How to Remember More of What You Read

It’s happened to all of us. Probably repeatedly. You know that you’ve read something pertaining to your current problem (or discussion, or project, or whatever), but you just can’t remember it. It’s frustrating to say the least. It’s in there someplace, rattling around the recesses of your brain, but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t retrieve it.

Until now.

There are things you can do to better absorb and remember the things you read, whether it’s relatively useless trivia, or crucial to the test you’re writing tomorrow, or important to your current position.

When it comes to your memory, there are multiple ways to make something stick. They work independently, sure, but utilizing them together makes it that much easier to recall later on.

1. Repetition

This is the easiest one. The more you do something, the more you know it. Really know it. Doesn’t matter what it is, and this is the frustrating reason why repetitively doing something over and over again (a particular sports play, for example) makes us good at it. Mind-numbingly boring, perhaps, but effective. If you read that new report on the third-fiscal quarter seven times, you’d probably remember most of it. Reading something repeatedly - a book, report, recipe, instructions, whatever - makes it easier to remember and recall. So, should you reread everything? Well...probably not. It wouldn’t hurt, but everything starts to lose its appeal after the seventh time through. What you can do is either reread something extra important while reading it the first time - actually repeat that sentence or paragraph once or twice, out loud, to really give yourself a mental highlighter - and/or highlight that important part (using an actual highlighter marker or e-book note function) and go back and reread it later, several times. Ideally, do both.

It’s deceptively easy. Write a sentence, on any subject, read it aloud 5-10 times, and then put it away. See if you remember it a week later. Odds are you will.

2. Association

This one is rather well-known as far as “tricks” and memory go, and with good reason. It works. The basic idea is that you associate something you don’t know with something that you do know. You tie them together in some way in your mind, thereby making it easier to recall later. The closer the association is to you, the better this works. 

The more you know about a given topic should then, in theory, make it easier to learn more about it. The number of ideas or concepts that you can associate with new ideas is larger. Making connections and finding natural associations becomes easier as your knowledge base grows.

3. Memory Palace

This technique has been around since ancient Greece, and it’s an extension of the association principle. It works best for lists of items, but it could be tweaked to work with anything.

A memory place is someplace real - ideally a building - that you are very familiar with (your childhood house, your current home, your office building). You start with the first item that you want to remember, and place it in the first room of your “palace”. Visualize it. See it in that location. The stronger the mental image, the better. You can even make it wildly fantastic (part of the next technique, impression). Place the second item (or fact, or name, or whatever) further into the room, or in the next room, or in the adjoining hall. Move through your “palace”, placing the things you want to remember in very real and visually specific locations. Then, when you need or want to remember, you simply “walk” through your palace and find everything where you left it. While it might sound a bit odd, and it does take a bit of practice, the Memory Palace has been utilized for thousands of years. And it works. Google it to find many useful websites and practice lists to help you perfect it.

4. Impression

Impression can be either positive (the way we general think of something that “impresses” us) or negative. Think of it as impact if that helps to break the impress=great thing fallacy.

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Seeing the Great Wall of China for the first time may impress you for its ingenuity and remarkable achievement. It’s a positive reaction, and you’ll probably remember that moment - in startling detail - for a long time as a result. But likewise, being involved in a life-threatening event like a plane or car crash can have an equally strong impression, and therefore equally strong and detailed memory.

How does this apply to remembering? Well, you can assist the strength of impression by consciously taking note of something. “See” the event, stat, fact, etc. Increase the impression by making it even more positive, or even more negative, or even more remarkable, or even more beautiful, or ridiculous, or whatever. Exaggerate something about it to mythical proportions to create a powerful impression.

5. Mnemonics

Mnemonics are basically tools or tricks used to assist our memory. There are thousands of websites devoted to them. Some common mnemonics include using nursery rhymes or songs (like for the number of days in each month), or humorous rhymes (like remembering someone is called Eddie by thinking “Eddie Spaghetti”).

6. Auditory vs Visual

This one isn’t a technique so much as a special note. People learn (and therefore remember) in different ways. It’s called the “Multiple Intelligences Theory”. Some of us are visual learners. We learn better when we see something. Others are auditory learners. They learn better when they hear it. In terms of remembering something, discover for yourself which you are, and then utilize that. Visual? Read and look at pictures while trying to remember something. Auditory? Say it out loud.

Virtually anyone can be taught to have a better memory. These six suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. For an entertaining and informative read on memory tricks, check out “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” by Joshua Foer.


Photo by BinaryApe

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