Saturday, April 29, 2017

How to Improve Your Memory by James D. Weinland

James D. Weinland’s How to Improve Your Memory is, in my mind, primarily a book on study skills. Weinland’s interest is learning, and memory is an important part of that.

As I read the book, it seemed to me that learning successfully is built on four areas: intention, attention, repetition and organization. Weinland has tips related to all of these.

Intention to learn is easy to come by when you have an interest in a subject. If you’re not interested, you’ll need to find some other motivation. Think about why you’re studying a subject and the benefits you hope to achieve. Even if you’re a student and you “have to” take a class, think of the opportunities that might open up to you if you get a good grade.

Attention is very important to memory and learning. If you forget something, it is very likely you weren’t paying attention to begin with. Remove distractions from your environment and mind (this wasn’t an issue when this book was published in 1957, but put away your cell phone and put it out of your mind). Engage as many senses as you can.

Remember that attention isn’t an infinitely available commodity. Get the rest you need. Don’t burn yourself out by focusing too long on one subject or closely related subjects. Give your mind, especially the executive functions a break, by alternating unrelated subjects, switching back and forth from mental to physical activities and making a little time for rest and recreation.

Repetition is important to memory, but it doesn’t need to be boring. Allowing time between practice sessions can actually improve performance.

Organization can go a long way to making learning easier. Some of the most successful mnemonic techniques involve arranging and associating things we want to remember with things we already remember well, especially locations. For instance, pigeonholing involves creating a spacial arrangement, such as a grid, with things to be remembered in each space. Mind maps do something similar with a more free-form arrangement that also takes advantage of our ability to remember images and colors. Memory castles are sophisticated applications of this strategy. Understanding how things are divided into wholes and parts or groups can help you break down subjects into smaller, easier to remember, parts that are connected so that remembering on item helps you remember the others.

I tend to connect the use of meaningful association to the idea of organization. Meaningful association builds on what you already know. This could be building on or filling in your background on a subject, finding analogies to familiar or using acronyms and rhymes. A related practice is it to come up with an outrageous image that represents what you want to remember. We find it easy to remember images—the more unusual the image the easier it is to recall—so we can take advantage of that by associating what we want remember with a crazy image that reminds of it.

The book is dated, but I think the advice is applicable even if the science of memory has advance. In addition, the book has the advantage of being short.

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Weinland, James D. How to Improve Your Memory. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1957.