The world’s best memory

Alex Mullen isn’t a household name, but he deserves to be. He is the person with the world’s best memory. Alex won the World Memory Championships three years in a row, beating out several competitors with exceptional minds. In sports, that’s called a three-peat, and it’s a big deal.

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Coming as a surprise to many people, Alex stated that there was absolutely nothing special about his memory skills. He was not born with a particularly above average recall or anything of the like. Instead, he said he was able to gain his skills through practice. One memory improvement technique, above all others, is Alex’s favorite. The creation of memory palaces.

Memory Palaces

The use of memory palaces to improve recollection has been around since ancient Rome. It is one of the best possible techniques for improving memory, and anyone can learn to use it. It is based on the fact that human brains are extremely good at remembering locations and linking other memories to a place.

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Creating and using a memory palace follows five steps. First, pick a place you can easily remember to be your memory palace. Then, list all the important details of the place you can recall. Third, familiarize yourself with your chosen place until it is strongly ingrained in your mind. The fourth step is to associate memories you want to be able to recall easily with details in your palace. A distinctive object is linked with a particular memory, making it easier to remember. The final step is simply to close your eyes and visit your memory palace whenever you need to.

Visualization: Stop forgetting why you entered a room

Have you ever thought to yourself that you needed something from a different room and went to get it, only to promptly forget what you needed as soon as you stepped into the room? Most, if not all, of us have had such an annoying situation occur many times.

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The act of going into another room tends to “reset” our short-term memory and make us forget why we came into the room. This has to do with the way our brains tend to work on a visual and spatial basis, so our memories are linked to the place we are in. The memory improvement technique known as visualization is the best way to remember what you are going into a room for and can be useful in many other situations as well.

How visualization works

Visualization basically works by picturing in your mind the thing you want. If you are going into another room for your car keys, for example, take a moment to get a clear, vivid mental picture of those keys before actually stepping into the room. Because our minds are a little better at recalling objects than concepts (car keys, rather than “I need my keys.”), this helps us remember exactly what we are looking for.

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The visualization technique works on a lot more than just remembering why you went into another room! It can be used in just about any case where you need to hold something in your short-term memory. Picturing your objective clearly before changing visual/spatial clues disrupt your recall can help improve your memory tremendously.

Recall things in “chunks”

A human’s short-term memory has a limited space to recall things, a “buffer” if you will. This “buffer” can store, on average, between four and seven pieces of information. This puts a hard limit on the number of things we can temporarily memorize at any one time because if we try to remember more information, it starts to replace the things already in our short-term memory.

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For example, if you were trying to remember a string of numbers, you might be able to easily recall the first five or six digits at first, but then started to forget them as you tried to memorize more numbers, ending up only remembering the final few digits rather than the entire string.

The “chunking” technique

There is a way to improve the number of things you can remember with your short-term memory, in a way. We don’t necessarily need to store only a single thing (one number in the previous example) as one piece of information in our “buffer.” “Chunking” refers to the technique of remembering multiple items as a single piece of information in our memory.

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This can easily be shown by memorizing a phone number. If you try to remember a phone number as a string of 10 individual numbers, it is quite difficult because it doesn’t fit within our “buffer.” However, if you break up the number into three chunks of several numbers each, it becomes far easier. The chunking technique can be applied to just about any string of related things that we need to remember temporarily but is too large for our short-term memory.

Play some video games!

Modern technology has created some very interesting, and in this case, fun, ways to improve our memories. Remember how I’ve said that our minds are good at recalling places? Well, this applies to fictional places we visit in video games as well.

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Scientists have done studies which prove that if a person plays video games with 3D environments (2D environments do not seem to have the same effect, sadly) for just a short period of time every day, that person will show increased memory acuity. Indeed, playing video games has been shown to have a correlation with increased gray matter in the brain!

Why video games benefit memory

While scientists still are not sure exactly how and why video games benefit our brains and specifically our memory, there is one most likely theory: video games make you use your memory a lot. Many games require the player to have a good recollection for where objects are, how they interact with each other, specific details about other characters, etc. Just having to remember all these things can lead to an improved memory for other things.

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While many younger people already reap the benefits of playing video games, scientists have pointed out that older people may reap even more significant rewards from the activity. Some scientists believe the way playing games improves memory can help hold off Alzheimer’s and similar diseases.

The power of music

Many students choose to listen to music while they study. This can be quite beneficial in the right circumstances. This depends upon whether or not they can listen to the same music at the time of trying to recall the information. Our minds associate music rather strongly with what we were doing at the time, making it easier to remember what was learned while a song was playing, while listening to that same song.

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However, if a student cannot listen to the same music while trying to recall that information (as is the case during most exams), they can actually have a slightly harder time remembering. Thankfully, the detriment is quite small, making learning while listening to music quite viable.

Applying music to memory

Music can be applied to help recall and learn all kinds of things, making it a good memory improvement technique for more than just students. Listening to a song you know well while memorizing something and then humming the song to yourself is a great example of using music to improve recall.

