In 2006, researchers at UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory published a journal article titled “A case of unusual autobiographical remembering.” The article presents the case study of Jill Price (under the pseudonym of “AJ”): the first person ever to be diagnosed with highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM. Individuals like Price hold critical insights into the question of how to remember things long after they enter our brains.
Unlike most people, she has the remarkable ability to recall distant memories with surprising clarity.
She could tell researchers what she was doing twenty years ago with the same vividness and detail as to what she was doing two days ago.
Scientists are still trying to understand the neurobiology behind HSAM, with the hope that it may help the ongoing effort to combat the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other forms of memory loss.
Fewer than 100 people have been diagnosed with HSAM, even after the extensive media coverage that followed the diagnosis.
Brain scans reveal that HSAM individuals have structural differences in the parahippocampal gyrus (which is involved in the recollection of emotional memories) and the uncinate fascicle (which is involved in episodic memory retention).
Most of us will never be able to attain the same recall capacity as individuals with HSAM, but there are many tips, tricks, and strategies that you can adopt to improve your memory.25 Ways On How To Remember Things And What You Read Fast Click To Tweet
As you may already know, there are different categories of memory that are only loosely related to one another:
- Episodic memory: the ability to recall recent events that you experienced.
- Autobiographical memory: generalized impressions and sentiments about longer periods of time.
- Perceptual memory: your long-term memory for visual, auditory, and other perceptual information (e.g. faces, voices, and the appearance of buildings).
- Semantic memory: your ability to recall the general knowledge (facts, ideas, information, meaning, and concepts) that you have accumulated throughout your life.
Individuals with HSAM are thus outstanding in their ability to remember episodes and experiences, but they are generally average in their ability to recall faces or phone numbers.
Individuals with so-called photographic memory may have a near-perfect recollection of visual information (e.g. a landscape or someone’s face), but they will not be able to remember the same number of digits of pi from memory (this is a challenge that many “memory athletes” undertake).
This article covers a wide range of techniques you can adopt to improve your memory in several capacities:
- How To Remember Things In General
- How To Remember What You Read
- How To Remember Things For A Test
- How To Remember Things Fast
Depending on what your specific memory goals are, you can pick and choose which lifestyle changes and mnemonic techniques to adopt.
There is no single answer to the question of how to remember everything you read or learnt – a combination of habits and strategies that work well with your own context and lifestyle will help you get there.
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1. Improve Your Sleep Quality And Quantity
Sleep and memory are both complex physiological processes. Sleep affects every phase of the memory process:
- Acquisition: when you absorb new information
- Consolidation: when the new information is stored
- Recall: when you retrieve the relevant memory from storage
Sleep deprivation can compromise every one of these phases. In other words, it makes it harder for you to learn new information.
When your brain is sleep-deprived, it is more difficult for you to consolidate the new information you have acquired and to recall information you have already stored.
Here are several key steps you can take to enhance your sleep quality and quantity before (a.k.a. sleep hygiene), during and after each serious attempt at learning:
- Maintain a consistent sleep routine that provides you with 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
- Stay away from caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, exercise and large quantities of food 3-4 hours before bedtime to improve your sleep quality (light snacks are fine).
- Manage your daily stress and anxiety so that it does not compromise your sleep quality.
- Keep your bedroom dark, cosy, cool and gadget-free.
- Try to avoid medications that disrupt or delay sleep.
- Do not take any naps after 3 pm.
Take some time to unwind (take a bath, read a book, listen to music) before going to sleep.
2. Take A Nap
There’s a reason why companies like Google and NASA are encouraging their employees to take a power nap in the office.
Nap rooms and nap pods are becoming increasingly common as more employers recognize its positive impact of productivity, concentration, and memory.
You have to be careful, however. Taking a nap that is too long can backfire.
There is such a thing as “sleep inertia” – where you wake up after a nap feeling more tired and groggy than you felt before.
A 2019 study published in the journal Sleep found that young adults who took a 1-hour nap had significantly better recall of the factual knowledge they learnt earlier as compared to their counterparts who stayed awake.
While scientists are still studying the ideal nap duration (this may vary according to the nature of the work at hand), you can benefit from taking a short nap when you start to feel sleepy and inattentive.
That short nap can help you consolidate the information that you have just acquired.
3. Improve Your Diet
There is no single “superfood” that will enhance your memory and stop cognitive decline as you age.
The general advice is to maintain a healthy diet that contains an ample amount of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
You should consume animal protein, sugar and healthy fats (e.g. olive oil and avocados) in moderation while avoiding processed and ultra-processed foods.
There are, however, certain nutrients that have been linked to brain health.
This includes omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
By ensuring that these foods are a constant presence in your diet, you can help improve your brain functioning and memory:
- Green, leafy vegetables like broccoli, kale, and spinach contain brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, beta carotene, lutein, and folate.
- Fruits and berries like blueberries, apples and citrus fruits contain flavonoids, which helps to delay memory decline.
- Oily fish are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Consume salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardine, and anchovies a few times a week to enhance your memory and general health.
- Nuts are great sources of healthy fats, protein, and beneficial antioxidants. A 2015 study from UCLA specifically linked higher walnut consumption to better cognitive test scores.
