by Len Horridge

How can I remember more?

Scientists have not yet agreed on any definitive model that explains exactly how we encode, store and retrieve our memories, but studies have given us a number of ways to improve all of these aspects of memory. Basically, we know methods that work, but we can only guess at why they work. (For more information, see Understanding memory.)

Retaining information

There are three main stages in the memory process. First, there is the sensory register, which is a very short-term sensory memory of the event. At the second level is a short-term, or working, memory. Then there is long-term memory. What most of us mean when we talk about improving our memory is improving our ability to encode, store and access long-term memories (see Short- and long-term memory).

Use it or lose it

Underlying all the various memory improvement techniques is this simple concept:

Use it or lose it.

If we practise and use the areas of our brain that help us remember, we will remember better.

Research completed into septuagenarians has shown that we all develop a cognitive reserve like a powerful computer in our brain, where neurons are connected by synapses (links) to other cells to form networks. The brain is like a living computer, growing and adapting with use, so the more we use these synapses, performing intellectual functions, practising and using our memory, the more connections are made. Making more connections means we have better access to all parts of our brain.


Training you brain does not have to be like going back to school and forcing yourself to try and learn long lists of facts in which you have no interest. Research carried out by Dr Joe Verghese shows that the best activities to exercise the brain include crossword puzzles, chess, card games, group discussions and even dancing!

Though this may not be the entire story... Almost ANYTHING that gets our brains working helps; this can include television, by the way, though listening to music, reading and listening to the radio also help.

Dr Verghese concludes that having a balance of physical and mental exercise is key to maintaining brain power. He puts a very firm emphasis on intellectual stimulus, which can even be just having a chat with people over a drink (and there are suggestions that being around younger people can help keep you young in mind!), though having a balance between physical and mental activities is best. Golf, for example, combines the two: remembering your score while walking and, with a good playing partner, having a good chat! Maybe this is something we’ve always known...

Mens sana in corpore sano

(A healthy mind in a healthy body)

Latin proverb

Believe it

One of the biggest blocks to people remembering things well is their insistence that they can’t. But this is belief – just a belief – not a reality. We often too readily say ‘Oh, I can’t do that’ and this gives a message to our brain that it really doesn’t need to try.

Selective awareness

One of the reasons for people thinking their memory is not so good is that they notice when they don’t remember something because they feel a sense of frustration or perhaps even embarrassment in a public situation. This emotional aspect makes the times they can’t remember something very memorable.

We seldom notice when we do remember something, because it is effortless. All the same, we are easily remembering things all the time – every waking minute. The first step towards a more positive belief is to accept that your memory is good – probably much better than you think.

  • Have you met people who claim poor memory, yet have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of football teams and their players?
  • Is there a certain song which, whenever you hear it, triggers a specific memory, every single time, without fail?
  • Does anybody with a phobia ever forget to respond with fear to the thing they fear?
  • Is there a holiday or trip that is still as fresh in your mind as if it was yesterday?

We would consider all these to be amazing feats of memory if we didn’t find them so easy to do. In fact, of course, they are a natural part of what we do – as natural as breathing.

We all have good memories, so let go of any belief to the contrary. Notice when you remember things, even just your way home. Congratulate yourself, and be grateful for a good memory.

Once we accept that we all have good memories, we can then work on techniques to improve and develop them even further.

Getting old?

Perhaps your excuse – your negative belief – is centred on the notion that as we get older our memory automatically gets worse. Again, this is a belief, not a fact (for more, see Memory and age).