everyday strategies

Gesturing to improve memory, language & thought

I recently reported on a study showing how the gestures people made in describing how they solved a problem (the Tower of Hanoi) changed the way they remembered the game. These findings add to other research demonstrating that gestures make thought concrete and can help us understand and remember abstract concepts better.

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Singing For Memory

Song is a wonderful way to remember information, although some songs are better than others. Songs that help you remember need to have simple tunes, with a lot of repetition -- although a more complex tune can be used if it is very familiar. Most importantly, the words should be closely tied to the tune, so that it provides information about the text, such as line and syllable length. You can read more about this in my article on Music as a mnemonic aid, but here I simply want to mention a few specific songs designed for teaching facts.

I was always impressed by Flanders & Swann’s song describing the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, and Tom Lehrer’s song of the Periodic Table.

The Thermodynamics song, I think, is much easier to remember than the Periodic Table, but the latter is an interesting demonstration of how much you can improve memorability simply by setting the information to music.

You can find some more “science songs” at http://www.haverford.edu/physics-astro/songs/links.html (this is actually designed for instruction: you can hear some of the songs, there are associated lesson plans, etc).

Drug Discovery Today also has an article recounting the lyrics for various songs, by scientists, celebrating various science subjects, which you can read at www.mnstate.edu/malott/Molecular04/SingaSongofScience.pdf (it's in pdf format).

Songs are in fact such a popular means of learning science facts that in the U.S. there is a Science Songwriters' Association!

Songs are also a great way to learn poems or prose texts. Many well-known texts have been put to music (for example, The Lied and Art Song Texts site has 87 listed for Shakespeare), or you can of course (bearing in mind the need to find a melody that "fits" the text) match texts to music yourself.

Part of this article originally appeared in the August 2004 newsletter.

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Rhyme & rhythm

As we all know, rhyme and rhythm help make information more memorable. Here's a few ideas that may help you use them more effectively.

Rhythm and rhyme are of course quite separate things, and are processed in different regions of the brain. However, they do share some commonalities in why and how they benefit memory. Rhyme and rhythm impose pattern. For that reason, rhyme and rhythm are particularly valuable when information is not inherently meaningful.

Remember that organization is the key to memory. If information cannot be meaningfully organized, it must be organized by other means.

Imposing a pattern, by using, for example, rhyme and/or rhythm, is one of those means.

Patterns are remembered because they are orderly. An important aspect of order is that it is predictable. When we can anticipate the next part of a sequence or pattern, we encode that information better, probably because our attention has been focused on structurally important points.

There is another aspect to patterns, and to rhyme and rhythm in particular. They help recall by limiting the possible solutions. In the same way that being told the name you want to remember starts with “B” helps your search your memory, so knowing that the next word rhymes with “time” will help your search. Of course, knowing the sound ending of a word helps far more than simply knowing the initial letter, and when this is in the context of a verse, you are usually also constrained by meaning, reducing the possibilities immensely.

Rhythm isn’t quite so helpful, yet it too helps constrain the possibilities by specifying the number of syllables you are searching for.

It is clear from this that for rhyme in particular, it is most effective if the rhyming words are significant words. For example, “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” is pretty good (not brilliant), because “two” is a significant word, and “blue” is sufficiently strongly associated with the ocean (another significant word, since it suggests why we remember him). On the other hand, this verse for remembering England’s kings and queens is not particularly good:

“Willie, Willie, Harry, Steve,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three,
Edward One, Two, Three, Dick Two,
Henry Four, Five, Six, then who?
Edward Four, Five, Dick the Bad,
Harrys twain and Ned, the lad.
Mary, Lizzie, James the Vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again.
William and Mary, Anne o'Gloria,
Four Georges, William and Victoria.
Edward Seven, Georgie Five,
Edward, George and Liz (alive)”

The fact that it is in verse, providing rhyme and rhythm as mnemonic aids, is obviously helpful, but its effectiveness is lessened by the fact that the rhyming words are forced, with little significance to them.

