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Writing things down improves your memory

An old proverb claims, “The shortest pencil is longer than the longest memory.”

And those of us still using paper planners can rest assured we are making the right decision, according to information contained on an article in the October 11, 2017 issue of Fast Company. The article references studies showing that taking notes by longhand helps you remember important meeting points better than tapping out notes on your laptop or smartphone. This could be a particular advantage for us older folks since most of us lose memory power as we age. It might also explain why some people are switching from smartphones to paper planners for their everyday planning activities.

We tend to understand and retain information better when we read from a hardcopy book as opposed to a digital version as well. In a study conducted by Anne Mangen, PhD, a professor at the Reading Center at the University of Stavanger, Norway, the researcher gave participants the same 28-page mystery story to read either on an Amazon Kindle or in print format. “We found that those who had read the print pocketbook gave more correct responses to questions having to do with time, temporality, and chronology than those who had read on a Kindle,” Mangen claimed. “And when participants were asked to sort 14 events in the correct order, those who had read on paper were better at this than those who had read on the Kindle.”

Writing down your “to do” list frees up working memory, imprints the items in your mind, allows time to evaluate their importance, and provides a motivational sense of accomplishment as you cross off each item.

People may think they are better at comprehending information when they read it on a digital screen because they can read much faster than those reading the text in paper format. But results of the studies show that the paper groups outperformed the digital groups on memory recall and comprehension of the text.

Mikael Cho, cofounder of Crew, claimed that “the separation from the digital space (where I do most of my work) to the physical, helped me feel less overwhelmed.”

The Fast Company article was quick to point out that this doesn’t mean you should start printing your emails in order to read them. Brief snippets of text don’t seem to make any difference.

A paper planner is a great tool for keeping more of your memories intact and slowing down the perceived passage of time. Not only does the act of writing in the appointments and scheduling the important projects and tasks help transfer them to your long-term memory, reviewing those pages after the fact helps solidify them in your  memory. Research shows that thinking or talking about an event immediately after it occurs enhances memory for the event. That’s why it’s so important for a witness to recall information as soon as possible after a crime.

The greatest loss of memory is in the first hour or so of the event. By reviewing it in spaced intervals, you are fixing it in your memory. You want as much of the present as possible to be retained so you will recall it in the future. I schedule every significant event in my time planner, even after the fact. In other words when we spontaneously drop into a restaurant or go to a movie or visit friends, I write the details of that event in my planner when I get home. If it’s a restaurant, I take out the receipt and copy the name, address, and telephone number into that block of time, including the names of the people we might have been with at the time. It was unscheduled time; but it becomes scheduled after the fact.

By reviewing my planner, I am in effect reviewing my life. And I can readily justify this strange habit by the number of times I have retrieved phone numbers of great restaurants we wanted to revisit or to confirm the name of the movie we saw three weeks earlier or to get the name of our friend’s cousin who attended the dinner.

The pen is not only mightier than the sword, it’s a lot easier to carry with you – and does a better job of writing.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ll never forget what’s her name.

Back in the late 1970s, when I first decided to carve out a full-time career as a speaker and trainer, I experimented with management topics such as time management, delegation, stress management, leadership, motivation and creativity. I also studied memory training based on techniques and tricks that were then being used by memory experts such as Harry Lorraine and Jerry Lucas.

Before I had the nerve to actually charge a fee (since I was already earning a living teaching at Humber College and well underway with an association management business), I offered brief morning workshops on these management topics no charge – and included memory training to add a little variety.

By the time I felt comfortable charging a fee (since the classes started growing), I had realized that you can’t be an expert in everything, so I dropped every topic except time management. It was the most popular session, and I guessed it would still be popular – and even more relevant – in the future.

My special interest topic, memory training, was the first to be eliminated, not that I didn’t enjoy it, but it was too stressful trying to remember everyone’s name. I had slipped several times and the big goof that cemented my decision was the time I was interviewed by a well-known TV personality on the occasion of my latest book, Managing your memory. It was published by General Publishing, which later became Stoddart Publishing and eventually disappeared altogether from the publishing scene. (Hopefully not because of my book.)

When I was asked by the interviewer to demonstrate how I would memorize her name using my techniques, I couldn’t even remember her name. I guess that’s way up there on my list of most embarrassing moments. (And my first lesson that stress can impact memory.)