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This can also come in quite handy when learning a new language, especially trying to remember new vocabulary words. Some experts in teaching new languages suggest finding things like music videos with subtitles to their students. These allow the student to associate the words they hear and see with the music, forming stronger memories in their minds quickly.

Rhythm and rhyme

Similar to the way music can help with memory, the rhythm of words we read can greatly affect how easy or difficult they are to recall. This makes up the difference between trying to memorize a poem and a block of prose that is the same length. The poem is much easier to memorize and remember quickly and accurately than the prose is, in most cases.

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This has to do with the way our mind creates associations between the words when they flow, when they fall into a rhythm together and especially when they rhyme. Our mind recalls one word or phrase and is able to easily remember that this is what comes next because of the way it sounds.

Using the flow of words

People can take advantage of the way our minds associate rhyming words or rhythmic phrases in many ways. A long list of things rewritten into a rhythmic sequence or using literary techniques such as alliteration (starting words with the same letter), consonance (using words with the same consonants), or meter (using words of a specific “beat”) is much easier to recall than a list that is boring to the ear and eye.

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Simply listening to music while doing something you want to recall later and then listening to the same music later can be a way to capture memories with greater clarity. This can help with remembering key moments in your life.

Mnemonic devices

One memory improvement technique with widespread use is the mnemonic device. Many people learn some of these when they are very young, as they are often used as a teaching tool for children. This memory trick is so useful that it has been used since the days of ancient Greek schoolchildren.

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Almost everyone knows at least a few mnemonic devices, even if they don’t know that’s what they are. Mnemonic devices can come in a few forms which are often similar to simplified forms of other memory improvement techniques. This simplicity is key to their widespread use and their ability to be known even by young children.

Forms of mnemonics

As mentioned before, mnemonic devices often share similarities with other memory techniques. A mnemonic device can be as simple as a list of vocabulary words which share a similar beginning or ending pattern, or a children’s rhyme which gets passed around a schoolyard.

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Other forms of mnemonics include acronyms, imagery and the “method of loci.” An acronym is a list of words where the first letter of each word spells out another word, letting you memorize several words by associating them with a single word. Imagery is a simple visualization technique useful for remembering things like “green grass” and “small kitten.” “Method of loci” is a simplified memory palace.

Different interactions, better recall

Quite a few people struggle to remember the names of new acquaintances. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can be quite embarrassing. Thankfully, there is a memory trick which can help all the people who struggle to put names to faces.

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The trick is a fairly simple one: interact with the person differently with how you normally do so. Instead of simply making small talk, which replaces their name with other information in your short-term memory, introduce them to someone else or ask them something about their name. This forces your brain to make more and different associations between their name and other memories, making it easier to remember.

Changing the way you study

The concept of interacting with information in a different way to create more varied associations is useful for remembering a lot more than just people’s names. For example, when studying a list of information, simply going over and over the information in the same order only associates it that one way in your mind, but, if you do it in a different order, you create new associations and make the information easier to recall.

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This trick has great benefits for college students. When you study a list of information the same way over in over you only form associations with it in that one way, but if you rearrange the information (reading the list backward or out of order) helps to form new associations which makes it easier to recall. This is especially useful when exams ask for information in a different order than it was presented in a textbook.

Absurd, unique and memorable

We experience a great many things every single day of our lives, many of them the same things over and over. Such things tend to blur together in memories. Unique events, however, stand out in contrast. This simple fact can be used to help remember all kinds of things if taken advantage of properly.

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The best way to do this is to use our visual memory. If we can make a piece of information or a memory we wish to recall as unique as possible, it will be far easier to remember at a later date. Seeing an elephant for the first time can make quite the impression, but if it happened to be pink, the absurdity would cement itself in the mind even moreso.

Using the absurd

Consider this: you need to remember a graph. All on its own, the graph is probably very similar to many you’ve seen before, which makes it difficult to remember with any accuracy. However, if you can turn the graph into something unique, you can recall it far quicker and more reliably.

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Recreate a bar graph using odd images (stacks of elephants instead of plain columns, or bars made of clouds); play connect-the-dots with a line graph to find a funny, memorable shape; or re-imagine a pie graph as, well, a whole pie made of different slices! The more absurd and unique you can make the information, the better your recollection of it will be.

You are what you eat

It isn’t enough to simply sharpen your mind if you want to greatly improve your memory abilities. Being physically healthy also has a lot to do with how well your mind works. A proper diet, one that includes a lot of foods proven to benefit brain health, can make a tremendous difference in all kinds of mental activities, including memorization and recall.

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Your mind is the greatest energy hog in your body, after all, and giving it all the fuel it needs is essential to functioning at your peak abilities. If you want to remember better in general, remembering to eat healthily is a great way to start.

Brain foods

Some foods do more for your mind than simply provide energy to continue functioning. Upping your intake of certain vitamins, minerals, oils, and other beneficial substances can improve your memory noticeably. Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most beneficial things for your brain.

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Many fish are rich in omega-3s, and if you don’t care for seafood, some nuts, squash, beans, and seeds are great sources as well. What you don’t eat too much of is also important. Nutritionists have found that people with a diet high in saturated fats have reduced concentration and memory (as well as an increased risk of dementia).

