Saturday, November 14, 2015

4 Techniques for Improving Memory

By John Fisher

As I get older my memory seems to get worse.  I leave home and wonder if I locked the door. I get out of the car and forget if I locked it too. It seems that throughout the day I forget whether I have done those rudimentary, daily tasks. And so I go back to check and find that indeed they were done. It's just that I have forgotten.

Memories in a fish bowl - Photo by Catherine Jamieson
On the other hand, the memories I have from long ago seem crystal clear.

Professor John Medina, University of Washington School of Medicine, in one of The Great Courses called "Your Best Brain," says recollection of events or information from long ago becomes less accurate over the passage of time.  What I think happened may not be the way it really happened.

Medina distinguishes between reproductive and reconstructive memory retrieval. Reconstructive memory he says is less accurate with a 55% error rate.

Studies suggest that loss of memory is a problem that occurs at the moment of retrieval rather than at storage (Hasher and Griffin, 1978). A mistaken belief is that we use reproductive memory for simple things while reconstructive memory is used for more complex constructions like prose.

Reproductive memory is recall is where we store the original stimulus input and reproduce it during recall. On the other hand, reconstructive memory is a theory of elaborate memory recall in which the act of remembering is influenced by various other cognitive processes including perception imagination, semantic memory and beliefs.

Here are several findings from Hasher and Griffin (1978).

  • The more retrieval cues available the greater the possibility of remembering. Two cues are better than one. 
  • Passages that are presented without a theme are obscure and ambiguous. 
  • Information given after understanding a story doesn't help improve remembering the story.
  • With both prose and a simple-unit recall there is evidence that a postinput cue with help memory. 

Medina describes four ways of improving memory.

  1. Overlearning. Practice overlearning where we review material at timed intervals over the week before having to recall the information, like in a test or speech delivery. Ten times over 10 days is better than cramming for the test. Don't cram and don't do all nighters. It is far more effective to remember by learning the material in regular time exposures to the information.
  2. Elaborative rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal is a "shallow" form of information processing where you focus on an object without considerinng its meaning or associating it with other objects. For example, the repetition of a series of numbers is a form of maintenance rehearsal. In contrast, elaborative or relational rehearsal is a process in which you relate new material to information already stored in your long-term memory. It's a "deep" form of processing information that involves thinking about the object's meaning as well as making connections between the object, past experiences and the other objects. In learning numbers, you might associate them with personal experiences like significant dates such birthdays or perhaps you might see a pattern in the numbers that helps you to remember them.
  3. Mnemonics. This strategy is useful in learning a list of words. The peg-word system associates the to-be-remembered items with a list of easily remembered items. Acronyms are developed that refer to the first words of the list of material we are trying to remember. SMART is the acronym for writing objectives. ROY G. BIV are the first letters of the colors in the rainbow. 
  4. Mental Imagery. Mental imagery (also called visual memory) is where we use visual experience to preserve memories We place in memory visual information which resembles objects, places, animals or people in a mental image. Mental imagery is also referred to as the mind's eye through which we retrieve from our memory a mental image of original objects, places, animals or people. For example, when I try to remember a difficult to spell word, I close my eyes and actually see the word in my brain. 


Hasher, Lynn & Mary Griffin. (1978). Reconstructive and Reproductive Processes in Memory. Journal of Experimental Pyschology: Human Learning and Memory, 4 (4): 318-330. Retrieved from

See also

Medina, John. How Your Brain Uses Memory. Your Best Brain (Lesson 5). The Great Courses. Retrieved from

A Tale of Two Hospitals 

What’s the difference between the Denver VA hospital and the Parkland Hospital in Dallas? Parkland, a public-private venture, was finished largely on-time and on-budget, while the Colorado VA hospital continues to flounder, according to a new report by National Center for Policy Analysis Research Associate Jennifer Vermeulen.

“Twenty years have passed since the VA began exploring options for replacing the Denver VA, and 10 years have passed since planning began. Yet, the veterans of Colorado are still waiting to receive the high-quality care they deserve,” says Vermeulen. “Conversely, the county hospital project in Dallas remained accountable in real-time to both taxpayers and private donors. The new hospital was better than originally planned, delivered nearly on-time and on-budget. Results like that are worth every penny.”