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24 Handy ways to a BETTER MEMORY

Forgetfulness

24 Handy Ways to a Better Memory

Do you have a hard time remembering names, phone numbers, and important dates? Are you constantly losing your car in parking lots? When you leave for vacation, do you have to turn around 20 miles down the road to make sure you shut off all the appliances? Do you sometimes forget how to spell common words? If you can answer yes to most of these questions, here's some very good news: Forgetfulness is curable!

Er, let's see, where were we? Ah, yes. We checked with a few professional memory experts, and a few whose professions require excellent memories. We even checked with a 13-year-old national spelling bee champion. They told us their secrets for building an iron-clad memory.

"With a few simple devices, it's within most people's power to have a super memory," says memory expert Michael Pressley, Ph.D., professor of human development at the University of Maryland.

What kinds of devices? Glad you asked.

MEDICAL ALERT

Keep These Symptoms in Mind

Most skin lumps are not cancer, and most slips of memory are not Alzheimer's disease. "But people tend to be hard on themselves, particularly so as they get older," says Stanley Berent, Ph.D.

When is your forgetfulness so serious that you should see a professional about it? Dr. Berent suggests the following guidelines:

  • Do you lose contact with reality? It's one thing to forget today's date, another to forget the year. If you lose track of where you are, can't remember if it's evening or morning, or have forgotten the name of your spouse (as opposed to someone you just met), a doctor should be consulted.
  • Are you uncomfortable with yourself? If you're feeling anxious about your recent memory lapses, don't sweat it out—seek a doctor's advice.
  • Are you performing your day-to-day roles efficiently? If forgetfulness is affecting your work, your role as a parent or grandparent, or any of your other life activities, you may need help.

Above all, says Dr. Berent, know that your memory doesn't have to be perfect to be okay. Some forgetfulness is just part of life.

Think of remembering as re-membering. Say you're appearing on a television game show and you're on the verge of winning an all-expense- paid trip around the world. All you need to do is remember the name of the battle in which Napoleon was defeated. You know the answer. It's on the tip of your tongue. How to get it off?

"Try to reinstate as much as possible of what you know surrounding the issue," says Robin West, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Florida. Thus, Napoleon may lead to Josephine, to France, to the Napoleonic Code, to battles, and (eventually) to Waterloo. "The more connections you make, the better your chances of finding the right pathway," says Dr. West.

Are There Any Pills for Forgetfulness?

Scientists have long looked for relationships between nutrients and your brain's ability to learn and remember. They know that a lack of certain nutrients can lead to memory and other cognitive failures, but whether supplemental nutrients can lead to supplemental memory is still a mystery.

Research over the past several years has focused on the following nutrients, all of which seem related to memory: vitamins B1 (thiamine), B6, B12, and C, choline, folate, niacin, calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc, and—above all—lecithin.

Some research from the Institute of Physiology in Sofia, Bulgaria, raises questions and hopes about a new, exotic nutrient. Scientists there, experimenting with mice and ginseng, have determined that something in the root of the Chinese plant improves both learning and memory. At least with mice.

So it appears that the day may come when forgetfulness can be cured by popping a pill every morning. Of course, some of us will inevitably forget to take our pills.

Take a picture. The average American, in the course of a lifetime, spends a full year looking for misplaced objects. Want to save yourself a year of your life? You can. Take a good look at those keys as you place them on the table. "Raise your hands to your eyes, miming a camera, and click the button," suggests Joan Minninger, Ph.D., in her book Total Recall: How to Boost Your Memory Power.

Talk to yourself. Go ahead, don't be shy. Give yourself an aural as well as a visual image to remember. If you leave your car at the end of the parking lot, under the huge oak tree, go ahead and say, "I'm leaving my car at the far end of the parking lot, under the huge oak tree." Say it out loud. "It's another way to reinforce the memory," says Irene B. Colsky, Ed.D., a memory expert and adjunct professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami.

Tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree. Afraid you'll remember your car is under an oak tree, but you'll forget which oak tree? Use physical reminders—they are "very efficient ways to remember," says Forrest R. Scogin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama. The "yellow ribbon" on the oak tree could just as well be a rubber band around your wrist (to remind yourself to buy tissues), a wristwatch on the "wrong" arm (to remind yourself of Aunt Bertha's birthday)—or just about anything you can think of.

Make lists. Wherever and whenever possible, jot down on paper what you need to remember. "Our short-term memory has limited capacities—there' s only so much space available," says Dr. Scogin. By making lists, you not only are assured of remembering what you wrote down, but it frees your mind for more important things.

Categorize. When pencil and paper are unavailable, you'll have to list things in your head—but don't do so randomly, says Dr. Scogin. If you're on your way to the grocery store and you know you need 20 items, you'll probably never remember all 20 unless they are logically grouped. Think: five vegetables, four paper goods, three fruits, etc.

Chunk. "Chunking" is like categorizing, but you do it with numbers. If, for instance, you had to remember the numbers 2, 0, 2, 4, 5, 6, 1, 4, 1, 4, you'd probably have a rough time of it. Remember (202) 456-1414 (the phone number of the White House) is quite a bit easier. Phone numbers come naturally chunked, as do social security numbers (001-00-1000) . You are free, of course, to "chunk" not only these but any numbers you like.

Make up a silly story. If you've got several items to remember and you're afraid you never will—no problem. Just make up a tale involving your items, says Dr. Pressley. Say you're on your way to the market and you need pork chops, apricots, milk, and bread. Tell yourself a story in which a pig is drinking milk, in a wheat field, under the shade of an apricot tree.

To remember names, think of faces. Perhaps the most difficult memory task we're faced with is remembering the names of people we've just met, says Dr. Scogin. The trick is to etch in your mind a permanent association between the name and the face. Better yet, find a prominent feature on the face and focus in on that. If Budd Luzinski, that new guy in the office, happens to have a long nose—visualize a tiny man skiing down that long nose. Imagine that little man losing (Luzinski) those skis.

How to Avoid Stage Fright

For most of us, keeping a dozen or so phone numbers, an occasional shopping list, and the starting times of our favorite television shows under our cap is about all we demand of our short-term memory.

But what do you do when you have to remember a sales pitch, a speech, or the lines of a play? Or how to spell at a moment's notice any word in the English language? Professional Shakespearean actor Edward Gero and 13-year-old national spelling bee champion Rageshree Ramachandran of Sacramento, California, have a few tips for remembering words and their spellings.

From Edward Gero:

  • "Before I memorize my lines, they have to make sense to me. I will read Shakespeare' s lines to myself, putting them into my own words."
  • "I look for rhythm patterns. 'To be, or not to be'Édum de, dum dum de dum."
  • "I look for any alphabetical keys. For instance, in MacBeth, I had to say the following line: 'But, I have none; the king-becoming graces, as justice, verity, temp'rance, stablenessÉ' It helped me to remember the order by knowing that the first two, justice and verity, are in alphabetical order, and that the second two, temp'rance and stableness, are in reverse alphabetical order."
  • "I try to associate lines with movements, so that in The Merchant of Venice, I say, 'and let my liver rather heat with wine' as I'm reaching for a glass of wine."

From Rageshree Ramachandran:

  • "A lot of spellers just try to memorize a list of words for spelling bees—that doesn't work. It's not just memorizing, it's learning the words. I make a new word part of my everyday vocabulary."
  • "Spelling is mostly logic. If a word is unfamiliar, I'll look for a part of it that I can understand. I can spell elegiacal, for instance, because I know it comes from elegy. (Elegiacal means expressing sorrow.) I can spell mhometer because I know that mho is the reciprocal of ohm, and a mhometer measures ohms (a measure of electricity) ."
  • "A lot of memory is visual. It helps me to remember a new word if I write it down several times."
  • "There are often little tricks to help spell a word. Take curliewurly (a little squiggly shape). I had to remember that it was curliewurly, and not curlywurlie. The solution was simple: ie comes before y in the word—just like in the alphabet."


