I had a very enlightening conversation with Tansel Ali, a memory expert and the author of The Yellow Elephant: Improve Your Memory and Learn More, Faster, Better, on the impact of memory on stress management.
We touched upon the relationship between stress and memory, and how they work hand in hand. What impact does stress have on our memory? A lot of people think that memorization is about learning by repeating things over and over. But this is actually very stressful, and people don’t know any other way. This is where memory techniques come into play.
Using storytelling to improve your memory
Essentially, memory techniques are a form of storytelling. For example, if someone tries to remember the name Tansel, they could use “tinsel” and imagine tinsel wrapped around his head. They have come up with an image and made a little story behind this visual. Such imagery is going to stick with them. Someone might remember my name by associating “Barbara” with “barbed wire”. So these visual placeholders serve as triggers to improve your memory. Memory techniques work by connecting memory triggers to stories. But how exactly does that relate to stress?
When we are stressed, we tend to lose focus due to anxiety and nervousness. Memory techniques can change this. We attach stories to our memories. So naturally, we attach stressful stories to bad memories. By using the right techniques, however, we can change that story. All we have to do is try and make the story weaker. While we’re doing this, we have to connect another story to our memories which is more positive and future-focused. So we can replace negative stories with positive ones with the appropriate memory techniques. We can use memory techniques to forget things.
Repainting bad memories
When someone suffers from PTSD, they attach very negative stories to visual triggers. Memory techniques can be used to weaken the connection between triggers and the story. Tansel came up with a great example to illustrate this.
Let us say that you break your arm. You remember the activity that caused the fracture, pain and discomfort. Naturally, you will associate a negative story with that activity. You can use memory techniques to weaken this story. What you can do is visualise everything in the colour grey. Gradually, you visualise the image smaller and smaller. Eventually, your visual memory of the activity will be really small and grey. What happens over time is that small grey image kind of becomes like nothing. So it feels almost irrelevant. This makes the visual triggers associated with the story weaker.
Then, figure out what your priorities are. This could be work, life or anything else. Now whenever you think of this, visualise it vibrantly and in colour. So you’re doing the opposite of what you did with the negative trigger. You’ll find that your mind just completely shifts. As a result, your actions and thoughts also change. With the right amount of practice, not only do you improve your memory, but you can also turn negative stories into positive ones.
The Memory Palace
The method of loci, or as it is popularly known now as The Memory Palace, is a mental strategy that boosts your memory. In this method, you are on a route from one spot to another. Along this route, you have items to remember. For example, you are at your house. Your first location starts at the front of the house, and you go all the way to the back while connecting items to this route. So you will start at your front fence. This is the starting point of your route. The second location is your front door. You open your front door, and the third location could be your couch. It’s all about identifying locations on the route that you choose. Make sure that the locations you choose are in order as well. You can have an unlimited amount of locations on your route. Tansel has about 60 locations at his home. Create your route with whatever works best for you.
Once you have the locations on your route, memorize items to attach to these locations. Let us say that you have to give a talk to an audience. Go back to your memory palace, and create stories around the talk to attach to locations on your route. For example, you could imagine that you are talking to your fence, or shaking its hand. The crazier the stories are, the easier they are to imagine. So by attaching this visual story to your front fence, you attach the talk to your first location in your memory palace.
If you’re looking to use this technique to improve your memory, imagination is the key. Allow yourself to attach crazy and graphic stories to locations on your memory palace. Associate the thing you need to remember to these stories. Having an out of the ordinary shock factor to the stories you create goes a long way in reinforcing memory. Generic stories are going to be very hard to remember.
All you’re doing is associating key items to remember on to the locations on your memory palace. When you want to remember them, you go back to those locations and recall the stories you have associated with them. Locations will trigger the actual items you need to remember. This system works like folders on a computer. You know which files are situated in which folders. It’s the same concept, except in routes that you create in your brain.
