Imagine your learning as a tree…
When you start learning something new, you plant a seed.
And as you learn more about the subject that seed begins to grow.
It develops different branches and stretches higher and higher. Some branches become thick and strong - the foundations of your knowledge.
Others are thin and weak but still growing - these are the things you're still learning.
If the material you’re learning is a tree, then your memory is the fertile ground where you sow the seeds of your learning tree.
Ground you need to nourish and protect so that your seeds can grow into beautiful creative flowers and strong, imposing trees of knowledge.
If you were planting a tree, you wouldn’t plant it in dry, stony land, would you?
And yet, many learners do, without even realising it.
The Problem Is Not Your Memory!
Here’s the thing…
The problem is not your memory!
The problem is that you’re not using your memory effectively and you probably lack a system for memorising the things you need to learn to make the most of your next adventure.
If your memory is letting you down, there’s a big chance you’re contributing to it directly with the way you learn.
The good news…
In this article, you'll learn how to improve your memory so you can remember more of what you learn about the history, culture and language of the places you travel to.
This is article is for you if...
- You struggle to remember the details of what you learn, even after hours of study
- It's easy to remember things in the short-term, but you never seem to be able to make them stick for the long haul
- You’re getting older and you’re worried your memory is getting worse without a solution to save it
No matter what your current situation, you can see big gains in your memory if you focus on working with your brain instead of against it.
That’s what we’re going to do in this post...
How Your Memory Works
The more you know about your memory, the better you’ll understand how you can improve it.
Here’s a simple overview of how the memory works and how it is affected by age and other factors.
There are two major memory systems used by the brain - short-term or working memory and long-term memory.
You use your long-term memory when you search for a piece of information from your childhood or try to recall something you studied back in school or college.
Imagine your long-term memory as being like a big warehouse for storing information you learn throughout your life.
Our goal as learners, is to get the information we want to learn into the long-term memory, so we can draw on and use it on demand, when we need it.
The challenge we face is moving information from our working memories to our long-term "warehouse" memory.
You use your working memory when you’re trying to hold a few ideas in mind so you can use them to help you with a challenge or activity you’re doing now.
It’s generally accepted that the working memory can hold around 4 chunks of information at any one time. So space in your working memory is limited - and extremely valuable!
Any information you want to learn must first go through your working memory. And it gets to your long-term memory warehouse through a process of understanding and repetition over time.
Forgetting & Remembering
Our brains are very good at keeping themselves clean and lean.
This means that the brain regularly removes information and memories it decides are "non-essential". This is why we forget things.
But as you repeat something, the brain begins to take a hint… “Hmm, this keeps coming up so it must be important. I better file it in the long-term memory”.
Likewise, when a memory or piece of information is connected with a particularly strong emotional response, this can also act as a trigger to tell the brain it’s worth remembering.
This is why we often vividly remember important moments from our childhood or accidents which caused us a lot of pain.
Once you understand these basic concepts, you can start to use them to work with your brain rather than against it and feed your brain information in ways that help it move to long-term memory.
By learning about the history or culture of a destination before you go, you sow the seeds for powerful memories and give yourself context for everything you'll learn while on your trip.
Then, as you travel, you'll solidify everything you've learned into your long-term memory by repeating the information on the ground in the context of real sounds, sights, tastes and smells.
The 5 Fundamentals Of Great Memory
Let’s go back to our tree analogy from the beginning of this post…
In order for the seed to grow into a strong tree, there are a few basic factors that need to be right...
- good soil
- access to light
- plenty of water, etc.
The same goes for your brain. In order to grow strong memories, there are certain things you have to get right.
These are not specific techniques to help you memorise new information - we’ll get to that soon 😉 - but unless you get these five fundamentals right first, all the memory techniques in the world will be of limited impact anyway.
Let’s have a look at what they are…
A Good Night's Sleep
The foundation for everything your brain does is regular sleep.
This is the first step in developing a better memory; without good sleep, every other technique mentioned in this article becomes almost useless.