Rhythm has another function, one it doesn’t share with rhyme. Rhythm groups information.

Grouping is of course another fundamental means of making something easy to remember. We can only hold a very limited number of bits of information in our mind at one time, so grouping is necessary for this alone. But in addition, grouping information into a meaningful cluster, or at least one where all bits are closely related, is what organization (the key to memory — can I say it too often?) is all about.

Studies indicate that groups of three are most effective. The gap between such groups can be quite tiny, provided it is discernible by the listener. The way we customarily group phone numbers is a reflection of that.

If you can’t group the information entirely in threes, twos are apparently better than fours (i.e., a 7 figure number would be broken into 3-2-2: 982 34 67). Having said that, I would add that I would imagine that meaningfulness might override this preference; if a four-digit number had meaning in itself, say a famous date, I would group it that way rather than breaking it into smaller chunks and losing the meaning.

But let us never forget the importance of individual difference. Baddeley[1] cites the case of a Scottish professor who had amazing memory abilities. One of his feats was to recall the value of pi to the first thousand decimal places — a feat he would not have bothered to perform if it had not been “so easy”! Apparently, he found that simply arranging the digits in rows of 50, with each row grouped in lots of 5 digits, and reciting them in a particular rhythm, made them very easy (for him) to memorize: “rather like learning a Bach fugue”. The psychologist who observed him doing this feat (Ian Hunter, known for his book, “Memory”) said he did the whole thing in 150 seconds, pausing only (for breath) after the first 500. The rhythm and tempo was basically 5 digits per second, with half a second between each group.

There’s also some evidence to suggest those with musical abilities may benefit more from rhythm, and even rhyme (musically trained people tend to have better verbal skills, and, intriguingly, a 1993 study[2] found a positive correlation between pitch discrimination and an understanding of rhyme and alliteration in children).

The “3 Rs” — rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. It’s not a fair analogy, because these differ considerably in their importance, but I couldn’t resist it.

I want to repeat something I’ve said before — because it is absolutely fundamental. Repetition is essential to memory.

There is sometimes a feeling among novice learners that mnemonic strategies “do away” with the need for repetition. They do not. Nothing does. What memory strategies of all kinds do is reduce the need for repetition. Nothing eliminates the need for repetition.

Even experiences that seem to be examples of “one-trial” learning (i.e., the single experience is enough to remember it forever) are probably re-experienced mentally a number of times. Can you think of any single experience you had, or fact you learned, that you experienced/heard/saw only once, and NEVER thought about again for a long time, until something recalled it to mind?

It’s a difficult thing to prove or disprove, of course.

However, for practical purposes, it is enough to note that, yes, if we want to remember something, we must repeat it. If we’re using a mnemonic strategy to help us remember, we must include the mnemonic cue in our remembering. Thus, if you’re trying to remember that the man with a nose like a beak was called Bill Taylor, don’t omit any of your associative links in your remembering until they’re firmly cemented. I say that because if the “answer” (nose like a beak à Bill Taylor) pops up readily, it’s easy to not bother with remembering the linking information (beak = bill; pay the tailor’s bill). However, if you want the information to stick, you want to make sure those associations are all firmly embedded.

Rhyme and rhythm are mnemonic cues of a different sort, but however effectively you might use them (and if you use them wisely they can be very effective), you still can’t avoid the need for repetition.

Always remember the essential rules of repetition:

  • space it out
  • space it at increasing intervals

(see my article on practice for more on this)

Interesting resource:

The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form:: A wonderful idea for remembering those difficult or rare words, if you’re learning English as a second-language or simply want to expand your vocabulary.

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for June 2005

References: 

  1. Baddeley, A. 1994. Your memory: A user’s guide. Penguin
  2. Lamb, S. & Gregory, A. 1993. The relationship between music and reading in beginning readers. Educational Psychology, 13, 19-28.

