How's Your Memory?
Have trouble remembering things? Can’t recall people’s names? Get lost following directions? Here’s expert advice on improving the memory
ALBERT EDWARD WIGGAM
WHAT was that fellow’s name I met last week at the Oil Burners’ Convention? I was positive I would remember it, but I’ve been trying for 10 solid minutes and can’t quite get it. Gosh, 1 must be getting old! Why, I can remember just how he looked. He had on a plaid suit and red necktie, and had a goatee. I can even hear his voice. Seems strange I would remember all those things perfectly and not remember his name. Oh! Now I have it! B-r—, must have been Brown; no, B-u—Burns. The deuce! Maybe it Was Bowman. I’m sure it began with a B. Yes, must be old age!”
Now isn’t that what you go through half a dozen times every day, trying to remember somebody’s name or phone number, or some fact you read in yesterday’s paper, or when you get to the grocery and can’t remember what your wife told you to get for Sunday dinner? Billions of people have been going through these mental antics from the beginning of time without realizing the harder they try to remember a thing the more likely they are to forget it! Y ou tug away, trying to recall things as though you thought your memory had some muscles attached to it and if you
could only “concentrate” and pull hard enough you could drag them out.
Well, your mind just isn’t built that way. It has no muscles by which you can either push things in or pull them out. Thus is peculiarly true of the memory.
You will understand this better if I tell you a story. Some 15 years ago an eminent psychologist, Dr. Knight Dunlap, had to drive frequently from his laboratory in Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore to Washington. He was Head of the Department of Psychology at Johns Hopkins, a member of the National Research Council, and is today one of America’s most renowned psychologists.
In making these drives Dr. Dunlap was puzzled by the fact that there was one town on the wTay the name of which he could never remember until he came in sight of it and saw the name. This seemed queer, as he had no difficulty in remembering all the other towns. One day it occurred to him that maybe his efforts to remember it were the very things that were making him forget it. He pursued this thought and decided that if trying to remember it made him forget it, maybe if he would try to forget it he would remem-
ber it! So every time the wish struck him to recall the name of this town he tried to forget it. To his amazement, after a few efforts to forget it, the name suddenly floated into his memory as clear as day.
This was the beginning of 15 years of experiments, not only on curing the bad habits of memory but of curing all sorts of other bad habits by “practicing them to excess.” No indulging in them but practicing them.
Suppose you were the man at the Oil Burners’ Convention and wanted to remember the name of the man you had met. You can’t recall his name but you do remember he had on a plaid suit, red necktie, and wore a goatee. You are surprised that remembering these things do not help you recall the man’s name. Why don’t they help? Because, as Dr. Dunlap has shown, those are the very things that get in the way in your mind and prevent your remembering his name. When you met the man you did not tie the name “Brown” with the plaid suit, red necktie or goatee. Therefore when you think of these things they throw your mind clear off the track to his name—they block off the thing you want to remember.
Tie Them Together
NOW since this haphazard method you have always used prevents you from remembering people’s names, how are you going to make these extra items a help instead of a hindrance? Why, you must tie them together at the beginning, so that one will recall the other instead of acting as a brake. When you meet Brown or Jones or Williams you must immediately tie up a lot of things with each one’s name—his clothes, manners, the wart on his nose, and the like. If you have a chance to talk a minute or two with him you should repeat his name frequently, and each time link the name with his manners and appearance. This is vital for improving your memory, because it is the most fundamental law of the mind that facts, thoughts, ideas and incidents that were once tied together have a powerful tendency to remain together. Then if you can remember any one it will drag the whole lot, like a net filled with fish, to the surface.
If this were not true you could never learn or remember anything. You would be like Prof. Atlee’s cockroaches. At the University of Chicago he taught cockroaches to do certain stunts, but the next day they had forgotten all their lessons and had to learn the same thing over again. They were able to learn only one stunt, and could not learn any other stunts to tie in with it. So they could not even get a start when they wanted to remember what they had previously learned.
All these facts show that you must first learn a thing, and if possible learn other things that tie in with it, or you can never remember it by any method. When Grandma says, “I can’t remember where I laid my spectacles,” she is, nine times out of ten, talking through her bonnet. She can’t remember because she never knew where she put them. You can’t get something out of your head that was never in it. A lot of times when you say you can’t remember such a thing as highway directions, you are talking nonsense. You did not pay sufficient attention to learn what the gas station attendant told you. Therefore, if you wish to improve your memory, you must first learn the things you wish to remember. You must also learn as many things as you can directly related to them so that any one of them will recall all the others.
Going on, then, with Dr. Dunlap’s method: his experiments show that if you have really learned a thing and wish to recall it but it does not come readily, your best bet is to try to forget it. Make a deliberate effort to forget it and not just let it pass out by itself. This is because the effort to forget prevents any obstructions from getting in the way. If any outside things that were not originally tied with it barge in, nothing but the most violent effort will enable your mind to jump over or past them and grasp the thing you wish to recall. You must clear the track and keep it clear.
Sometimes you have to recall a thing quickly, and
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How’s Your Memory?