This is because sleep refreshes the brain and allows it to flush away “toxins” which build up throughout your waking hours.
As you've probably noticed on days when you’ve only had 4 or 5 hours of sleep, the brain simply doesn’t function at anywhere near its maximum capacity if you are sleep deprived.
The same goes for memory. If your brain is running at 50% of its ability, your memory will be too.
This will not only make it almost impossible to build strong new memories, it will also make it harder for your to retrieve existing memories from your long-term memory warehouse.
So next time you're tempted to stay at a noisy hotel because it's cheaper, or cut back on sleep to cram more into your itinerary just remember... the resulting loss of sleep comes at a hefty price!
What we eat has an enormous impact on all aspects of our brain function, from how much we remember to our likelihood of developing dementia as we age.
I won't go into too much depth on the best foods for your brain in this article.
You could end up going down a pretty long wormhole when it comes to nutrition and memory, so my advice is to keep it simple…
- Eat good quality, natural food (i.e. fresh meat, vegetables, fruit, etc. instead of stuff that’s “manufactured”)
- Stick to reasonable portion sizes (most restaurant meals are 1.5 - 2 times bigger than they need to be)
- Everything in moderation (you can drink alcohol and enjoy your favourite sugary/fatty treats, just don't go overboard)
Make moderation your mantra and you won’t go too far wrong.
One of the best ways to keep your mind and memory healthy is to exercise regularly.
Author of A Mind For Numbers
"Regular exercise can make a substantive improvement in your memory and learning abilities"
Not only does exercise keep your body physically healthy and fresh, research also suggest that it helps you create new neurons in the brain.
Exercising after a learning session (whether you hit the gym or just go for a short walk) allows you brain to process what you've just learned and sow the seeds for strong long-term memories.
Not the most active person in the world?
You don't need to be a "fitness freak" in order to see the benefits of exercise in your learning. Simply going for a moderate walk or a cycle can make a significant difference if you do it on a daily basis.
Look After Your Mental Health & Avoid Stress
Just as your body can't function properly if you don't look after your physical health, your brain and memory will suffer if you fail to take care of your mental health.
While stress doesn't necessarily have a major impact on your memory in the short-term (which is why cramming for a test sometimes helps you scrape over the line) it has a significant impact on long-term memory.
You'll find it much harder later on to recall things you learned while stressed.
Stress and mental pressure can also lead you to rush your learning which prevents you from developing a deep understanding of the material you're trying to learn.
The result will be an inability to remember much of it later on.
Be A Consistent Learner
One of the most common mistakes people make in learning is lack of consistency.
If you learn something new, then don't review it again for weeks, is it really surprising that it fades from your memory?
The best learners are consistent learners.
Because when you learn consistently you develop a deeper understanding what you're learning and you facilitate long-term memory creation.
You remember more of what you learn when you learn consistently because:
- You review material before it fades from your mind and this repetition strengthens the long-term memory
- It's easier to make connections between the thing you've learned and other knowledge in your brain. These neural connections also strengthen the long-term memory.
- You develop a deeper understanding of what you learn. When it comes to learning things like concepts or systems, understanding is essential.
How To Take Control Of Your Memory
So, now you know how your memory works, why it’s important and some of the fundamental lifestyle factors that can affect your memory ability.
But what about actually trying to memorise stuff? How should you tackle that? Let’s get into it...
The A.R.T. Method
A.R.T. is an acronym created by my good friend Olly Richards of iwillteachyoualanguage.com to describe the process of memorising new words in a foreign language.
(Tip: Using acronyms to help you remember stuff is a ninja memorisation technique!)
As you might imagine, this simple technique will prove incredibly useful for mastering the basics of the local language ahead of your next trip.
But as you’ll see, Olly’s 3-step method can be applied to memorise anything you want...
- Key phrases in a new language
- Important dates from history
- The name of that amazing local dish you tasted on your last adventure
Here’s what the 3 letters of A.R.T. stand for:
Let me break down each part in more detail and give you some examples of how you can use the method.