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Everyday memory strategies

Common everyday memory strategies

The most frequently used everyday memory strategies are:

  • writing calendar or diary notes
  • putting things in a special place
  • writing reminder notes
  • writing shopping lists
  • using face-name associations
  • mentally rehearsing information
  • using a timer
  • asking someone else to help

Of these, all but two are external memory aids. With the exception of face-name associations, mnemonic strategies (the foundation of most memory-improvement courses) are little used.

How effective are these strategies?

In general, external aids are regarded as easier to use, more accurate, and more dependable. In particular, external aids are preferred for reminding oneself to do things (planning memory). Mental strategies however, are equally preferred as retrieval cues for stored information. The preferred strategies are mentally retracing (for retrieving stored information) and mentally rehearsing (for storing information for later retrieval).

Note that these preferred strategies are not those that are most effective, but those strategies that are least effortful. The popularity of asking someone to help you remember has surprised researchers, but in this context it is readily understandable — asking someone is easiest strategy of all! It is not, however, particularly effective.

Older people in particular, are less inclined to use a strategy merely because it is effective. For them it is far more important that a strategy be familiar and easy to use.

Learning effective strategies does require effort, but once you have mastered them, the effort involved in using them is not great. The reason most people fail to use effective strategies is that they haven’t mastered them properly. A properly mastered skill is executed automatically, with little effort. (see Skill learning)

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Mental stimulation

  • Growing evidence points to greater education, and mentally stimulating occupations and activities providing a cognitive reserve that enables people with developing Alzheimer's to function normally for longer.
  • There is also evidence that physical exercise and mental stimulation protect against the development of Alzheimer's, by preventing accumulation of beta-amyloid.
  • Physical exercise and mental stimulation also seem to help protect against age-related decline in cognitive function, possibly for similar reasons — by stimulating growth of new blood vessels and keeps existing vessels open and functional.
  • Mental stimulation is not only gained by more obvious intellectual pursuits, but also by activities as simple as talking to people or going to the theater.
  • Education also seems to help seniors retain their mental flexibility, enabling their brains to change strategies as age effects make different strategies more effective.

The evidence that diet, physical exercise, and mental stimulation all help prevent age-related cognitive decline and reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s, is now very convincing.

Studies of mice and (rather intriguingly) beagles, have provided evidence that ‘enriched’ environments — ones that provide opportunities for regular exercise and mental stimulation — reduce or prevent age-related cognitive decline, and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Studies of genetically engineered mice have also now shown how an enriched environment protects against Alzheimer’s — by preventing accumulation of beta-amyloid, and helping these peptides to be cleared away.

It’s been suggested that the benefits of physical and mental activity, which now seem undeniable, may simply be a matter of blood flow — that physical and mental activity stimulates growth of new blood vessels and keeps existing vessels open and functional.

These findings from animal studies have been supported by a number of human studies.

Physical exercise

A large, six-year study of adults aged 65 and older found that physical fitness and exercise were both associated with a significantly lower risk of dementia. Encouragingly, for those who are more frail, even modest amounts of exercise (such as walking 15 minutes a day) appear beneficial, and the more frail the person was, the more they benefited from regular exercise.

Education

Findings from two long-running studies of aging and cognition — the Nun Study and the Religious Orders Study — have revealed that formal education helps protect people from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Note that I said “from the effects”. Education doesn’t prevent or delay the disease from developing, but it does provide a “cognitive reserve”, which allows the individual to function normally in the presence of brain abnormalities (the presence of an Alzheimer’s pathology is thus only evident when the brain is autopsied post-mortem).

As you would expect, the more years of education, the greater the cognitive reserve — the less effect the same number of plaques have on cognitive performance. It’s worth noting that the populations in these studies are all relatively well-educated — even the least educated had some college attendance — suggesting that the effect of education would be even more marked in the general population.

However, there is some evidence that, once the disease progresses to the point that it has noticeable effects, those effects progress faster. This is thought to be simply because the damage is so much greater by the time it becomes observable in behavior.