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by a violent effort succeed. Even so, you will find it harder the next time you want to recall it. This is because your first efforts have piled a lot of obstructions on the track, so that you may actually be unable to surmount them or to get around them. I had just this experience with the name of Fannie Brice, the radio entertainer. Years ago I wished to recall her name, and as it did not come readily I tried hard to recall it. On several later occasions, when I wished to recall her name, I found that no matter how hard I tried I could not get it. I could remember how she looked, her voice, dress and manner, yet her name escaped me. I finally got so the only way I could get her name was to go to my little black book and look it up. Even then I had to skim through the whole book, for I could not remember under what letter it was listed. But now, since I have used “negative practice,” I will hand you her name at the drop of a hat, day or night.
If you once get the trick of this forgetting method, provided always you once thoroughly learn a thing you want to recall, you will be amazed and gratified that you can recall names, dates and facts that you’ve tried in vain for years to remember. Your very efforts to remember them have buried them under a pile of debris. If a thing does not come readily you should whistle a tune, look out the window, make a telephone call, or do something so you will forget it. Later on make another little dive, but if it doesn’t come, start your forgetter to work instantly. Once you get the habit you will find your forgetter has developed a self-starter, and works almost automatically to help you remember.
Interest Is the First Law
The first law of memory is interest.
It makes no difference what method you use to recall things, you must first learn them. And the first law of learning, as well as of memory, Is INTEREST. You can learn anything if you are sufficiently interested in it; and the more deeply interested you are the more readily you remember what you learn.
A friend of mine often assures me he has a poor memory. Yet he can reel off baseball scores and the names and records of players until I am dizzy-headed. Why? Because he is interested in baseball—talks baseball, reads, thinks, eats and sleeps baseball. Another friend claims he can’t remember his own name, yet he can remember the names, pedigrees and records of nearly every race horse in the world. When you sit in the grandstand at the races probably three fourths of the people around you would claim they had poor memories, yet they remember the record of every horse on the program.
Apply this to yourself and your children. Possibly your eight-year-old son claims he can’t remember his history lessons; yet he can tell you about his summer camp in the most amazing detail. When your 15-year-old daughter tells you she can’t learn or remember mathematics, she is kidding both herself and you. She has either poor teachers or (begging your pardon) poor parents who have never aroused her interest in mathematics. I’ll warrant she can reel off the basketball record of her school for years back.
The second law of memory is SELECTION.
It is a fact that if you did not forget almost everything you would not remember anything. Billions of im-
pressions flow into your mind and memory every hour, through your eyes ears and nose. Unless you selected from them all a few impressions, the world would be confusion and chaos. If you are to build up a strong, useful memory you must give up the notion of remembering everything, and select rigidly the field or fields which you wish to remember. You must decide whether to be a doctor, lawyer, farmer, mechanic, an expert in history, languages, period furniture, or something, or else always honestly believe you have a poor memory.
Organizing the Memory
The third law of memory is ORGANIZATION.
Organization almost outranks the others in importance. You must organize your knowledge around some central theme that leads to a worthwhile goal.
Nothing has ever brought this out more dramatically—even comically— than a survey of students in eastern U. S. colleges made some years ago by the Carnegie Foundation. The aim was to find out what is in the average college student’s head—if anything. To their amazement they found it quite possible for a student to go through college and be more ignorant in every major field of human learning when he got through than when he started in! The astounding fact was revealed that one third of the Freshmen knew more than half the Seniors! Putting it the other way, half the Seniors knew less than the top third of the Freshmen!
You ask, how could such a thing be possible? Investigation revealed it was not necessarily because the students had not tried to learn, or that the professors had not tried to teach. It was because the whole course was organized or rather unorganized so that both learning and remembering were well-nigh impossible. The courses were made up of separate units wholly unrelated to each other. For example, the poor boy may have made a good grade in Unit No. 1, but he was not compelled to use his knowledge of No. 1 to learn No. 2. And he was not compelled to use Nos. 1 and 2 to learn No. 3, and so on.
As a result the student soon got to the place where he was forgetting at one end of the process as fast or faster than he was learning at the other. The knowledge was leading out of the bottom of his head faster than the professors could pour it in at the top! It was one of the most astounding revelations in the whole history of education, and has led to a lot of reforms.
The prime point here, however, is that the student’s knowledge was nqf organized. The student soon lost INTEREST because he could not see he was getting anywhere. He had nothing to work for, except just enough marks to get by. Second, he was not SELECTING anything which he especially wished to remember. He was a mere browser, and a browser never gets anywhere. Third, his knowledge was not ORGANIZED around any central theme leading to some great goal in life. A doctor, editor, lawyer, farmer, banker, grocer or truck driver -each learns a vast body of fact» and has them at the finger tips of his memory because they are his goal; they have become his “life work.” It is only all three laws working together —INTEREST, SELECTION and ORGANIZATION—that give you the knowledge and memory that become power; in fact, give you a strong mind and a strong memory.