The first part of memorising anything is to bring focused attention to it.
Chances are you’re probably doing this already when you study…
- Reading about the thing you want to learn
- Watching videos about it
- Learning to understand the concept
The next step is to take your attention a step further.
Come at the material with laser sharp concentration.
You want to really grapple with the material and try to come at it from as many different angles as possible.
- Take notes that help you make connections between different parts of what your learning
- Try to connect the new information with something you already know
- Challenge yourself to solve a problem or question that forces you to really think about what you’ve been learning
Let me give you an example of I applied this process myself when learning about Ancient Egyptian history before a recent trip to Egypt.
Here’s what I did to bring attention to the material I wanted to learn:
- Listened to an audio lecture from The Great Courses programme on the History of Ancient Egypt
- Read the PDF summary of the lecture
- Took notes on the content to try and identify the "key concepts"
As you can see, by the end of this process, I had worked hard at understanding the information!
But that’s just the beginning...
This step is where most learners tend to fail in their learning (myself included!).
When you’re interested in learning something, giving it attention is easy. Making the time to sit down and repeat what you’ve already learned is not so simple.
I think this mainly comes down to motivation.
Once you’ve learned something and understand it, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to sit down and repeat it.
But here’s the thing...
You think you know the material better than you actually do.
This is the illusion of competence.
And unless you actually do the repetition, what you’ve learned will fade from your memory quickly.
If you’re struggling with your memory right now and you’re looking for one thing to takeaway from this article, this is it:
Prioritise repetition in your learning
The best way to repeat what you’ve learned is through recall.
Write down some questions about what you’ve been learning and then go back and see if you can answer them.
I normally use flashcards to do this.
When I finish a learning session, I write down questions about the main things I want to remember and use them to create flashcards on my phone.
Then over the following days, I test myself answering the questions.
This is far more effective way to introduce repetition into your learning than simply re-reading your notes or a chapter or a book.
Last but not least… you need to use what you’ve learned.
In Olly’s original method for learning foreign language vocabulary, this means go out and use the new words you’ve learned in conversations.
But how do you try if you’re learning about something like Moroccan history or Japanese culture?
Think about the what you've learned in the context of what you already know.
As yourself questions about how Moroccan history relates to what you know about the history of Spain, for example. Or analyse some of the key differences between Japanese culture and Western culture.
Many courses or book will include these kinds of questions at the end of chapters to help you.
Don’t skip them!
If you’d like to learn more about Olly’s A.R.T. Method and how you can use it memorise new vocabulary in a foreign language, I’d recommend checking out his Bulletproof Memory programme.
Learn In A Way That Supports Your Memory
My mantra here at Smart Effective Learning is to learn in ways that support your brain instead of fighting against it.
So if we take the A.R.T. method discussed above as the basis for how we memorise new material, what can you do to make sure the way you’re learning supports your brain to move through the three steps - attention, repetition and try?
1. Take Notes That Aid Your Memory
Taking notes is a powerful learning tool… if you do it right.
If you’re simply copying down the words of a lecture or sentences from a book verbatim, your notes won’t do you much good.
But if you take notes that engage with what you’re learning by asking questions and making connections, then note taking becomes a powerful example of the attention you need to start forming strong new memories.
Get Your Repetition Right - Re-Reading vs Recall
By now, you know that repetition is an essential part of getting information into your long-term memory.
But are you doing in away that aids your brain?
One of the most popular ways to review material you’ve already learned is to simply reread it.
I used to do this myself for years.
But research shows that “rereading has inconsistent effects on learning, and the benefits may not be long-lasting”.
Rereading might be easy to do, but it’s not very smart or effective.
“The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher”.
Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is The Way
So cut out the re-reading. I suggest testing yourself instead.
Leave the book closed and test yourself on how much you remember from what you’ve been learning.
This is strategy is undoubtedly more difficult, but it’s definitely more effective.
If you take notes, try to write down questions about the material instead of just answers.
Then when you review, test yourself answer the questions without looking at answer first.
