Memory Reboot: How to Remember 90% of Everything You Learn

Updated 05/23/17

We all know the value of making a great first impression, so why is it that 90% of the time after we've just been introduced to someone we forget their name? Within mere seconds of a name being uttered, all of a sudden it's vanished from your brain. We've all been there, but this forgetfulness isn't confined to just names alone. Despite how much we try, we often forget the little things. Who even remembers phone numbers anymore? Not to mention relying on our Google Calendars for everything.

This kind of daily memory loss of the simple things (that we've often just been told or learned) is an unfortunate side effect of our very busy and stressful modern lives. According to the Harvard Medical School, stress and anxiety make it harder to concentrate and lock in new information, which can "interfere with attention and block the formation of new memories or the retrieval of old ones." If this sounds like you and you want to know how to improve your memory, then follow some of our simple tips to help you remember everything you learn.

how to improve your memory
Timur Emek /Getty

Pay Attention

This might seem obvious, but it's amazing how often we forget to be in the moment. Our brains are buzzing with so much information at any given time throughout the day that even when someone is talking to us, we are often a million miles away thinking about something else (like that presentation you have coming up on Friday). But if you took the time to pay attention and actually be present as you learn something new or are introduced to someone new, you'll be surprised at how much more you retain.

This is particularly helpful when remembering names. According to ASAP Science, you can blame our brains for the inattention. In fact, it's how humans are wired. "Names are completely arbitrary and hold no specific information in them, and if your brain can't make connections between multiple pieces of information … then you're more likely to forget that information," the video explains.

So avoid distractions, close all the open tabs in your mind, and hone your focus on that one person, topic, or new learning at hand. Then "mentally make a decision to remember the name before you hear it. Imagine that the person is very powerful and it’s important for you to remember their name." This tells your brain to keep the name stored in your long-term memory banks.

Apply the Method of Loci

If you're reading this thinking it's a little too hocus pocus, bear with us because this ancient method (aka the "mind palace" technique) works. In a Psychology Today report, psychologist and zoologist Ryan Anderson, BSc, BPsych, says this technique uses "visualization (storing/encoding information as pictures) and spatial memory (you mentally place the pictures in a familiar mental environment)" to produce efficient recall. And we need it. Apparently, our short-term memories can only hold about seven items.

So how do you put this theory to practice? A really important part of this technique is to make sure that all your visualizations are vivid. "The more stupid, wacky, bizarre, funny or 'memorable' you can make the images, the better," writes Anderson. "The more sensory information you can incorporate, the better. I try and imagine the smells, how something feels, sounds or tastes, and even how it makes me feel emotionally."

Using visuals for memory is well documented. In an article by Vanderbilt University, "A well-designed visual image can yield a much more powerful and memorable learning experience than a mere verbal or textual description." Science writer Joshua Foer even did an entire TED Talk around this practice that dates as far back as 2500 years to ancient Greece. So why does this work? Foer explains: "They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don't normally walk around exercising." We suggest you watch his entire talk; it's fascinating stuff. So give it a try, and see if visuals help reduce your forgetfulness.

Create an Emotional Connection

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. Ever noticed how a smell can take you back to a childhood memory? Well, a recent study suggests that we should harness the power of these emotional connections to remember new things. The researchers tested how well people could remember a series of photographs compared to the color of a few simple squares. When asked, more of them could recall details about the photos than details about the squares.

"The representation of even simple items in working memory depends upon our past experience with those items and our stored visual knowledge," the report explained. So when you want to remember something new, try to link it to a memory from your past or an emotional connection that will help you recall it with ease.

Read it Out Loud

Do you notice your mind drifting off when you're reading long text or an important document? If you want to switch your attention to the task at hand (i.e., learning something), then try reading it out loud to yourself. Psychologist Art Markman, PhD, wrote in Psychology Today that this strategy typically works best when there are only a few key things to remember. So why does it work? Markman believes it's because speaking them out loud "makes part of the list of items more distinctive."

He adds, "The words you speak aloud are now translated into speech and you have knowledge of producing the items as well as a memory of hearing them. All of this information makes your memory for the spoken items more distinct from the rest of the items that were read silently." This might be hard in a work environment, but perhaps you can take a step outside on your lunch break and read them out loud to yourself then. 

Swap the screen for paper

We're all on our devices these days—they are part of our everyday life from desk to dining table—but when it comes to memorizing new things, it's best to go old-school. Yes, that's right: The humble textbook version is the best way to retain new knowledge, which is pretty inconvenient considering how useful e-readers, tablets, and smartphones are for storing information without the heavy lifting.

But according to some research, screens can actually impair our retention. In a UK study that compared 80 undergraduate engineering students reading five texts on paper versus computer screens, the paper readers generally got better results. And the same rule applies when reading a story on paperback. A new study by Anne Mangen, PhD, found that readers remembered more of the story's chronology on paper than on screen.

"In reading on paper, you may have to monitor yourself once, to actually pick up the book," she told the The New Yorker. "On the Internet, that monitoring and self-regulation cycle happens again and again. And if you're the kind of person who's naturally good at self-monitoring, you don't have a problem. But if you're a reader who hasn't been trained to pay attention, each time you click a link, you're constructing your own text. And when you're asked comprehension questions, it's like you picked up the wrong book."

For some of us (well, let's be honest, most of us) in this technological world, reading on paper isn't an option, so is there any hope? Thankfully, Wolf is optimistic and believes we can experience a similar "deep reading" effect with digital as we did in print "if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness."

Eat a Balanced Diet, and Exercise Often

We cover heath and wellness extensively on MyDomaine, and for good reason. There are so many benefits to taking care of yourself that go beyond the physical. It turns out that a balanced diet and regular exercise are also determining factors in storing knowledge too. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute and author of 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, told Prevention that "about two-thirds of what determines how well we age comes from nongenetic factors—as in, our everyday behaviors," and this also applies to memory.

After conducting a poll of more than 18,000 people across the country, Small found that those with healthier habits—a balanced diet, regular exercise—reported fewer memory complaints. So if you can't apply all of the above methods, stick to a healthy lifestyle, and keep those brain cells in prime condition to retain everything you need.

Have you applied any of these rules to your life? Did they help? If you struggle to remember names too, then give these strategies a try, and never forget a name again.

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