GUEST POST: How I Used Memory Techniques to Graduate From College With a Traumatic Brain Injury
By Brandon Leuangpaseuth
In April 2015, I was hit by a car while pushing my broken down car on the freeway.
Apparently, I flew 20 feet in the air.
I had been in a coma for 2 weeks, hospitalized for another couple of weeks and I finally got my wits back together in the intensive rehab center a month later. I had broken my jaw, collarbone, nose and received a serious traumatic brain injury.
I was only 20 years old at the time and I could not remember what I had done the day before. I was taking my first semester of upper division classes at San Diego State University during the time of the accident. I was happy to be alive but boy...it felt like I threw the rest of my life away.
How was I supposed to graduate from college?
How was I supposed to find a job after?
How was I ever going to be successful?
Thoughts raced through my head as I dwelled on continuing life with my poor memory.
After I was released from the intensive rehab center, I became obsessed with memory. I was fascinated by people who could memorize 10 decks of cards in a specific order or memorize and recite 1000 random numbers off the top of their heads. I devoured as many books, studies, and articles on memory as I could. I frequently read memory articles on prominent websites like the American Psychological Association (1), watched various talks, like Joshua Foer’s TED Talk on memory (2), and studied various memory books such as Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (3).
I sought to understand why I was able to remember certain random details of events but would completely forget others. Fast forward a couple of years, and now I have officially graduated from college.
It was tough, but I want to pass along some of the useful memory techniques I picked up to help other students or just about anybody remember things better.
Here are the techniques I used to get my Bachelor's degree.
1. Use Associations
One book I picked up was written by Chip and Dan Heath called Made to Stick (4). The book sought to explain what elements makes an idea “sticky” or memorable. Backed by rigorous studies and research, the book reveals what makes an idea easily remembered.
The Heath brothers state that remembering something is not like putting it in storage. Most people think of memory as storing something in a filing cabinet, to be opened and recalled later. A more accurate analogy is thinking of memory as Velcro.
Here is how Velcro works. The two sides of Velcro material consists of one side that is covered with thousands of tiny hooks and the other is covered with thousands of tiny loops. When the two sides are pressed together, a vast number of hooks get snagged inside the loops, and that’s what causes Velcro to seal. Our brains are like a side of Velcro that hosts a large number of loops. Associations and images are like hooks on the other side of Velcro. The more hooks an idea has, the better it will stick to our memories.
Associations and images evoke emotions embedded within us. Think about it: We remember emotionally charged events more than boring ones. I bet you don’t remember what you had for lunch two weeks ago, but you can vividly remember your first break up and all the emotions that came with it.
Your childhood family car or house probably has thousands upon millions of hooks in your brain. Your new debit card number would (maybe) have one hook. Again, associations and images create more hooks that can be snagged to the loops in your brain. When you want to learn something new, create more hooks to snag onto your brain by using the power of images and associations.
2. Use Images
In a study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, data were gathered from two groups of participants to examine recent recognition memory work using pictures and words. The first group consisted of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and the second group consisted of those in the prodromal stage of amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI). Both groups of patients demonstrated markedly better memory for pictures than words (5).
Multiple studies have replicated this effect the Picture Superiority Effect. The picture superiority effect describes the finding that in human memory recall, pictures tend to outperform text dramatically (6). One explanation is that images evoke both the verbal and image codes to be stored and embedded in memory.
Try it out. Next time you meet a new person and they tell you their name, repeat it over in your head a few times and think of all the images or other associations that reminds you of their name. Let's say you meet someone named Jack. When they introduce themselves, say Jack 3 times in your head and put all the images of everything that reminds you of Jack on the forefront of your head i.e. Jack Sparrow, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack your old coworker, Jack your childhood friend, Jack in the Box, etc.(7)
Chances are with all the associations and images you created, you will remember his name is Jack.
3. Use Analogies and Similes
A simile, as defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary, is “a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as”, e.g., “brave as a lion”.
If you wanted to learn something new and remember it, you should use similes and metaphors to explain it.
Similes and metaphors work so well because they invoke images and emotions in your head that may resonate with you more than just facts or figures. Writers love to use similes and metaphors because they can illustrate and make a lasting impression in their reader’s mind more than stating a fact. For example, what if an author wrote:
“George fell off the bridge and died…”
...versus “George fell off the bridge. His body laid still... like a broken doll”.
Which one was more powerful? Which one was more memorable?
When you compare new information to information that you are familiar with, you are able to better understand, remember, and later apply new information. In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers give the example of explaining what a pomelo is.
The book explains that one could describe a pomelo as “…the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away” or “a pomelo is basically a super-sized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind” (4), p.53. By using an association of something you already know, a grapefruit, you can easily visualize and describe what a pomelo is. The imagery it evokes will allow you to more easily recall what a pomelo is.
I remember one day during a lecture my business stats professor at SDSU was explaining probabilities and confidence intervals to the class. The class and I scratched our heads as we tried to understand the concept of confidence intervals.
My professor crumbled a piece of paper and grabbed a small trash can at the side of the room. He said confidence intervals is like shooting this piece of paper into this trash can. The bigger the trashcan, or the bigger the confidence interval, the more confidence you have in your results being true, or making the balled up paper into the trash can. A wave of “oooohs” filled the room as the class finally understood.
That is the power of similes.
These memory techniques really changed how I learned material throughout school. I would suggest you give them a try and see how they work for you :-)
(1) Karpicke, J. D. (2018, June 5). A powerful way to improve learning and memory. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from American Psychological Association website: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/ 2016/06/learning-memory.aspx
(2) Foer, J. (2012, February). Feats of memory anyone can do [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_foer_feats_of_memory_anyone_can_do
(3) Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
(4) Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York: Random House.
(5) Ally, B. A. (2012). Using pictures and words to understand recognition memory deterioration in amnestic mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease: A review. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, 12, 687-694.
(6) Mintzer, M. Z., & Snodgrass, J. G. (1999). The picture superiority effect: Support for the distinctiveness model. The American Journal of Psychology, 112, 113-146.
(7) Hyman, I. E., Jr. (2010, March 5). Remembering Names: Secrets of Memory Experts. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-mishaps/ 201003/remembering-names-secrets-memory-experts