by Barbara Van Dyne, MA, CCC Speech-Language Pathologist
Published in Stroke Connection Magazine November/December 2002
Have you ever found yourself in the garage and couldn’t remember why you were there? Do you have trouble recalling people’s names? Have you ever worried that you didn’t turn off the iron before you left?
Memory loss is something that everyone experiences at times, often increasing with age or a neurological problem such as a stroke. Understanding how memory works is the first step to using simple techniques to improve.
There are three stages that must take place for memory to occur. Stage one is encoding or input. In this stage, you pay attention, process information and give it meaning. Stage two is storage. During the processing period, the information is held in your mind long enough for it to be stored for later recall. Stage three is retrieval, during which the brain recalls the information previously encoded and stored.
Most memory problems are due to lack of attention, so the information never gets processed in a meaningful way (encoded) and never makes it to storage. Making a conscious decision to pay attention is the first important step toward improving memory skills. Then simple techniques can help you process information so it stands a better chance of making it to storage for retrieval.
Here are some techniques that will help you encode and store information.
You can learn or recall something more easily if you associate it with something you already know or remember. To recall a specific date, associate it with another well-known date. For example, November 25 is a month before Christmas. July 11 is a week after Independence Day.
You might recall an important date by its relationship to your birthday or by making the date into a price ($9.29) or a time (12:15). To help remember names, associate the new name with a famous person or someone you already know.
Sometimes a person’s name can be associated with their physical characteristics. For example, if Elizabeth is somewhat overweight, imagine her as a queen at an Elizabethan feast. (You don’t have to tell the person how you are remembering their name.) Easily forgotten chores or tasks can be paired with something you always remember to do. For example, if you take your pills automatically every morning but often forget to feed your fish, put the fish food beside your pill box.
This means forming a picture in your mind’s eye of the things you want to remember. If trying to recall something from the past, use your imagination to re-live the situation. If trying to remember something for the future, picture yourself in the action or situation. For example, if you need to get milk from the store, imagine yourself going into the store and leaving with milk in your hand.
Because we remember bizarre images better, incorporate something unusual into your visualizations. For example, make it a huge container of milk, bigger than you, or 100 gallons of milk.
Repetition and rehearsal
Repeat new information to yourself several times, spacing out these repetitions over time. This could be directions, names, dates, etc. If a larger amount of material is to be learned, such as a speech or anecdote, first break up the material into smaller parts. Review the segment several times and then re-tell it in your own words as if you were explaining it to someone else. Spread out studying over days rather than trying to learn it all at once. “Overlearning” is helpful. This means studying or reviewing the material more than you think you need to.
Some of the best memory advice comes from Confucius, who said, “The weakest ink is stronger than the best memory.” In other words, if you want to remember something, write it down.
Having a good system for recording information is critical. This usually includes a calendar for appointments and a memory notebook. The notebook should have at least three sections:
- reference material such as name, phone numbers, medications
- list of things to do, including a space to mark off when completed
- a section for notes or things to remember. This section can contain information from the past — Mary’s new grandson is named Sam — or for the future — a question for your doctor. If reading and writing are difficult, have someone help you record and review the information. Compensatory techniques can also include writing notes to yourself and posting them in conspicuous places, writing on your hand, setting an alarm clock or oven timer, or using a small hand-held tape recorder for pertinent information.
Improving memory requires awareness of the possibility of forgetting and then making a conscious effort to use some type of memory tool. Experiment with a variety of techniques and find what works for you. And more importantly, have fun!
Read more about cognitive challenges after a stroke.