I definitely made the right choice. Time management has served me well all these years, and I still facilitate workshops and give talks on time management to local organizations – mostly senior’s groups.

I find that many seniors are living with memory problems and a nagging fear of dementia – especially Alzheimer’s. I never thought that memory gimmicks would be of use in cases of dementia, even though I have been relying on them myself all these years to prevent more embarrassing incidents like the one experienced in my youth.

But last week I picked up a copy of Gary Small’s book, The Alzheimer’s prevention program: keep your brain healthy for the rest of your life. Dr. Gary Small, along with his wife Gigi Vorgan, has written several books on the brain, and in this book, they claim that memory training can slow age-related decline and even improve the cognitive performance of those with mild cognitive impairment. They claim that seniors “may be able to stave off some Alzheimer’s symptoms for years by learning and practising memory enhancement techniques.”

The book even backs up those statements with research. Perhaps I was right in predicting the importance and popularity of time management; but it’s nowhere near as important as brain health – a term never even used back in the 70s.

I have dusted off my old memory training notes. (Yes, I am a packrat when it comes to training material. I can survive another embarrassing admission.) Surprisingly, I can still recall most of those one hundred 4-digit numbers that I memorized over 35 years ago. There’s a trick or technique involved, of course; but it’s one of the techniques that I have been using all these years to remember my PINs, “To do” lists, and other information.

When I speak to those senior’s groups again, I will risk a little embarrassment and included memory training. Who cares if I forget a name or two – or a dozen or more? If you can help stave off dementia, it’s well worth it.

Note: Harold now has an e-book on memory techniques published by Book boon.com titled, Boost your memory and sharpen your mind.

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Poor memory or attention problem?

memory

memory

Is it poor memory or simply poor memory skills?

Some of us have poor powers of observation. We may be uninvolved, passive, and inattentive or distracted, day dreaming or preoccupied with other things. We could be short-changed in a store and not even notice it. We could glance at our watch and still not be able to tell someone the time. Some of us wouldn’t be able to direct a person to the nearest service station or tell someone where a coffee shop in our neighborhood was located – even though we had passed these places hundreds of times.

Have you ever been at a party and by the time you’re introduced to the second person, you had forgotten the name of the first person you had already met? Have you ever keyed in a number and before they answer you had forgotten who you were calling? Have you ever waited for a chance to interject something into a conversation and by the time you were able to do so, you have forgotten what you were going to say? These is not necessarily examples of failing memory.

They might be indications of weak working memory skills, but you could also be victim of what memory expert Hermine Hilton calls the Seven-Second Syndrome. When a person fails to “lock in” new information, it can be lost in as little as 7 seconds. A good memory is when you can recall things accurately at will. But don’t expect to recall something you never really paid attention to in the first place. Not being able to recall something may not be a case of bad memory. It may simply not have been transferred to long-term memory. Through faulty listening, preoccupation or distraction it may never have registered in your brain.

Many of us are poor listeners. Some of us have a problem hearing things in the first place. We forget 75% of what we do hear within two months. We forget between a third and a half of what we hear within 8 hours. If someone is not observant, a poor listener, fails to concentrate, and lacks interest in the topic in question, he or she has little chance of remembering much a few weeks later. And this is exacerbated by the digital age of speed where everything seems to be happening at once, and where many people seem to take pride in the self-defeating behavior of multitasking.

Let’s use names as an example. Many people have trouble with names. Not faces. You don’t hear people saying “Your name is familiar but I can’t recall your face”. The most important thing is to listen carefully to the name when you are first introduced. Then immediately say the name aloud. “Glad to meet you John.” Repeating the name aloud right away is very important. In fact you should say the name to yourself several times while you’re with the person. At the end of the conversation, repeat the name aloud. “Hope to see you again, John.” According to the book, You Can have a Near-Perfect Memory, by Mort Herold, researchers have found that people remember names about 30 percent better when they repeat the other person’s name at the time of introduction.

As soon as you’re able to, enter the information in your smartphone or on an index card. The act of writing things down also helps to get them into your long-term memory – as does reviewing them periodically. And above all, be mindful of where you are and what you are doing at the time. Whenever you are talking to someone, make sure your mind stays with you.