A general population study still in train has provided preliminary findings indicating that prevalence of mild cognitive impairment also is less common among those with more education.

Higher education also seems to help protect older adults from cognitive decline in general. One reason is clearly the cognitive reserve aspect, but an imaging study has also revealed another reason. In young adults performing memory tasks, more education was associated with less use of the frontal lobes and more use of the temporal lobes. For older adults doing the same tasks, more education was associated with less use of the temporal lobes and more use of the frontal lobes. Previous research has indicated frontal activity is greater in old adults, compared to young; this study therefore implies that this effect is related to the educational level in the older participants. The higher the education, the more likely the older adult is to recruit frontal regions, resulting in a better memory performance.

An earlier brain-scan study also provided support for the theory that the brain may change tactics as it ages, and that older people whose brain is more flexible can compensate for some aspects of memory decline.

Results from a large study of older adults from a biracial community in Chicago suggest that the benefits of education are not necessarily education per se. Although both education and occupation were associated with Alzheimer's risk in this study, their effects were substantially reduced when cognitive activity was taken into account.

In keeping with these findings, several smaller studies have also provided evidence that other aspects of mental activity are also associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Mental activity

People with Alzheimer's have been found to be more likely to have had less mentally stimulating careers, and those who are more active in high school and have higher IQ scores are apparently less likely to have mild memory and thinking problems and dementia as older adults.

A study of 469 people aged 75 and older found that those who participated at least twice weekly in reading, playing games (chess, checkers, backgammon or cards), playing musical instruments, and dancing were significantly less likely to develop dementia. Although the evidence on crossword puzzles was not quite statistically significant, those who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a much lower risk of dementia than those who did one puzzle a week.

Another study of 700 seniors found that more frequent participation in cognitively stimulating activities, such as reading books, newspapers or magazines, engaging in crosswords or card games, was significantly associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

And more recently, a comprehensive review of the research into 'cognitive reserve', involving 29,000 individuals across 22 studies, concluded that complex mental activity across people’s lives almost halves the risk of dementia. Encouragingly, all the studies also agreed that it was never too late to build cognitive reserve.

Looking at the question of cognitive decline in general, a large-scale British study of people aged 35—55 found that those who scored highest on tests of cognitive ability made regular cultural visits to theatres, art galleries and stately homes. Other activities were also associated with higher cognitive ability (in order of importance):

  • reading, and listening to music
  • involvement in clubs and voluntary organisations
  • participation in courses and evening classes

Interestingly, the association was stronger among men.

Another study, of people aged 30—88, has found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one, were sharper mentally. This was true at all age groups, but bilinguals were also much less likely to suffer from the mental decline associated with old age. The participants were all middle class, and educated to degree level.

Social networks

There has been some evidence suggesting that simply talking helps keep your mind sharp at all ages, and that older people with more extensive social networks are less likely to suffer cognitive impairment.

More recently, a study has provided evidence that social networks also offer a 'cognitive reserve' that protects people from the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. To determine social network, participants were asked about the number of children they have and see monthly; about the number of relatives, excluding spouse and children, and friends to whom they feel close and with whom they felt at ease and could talk to about private matters and could call upon for help, and how many of these people they see monthly. Their social network was the number of these individuals seen at least once per month.

Post-mortem analysis revealed that, as the size of the social network increased, the same amount of Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain (i.e., extent of plaques and tangles) had less effect on cognitive test scores. In other words, for persons without much pathology, social network size had little effect on cognition. However, as the amount of pathology increased, the apparent protective effect on cognition also increased.

What you can do

The thought that your education, occupation, degree of physical fitness, and social involvedness, over the years, affects your risk of losing cognitive function, may relieve your anxieties or depress you. But if it depresses you, take heart from a recently-reported pilot study involving people aged 35–69. These people had some mild memory complaints but performed normally on tests. Nevertheless, in a mere two weeks, a program combining a brain healthy diet plan (5 small meals a day; diet rich in omega-3 fats, antioxidants and low-glycemic carbohydrates like whole grains), relaxation exercises, cardiovascular conditioning (daily walks), and mental exercise (such as crosswords and brain teasers) resulted in these participants' brain metabolism decreasing 5% in working memory regions, suggesting an increased efficiency. Compared to the control group, participants also performed better in verbal fluency, and felt as if they were performing better.

