Properties of Memory

by thememorypage

1.2 • More About Association

At this point, you may be somewhat skeptical at this new memorization scheme that I am proposing to you. You may be asking, “Are you telling me that every time I need to memorize something important, I’m supposed to invent some clever or silly association between pieces of information?” The answer is, yes! It is a time-proven method that works, and it is consistent with what psychologists have discovered about the human memory. We know that memory works best by association, and we are simply taking advantage of that property to help us remember things more easily.

Here are some other properties of memory:

Law of Recency:
We are more likely to remember things that happened recently than those that happened a long time ago. You can probably remember what you had for dinner yesterday, but not what you ate for dinner two weeks ago today.

Law of Vividness:
We tend to remember the most spectacular or striking impressions rather than those that are more ordinary. You can probably remember what you did on your last birthday, or perhaps the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, but not what happened on the previous day of those occasions (unless, that too, was a “special” occasion).

Law of Frequency:
We tend to remember things we experience the most often, rather than those we experience only once in a while. You are much more likely to remember your name or your phone number than the square root of 3 (unless you are a mathematician).

We can take advantage of these laws, too. For example, we all know that if we repeat a word or phrase 20 times, we can remember it more easily.

What about the “Law of vividness?” Well, suppose we wanted to memorize the pair of words “trowel” and “cake”. We might think of our using a trowel to pick up part of a cake-like chunk of cement. Or what about this: a little girl walks up to a table which you are seated at, carrying a trowel. Smiling, she lifts it up and shoves it right into your beautiful birthday cake! Which of these two associations is easier to remember? Surely, the second one, because it’s much more vivid. This is why, when we try to invent associations, the rule is: “the sillier, the better!”

What if I memorize too many “bits and pieces of useless information”?

As far as psychologists can tell, the human brain has a limitless capacity for holding information. This means that our brains will never “fill up.” New information may, however, interfere with information learned in the past, making the older information more difficult to remember. To avoid this problem, a little “management” may be required.
For temporary things, such as memorizing the time of a doctor’s appointment or the name of some person you are going to call once (but not ever again), do nothing. Because we no longer need this information, eventually we will forget it.

For more permanent things, such as memorizing trivia facts, phone numbers, license plates, etc., deliberately go back over all the things you’ve learned on a particular day and think of the pictures you came up with again. Do this every few hours or so. Then recall the new information once a day for a few days. By the end of a week, the things you have memorized will have become almost permanently fixed.

What about all of the silly pictures? Will our minds be cluttered up with all of them? Probably not. If we recall a piece of information often enough, eventually we will no longer need the picture to remember it. Going back to the football field example, if you keep having to recall that it is on Maple Street, eventually you will think “Football field = Maple Street” without even thinking of the football player’s strange breakfast. And if you no longer have to remember that picture, it will become forgotten… and perhaps even “recycled” and used again in a future association.

What if I can’t think of an association?

All of the examples given thus far have had easy associations — the association was either very obvious, or there were two words that could be pictured very easily together in the mind. But what about words that can’t be pictured so easily? Don’t panic, there are other techniques that can be used.
Suppose you want to memorize that James Barstow lives on Lincoln Street. Instinct should tell you to somehow link “Barstow” with “Lincoln,” but neither word forms a nice mental picture. So let’s make one by finding words that either sound like or are directly related to the real words we want to use. For “Barstow,” you could choose “bar stove.” For “Lincoln,” you might think of a penny, for President Lincoln’s picture is on a penny. You could then picture Mr. Barstow, serving drinks at a bar (never mind that he isn’t really a bartender). He goes over to this funny-looking stove, which is made entirely out of copper. Four electric burners are on this stove, each looking just like a giant penny. He looks down at the burners, and President Lincoln winks at him!

How about applying this same technique to learn new vocabulary words? I remember having to learn about various parts of the brain in Psychology class, and I used memory techniques to quickly memorize all the new words. One of the parts was the “parietal lobe,” the part of the cerebral cortex which interprets touch. I thought of a parrot (sounds sort of like “parietal”) pecking at some food in my hand, and the brain feeling some sharp pain! Another part was the “temporal lobe,” which interprets hearing. I thought of myself listening to a happy song with an up-beat tempo.

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