Your body supports your mind

Hand in hand with eating well is exercise and other factors of physical health. When your body is running at less than its best, your mind is similarly dragged down. To keep your memory as sharp as possible, it is essential to keep yourself physically fit.

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If you really want to do double-duty boosting your memory and keeping in good shape, focus on aerobic exercise. Blood flow to and through your brain is one of the key factors to how well it performs, so any work out that gets your blood pumping and keeps it that way is especially good for your mind. Heart health equals brain health in many ways!

Other physical factors

When considering how your body affects your memory skills there is more to think about than simply exercising and staying physically fit. Some other components come into play and can have a strong sway over how well your mind functions. Hydration is one such factor. Many people don’t drink as much water as they should and suffer from a form of chronic, low-level dehydration. This can result in trouble focusing and make it drastically harder to recall anything quickly.

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Stress and rest are two other key physical components to a healthy mind and good memory. A person who regularly gets less than seven hours of sleep or is distracted by a lot of stress often struggles to remember things with clarity.

Meditation: The counterintuitive way to improve memory

People across the world and well back into history are familiar with at least some of the benefits of meditation. It can improve cognitive brain function in many different ways, including the improvement of different aspects of memory, making it a very effective practice for anyone wanting better concentration or recollection.

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Meditation is rather unique in the way it acts to improve a person’s memory, however. In fact, it sounds counterintuitive, but research has proven its effectiveness. Meditation can improve a person’s memory skills by reducing the amount of information our brain is processing. We’ve got a lot of static in our noggin, and drowning out some white noise can be a great start to improved mental abilities.

How meditation helps

The idea of using your brain less, processing smaller amounts of information, accessing our memories less and thinking slower during meditation may not sound helpful, but it is. It actually improves memory in a few ways. Firstly, meditation teaches a person to focus more sharply, giving them an increased speed of recall when searching for a particular bit of information.

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Meditation also helps your memory by allowing your mind to rest during a busy day, returning it to a less worn-out condition, almost like taking a nap, but without the associated sleepiness which can be so disruptive to work. The brain produces certain chemicals during times of stress; all that processing power requires a break.

Coffee truly is a wonder

If you’re like many people, you adore the coffee bean. Nothing helps get a caffeine fiend going in the morning like a cup of steaming hot coffee does. Coffee can do more than just give you energy, however. Scientists have conducted a study recently which shows the consumption of coffee may speed up the process of memory consolidation.

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Memory consolidation is the process by which new memories are cemented in our minds, becoming something we can recall days, months or even years later. This concept can be thought of in terms of computers, where the brain encodes or stores “data files” for easier recall later. This is the mind’s automatic compartmentalizing technique.

Drink coffee after, not before

While prior research had been done into trying to see if coffee could help a person learn new information (proving that it does not help that way, sadly), this study was the first to see if coffee had an effect on memory if ingested after trying to memorize certain forms of information.

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Subjects were asked to memorize a list of things, either given coffee or not, and then asked to recall the list. The people who had been given coffee after learning the list had better scores at remembering the objects than the other subjects. So, next time you’re trying to remember something, drink a cup of coffee afterward, it may make all the difference.

To chew or not to chew

Some people swear by the gum-chewing method of improving memory. They say that if they chew gum while learning or memorizing something, it is much easier to remember at a later time. In the quest for proving such an easy memory-boosting technique, scientists have looked into this and conducted research with some differing results.

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If you’ve every used gum when in stressful situations or when you have to study for a test, then you might unconsciously “know” what researchers are trying to find out: if chewing gum related to an increase in productivity. This has lead to some scientific debate over whether or not chewing gum actually affects your memory. However, a recent study has lent new evidence for chewing being beneficial.

Chewing and the hippocampus

The new study, published just last year, seems to show that chewing gum increases the activity in an area of the brain known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus has a lot to do with the formation of new memories, the consolidation of memories, and our recall, so increased activity here would be beneficial to memory in several ways.

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While chewing gum is not absolutely proven to assist in memory skills yet, the argument is leaning that way, and there is no evidence suggesting that it could be detrimental to remembering, so there is really no idea not to take advantage of it (unless you simply don’t like gum).

The whole brain

A lot of the different methods from improving memory share benefits with other types of mental activity. The opposite is also true because the brain functions as a whole despite particular areas being devoted, mostly, to specific activities. The sharper your memory becomes, the better you can concentrate on present challenges.

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Training your brain in things that aren’t specifically meant to improve memory can have fringe benefits which add up to make a huge difference. Consider it like training one muscle group so that it takes the strain off of other, less-developed, muscles. Other areas of your mind can similarly “chip in” to help your memory, if they are all healthy.

Training your brain

Things like cognitive puzzles, crossword games, and even Tetris can all help improve different areas of your brain and give you a better memory by boosting your brain overall. A few different studies have proven that people who play brain games that are not directly related to memory skills still show improved speed and accuracy of recall.

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This type of brain training has even been proven to help improve the memories of people who suffer from mild forms of cognitive impairment and reduce the chances of dementia in older people. This training—along with regular exercise and giving your brain new challenges to keep it stimulated—can keep you sharp for years to come.