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June 8, 2014

Learning new brain skills: memory

Dear Doctor,

I have trouble remembering things I am supposed to be learning. I am in college, a bit late for my age, and some things are just tough for me to learn and remember on tests. Are there special courses or things I can do that will train me to remember things better?


Dear Trying,

What is memory, and how can we make it work?

There are at least three types of memory. Emotional memory has to do with feelings, pain, pleasure, experiences. Such memories are usually non verbal and can be quite early in life. Long-term memories might be compared to the hard disk on your computer. Things that you have learned and used for years are retained. Then, there is something we call “working memory.” That is more like the RAM on your computer. It is material in transition, something you are learning or working with at the time. Accessing memory is idiosyncratic, varies a bit from person to person.

Try these tricks to aid in learning.

1. Experience what you want to learn in multiple modalities. See it. Hear it. Experience it with a fantasy or hands on exercise. For example, one might actually experience touch by writing material on sand paper. Do not do all modalities at the same time. Do them sequentially.

2. Make up or look for uniqueness. This may be thinking differently about what you want to learn. For example, imagine the person speaking material as dressed in a floppy hat etc.

3. Try different avenues for getting material into your brain. For example, I have been known to sing operatically the points I wish to recall. (Please tell no one about this!)

4. Make the material practical, useful. You may have to stretch things a bit to do it. This ties the unknown to the known.

There are many other suggestions, but space doesn’t allow listing every one. Design your own strategies, and they will likely work for you.


Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. If you would like to ask a question, you can email him at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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