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What to feed your brain

Brain foodIf you want to know what to feed your brain you might be interested in knowing which foods in particular have been found to be good for the brain. Proper nutrition can help prevent cognitive decline. For example, blueberries are believed to reduce the risk of age-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Janet Maccaro, in her book, Brain boosting foods, mentions supplements such as gingko biloba, known for its ability to improve memory and concentration. It is used in Europe to treat dementia.

Avocados are thought to be good for the brain because of their monounsaturated fat, which increases blood flow through the brain and lowers blood pressure, and organ meats because they are high in brain-healthy nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, K, B12, as well as folic acid.

Egg yolks are rich in choline. A shortage of choline has been linked to insomnia, memory problems, and fatigue. Egg yolks also contain ant-inflammatory omega-3s, as do salmon, herring and sardines. Most nuts are also a source of vitamin E, which protects the brain’s iron from exposure to oxygen. According to a special issue of Newsweek published in October, 2014, 90 percent of Americans overlook vitamin E in their diet.

Any food that reduces high blood pressure or helps the cardiovascular system in any way is good for the brain, since the brain’s blood supply is critical. This includes such foods as oatmeal, brown rice and grain breads.

EPA omega-3 fish oil is also recommended since it keeps the cell membranes in the brain flexible. There is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids – the ones found in many types of fish such as salmon and rainbow trout – slow up cognitive decline and reduces the risk of Alzheimer`s disease.

Researcher Rodney W. Johnson, PhD, claims that chamomile tea, rich in luteolin, is not only relaxing, but also guards you against forgetfulness. He says it works by preventing brain inflammation that contributes to age-related memory lapses. Luteolin is also present in carrots, celery and green peppers.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, RealAge expert and host of a national TV show, recommends five important foods to give your brain a boost:

  • Blueberries, to help shield against harmful processes tied to Alzheimer`s disease and premature aging.
  • Eggs, since they are loaded with selenium, a mineral that could help make your brain years younger.
  • Mustard, because it contains turmeric. He claims that getting just 17 milligrams of it a day (about a teaspoon of mustard) can help genes control the clean-up of cellular waste in the brain.
  • Salmon, since it is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, including the type thought to have the most anti-aging effects on the brain.
  • Kale, since getting at least three servings a day of these leafy greens high in carotenoids and flavonoids can slow mental decline associated with aging.

Drinking water may also sharpen your recall skills according to research conducted at University of East London. The UK researchers believe that bringing water into an exam room can raise students’ marks. Studies indicated that those who drank water while writing exams outperformed those who didn’t. In one study the scores averaged 4.8% better. One explanation is that students are in a mild state of dehydration when taking exams and it is corrected by drinking water.

Skipping breakfast is a not a good idea. Studies have shown that children and adults who skip breakfast do not perform well on tests at school or tasks at work.

Obesity leads to high blood pressure, which lowers cognitive function so watch your weight as well. A study published in the journal Neurology showed that people who are obese in middle age have almost 4 times the risk of developing dementia later in life than those of normal weight.

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How our memory works

Memory ImageA simple way of explaining how our memory works  is that we possess two separate memory systems – short-term memory or working memory, and long-term memory. Paying attention and hearing the information properly is usually enough to get it into our short-term memory, and we have no trouble repeating a name when we are first introduced. But unless we make a conscious effort to transfer it to long-term storage, the memory of it soon disappears. That’s why I suggest you repeat the name out loud during introductions, say it silently to yourself several times, and write it down and review it later.

Now assuming you get the information into long term storage you may still have a problem recalling the information at a later date. Just how much of a problem depends on how effectively we memorized the information in the first place and how many handles we have provided in order to pull the information out of our memory bank. The more you know about a person you meet, the more handles you provide. Our mind works through association. The more things you associate with the person’s name, such as the name of his wife, where he works, the type of food he likes, his hobbies, education etc. etc., the more handles you provide. Later when you’re trying to recall the person’s name you can think about the place you met, who introduced you, and the dozen other things that are all connected to his name, and eventually one of these facts will stimulate the recall of his name from long-term memory. Two things experienced together will become associated with each other in our mind.

