5 Mind Tricks to Supercharge Your Memory

Human brains store more bits of information than any computer, so why is it so hard to remember where you left your keys?

August 10, 2009
Photograph by Thinkstock

Can’t remember where you left your car keys? Next time, try doing something weird, like kicking the table you set them on, and you might have an easier time recalling where they are. A new study published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition found that older adults who had a hard time remembering whether they took their daily medication had an easier time of it if they did something odd, such as patting their heads while swallowing the pill, or taking their medicine while sitting in an awkward position.

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Despite assumptions that memory capabilities diminish as we age, it’s actually difficult for anyone to remember more than a few things at a time. Back in 1956, a psychologist named George Miller found that people have a hard time remembering more than seven things at once. Anyone who’s been introduced to 20 people at a party and doesn’t remember a single name will probably agree.

Here are five ways to support your brain’s ability to recall all those names, errands, and daily to-do-list details:

#1: Jot it down. Seems obvious, but you may overwhelm your overloaded brain if you assume you can remember “just a few things” you need to pick up at the grocery store. Even if you’re certain you’ll remember the list in your head, make an external backup. Download a “To Do” app for your iPhone, or use your cellphone’s Notes feature. Or, stay low-tech and carry around a pen and a notebook.

#2: Use bizarre images. The stranger the image, the more likely it is you’ll remember it. When you have to remember to do laundry and take the dog to get groomed, imagine Fido using your dryer like a hamster’s play wheel, and you’ll likely remember that something needs to get cleaned.

#3: Get a room. The Roman Room Technique is an old trick that involves picking a room you know well, and associating the things in that room with things you want to remember. For instance, if you’re trying to remember the names of some parents in the PTA at your child’s school, if their names are Martha, Rose, and Eileen, visualize Martha Stewart sticking roses into a the neon-green vase that’s leaning against the wall in your foyer. As in the last tip, the more bizarre the image, the easier it will be to remember.

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#4: Do something odd. Just like the older adults in the study, you may find it easier to remember where you left your wallet if you do something strange before you walk away from it. Try kicking the table or turning around in circles.

#5: Leave work early. A study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who worked longer than 55 hours per week scored lower on vocabulary, cognition, and memory tests. Burning the candle at both ends during the week is going to make it harder for you to remember all those weekend chores.

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