According to Tansel, the memory palace is a much more reliable memory technique than trying to create a story with all the things you need to remember. If you forget the third or fourth link in your story, you won’t remember the rest of it. On the other hand, in a memory palace, you can attach 2 items to one location. So even if you forget the stories at location 8, you will still remember the items attached to locations 9, 10 or 11. He believes that the more you do this, the better you get. He has seen that using a memory palace over the years has made him better at problem-solving and decision making.
I read an article recently, and I was interested in getting Tansel’s thoughts on it. The article talked about the stress that we have when we are forgetful in terms of everyday things. For example, when you park your car somewhere and you can’t remember where you parked it in a massive parking lot. The article says that we are not being mindful and observing things. We are not using enough visual cues and stories to remember where we were or how we got there. We are not retaining the information that serves us later on.
Tansel agreed to this. He believes that memory is an exercise in mindfulness. Being more aware of your surroundings and observant will help you turn on the ability to use memory techniques. According to research, we check our phones every 7 minutes. The time that we check our phones is taking away our ability to be mindful. When boredom kicks in, people try to get away from it. We don’t want to be bored, so we end up distracting ourselves. These distractions are becoming more and more automated and less mindful. We have to change that. A person could know all the techniques that help improve your memory, but it won’t work well if the person is not mindful and observant.
Don’t be burdened by memory
You don’t have to remember everything. Use tools to remember things and free up some brain space for more important things. Use tools like your phone to set reminders for things like bills, doctors appointments, etc. Save memory power for more important things. I asked Tansel what he thought about this
Tansel thinks that you only need to worry about certain things at certain times. It’s about utilizing skills that work best for each individual. He says that even though you can spend a lot of time trying to remember everything, he always tells people that memorisation is the last thing a person should do. He doesn’t use the memory palace every day, but it is useful in specific situations like memorizing a book. There are other skills that are just as good as memory techniques.
It all comes down to what you are trying to do, how full is your brain and your energy management – that’s how Tansel sees it. How does memory fit in your daily life and how can you make the most out of it? As a matter of fact, some memory techniques can also be counterproductive if not utilised properly. In an attempt to improve your memory, overusing memory techniques can be counterproductive. He thinks that it’s okay to relax your mind and not have a hundred thoughts racing through it. Don’t be burdened by the memories you’re trying to carry.
Memory goes beyond the surface
Tansel believes that issues are never surface level; there is always something happening beneath the surface that we have to identify. As a coach, you want to help people at the root level, and not just provide surface solutions. Someone once approached him to help improve their memory to pass an exam. As he dug deeper, Tansel realised that this person was not getting enough sleep. If someone is not sleeping well, it is going to affect a lot of areas. He prescribed a sleeping plan to the person, and soon his memory showed signs of improvement.
Similarly, someone else came to Tansel with trouble remembering names. Tansel realised that he was struggling with confidence. This just goes to show that memory problems are not always straightforward. They are not always caused due to issues in the brain. Sometimes, lifestyle and behavioural factors can also play a deeper role in memory. For example, hydration can play an important role in memory. If you eat and drink right, you will find that it can greatly improve your memory.
Tips for memory
Tansel started working with memory back in 2002. His journey started with a simple Google search. Multiple gold medals and TV appearances later, Tansel still believes that you can find a plethora of memory techniques and information online. Go online and search for memory techniques. Tansel himself has many videos and articles on how to improve and reinforce memory. But most importantly, practice the techniques that you learn. Just learning them is not enough. The more you practice the more you will fail – but you can fix that failure next time. If you persist for long enough, you will see an absolute difference in your memory.
Convert things you need to learn into stories. Attach specific words or particulars to parts of the story. Connect what you need to memorise to your story. If you have to learn something that is six pages long, turn your story into six parts. Connecting words to things you want to remember can also go a long way to help improve your memory.
- Be mindful
- Create a memory palace
- Practice memory techniques frequently
- Cram your mind with too many things to remember
- Be a passive learner. Apply what you learn.
- Use counterproductive memory techniques
Listen to the Podcast here
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