Perhaps this may be a generalization, but I think women have a better memory for names then men for this reason. They seem to be more genuinely interested in other people. I know when I talk to someone, I don’t ask many questions. I talk about the weather and sports and news stories, but little about the personal life of the individual. But if you had left my wife with someone for five minutes she would know the person’s background, family situation, likes, and dislikes and what she had for dinner the night before.

Available for Kindle

According to Elaine Biech, author of Training for dummies, about 70% of Western culture is a visual-learning culture. This means that while you should involve as many senses as possible when learning new material, the emphasis should be on the visual. You are a big part of the learning process, so don’t simply sit and absorb. Your enthusiasm and physical movement also contribute to the learning process.

Learning that takes place through the senses, according to Biech’s book, is; taste, 1%, touch, 1.5%, scent, 3.5%, aural, 11% and visual, 83%. Research conducted by 3M showed that we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Our brain can detect images simultaneously but language and text are decoded in a linear, sequential way – taking more time to process. Our brains are wired to respond differently to visuals than to text.

We tend to be good at forgetting non-essentials and instead remember the information we think about often or that has emotional significance to us. According to Ernest Hartmann, professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, mulling over important thoughts activates our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region that facilitates memory. The more impressive, vivid and emotional your thought, the more likely you are to remember it.

The above fact will be used when I cover the association method that can be used to remember almost everything. The more you participate physically, mentally and emotionally while memorizing, the easier you will be able to recall the information later. A brain scan study reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience showed that even making gestures as you’re listening heightens activity in the brain’s memory center, activating other cells that wouldn’t normally be involved. It was found that even touching your ear or chin as you learn a new phone number and then touching it again when trying to recall it will activate the additional neural circuits that give you an advantage in recall.

When you recall an event again and again, the first recall will be the most accurate one. It’s more like putting a puzzle together rather than replaying a video. Memories are rebuilt every time that they are accessed and influenced by more recent experiences.

After the 9/11 attacks, for example, psychologists surveyed several hundred subjects about their memories of that day. They then repeated the surveys of the same people one year later. 37% of the details had changed. By 2004, that number was 50%. They had no idea their memories had changed that much.

In my book, Boosting your memory & sharpen your mind, I suggest how you can memorize information so that recall is easy, and a lot more accurate. It’s available for Kindle on Amazon

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Memory is Important for Good Time Management

Memory is important for good time managementJust as time management is vital to the effectiveness of managers, administrators, students, and others, so organizing your mind, memory and recall are equally vital to our personal productivity and success. Memory is important for good time management on many levels. Time wasters such as forgetting vital information at a meeting, having to constantly refer to the same memo or email and having important assignments slip through the cracks can be just as counterproductive as constant interruptions, rush jobs, or changing priorities.

Organizing your thoughts is just as important as organizing your desk. Just as searching your desk and files for lost information can waste an hour or more per day, so can searching your memory for data you thought would be on the tip of your tongue. You must manage mental time as well as external time.

How important is memory? How about this headline from the May 23, 2011 edition of the Toronto Star newspaper: “Toddler dies after being forgotten in hot car.” The reason suggested by the wife of the father who had forgotten to drop off the child at day care on the way to work: “He was distracted while juggling many responsibilities.” And I have read of at least a half-dozen other similar cases in the past few years.

Available for Kindle

Working memory (short-term memory) is critical for keeping information in the mind until you are ready to do something with it. But the brain can only juggle so much information without losing some of it. The prefrontal cortex has its limitations. As David Rock, author of Your brain at work expresses it, “If the processing resources for holding thoughts in mind were equivalent to the value of the coins in your pocket right now, the processing power of the rest of the brain would be roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. economy.”

Studies of pilot errors in fatal airline crashes indicate that problems are rarely due to the pilot not knowing what to do or when do it, but more often due to failures in resuming a task after being interrupted. This is an example of weak working memory.

Thankfully, the results of forgetting are not all tragic. But one scientist, Dr. Zach Hambrick of Michigan State, believes that an individual’s working memory is the deciding factor in determining whether a person is good or great. He found that those with greater working memory capacity outperformed those with lower levels – including those with extensive experience and knowledge of the task being performed.

