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Sharpen Your Memory
  • You just met someone two minutes ago and can't recall his name.
  • You drive off with your coffee cup on top of the car.
  • Walking into the bedroom for the third time, you find yourself thinking about the hereafter again (What am I here after?)

Relax -- you're not losing your mind. Memory loss is a common concern as we get older. People fear that memory lapses are a sign of a serious problem. But forgetfulness is inevitable when we are constantly dealing with new information. If you have trouble remembering things, you probably have too much on your mind.

Memory Basics

Your brain stores information in short-term and long-term memory. The limit on short-term memory tends to be about 7 items for 30 seconds. You use short-term memory when you look at a phone number, walk to the telephone and dial it.

Long-term memory can store information for a lifetime. The key is to get past the 30 second limit and store information in your long-term memory. When you do something consciously to try to remember something, you are encoding the information in your long-term memory. For example, you note landmarks around your parking space to help you find your car at the mall.

The OASIS HealthStages class Memory Dynamics presents a variety of techniques for improving your memory. Here are just a few of the strategies from the course for encoding information.

1. See it. Pay attention when you put something down, like your glasses.

2. Say it. Say out loud or to yourself when you put something away or take some action. "I turned off the iron." "I locked the door." When you learn a new name, repeat it: "Nice to meet you, Richard." "That's really interesting, Helen."

3. Write it down. Writing is a great memory tool. Notes and lists will help you keep track of things, and the act of writing something down in itself will help you encode the information. Keep a note pad handy so you can easily write down where you parked your car or an appointment you need to make. Keep your notes in a logical and consistent location, and minimize the number of locations where you keep notes.

4. Create an image. A mental picture of a name makes it easier to recall. If you meet someone named Sherry, picture her holding a glass of sherry. Suppose you learn that Frank has 10 grandchildren. Picture Frank sitting among a group of children who are all wearing shirts with the number 10 on them.

Remember the 7 item limit? What visual image can you use to move these 7 items past the 30 second limit and into your long term memory:

     clown    plank     umbrella    star     flower    bicycle    apple

Could you visualize a clown, wearing a hat with a flower sticking out, holding an umbrella with stars on it, eating an apple, and riding a bicycle down a gangplank? Now that's a memory. Close your eyes and spend a few moments fixing that image in your mind. Say it to yourself a few times. We'll check back later and see how many of the 7 words you can recall.

5. Use alliteration and rhymes. These are great encoding tricks for learning names. Say you meet Will. He might be witty ... Witty Will! Shirley is curly. Estelle rings a bell. Any of these phrases can be memorable, especially if you say them to yourself a few times.

6. Give yourself cues. You don't have to commit everything to memory - there are other ways to cope with information overload. Give yourself reminders:

  • Keep a calendar
  • Hang library books or movies you have to return in a bag on the front doorknob
  • Set the oven timer for when you have to leave or start another activity
  • Leave yourself a telephone message reminder

7. Pay attention. Slow down and do one thing at a time, giving each activity your full attention. If possible, limit or reduce noise, distractions and interruptions - they interfere with your ability to pay attention and learn.

Any technique that helps you store and retrieve information will make your memory stronger -- its like exercising a muscle. If you combine several different strategies, you'll create even stronger links in your brain for each memory.

For More Information

The OASIS Memory Dynamics course provides much more in-depth information and practice in developing your memory skills. If you live near an OASIS center, check our online course catalog for Memory Dynamics classes or other courses about memory.

Regular exercise, a healthy diet and mental challenge are all important for maintaining good memory function. Read more in Feed Your Brain.

You can find the latest news on memory research at the National Library of Medicine's Medline Plus website.

The Alzheimer's Association offers information on distinguishing forgetfulnes from illness.

Pop Quiz!

Remember the clown? How many of the 7 words can you remember?

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