Professor Tips Down Memory Lane - Y Magazine
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Professor Tips Down Memory Lane

By Carmen Cole

Many people think a good or bad memory is innate and that time and age wear away whatever they have. But a BYU professor who has studied and taught memory for 28 years says “not true” to these myths and focuses on the skills and habits that can help determine memory abilities.

Kenneth L. Higbee, professor of psychology, says attributing memory loss to age is too much of an excuse. He admits there are physical changes in the body and brain as they age but says “in most cases, those changes aren’t as important as habits and skills” that enhance memory.

To show that skills are more important than innate ability, Higbee conducted a study with four of his students. He taught them memory principles and then tested his students to see if they could duplicate the feats of S.V. Shereshevskii, an accomplished memorist (the term used for the few people who actually are born with superior memories). Of the four students, three reached a level of memory recall that rivaled Shereshevskii’s scores.

“In my teaching and in my writing, I emphasize learned memory skills over innate ability. You can improve memory by learning techniques and practicing them,” Higbee says.

Probably the most important memory principle Higbee teaches in his memory course and in his book, Your Memory: How It Works & How to Improve It, is attention.“You have to get something into your head before you can forget it,” Higbee says, quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Despite what some people think, it isn’t possible to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. “You might be able to read a newspaper while you are also watching TV or listen to two different conversations at the same time, but that is by switching your attention back and forth rather than by simultaneously attending to both things,” Higbee says in his book.

Attention involves totally focusing on something or someone and employing the senses so information is taken into the brain. Diverted attention inhibits memory because a person isn’t totally focused on the source of information. “When the mind is on something else, it’s literally absent,” Higbee says. “That’s where we get the term ‘absent minded.'”

Inattentiveness is the fundamental cause of something simple like forgetting someone’s name. Sometimes when we are being introduced to someone, we think about how he or she looks or another distraction instead of paying attention to his or her name, Higbee says.

In addition to focusing attention, repetition and visualization can help you remember someone’s name. When someone tells you his or her name, Higbee says, “repeat it immediately. For example, say, ‘It’s nice to meet you, Susan.’ Try picturing the name printed on a blackboard, and repeat it to yourself. Use the name a few times in the conversation, too,” Higbee recommends in a McCalls article (Karen Astrid Larson, “Memory Tips You Won’t Forget,” (McCalls, Nov. 1997, p. 142).

Another principle Higbee teaches in memory improvement is to add meaningfulness to the thing you want to remember. Adding meaning can involve adding familiarity to something or finding a pattern. Rhymes and songs add meaning to information, such as the ABCs song sung by children when they learn the alphabet. Adults can also use this technique by rhyming words together or by looking for a pattern in a string of words or numbers. Such patterns can be helpful in remembering something like a telephone number. “Once you find the pattern, all you have to do is remember the pattern and use it to generate the sequence,” Higbee says.

Lightbulb IdeaAssociation as a memory tool is related to meaningfulness in that “the meaningfulness of a word frequently has been defined in terms of the number of associations it has,” Higbee writes. “Besides giving meaning, association can help memory by giving us cross-referencing in our memories.” Association points out something new and compares it to something with which the person is already familiar. Higbee gives Italy as an example. We easily remember the shape of Italy because we are taught it looks like a boot, he says.

Organization also improves memory because people group like things together, forming a readily recognized structure, list, or group of categories. In his book, Higbee gives the example of going grocery shopping–if you organize a shopping list into categories such as dairy, meat, and produce, you are more likely to remember each item than if they were sporadically listed.

Using skills and techniques like these, Higbee says, most anyone can improve his or her memory. It’s merely a matter of remembering the techniques and applying them.