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How to switch your memory on when you need it

Before recusing yourself on the grounds of regularly forgetting your keys, or losing the phone in your pocket, take a minute to read some compelling new evidence about memory.

There is the fact that “forgetting is important when it comes to memory” so when those keys stray just remember that “somewhat paradoxically, forgetting is related to the ability to remember more and take a broader, more integrated perspective”.

We know this thanks to experts, Megan Sumeracki and Althea Need Kaminske, because it’s in their new book: The Pyschology of Memory.

The authors also tell us that “lapses in memory are extremely common” – and the good news doesn’t stop there. For those of us perched slightly higher on the escalator of life, solace comes in knowing that “some aspects of memory improve during typical aging”. Vocabulary being one, the authors say, peaking anywhere from our 40s to 70s: “relatedly general knowledge can remain the same or even increase with aging”.

But what is memory?

It is not a monotheistic being, it is made of systems that overlap. The types of memories we have can be: episodic, like remembering when you first met your partner; semantic, your general knowledge – country capitals for example; procedural, how to ride a bike; prospective, hurry, don’t forget to get that pie out of the oven!; implicit, the unconscious understanding of the rules of our native language; and working memory, holding things in mind while we use them. For this last one, cognitive psychologist, George Miller, in his famous paper, The Magic Number 7, presented evidence showing people can remember about 7 things in their working memory.

While William James, a nineteenth century teacher of philosophy, psychology and physiology at Harvard, and the person who coined the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, gave us this definition of memory: “the knowledge of a former state of mind after it has already once dropped from consciousness”. 

When that former state of mind is playing hide and seek like a professional, don’t give up on it as a lost cause, because just as Steinbeck said of Scotland: it’s simply an unwon cause. If you want to win, a better memory – not Scotland, you will need to learn some strategies for getting more out of it.

Cue the memory champions

“Journalist Joshua Foer in his 2011 book, Moonwalking with Einstein, interviewed memory champions and was told anyone could learn these memory feats with training and practice, so he started training, putting it to the test, and won the 2006 USA Memory Championship.”

The strategy these champions use, mnemonics, has been “used as far back as ancient Greece and Rome”, Sumeracki and Kaminske explain.

“This method of loci, sometimes called a memory palace, involves visualising a familiar location and interacting with the to-be-remembered information in that location. For example, you might imagine walking through your home and interacting with items on your shopping list. Perhaps you envision walking through your front door and taking a sip of milk from a glass at the hall table, only to then slip on a banana peel. In general, the more interactive or bizarre the imagery, the better it is for your memory.”

When it comes to long-term memory, too often dismissed as a lost cause, the authors say two of the most powerful strategies for long-term learning are: retrieval practice and spacing. The video below, from another leading academic, associate professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Jeffrey Kaplan, is well worth watching for more on these types of strategies.

When it comes to retrieval, the book points us to a study by Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke. It explains what happened when, asked to remember a short passage, groups of university students did so either by using a retrieval technique or by rereading the text.

“The students first engaged with the information across four periods. During the first period, all students read the passage. Then, in one condition, participants reread the passage during the remaining three periods, so they’d read it throughout all four periods (the Read Only condition). Another condition, participants reread during periods two and three, and then during period four they were instructed to write down everything they could remember about the passage (the Read and Retrieval condition). Final condition, participants were instructed to write everything they could remember about the passage during all three periods after the initial reading (the Repeated Retrieval condition). Each period was five minutes long, so that all participants spent a total of 20 minutes with the passage.”

While ‘read only’ was the winner in the short-term – when students were tested five minutes after finishing, one week later it was the ‘repeated retrieval’ technique, at 60%, that outperformed read only, 40%.

“Retrieval practice improves long-term memory by making it less likely that you will forget information over time,” the authors write.

Becoming an expert

Innovators, like everyone else, want to realise their potential, become experts in their chosen field. Which means the memory must also reach its potential – and attention is focused in the right ways.

A popular concept related to this, is the 10,000 hour rule, based on research by Anders Ericsson and colleagues, comparing the routines of expert and novice musicians at a German academy. After interviewing the two groups, the researchers calculated the experts had accumulated roughly 10,000 hours by their early 20s, compared to novices who had accumulated around 2,000 hours.

That’s a lot of time but however long it takes, we need to keep our memory in tip top condition. In sharpening our understanding of what memory is, and by providing research-backed strategies for improving its performance, this book is a great manual and tool.

In the long-run, the authors highlight the importance of being able to monitor, to assess, how well the strategies in the book are working: a process called metacognition. Initially this process relies on feedback, from other experts or coaches but “as you gain experience, you are better able to monitor your own performance”. So for an innovator, a startup, finding the right mentors will also be an important part of the journey to success.


The Psychology of Memory by Dr Megan Sumeracki, a cognitive psychologist specialising in learning and memory; and Althea Need Kaminske PhD, an award-winning educator, author, and science communicator, is available to buy now.


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Written By

Iain is a creative writer, journalist and lecturer, and formerly an editor of two international business publications. Iain is now editor of Innovators Magazine, as well as the strategic content director for OnePoint5Media.


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