Most likely, simply getting this “repetition” part of the process right will solve 90% of your memory challenges.
Use A Spaced Repetition App
If you’ve been paying attention up until now you’ll have realised that repetition is pretty important for your memory!
The big challenge is to have a system for repeating what you’ve learned so that you’re…
Repeating stuff frequently
Spending most of your time on the things you find most difficult
One of the best (and easiest) ways to overcome this problem in your learning is to use a spaced repetition app on your phone or computer.
Personally, I recommend Anki.
The big benefit of using an app like Anki is that it means you don’t have to spend hours organising all of your learning.
Simply create some flashcards as you learn, then open the app and review your flashcards later on.
The app will make sure you get tested on the most difficult stuff regularly and will even remind you when it’s time to review.
Personally, I like to write up a short list of key questions at the end of every learning session and add them to Anki as flashcards
Then over the following days and weeks I’ll test myself on these questions using the Anki app on my phone.
It’s a simple step to add to my learning but it helps make sure I get the repetition I need to reliably move what I’m learning into my long-term memory.
How To Improve Your Memory With Advanced Memory Techniques
Still struggling to memorise something you need to learn?
It happens to us all. There’s almost always something that just won’t stick!
The advanced learning techniques I show you here are perfect solution. You might not need them all that often, but when you do...
These techniques are extremely powerful and will allow you to memorise pretty much anything in a matter of minutes!
Let’s take a look...
- Encourage creativity
- Highly effective
You’re probably already using mnemonics in your learning to some degree or another, even if you don’t realise it.
A mnemonic is a pattern, idea or association that you use to help you remember something.
There are two basic types of mnemonics that we can use in your learning.
- Word Associations
- Mnemonic images
Mnemonics work because the brain remembers things much more effectively when you bring attention to them and connect them with images and existing knowledge.
“As bad as we are at remembering names and phone numbers and word-for-word instructions from our colleagues, we have really exceptional visual and spatial memories.”
Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
In a nutshell, this means that if you can create a wacky image for a word you want to learn or if you can connect it with a piece of information you already know, you’re far more likely to remember it.
Let’s take a look at an example…
Imagine you’re learning French for your next trip and you wanted to memorise the word for “Cheers!”, which is santé !
(It'll come in pretty hand when you sit down for a glass of vin rouge with your new French amis!)
On its own, the word santé isn’t particularly easy to remember…
So you might create mnemonic image to help you remember it, like this one.
To me, santé sounds a little bit like “santa” so I decided to use an image of Santa to remember the word.
And since santé means “cheers!”, I imagined Santa and Rudolph kicking back with a couple of beers to help me remember the meaning.
All of a sudden this random French word becomes pretty easy to remember!
Mnemonic images like this can take time to create, so using mnemonics for everything you learn is not really feasible.
But when you come across something that just won’t stick, creating a vivid mnemonic image like this one is a great way to get it into your long-term memory.
- Encourages creativity
- Highly effective
Memory Palaces are the next step up from mnemonics.
Where mnemonics take advantage of the strength of our visual memories, memory palaces use the power of your spatial memory.
Have you ever noticed that it’s quite easy to remember the layout of buildings you been in?
Think about it now and try to remember the layout of a friend’s home now. You’ll see what I mean.
The brain is really good at remembering spatial information!
The memory palace technique uses this spatial memory and combines it with the visual memory techniques we saw a few minutes.
When you "store" a powerful visual image in a place you know like the back of your hand, it's a piece of cake to remember it later.
The result is a kind of “ultimate” memory technique which you can use to remember pretty much anything.
Here’s how to create a memory palace...
How To Create A Memory Palace
1) Think Of Place You Know Well
Think of a place you know well; for example, your living room. Picture it in your mind and see if you can imagine yourself walking through it. Notice each of the different "things" or pieces of furniture in the room.
2) Draw A Rough Map Of The Place
Take a minute to sketch out that place on a piece of paper, as I’ve done below:
3) Add More Detail To Your Map
Add the "key locations" from your room to the map. These can be pieces of furniture, the television, a coffee table, etc. We're going to use these items in your memory palace as "stops". At each stop, you'll store a “memory”. Number the stops so you have a set order for moving through them.
