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Better Memory Tricks, Part 1

Posted 07/09.2007

Do you have trouble remembering the names of people you’ve just been introduced to? Do you stand in the center of a room you’ve just entered, muttering aloud, “Why did I come in here?” When you ask your family why they look bored, do they respond “Because you’ve told this story before”?

You’re not alone. In fact, not only are mild memory lapses normal, but they also increase with age. There are good reasons for this. We’re being bombarded with so much information we can’t take it all in. Many of us are multitasking, which keeps us inattentive and easily distracted. Our minds can freeze up when overloaded, just like a computer.

And then there’s stress. Your body produces chemicals in response to stress that directly interfere with the otherwise smooth operation of laying down memory in your brain.

The good news is that forgetfulness is often preventable and even reversible. Start with some approaches to help reinforce the way your brain retains and sorts information. Then, take some steps to reduce the stress in your life. With a little practice, you’ll be able to retrieve the information just when you need it.

Here are some of my favorite tricks for memory improvement:
• Make associations.
Many people have trouble remembering names. We hear the name of the person we’ve been introduced to and as the conversation takes its natural course, the name is lost in the shuffle. Next time, the very moment you hear the person’s name, scream it aloud in your mind a couple of times (“JUDY! Don’t forget, it’s JUDY”). Then learn something specific about her that you’ll be able to associate with her. (“Oh, really? You keep boa constrictors?”). In your mind, don’t allow the conversation to proceed without repeating to yourself (“Judy/snakes. Judy/snakes”) and picture her with her snake friends. Say something aloud to reinforce this (“So, Judy, why exactly do you love snakes?”) before your mind flits to another thought. By the time you’ve left Judy, her name (and her snakes) will be etched in your memory bank forever.

Enter the data in your brain creatively. The next time you’re introduced to someone and you hear a name, quickly envision their name written across their forehead with a black marker. See “Judy” written there, and read it while conversing with her. A moment after Judy leaves, jot her name down on anything handy. Read what you’ve written and picture Judy in your mind.

Repeat aloud, write, and review. A solid strategy for remembering names is the old salesman’s trick of repeating the name several times aloud during the conversation. Three times usually does it. Any more will make you sound odd to the person you’re taking with. Then, at your first opportunity, write down the name, along with a couple of associative words about the person. Entering data into your brain by two separate inputs (speaking and writing) lays down a biochemical pathway in your memory system. Just before you see the person again, scan your notes. You’ll be astonished at how much of your first meeting you’ll remember.

Mindfulness. What the Buddhists call mindfulness is what your mom called paying attention. Often it’s not your memory that’s at fault when you can’t recall a conversation, directions, or instructions. You simply got distracted and didn’t focus. Let’s say you’re always losing your keys. Next time you come into the house, instead of tossing the keys somewhere and getting preoccupied with your mail, pause just for a second and say (preferably aloud) “I am putting my keys down, right here.” Better yet, set a bowl in one spot and always put your keys (or cellphone or TV remote) in it. You don’t have dementia. You just need to pay attention.

Look for more memory tips in our next installment…

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