By Murray West, M.Ed. & Jordan Grafman, Ph.D.
Cognitive Neuroscience Section
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Memory strategies are known to everyone who has ever learned the alphabet, a poem, or prepared for a test in school. By refreshing one’s use of common memory strategies older adults can work wonders in offsetting normal age-associated memory skill loss. These memory skill strategies, discussed here in greater detail, include:
1. Pay Attention
Sometimes the reaction to a frustrating search for your glasses is – “There I go again, my memory is slipping.” Your memory ability may be just fine. The problem maybe not paying attention. The simple step of developing a habit of actively paying attention can save much frustration.
Example: Perhaps you have had to search for your car keys, been in doubt as to whether or not you took your morning medication correctly, or found yourself in a room wondering what you came searching for?
Memory exercise: Pay attention – stop – look – listen. It takes no more than a second to say, “I am putting the keys in my jacket pocket.”
2. Rehearse – Repeat
The information must be rehearsed to be placed properly in long-term memory.
Example: You are in the shower and get an idea you wish to discuss with your spouse. You can’t make a note, and you don’t want that great new idea to slip away. What to do?
Memory exercise: You must rehearse ( repeat to yourself) your idea to talk to your spouse. You may forget if you used shampoo and a conditioner, but you’ll remember your new idea.
This is a rehearsal strategy.
Most people can remember shortlists, such as in a phone number if they group – or chunk – the list items.
Example: Chunking to remembering a ten-digit phone number.
Memory exercise: Chunking will aid working memory. A 10-digit number 3013661755 can be remembered easily as 301 366 1755. Three (3) chunks not ten (10).
4. Use Cues
Two strategies can be used here. Visual elaboration is simply creating a mental snapshot to help enhance memory.
Example: You are away from home and think of a phone call you should make when you return home.
Memory exercise: In addition to rehearsal, to remember to make the call when you return home you create a visual image. The visual image should be associated with a very familiar object. You may visualize a telephone hanging on your front door. The result, when you return home, the sight of your front door reminds you of the telephone and the need to make the call.
The other option is a verbal elaboration, which is a simple and effective memory exercise for conceptual and abstract information. A reminder of some of the verbal elaborations you have been using throughout your life includes Acronyms, word associations, and rhymes.
- H.O.M.E.S. (homes) – Remember the great lakes? Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior
- IRS and PTA. Do you need to be reminded?
- SPRING FORWARD, FALL BACK – Reset your clock twice a year.
- RIGHTY TIGHTY – LEFTY LOOSEY – How to tighten and/or loosen jar lids.
- THIRTY DAYS HAS SEPTEMBER – rhymes work.
Example of verbal elaboration: You want a simple way to remember your PIN (personal identification number) for your bank card, your credit card, and your telephone credit card.
You are advised to keep that number in a safe and secret place. The best place is in your memory.
Memory exercise: Change the numbers into letters that correspond to their location on a telephone or ATM (automatic teller machine) keypad, e.g., ABCD = 2223. You can use any four-letter name or word; John = 5646 and blue = 2583
5. Get Organized
Once you have fixed locations for all medications, important phone numbers, valuable papers, useful tools, and keys, wallets, and glasses you will minimize the frustrating searches for a misplaced item.
Example: Proper organization for placement and use of medications requires careful thought. Individuals often take medications for different needs, at different times, in different locations.
Memory exercise: List your medication needs by time and place to be taken. Medications are taken before, with, or after meals are usually stored in the kitchen. You must also plan for times you do not eat at home. Other medications, for example, eye drops, lotions, and ointments located in other places in your home must be organized as well.
6. Mind Your P Q R S T
P Q R S T is a five-step memory and learning exercise designed to organize text material written with too much “fine print.” Examples include using an ATM, programming a VCR, reading a new insurance policy, or understanding the regulations of your IRA, the new Roth IRA account, or a pension fund.
“P” refers to a preview, to skim the text to identify the main points.
“Q” suggests that you create questions that identify the essential points you want to learn.
“R” indicates rereading the material to be able to answer your previously generated questions.
“S” requires that you study and understand the answers to the questions raised concerning the central ideas.
“T” Test yourself to be sure you understand the answers.
Example: You want to program your new VCR even though the directions, at first glance, look complex and written in a foreign language.
Memory exercise: Use P Q R S T.
Reread and study the instructions until you feel you can perform the task. Test yourself by taping a program. Eureka, it is simple.
7. Increase Your Use of External Aids
Everyone uses external aids, but are they used to full benefit? Probably not. Who has not said, “I forgot to make a note?” We suggest you keep all emergency and prospective information as visible as you can. Use: Appointment books, memo pads, clock radios, timers, take-away spots – (near the door, in the hall, on the refrigerator). As well as symbolic reminders – some version of the string around your finger. Use your imagination and invent some new external memory aids.
Example: You forgot to keep your dental appointment. Because of your busy schedule, you forgot to refer to your appointment calendar
Memory exercise: Though you use external aids, you must keep them in inappropriate and easily accessible places.
For further reading and suggestions about improving memory skills we suggest:
- Baddeley, A. (1976) The Psychology of Memory. New York: Basic Books.
- Herrmann, D.J. (1990c) Super Memory. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
- Gordon B. (1995) Memory. New York: Master Media
- Higbee, K. L. (1988) Your Memory. (2nd. edition). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
- Lorayne, H., & Lucas, J. (1974) The Memory Book. New York: Stein and Day.
- West, R. (1985) Memory Fitness Over Forty. Gainesville, Fla.: Triad
Published by the National Institutes of Health by the Cognitive Neuroscience Section, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke April 16, 1998.
John Bassett is an urologist in California. He received his medical degree from Keck School of Medicine of USC