How to Improve Memory
Once something is encoded into memory, the memory remains stored. The problem is not that the memory is gone, but that the connection or retrieval path cannot be accessed. Think of memory as a city. The more routes and modes of transportation you have to this city, the easier it is to access this place. Once you have traveled this route, you are less likely to get lost on subsequent trips and no longer need to rely on directions and a map, especially regarding trips you have made recently and frequently. The city doesn't disappear!
So the question becomes how can one learn information in a way that strengthens retrieval paths both in the short and long run.
E.g. Let’s say that I am at a party and someone introduces herself to me. Her name is Jasmine. I need to be attentive to learn this new information. If I am not attentive the information perhaps will not encode. Perhaps I am paying enough attention for it to encode but do not manipulate the information in any way. Thus, I cannot access her name from memory but when she restates her name, I experience an “oh yah” moment.
If I repeat her name in my head a few times, I will be more likely to remember her name, especially if I space the repetitions. What I mean by spacing is the amount of time that passes before I repeat her name again. If I retrieve/generate her name after 10 minutes, I had to work harder to retrieve that information than if I allow 2 minutes to pass.
Perhaps when I first meet her, I try to connect the information with other information I already know. For instance, I know Jasmine means flower and this person also happens to look like Princess Jasmine from the Disney cartoon Aladdin. Now I have connected this information to two other networks, which will also make the retrieval path stronger.
E.g. I am studying for a history exam. I am reading the chapter. When I am reading the information, I need to pay attention to it in order to encode it. After each paragraph, I might verbally summarize what I read. If I summarize from memory, I am generating the information, as well as repeating and organizing it. I may connect the information to a previous section or chapter thus increasing connections to other networks and forming multiple retrieval paths.
After I read the whole chapter, I might try to generate the information I read from memory. I may do this an hour later, five hours later, and two days later. Thus, I have not only had multiple repetitions, but I have also had experience generating the information.
However, if it is multiple choice test I may only need to recognize and be familiar with the information and multiple generations may not be useful or efficient. For an essay test, I would need to generate the information and thus multiple generations over time may be more useful.
Yasi Shamtoub, M.A.