The key to remembering anything

Even intelligent people struggle to remember

Why do we have clear memories of childhood TV shows, while we struggle to remember what happened last week?

Memory is a tough subject. As a teacher, I’ve had to consider it a lot. Some students can remember almost everything clearly, while others have trouble remembering big points we’ve recently studied. Sometimes I’ll teach the same lesson to two different people and it’s memorable for one but not for the other. Memory varies a lot from person to person, and from topic to topic, however the core principal for remembering information is the same for everyone.

I think the key is using "working memory".

What is working memory?

Studies have shown three types of memory:

  1. short-term;
  2. working; and
  3. long-term.

The addition of working memory is fairly recent. The term was coined in 1960 and there is still debate about how it connects to the other two.

A common view is that short-term memory is used for receiving all the information that comes into our brain. For example, if you see an advertisement, then seeing, reading and understanding it takes a very short time. That can be called short-term memory.

Working memory is when our brain processes information into something usable. If you are having a conversation, it’s important to remember the other person’s views or opinions. You may not be able to repeat exactly what the other person said, but you can remember their views or reasons in general.

Long-term memory is used to store information for days, years, or even decades. This is the goal.

Even now, you have probably forgotten the first few words of this article. You read them, they were stored in your short-term memory for a few seconds, and then your brain processed the words into their meaning. Now your working memory is being used to assess how important this is. If you find this article boring, you will probably forget it. However, if this is interesting, then your brain may process and file this, and your thoughts will return to it later. If you think of this article often enough, it will find a place in your long-term memory.

How do we use working memory to make long-term memories?

Basically, processing and remembering simply take effort, but if you are smart about how you process information, you will be able to do this quickly and effectively.

First, your brain asks: “Where should I put this?”

One answer is called grouping. New information is put in a group with similar information. For example, if I ask you, “What’s another word for ‘great’?” you can say, “Amazing, terrific…” and many other words that you can think of now. So if you come across a new word, like “exquisite” then you tell your brain, “It’s like 'great' or 'terrific', but 'exquisite' is stronger, and refers to extremely high quality.” This way, the new word is grouped with stuff you already know.

Another way to put the information into a useful place is to create a mental pathway. This is  used by memory sports champions. Simply put, they imagine locations they know well and put words in places along a path. The most common mental pathway starts at your bed, and then moves slowly to a nearby place you know well, like your office. Memory sports competitors put words or ideas along the path, and then mentally walk from one place to the next, seeing the words in order. The first word might be on your pillow, the next one on the bedside table and so on.

Imagining words in physical places can help us remember them. If I think of the word exquisite, I might imagine taking a magazine from the shelf, opening it and seeing a picture of an exquisite coffee shop. Then in the future, when I try and remember what the word means, the pathway from the bookshelf to the picture will help trigger a memory. Imagining an action or a place can make a pathway that leads to the word.

Next, you can ask, “How do I use this?” Making original sentences with new words is vital to remembering them. So take the information, attach it to a memory, and write the sentence and say it out loud. It's a way of making connections between things you know and things you want to remember. In the case of "exquisite", you can think of something you like, then think of the highest quality of it, then attach the word “exquisite” to that object. In my case, I thought, “I drank freshly-roasted Kenyan coffee at a shop yesterday. It was absolutely exquisite.”

How you learn will change how you remember

How you use new information also depends on how you like to learn. If you don’t know how you learn, then please find out. Some people learn by hearing, others by seeing, while others learn by doing. Your style will help you store new information. Personally, I like to learn by hearing so when I study, I make voice memos of important Japanese grammar or vocabulary, and I listen to them a few times a day.

Another learning preference is based on your character. There are four basic types. Some people are expressive, so expressing their feelings and opinions is the most important language function. Some are amiable, so learning what others think and feel is the most important language function. Some are analytical, so deeply understanding nuance and reason is important. Some are driving, so reaching a firm goal is the most important.

Everyone is a different combination of expressive, amiable, analytical and driving. In my case, I am mostly analytical and also a little expressive, so I want to understand a word completely and then use it to share my feelings or give opinions. Knowing how you like to use words will help you make useful examples. This means making simple changes to a textbook sentence may not be enough.

What does this mean for my study habits?

All of this means that just understanding information does not activate working memory. For example, people who read lists of vocabulary on the train will have a very tough time remembering anything. They are probably using their short-term memory to understand the information, but are not using their working memory to process it.

If you really want to remember something, then think, "Where should I put this information?" and, "How can I use this?" Then practice it as much as you can.