 

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The Mozart Effect

The more hyped and less plausible passive Mozart Effect

The so-called "Mozart effect" refers to two quite different phenomena. The one that has received the most media play concerns the almost magical (and mythical) effect of Mozart's music on intelligence. It is the result of a misrepresentation of the research results. Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky's 1993 study found that 10 minutes of exposure to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 temporarily enhanced performance on three spatial reasoning tasks.

The source of the misunderstanding lay in the fact that spatial reasoning is a component of IQ tests, and the researchers reported an increase of some 8 or 9 points in students' IQ scores after listening to the music. The effect lasted some ten to fifteen minutes.

Even in this limited sense, the effect has not been consistently replicated - indeed, it would be fair to say it has more usually failed to be replicated. Moreover, a meta-analysis of studies that have investigated this effect has found that any cognitive improvement "is small and does not reflect any change in IQ or reasoning ability in general, but instead derives entirely from performance on one specific type of cognitive task and has a simple neuropsychological explanation"1.

There does seem to be a case that particular types of music can have an effect on brainwaves - there has been some interesting work done on its possible therapeutic role in reducing epileptic seizures - but the main effect of music seems to be through its effect on arousal.

Most of the research done into the Mozart Effect has continued the example of the original researchers by comparing the effect of listening to Mozart's music with listening to silence or to a relaxation tape. Obviously enough, these various situations would be expected to differentially affect mood and level of arousal (which are known to have a, small and unreliable, effect on cognition). There is evidence that when this effect is controlled for, the Mozart effect (which we may note is also small and unreliable) disappears.

The more plausible active Mozart effect

There is however another Mozart effect that promises to be more useful. This is the possibility that formal training in music yields nonmusical benefits. Once again, the media are keen to hypothesize that this effect is on IQ (what is the media's obsession with IQ?). There does however seem to be growing evidence that musical training benefits other faculties - specifically, verbal memory.

More articles on the Mozart Effect

http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/music.html#mem

http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/mozarteffect2.shtml

http://www.theguardian.com/arts/fridayreview/story/0,12102,871350,00.html

BBC radio programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/mozarteffect.shtml

about the effect of music training from one of the original "Mozart effect" researchers:

http://www.menc.org/publication/articles/academic/rauscher.htm

References: 

  • Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L, & Ky, K.N. 1993. Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
  • Schellenberg, E.G. 2001. Music and nonmusical abilities. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 930, 355-71.

Studies that have failed to confirm this finding

  • Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • McCutcheon,L.E. 2000. Another failure to generalize the Mozart effect. Psychological Reports, 87, 325-30.
  • Newman,J., Rosenbach,J.H., Burns,K.L., Latimer,B.C., Matocha,H.R. & Vogt,E.R. 1995. An experimental test of "the mozart effect": does listening to his music improve spatial ability? Perceptual & Motor Skills, 81, 1379-87.
  • Steele, K.M., Bella, S.D., Peretz, I., Dunlop, T., Dawe, L.A., Humphrey, G.K., Shannon, R.A., Kirby Jr., J.L. & Olmstead, C.G. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • Steele, K.M., Brown,J.D., Stoecker,J.A. 1999. Failure to confirm the Rauscher and Shaw description of recovery of the Mozart effect. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 88, 843-8.

Failure to extend finding:

  • Bridgett,D.J. & Cuevas,J. 2000. Effects of listening to Mozart and Bach on the performance of a mathematical test. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 90, 1171-5.
  • Steele,K.M., Ball,T.N. & Runk,R. 1997. Listening to Mozart does not enhance backwards digit span performance. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 84, 1179-84.

