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Enhancing Memory


The Biology of Memory

In spite of all these reasons for forgetting, people can still remember a vast amount of information. In addition, memory can be enhanced in a variety of ways, including rehearsal, overlearning, distributed practice, minimizing interference, deep processing, organizing information, mnemonic devices, and visual imagery.


Practicing material helps people remember it. The more people rehearse information, the more likely they are to remember that information.


Overlearning, or continuing to practice material even after it is learned, also increases retention.

Distributed Practice

Learning material in short sessions over a long period is called distributed practice or the “spacing effect.” This process is the opposite of cramming, which is also called massed practice. Distributed practice is more effective than cramming for retaining information.

Minimizing Interference

People remember material better if they don’t learn other, similar material right before or soon after their effort. One way to minimize interference is to sleep after studying material, since people can’t learn new material while sleeping.

Deep Processing

People also remember material better if they pay attention while learning it and think about its meaning rather than memorize the information by rote. One way to process information deeply is to use a method called elaboration. Elaboration involves associating the material being learned with other material. For example, people could associate the new material with previously learned material, with an anecdote from their own lives, with a striking example, or with a movie they recently saw.

Organizing Material

Organizing material in a coherent way helps people to remember it:

  • Organizing material hierarchically or in categories and subcategories can be particularly helpful. The way an outline is organized, for example, usually helps people to remember the material in it.
  • Chunking material into segments is also helpful. People often remember long strings of numbers, such as social security numbers, by chunking them into two-, three-, or four-digit segments.


Mnemonics are strategies for improving memory. Different kinds of mnemonics include acronyms, acrostics, the narrative method, and rhymes.


Acronyms are words made out of the first letters of several words. For example, to remember the colors of the spectrum, people often use the name ROY G. BIV, which gives the first letters of the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet in the right order.


Acrostics are sentences or phrases in which each word begins with a letter that acts as a memory cue. For example, the rather strange phrase Roses on yachts grow better in vinegar also helps to remember the colors of the spectrum.

Narrative methods

Narrative methods involve making up a story to remember a list of words. For example, people could remember the colors of the rainbow in the right order by making up a short story such as this: Red Smith stood next to an orange construction cone and flagged down a yellow cab. He told the cabbie he was feeling very green and asked to be taken to a hospital. The cabbie took him to a hospital, where a nurse in a blue coat guided him to a room with indigo walls. He smelled a violet in a vase and passed out.


Rhymes are also good mnemonics. For example, the familiar rhyme that begins, “Thirty days has September . . .” is a mnemonic for remembering the number of days in each month.

Visual Imagery

Some well-known memory improvement methods involve using visual imagery to memorize or recall lists.

Method of Loci

When using the method of loci, people might picture themselves walking through a familiar place. They imagine each item on their list in a particular place as they walk along. Later, when they need to remember their list, they mentally do the walk again, noting the items they imagined along the path.

The Link Method

To use the link method, people associate items on a list with each other. For example, if a man wants to remember to buy bread, juice, and carrots at the store, he might try visualizing the peculiar image of himself eating a juice-and-bread mush using carrots as chopsticks.

Peg Word Method

When using the peg word method, people first remember a rhyme that associates numbers with words: one is a bun, two is a shoe, three is a tree, four is a door, five is a hive, six is sticks, seven is heaven, eight is a gate, nine is swine, ten is a hen. They then visualize each item on their list being associated with a bun, a shoe, a tree, and so on. When they need to remember the list, they first think of a bun, then see what image it’s associated with. Then they think of a shoe, and so forth.

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