4) Create Your First Memory
Now let's start storing some memories! Imagine stop 1 from your map. In my example, it’s the television. Now create a mnemonic image to remember the first thing you want to learn and imagine it happening at stop 1 in your memory palace.
5) Fill Your Palace With Memories
Next imagining yourself walking through your memory palace and pause at each stop to add a new memory. Do this until all of the stops in your memory palace are full or until you've stored all of the things you want to memorise.
When you’re finished setting up the memory palace, you can review your mnemonics any time by imagining yourself walking through your memory palace and stopping at each stop.
Over time, you’ll find that the crazy images start to fall away and you can simply remember the thing you were learning.
This approach is great if you want to learn key phrases in the local language or memorise the names or dates of important historical events.
When To Use Mnemonics & Memory Palaces In Your Learning
Mnemonics and memory palaces are extremely powerful tools for learning. If there’s a piece of information you absolutely have to memorise, they’re your best bet.
But they’re also quite time consuming to create and maintain. And for most of the things you’re learning, I’d argue that they just won’t be necessary!
How To Use Your Memory To Maximise Your Learning - My Advice
My advice to is to learn the memory palace technique so you can use it when you're really stuck or really need to memorise something perfectly...
(It won't let you down!)
But stick to the fundamentals of good memory and the A.R.T. technique for your day to day learning.
As you’ve seen from reading this post, there’s a lot to cover when it comes to improving your memory!
And we’ve barely scratched the surface!
But as readers of SEL will know, I’m a big fan of a less is more approach when it comes to learning and memory is no different.
Don’t try and develop a fancy system with hundreds of moving parts.
Instead focus on creating a simple but effective way to make sure that the way you learn aids your ability to memorise what you're learning.
For me, this means…
- Taking notes that aid my memory in order to bring attention to what I’m learning.
- Adding questions about what I learn to the Anki app so I can repeat the material until it’s in my long-term memory
- Taking care of my health and nutrition so that I’m not negatively affecting my ability to learn and remember
That’s it! I keep it simple.
Every now and again when I encounter something that is particularly challenging, I’ll use one of the advanced memory techniques mentioned in this post.
Forgetting is normal!
It's literally something your brain is programmed to do.
So don’t stress out if you can’t remember everything you learn.
Take it for what it is...
A sign that you just need a little more repetition.
Keep going and your brain will thank you for it!
Resources Related To This Article
The Anti-Tourist Club
The Anti-Tourist Club is a training and support centre for curious adventurers who want to do travel differently.
It is where anti-tourists like you and I come together with a common mission:
To put learning at the heart of our adventures and unlock the kinds of meaningful travel experiences most tourists never have.
The Great Courses Plus
When it comes to learning about the history & culture of your next destination, nothing beats the Great Courses Plus! This Netflix-style subscription service has hundreds of fantastic courses on history, culture, religion & travel taught by renowned university professors who really know their stuff.
A Mind For Numbers
Want to develop a better understanding of how you learn? Barbara Oakley's excellent book 'A Mind For Numbers' helps you to understand how we learn and remember new information, particularly when studying maths or science. This is a must-read for anyone who loves learning!
Are you trying to learn the basics of a new language before your next trip but struggling to remember all those new words? If so, Bulletproof Memory is exactly what you need. This course teaches you how to use the A.R.T. memory method to master your memory and learn new words and expressions in a foreign language.
Moonwalking with Einstein
This entertaining book recounts the authors year-long journey to improve his memory by learning from some of the world's top "mental athletes" - people who compete at memory! In the book, you'll read see the memory palace technique mentioned in this article used to achieve some incredible feats of memory.
What are your 3 big takeaways from this article? Leave a comment below and let me know!
Ryan Holiday image from wikipedia.org
"Joshua Foer" by Christopher Michel on Flickr, Creative Commons
Santé mnemonic, source: Memrise.com