Available for Kindle

Dr. Hambrick is not the only scientist who thinks there is a link between working memory and general cognitive performance. Some researchers believe it is at the very root of intelligence. Strengthening your working memory ability is important, and neuroscientists feel that it can be strengthened. An article in the May 5, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail titled “The brain can juggle only so much” by Mark Fenske, co-author of The winner’s brain, claims that practice can improve working memory. He illustrated this by using a computer-based task that requires information to be held in mind while updating it or comparing it to newly presented information. Not only did those involved in the training improve in working memory, but also in concentration and reasoning ability.

Multitasking puts a strain on working memory since it requires you to bring back important pieces of information for each task as you switch back and forth between them. If you do have to switch tasks suddenly, such as attending to an important interruption, take a few seconds to jot down what still needs to be done before moving to the new task.

You can compensate for the distractions of the digital age of speed, increase your ability to quickly memorize and recall information – in addition to exercising the brain. Techniques than can help you do this are covered in my recent book, Boost your memory & sharpen your mind. Check it out.

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How Memory Effects Our Ability to be Effective

Working memory is the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks such as language comprehension, learning and reasoning. In the middle of a hectic day when you’re going from one crisis to another and you still remember that you were supposed to phone someone at a specific time, you have a strong working memory. Or you’re interrupted by a phone call and you don’t forget where you left off.

Computers with greater RAM yield better performance and so it is with working memory in humans. Dr. Zach Hambrick, a Michigan State researcher found that those with greater working memory capacity outperformed others. Studies of pilot errors in fatal airline crashes indicate that problems are rarely due to the pilot not knowing what to do or when do it, but more often due to failures in resuming a task after being interrupted.

The most important aid for coping with this weakness is to write down things and make lists. If you have to leave a project, write the next step before you leave. Before you answer the phone, or greet a drop-in visitor, jot down the first few words of your planned next sentence.

Recall is better at the beginning and end of events. For example, if you are trying to remember a nine digit number, you would easily recall the first few numbers and the last few numbers but you would find that it is more difficult to recall the ones in between. This is referred to as the “primacy effect” and “recency effect.” You tend to remember more of the information at the start and at the finish than in the middle. Working on a project or reading or studying for shorter periods of time provides more beginnings and endings. This is one of the reasons I recommend working on a project in shorter sprints rather than longer marathons.

Available for Kindle

Some researchers feel that working memory is critical, that there is a link between working memory and ability and general cognitive performance. An article in the May 5, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail titled “The brain can juggle only so much” by Mark Fenske, co-author of The winner’s brain, claims that practice can improve working memory. He illustrated this by using a computer-based task that requires information to be held in mind while updating it. Simply memorizing things will help. And you can become quite good at it. I used to facilitate memory training workshops, and on occasion I still do for seniors at our local church. People are amazed at what they are capable of remembering once they apply themselves.

It’s evident that if we don’t use our executive skills they will weaken. It’s similar to the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on our muscles. But not only are we outsourcing our memories to computers, and doing it willingly, some people seem to be advocating it. The personal technology columnist for the New York Times in the August, 2013 issue of Scientific American, asks “why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?” Yet by letting computers do all our memorizing and dozens of other mental activities, we are weakening our brains.

I’m not against progress. Computers in the classroom? By all means. Let them take over the routine work? Absolutely. Programming them to do those time wasting jobs, including calculations? Of course. But not to the extent that they eliminate the need, ability or desire to memorize, calculate, problem solve, create, think and otherwise exercise our brains. Heaven forbid if some quirk of nature should short-circuit the world’s computers. We would all be as helpless as newborn babies.

The best thing for strengthening your memory, both working memory and long-term memory, is to exercise both your body and your brain. Do crossword puzzles, read articles and books, take educational courses, practice creativity exercises, and continually challenge yourself. If you retire physically, don’t retire mentally. Studies suggest that maintaining intellectual activity throughout life can preserve memory in later years. The Victoria Longitudinal Study in Western Canada revealed that middle-aged or older individuals who participate in intellectually challenging activities and projects, including reading, are less likely to suffer declines in cognitive functioning.

Physical exercise is even more important. You need to keep the blood flowing to the brain with the oxygen and glucose that it needs to operate at its peak. Physical exercise and other important factors such as sleep, stress reduction and brain-boosting foods will be discussed in later blogs once I have covered actions you can take to strengthen all the executive skills that we mentioned previously.