Success in replicating effect:

  • Rideout,B.E., Dougherty,S. & Wernert,L. 1998. Effect of music on spatial performance: a test of generality. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 86, 512-4.
  • Rideout,B.E. & Taylor,J. 1997. Enhanced spatial performance following 10 minutes exposure to music: a replication. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 85, 112-4.

Effect accounted by arousal:

  • Steele,K.M. 2000. Arousal and mood factors in the "Mozart effect". Perceptual & Motor Skills, 91, 188-90.
  • Thompson,W.F., Schellenberg,E.G. & Husain,G. 2001. Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12, 248-51.

1. Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.

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Similarity

Human memory is a complex and varied phenomenon, and we could delve into its mysteries every day for a hundred years and still have plenty to talk about. But if I had to pick one factor that was absolutely crucial to the operation of memory, I would pick the deceptively simple concept of similarity. Similarity.

We all think we know what that means. An orange is similar to a mandarin; a zebra is similar to a horse; a cup is similar to a glass; my son is similar to his brother. A car is similar to an elephant.

??

Well, I might think a car was similar to an elephant. Maybe I’m imagining an elephant thundering toward me, kicking up dirt, unstoppable. Or maybe my perceptions are confused. But whether there’s a logical reason for my perception of similarity or not, whether my perception of similarity is shared with other people or not, all that is required for my brain to make the connection is ... that I perceive a connection.

Similarity — perceived similarity — is a crucial ingredient to the connections made in your head. Similarity enables us to make connections that transcend space and time, and enables us to strengthen connections made as a result of a juxtaposition of space and time.

Thus, when you meet a person and he tells you his name is Tom Brown, the first connection is made simply because the name and person are coincident in space and time. And if you leave it there, that connection will most likely be too weak to retrieve on a later occasion.

You can (and should, if you want to remember) employ another critical element to strengthen the connection: repetition (which impacts on the perceived familiarity of the information, but that’s another story). But the new information (this person is named Tom Brown) will be much more firmly lodged in your database, and much easier to find, if you make other connections, connections to information already stored in your memory. Thus, you might associate the name with the book “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, based on the similarity of names. There might be some physical characteristic of this new person that you can link to a character in the book. If so, you are much more likely to be able to remember this name when you meet the person again. However, if you are barely familiar with the book, and have to stretch your imagination to make any further connection, such as with the characters in the book, then this similarity of names won’t greatly help you.

The important thing when connecting new information to information already existing in your database, is to ensure the existing information is itself easily retrievable, and that the connections you make are not too obscure.

So, to make new memories easily retrievable:

  • look for similarities to existing memories
  • look for similarities that are obvious to you (what other people think doesn’t matter in the slightest)
  • choose existing memories that are themselves easily retrievable

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 newsletter.

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External memory aids

What are external memory aids?

External memory aids include such strategies as:

  • taking notes
  • making shopping lists
  • entering appointments in a diary or on a calendar
  • writing a memo to yourself
  • writing on the back of your hand
  • taking photographs
  • using clocks, oven timers, alarms on watches, etc
  • putting objects in a conspicuous place
  • putting a knot in your handkerchief
  • asking someone to help you remember

Making lists

Making lists or writing reminder notes to yourself, is one of the most widespread external memory aids. It seems that list-making is primarily helpful as a way of organizing (encoding) information, rather than its more obvious role in retrieving. More often than not, people do not actually use the list or note to ‘remember’. The act of making it is sufficient to aid later recall.

However, there are situations where list-making appears appropriate but is not in fact the best strategy. For example, one study found that waitresses who went from table to table to take drink orders were much better at remembering the orders if they visualized the drinks in particular locations rather than when they wrote the orders down1. It is perhaps the time pressure in that kind of situation that makes an internal strategy more effective than an external one.

