Picture Perfect Memory

The 12th annual USA Memory Championship was held today (National Memory Competition Finalists Share Bag of Tricks for Total Recall). Contestants had to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards, memorize an unfamiliar poem, and copy long series of numbers from memory.

What was so interesting and revealing about this contest was how the “athletes” trained to improve their memory, and how this improved their brain function. The “athletes”, who are no different from most of us, used visual images to help them remember things. "Once it's in long-term memory in a visual format, then you can look at it and see it in your mind's eye," says psychologist Felberbaum.

I require my students to sketch, draw, and color in my science classroom because I have always believed that the connection between the hand, eye, and brain will strengthen their brains and help them learn better. I believe that when we connect our hands with our ideas we move our thinking. Applying our hands to work uncovers questions that develop into other work and other questions, repeating over and over. Today’s contest illustrates that simply connecting an anchoring picture with a series of numbers or words, and making a story out of it, improves memory. Stories are a wonderful way of communication.

I am always looking for stories about our subject matter to share with my students. Stories help to personalize the material, thereby making it more interesting and accessible to the student. Try extracting stories from the students or from your own life to help them make connections with the concepts. When working on Newton’s Laws, student stories of skateboarding or skiing calamities are always good fodder. In chemistry the concepts are more abstract and difficult to remember. There are many mnemonic devices that are used for memorization of facts. Chemistry students use the phrase "LEO says GER" to keep the two halves of a redox process straight, and Acid to Water- All is Well; Water to Acid;- What an Accident! to remember the order of mixing acid and water. (By the way, does anyone know a new mnemonic for the order of the planets?)

From the
Total Memory Workout which provides “8 easy steps to maximum memory fitness” author Cynthia Green writes that to remember a grocery list of chicken, chicken broth, wild rice, dried apples walnuts, salt, pepper create a rhyme linking them all together: "Oh, the chicken swam into the broth The rice brewed wildly The apples dried on walnut husks On the salt and pepper sea.” and continues with “If you are musically inclined, you may even find you like to give your rhymes a little tune."

20/20 did a story a year or so back called
Making a Mental Athlete. "Memory is a tool like notebooks and textbooks," said Matthews. "It is a tool to help the student access information as rapidly and as often as possible." Another assignment I give my students is the making of meaningful flashcards. These flashcards go beyond the word and definition and require the student to create a picture that will give meaning to the definition of the word.

Telling stories and teaching students how to work memory strategies are great techniques to employ. But let’s not forget to keep our brain healthy through good diet, and nourished through good exercise (
Lobes of Steel).

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