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Published December 14, 2011, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Ways to enhance memory

Have you ever forgotten your computer? Can’t remember where you put your glasses? Blanked on your new colleague’s name? I guess I’m not alone.
But good news – we can do something about it.

By: Susan Mathison, INFORUM

True confession. I went to a medical meeting this summer, accompanied by my small son and husband. We hustled, but still got out the door later than planned.

It was to be a jam-packed weekend, conferencing by day, and some critical office work by night. Once on the road, the trip was smooth, and my son Grant gave us sufficient warning for potty stops. All was well until Sauk Centre, Minn., when I decided to check a file on my computer.

Ohhh nooo! No computer. Arrgh. So we made a big turn-around, and headed back to Fargo – 140 painful miles. My husband was very graceful about it, saying, “I’m just so glad it wasn’t me who forgot!” Five hours later, we finally made it to Minneapolis.

Have you ever forgotten your computer? Can’t remember where you put your glasses? Blanked on your new colleague’s name? I guess I’m not alone.

“Forgetting these types of things is a sign of how busy we are,” says Dr. Zaldy S. Tan, director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “When we’re not paying good attention, the memories we form aren’t very robust, and we have a problem retrieving the information later.”

But good news – we can do something about it. Harry Lorayne, author of Ageless Memory: Simple Secrets for Keeping Your Brain Young, says that certain “exercises” can get your brain in shape. “We exercise our bodies, but what good is that great body if you don’t have the mental capabilities to go with it?”

Sure, you could write everything down, keep organized lists and leave electronic notes on your BlackBerry, cell phone or PDA. But when you don’t have access to those aids, or if you want to strengthen your brain, try these strategies to help you remember.

Pay attention and focus. We get so caught up in multi-tasking that we can fail to do this. Our brains need some time to process information and commit it to memory. So when you’re introduced to someone, really listen to the person’s name. Then, to get a better grasp, picture the spelling, and ask the person to confirm it: “Sarah or Sara?” Make a remark about the name to help lock it in: “I have a wonderful cousin named Sara.” Engage your other senses in creating a solid memory by making eye contact and offering a handshake. And make a good impression on your new acquaintance by using their name a few times during the conversation and when you say goodbye.

Repeat it. This seems to work for most of us who want to memorize something. To memorize a speech, toast or test material, read your notes, then type them into the computer. Next, read them aloud and record them. Listen to the recording several times. By repeating the information in several ways, you once again engage the senses.

Make it a habit. Put a small basket on the entry table or kitchen counter. Train yourself to put your keys, glasses, cell phone or any other object you frequently use (or misplace) in the basket – every time.

Chunk it. Our brains have difficulty committing long lists of individual numbers and letters to memory, but we can easily recall phone numbers because we’ve been taught at an early age to “chunk” the number into 3 separate sections: the area code, the prefix and the four-digit end number. This technique works for virtually any piece of information. Divide the large amount of information into smaller chunks, and then focus on memorizing those chunks as individual pieces.

Organize it. Our brains like organization of information. That’s why books have chapters, and outlines are recommended as a studying method in school. By carefully organizing what it is you have to memorize, you’re helping your brain better encode the information in the first place. Use bullet points and bolded headlines to make your notes more readable and to help organize the material in chunks. Use color when appropriate. My college room-mate used a complex system of multi-colored highlighters and always aced her finals.

Try mnemonic devices. There are a lot of these, but they all share one thing in common – they help us remember more complicated pieces of information through imagery, acronyms, rhyme or song. Picture a rainbow, and ROY G BIV may come to mind. The phrase “every good boy deserves favors” was crucial in the music room. As a medical student, we used phrases to help memorize the bones in the body or symptoms.

Sing it. Since I live with a small child, songs are important, and we will often make up our own words. Remembering a small group of items (a grocery list, phone number, list of names, to-do list), is a lot more fun when sung to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle or your personal favorite.

Practice your ABCs. Is something on the tip of your tongue? Recite the alphabet (aloud or in your head). When you get to the letter, it should trigger the name that’s escaping you.

Do you have some favorite memory tricks? I’d love to hear about them.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.