When to use mental strategies

  • when you can’t rely on external prompts (e.g., acting in a play)
  • when external prompts are difficult to prepare (e.g., because you lack writing materials) or hard to use (you have OOS in your writing hand)
  • when you didn’t expect to need to recall something, and have nothing prepared
  • when using external aids interferes with other behavior (understanding what’s going on; taking orders; etc)
  • when carrying external aids would be undesirable or inconvenient (e.g., when driving)
  • when the interval between learning and recall is very short (as when you need to remember a phone number only long enough to dial it)

When to use external memory aids

  • when a number of interfering activities occur between encoding and recall (e.g., having to remember to buy groceries after work)
  • when there is a long time between encoding and recall (e.g., needing to make a doctor’s appointment two months in the future)
  • when internal aids are not trusted to be sufficiently reliable (as when precise details need to be remembered; or strict timing — when to check a cake in the oven)
  • when information is difficult, and doesn’t cohere easily (e.g., remembering lectures)
  • when there is insufficient time to properly encode information
  • when memory load is to be avoided (as when you are attending to more than one activity)

How effective are external memory aids?

In general, external aids are regarded as easier to use, more accurate, and more dependable, than mental strategies. However, with the exception of note-taking, there has been little research into the effectiveness of external memory aids. The most that can be said is that, by and large, people believe they can be effective (with the emphasis, perhaps, on ‘can’).

One problem with external aids is that most of them are highly specific in their use. Their effective use also requires good habits. It’s no good remembering to make a note in your diary if you don’t remember to look in it.

References: 

  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Fourrier, J. 1986. External and internal memory aids: when and how often do we use them? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 267-280.
  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Newsome, G.L. III. 1992. External memory aids: effects and effectiveness. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  1. Bennett, H.L. 1983. Remembering drinks orders: The memory skills of cocktail waitresses. Human Learning, 2, 157-169.

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Learning a new skill

To master a skill:

  • Practice it until you reach the stage where actions follow automatically
  • Practice more efficiently, by:
    • varying your actions
    • providing immediate feedback
    • spacing out your practice

Remembering a skill is entirely different from remembering other kinds of knowledge. It’s the difference between knowing how and knowing that.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice is the key to mastering a skill. One of the critical aspects is assuredly the fact that, with practice, the demands on your attention get smaller and smaller. Interestingly (and probably against common sense), there appears to be no mental limit to the improvement you gain from practice. Your physical condition limits how much improvement you can make to a practical skill (although, in practice, few people probably ever approach these limits), but a cognitive skill will continue to improve as long as you keep practicing. One long-ago researcher had two people perform 10,000 mental addition problems, and they kept on increasing their speed to the end.

How to get the most out of your practice

While practice is the key, there are some actions we can take to ensure we get the most value out of our practice:

  • Learn from specific examples rather than abstract rules
  • Provide feedback while the action is active in memory (i.e., immediately). Try again while the feedback is active in memory.
  • Practice a skill with subtle variations (such as varying the force of your pitch, or the distance you are throwing) rather than trying to repeat your action exactly.
  • Space your practice (maths textbooks, for example, tend to put similar exercises together, but in fact they would be better spaced out).
  • Allow for interference with similar skills: if a new skill contains steps that are antagonistic to steps contained in an already mastered skill, that new skill will be much harder to learn (e.g., when I changed keyboards, the buttons for page up, page down, insert, etc, had been put in a different order — the conflict between the old habit and the new pattern made learning the new pattern harder than it would have been if I had never had a keyboard before). The existing skill may also be badly affected.
  • If a skill can be broken down into independent sub-skills, break it down into its components and learn them separately, but if components are dependent, learn the skill as a whole (e.g., computer programming can be broken into independent sub-skills, but learning to play the piano is best learned as a whole).

References: 

  1. Anderson, J.R., Fincham, J.M. & Douglass, S. 1997. The role of examples and rules in the acquisition of a cognitive skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 932-945.
  2. Chase, W.G. & Ericsson, K.A. 1981. Skilled memory. In J.R. Anderson (ed.) Cognitive skills and their acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Wulf, G. & Schmidt, R.A. 1997. Variability of practice and implicit motor learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 987-1006.

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