Of course, some people have better memories than others. This is because
gome havo better minds. We often hear of a moron who has a remarkable memory. I know one who can tell you almost instantly all the timetables of all the trains and buses to reach any place in the United States and Canada. But he doesn’t know anything else. It is just one tiny speck in his brain that is marvellously developed for retaining what is really just a tiny speck of knowledge. A good, all-round memory is a sure sign of a good, all-round mind. It is comical how almost everyone admits he has a poor memory, yet he would be insulted if you should say, “That proves you have a poor mind.”
Tricks of Remembering
Everyone knows he can learn and enormously improve his mind. This means he can enormously improve his memory. They go together. Aside from the three great laws I have outlined, there are many neat little mental tricks that help you remember the things you want to remember. The advertised “memory systems” do not increase your real memory power, but some of their little tricks are fine for improving your memory in the directions you desire.
Suppose you want to remember people’s names better. You must first be sure you understand the name. Second, you must instantly associate three or four facts about his appearance or manner with his name. If his name is Smith and he is a brunette, you might say to yourself, “you have met a blacksmith.” If you meet a blond woman you might say to yourself, “She is all gold.” Most any little association of this kind will help. You can easily apply and extend this method for yourself.
An even more important thing, if you have a chance to talk with the person, is to repeat the name as often as possible, in some such way as the following: “Nice weather we’re having, Mr. Smith”; “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mr. Smith,” etc. These examples will give you the idea. You must practice on them, however, until they come a habit.
Suppose you want to remember funny stories. You often hear an entertainer relate a string of stories, and when you get home cannot tell your wife a single one. Why? Because you have no plan for remembering. I can tell you my plan. Before the people are through laughing I picture the main incident or person in the story as a portrait hanging on the wall to the right of the speaker. If it be an Irish, Jewish or Scottish story I picture one of these characters as a portrait on the wall. If the next story be about a washerwoman I see her portrait, and so on around the room. Sometimes I put them all on a big window, and carry home a whole windowful of pictures in my mind. The advantage of picturing the ideas you want to remember is that we recall pictures better than anything other than actual scenes.
Far remembering what your wife told you to get at the store, or for not forgetting your packages on the bus or train, the best method is: count the packages frequently and recall the number of things you were to purchase. If your wife told you to buy carrots, lettuce and sugar at the grocery, a box of carpet tacks at the hardware store, and aspirin at the drugstore, you should say to yourself, “Five articles, three places.” If you repeat this two or three times you will rarely have to be sent back for the missing article.
The main thing about all memory tricks is they should be as simple as possible. Some of the “systems” are harder to remember than the objects themselves you wish to remember.
This is illustrated by the story of the drunken man who went to the drugstore, and the following conversation ensued:
“Say, mishur, wot you gotta sell in your store?”
“Why, lots of things. What do you want?”
“Well, mishur, could you jus’ name over ev’thing you got?”
“No. That would take a week.” “Well, mishur, could you tell me the names of the Great Lakes?”
“Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie—”
“Thas it! Thas it! Now what was the feller’s name that had a battle on Lake Erie, and said, ‘We’ve met the enemy and they’re ours’? ” “Commodore Perry.”
“Th-a-s it! My wife told me to get a dime’s worth of paregoric!”
How to Review
The final thing for improving your memory Ls the HABIT OF REVIEW, and the sooner this is done the better. A German psychologist many years ago showed we forget over half of a poem or anything we have learned just well enough to repeat it without making a mistake, within the first half hour. Only two thirds are forgotten at the end of eight hours, and but four fifths at the end of a month. You often read something in the evening paper and say, “I must review that in the morning.” If you review it before you go to bed you will be able to tell more of it to your office associates next day than if you spent two or three times as long reviewing it the following morning. If you wait longer than 24 hours you might about as well wait two weeks. Therefore make this a habit: Review immediately, a short review a day later, and a glance a week later. Try it, and you will rarely forget any important book, poem, editorial, conversation, or business document you have really become interested in.
One final thing to remember—I know you won’t forget this if you are past 50—is that your memory and mental power do not decrease with age. You lay your poor memory to your age. That is not true. Your total memory power is just as great at 80 as at 25. What is it, then, that has happened? It merely takes you longer to learn what you wish to remember. Psychologist Irving Lorge of Columbia has shown that although you decline slowly in speed of learning after about age 30 yet your intelligence, your real mental power, does not decline at all. He has shown that people up to 90 make just as high scores on intelligence tests as people of 20 and 25, if you give them more time. As psychologist Samuel W. Fernberger of Penn State College says, as we grow older we must “overlearn” what we wish to remember. Give yourself a little more time. Review a little oftener and more thoroughly, and you will learn just as much, think just as deeply and fruitfully, work out just as hard problems and remember what you learn just as well at one time of life as at another.
For those of us past the middle years I think this is the happiest discovery in all psychology. It gives me a new confidence in myself, a stimulating feeling of usefulness, a pride in continued achievement and a complete freedom from the fear that I am no longer needed in the world. In fact it gives me the definite knowledge, based not upon sentiment but upon the secure experiments of science, that I am as good a man as I ever was, and it is my own fault if I do not constantly improve my intelligence and my memory, and “Every day, in every way, get better and better.” And what is true of me is also true of you.