering of the flame, etc.; Close your eyes and keep the image of the candle in your mind’s eye-hold this image for as long as you can; Don’t be discouraged by your first or second attempt. Keep trying until you can hold the image of the candle as long as you can. Now that we’ve dealt with the two indispensable ingredients for memory building, let’s “concentrate” on the ways to improve our memory: What do you think is the most fundamental tenet for improving your memory?
Allen states it clearly. Take care of yourself! Body and mind are one. Don’t kid yourself thinking that you can set about your merry way doing things you want to do and neglect your physical self. The following rules, Allen says, are things you hear repeatedly. They still have their weight in gold – old advice but good advice, so pay heed to them: