How to improve your memory with associations

by thememorypage

How Memory Works by Association

So how does our memory really work?

We remember things by association. Every piece of information in our memory is connected to other pieces in some way or another. For example, if you are given the word “apple”, what do you think of? Perhaps something like this:

  • APPLE: red, round, sweet, teacher, tree, fruit

But it’s unlikely that we might see “apple” and think of “dog” (unless you remember some funny incident in which your dog investigated an apple). And what if you were asked what the 7th letter of the alphabet was? Chances are, you wouldn’t know that “G = 7,” but you could easily think to yourself, “A B C D E F G,” and then say “G”. You used association to get to the letter G, because you knew A was the first letter, then you kept choosing the next letter in the sequence until you got to the right one.

Why do most of us have a bad memory?

Most of us don’t. Most of us have a really good memory, but we just don’t have practice in using it efficiently.

If the above is true, then why is it so hard for me to remember things?

As stated before, our memory works by association. If there is no obvious association between things, it’s very difficult to remember them. For example, suppose you needed to remember that your plane takes off at 2 P.M. There is nothing about the plane that would suggest the number 2 more than it would any other number (at least at first glance). Therefore, 2 is easily forgotten. Likewise, how does your best friend relate to his phone number, an arbitrary string of digits? Or how does a new word, like “hypothalamus,” relate to what it represents?

How can we learn to remember things better?

Simple. If memory works by association, we actively work to create an association between two bits of information. For example, for the plane that we need to catch at 2 P.M., we can imagine the plane in our mind, and notice that it has 2 wings. Two wings, 2 P.M. There’s an association. We are now ten times more likely to remember the take-off time long after it has faded from our short-term memory.

Sometimes an association comes very easily. For example, suppose you are introduced to a Mr. Hill who lives on a hill at the end of town. Mr. Hill on a hill. Pretty easy, huh? Or what if you’re trying to remember the classroom number for a Chemistry class, and it just so turns out that it’s the same as your dorm room number. Another natural association! Do you think you’ll have a problem remembering it?

When pieces of information are not obviously related in any way, however, we have to be a bit more creative in linking things together. But it isn’t as hard as it seems. Most of us learned rhymes and acronyms in school that helped us remember things. Do any of the following look familiar to you?

  • i before e except after c, or when sounded like a as in neighbor and weigh (rule for remembering ei or ie)
  • ROY G. BIV (colors of the rainbow)
  • All cows eat grass; Every good boy does fine (notes of musical scale)
  • Never eat sour watermelons (directions on a compass)

Why do they work? Because they form an easy-to-remember and clever association between themselves and the information that is to be remembered.

The idea is to be creative and clever. You don’t have to invent a rhyme or a poem every time you want to remember something, though — just think of a picture in your mind that links pieces of information together, preferably something unusual or silly so it is more memorable. For example, suppose you want to remember that the football field is on Maple Street. You might imagine in your mind a burly football player eating a football for breakfast… he pours some maple syrup on the football, cuts off a chunk and eats it!

To demonstrate how effectively this works, look at the following list of words, and try to come up with an association between the left word and the right word of each row. Some will be easy; others may be harder. As an example, for the first pair, you might want to imagine a mouse that has a long, wavy tail that is in the shape of the letter S.

Word Pairing
no Word A Word B
1 Mouse S
2 Fur R
3 Train bridge
4 Moat boat
5 Popcorn chair
6 Elephant pancake
8 Toothbrush canal
9 Umbrella Triangle

After you have formed the associations (if you had trouble on one or two of them, that’s okay; just skip them for now), cover up the right side of the list and then try to name the word associated with each word on the left. If you formed vivid, clear associations, you may be surprised at how quickly and easily you were able to remember everything!

Remember you must continually practice these techniques so they become second nature.  There is no such thing as a quick fix, and I address this topic in a review I wrote about a memory supplement.

(Click on “Next” below to continue the tutorial…)

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

reifuhr October 2, 2012 at 12:35 am

I forgot all of this!!!!


Andry October 2, 2012 at 12:36 am

Thank you for the tutorial. I was referred to this page by the book “Think Smart”. Very cool site.


Andy October 2, 2012 at 12:37 am

Thank you for the tutorial. I was referred to this page by the book “Think Smart”. Very cool site.


hamisi faraji October 2, 2012 at 12:38 am

Am Hamisi faraji from Tanzania ,the article helped me alot ..but the problem is out I go off line when am reading ..what can I do


Diane Holmes October 2, 2012 at 12:38 am

Thanks so much for this. Its very helpful. It’ll help me in university for sure!


Nomin October 2, 2012 at 12:39 am

For me, it DOES work very effectively! Image association- a Brilliant and Fun way to memorize! Thank you


Sanjai October 2, 2012 at 12:39 am

Thanks for the free stuffs.


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