Make name associations. It's always easier to remember names if you have something to associate the name with. If you have to remember the name of someone who has no big nose or mole on the cheek, make up a little story. Picture someone named Bruce Taylor sitting in front of you with a pair of scissors, a measuring tape, and a piece of chalk. Someone named Feinstein, you might picture sitting before you holding a huge stein full of beer. Someone named Pressley? Imagine him reading the Pittsburgh Press or shaking hands with Elvis, says Dr. Pressley.

Look for "markers." Things that happened to you long ago did not happen in isolation from other events, says Dr. Pressley. Say, for instance, you forgot when it was that you worked at the ABC Construction Company. Think of any markers or cues that might help your focus. You may recall that you were dating so-and-so at the time, and that so-and-so and you would often go to the movies, and that one movie you saw together was Jaws. You may then recall (or your local librarian can help you find out) that Jaws appeared in the theaters in 1975.

Outline your thoughts. Many college students become intimately involved with a pink, yellow, or green highlighting marker. But you don't need a highlighter to outline your thoughts. You can do it mentally. "Select what is important and what is not," says Dr. Pressley. You're far less likely to forget what you read, he says.

Read, read, and read. If your problem is forgetting words, it's probably because you don't use them enough, says Frederic Siegenthaler. As a senior interpreter at the United Nations, he must store an enormous vocabulary in his memory and keep it ready to pull out at any moment. In English alone (and Siegenthaler is also fluent in French, German, Russian, and Spanish), there are as many as 200,000 words available, although we typically use fewer than 5,000 on a daily basis. So if you can't seem to find the right word, your vocabulary is likely to be a bit rusty.

Solution? "Do as much reading as you can," says Siegenthaler. "I recommend good fiction, particularly classics of the English language, such as those of Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, or Somerset Maugham.

Test yourself. "People generally aren't very good at knowing how good they are at remembering, " says Dr. Pressley. "It's very common that someone may think he remembers something, but he doesn't." You've probably experienced this in the middle of an exam. The way to make sure it doesn't happen again is to give yourself a quiz before the exam, says Dr. Pressley. "A practice test will let you know if you have it down or not."

Keep calm. Stress and anxiety can clearly disrupt memory performance, says Dr. Pressley. "You need your consciousness to encode things. Anxiety eats that up."

If you're a forgetful person, it may be that your mind could use a vacation. Patricia Sze of Berlitz International Language School in New York City claims that her school's success in teaching students foreign languages lies largely in the nonthreatening environment of soothing colors, no grades, and no testing.

Check your medicine cabinet and liquor cabinet. Dozens of things have the potential to contribute to forgetfulness, says Stanley Berent, Ph.D., director of the Neuropsychology Program and an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School. At the root of your forgetfulness may be the booze you're drinking or certain drugs you're taking, such as diet pills, blood pressure medication, or antihistamines.

PANEL OF ADVISERS

Stanley Berent, Ph.D., is director of the Neuropsychology Program and an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.

Irene B. Colsky, Ed.D., is an adjunct professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education at the University of Miami, Florida, where she also teaches "Brainpower, " a popular course on learning and memory techniques to students, business professionals, and members of the community.

Edward Gero is a professional actor who has played major roles, such as Henry V and MacBeth, in many of Shakespeare' s plays. He performs at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger in Washington, D.C.

Michael Pressley, Ph.D., is a professor of human development at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Rageshree Ramachandran of Sacramento, California, is the winner of the 1988 Scripps-Howard National spelling bee.

Forrest R. Scogin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he teaches courses on memory.

Frederic Siegenthaler is a senior interpreter at the United Nations. He has been a professional interpreter for the past 25 years.

Patricia Sze is an executive with Berlitz International Language School in New York City.

Robin West, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. West is author of Memory Fitness over Forty.

Warning: The reader of this article should exercise all precautionary measures while following instructions on the home remedies from this article. Avoid using any of these products if you are allergic to it. The responsibility lies with the reader and not with the site or the writer.
The service is provided as general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor.

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