- The caffeine in your tea and coffee helps to solidify new memories (but consume it in moderation, and early in the day to prevent it from compromising your sleep quality). Research on college students suggests that coffee has a positive effect on memory when consumed in the mornings.
4. Regular Aerobic Exercise
In 2015, a University of British Columbia study found that regular aerobic exercise can increase the size of your hippocampus (which is involved in verbal memory and learning).
Other kinds of physical pursuits (e.g. resistance training or muscle toning exercises) did not produce the same effect.
Exercise can boost your memory directly and indirectly.
It directly helps your brain by stimulating the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, by reducing inflammation, and by reducing insulin resistance.
It also enhances the growth and survival of new brain cells. Indirectly, exercise helps to improve your cognitive functions by improving your sleep quality, your mood, and by keeping stress and anxiety at bay.
Here are a few exercise recommendations that are specific to memory improvement:
- Pursue 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity exercise each week
- This can include any form of exercise that keeps your heart pumping: walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, soccer, tennis, etc.
- Even regular household activities (like sweeping the floor or gardening) can help.
- If motivation is an issue, consider signing up for regular classes or the services of a personal trainer. Having a regular workout buddy can also help you make exercising a habit.
5. Tai Chi
While tai chi was initially conceived as a martial art, it has long been practiced as a means to attain longevity.
Since Tai chi is less than most other forms of aerobic exercise, it was initially unclear if it had the same ability to improve memory and increase brain volume.
In a 2012 article published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University observed that tai chi had a positive impact on brain volume and memory capacity.
As a mind-body therapy, tai chi is particularly valuable to older individuals and those who cannot pursue intense aerobic activities for health or physiological reasons.
Existing research suggests that it improves blood circulation to the brain, slows down the impact of aging on brain cells, and alleviates the effects of mild cognitive impairment.
Even if you are not at risk for cognitive decline, tai chi can help you by improving your executive functions.
This includes your ability to manage time, make decisions and multitask. It may also protect your memory from the ravages of degenerative mental illnesses (which becomes a greater concern as you age).
6. Be Social
A study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2008 found that social integration and engaging in various activities help to preserve memory and prevent memory loss among elderly Americans.
Other studies have corroborated these findings. Individuals with limited social networks are at a greater risk of incident dementia and cognitive decline. On the other hand, those with richer social lives have better cognitive health and memories.
There are many ways for you to maintain and enhance your social ties, regardless of your age:
- Establish a healthy long-term relationship or marriage
- Pursue regular volunteer activities
- Maintain your contact with immediate and distant family members (parents, children, cousins, etc.)
- Build good relationships with your neighbors
- Keep in touch with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances
7. Pick Up New And Challenging Hobbies
University of Texas neuroscientist Denise Park found that older adults who pursued new and relatively demanding hobbies (the study involved digital photography and quilting) had better memories than those who did not experience the same mental challenge.
They were also better protected against memory loss in the long run.
The strategy is to learn a new skill that strengthens the connections between different parts of the brain.
Playing brain games like Sudoku may help to improve parts of your short-term memory, but it does not have the same effect of stimulating an entire brain network.
The hobbies that you pursue should also offer a sense of satisfaction and pleasure so that it can be something that you consistently pursue.
Here are some possible hobbies that you can pursue to strengthen and improve your memory:
- Learning a new language
- Learning how to play a new musical instrument (passively listening to music does not have the same impact)
- Pursuing a new artistic pursuit like painting, poetry, calligraphy or pottery
- Indoor hobbies like gardening, floral arrangements, knitting, and carpentry keep your mind and body active
- Picking up a new sport
8. Make Memory Work Fun
Besides picking up a new hobby, you can also consider incorporating some fun and enjoyable memory-intensive games and challenges into your daily life.
Some of these games have been around for a long time, while others are recent inventions:
- Crossword puzzles help you recall words that you know and make new linguistic associations
- Jigsaw puzzles are a good way to stimulate your perceptual memory
- Games like Sudoku challenge your working memory
- Chess stimulates your short-term memory (since you have to anticipate all the moves your opponent can make)
- Online-based games like Lumosity, Neuro Nation and Anki trains your memory in various ways
Recommended Brain Games:
9. Space Out Your Reading
In general, we tend to remember events, episodes, and information that are emotionally provocative.
This is why most people can easily recall critical life events of “Eureka” moments where their understanding of the world (and their place in it) was fundamentally changed.
This is also why it is often easier to remember the plot of your favorite movie than the fundamental principles of accounting.
Part of the issue is quantitative.
If you consume a large volume of information within a single time span, most of it is not going to “stick” and become knowledge that you can consistently recall in the long run.
Your brain can only accommodate a few short-term memories at a time. However, it can retain a large number of long-term memories.
If you have to master the knowledge contained in an entire science textbook, for example, it would be more productive for you to stick to a few chapters (or even a single chapter) each day.
This technique is also known as “spaced repetitions.”
After all, the easiest time for you to forget something you just acquired is within the first twenty-four hours.
Spacing out your reading allows you to invest more conscious effort into understanding the material and consolidating your newfound knowledge.
The challenge, of course, is not to procrastinate on your reading – which will end up in a situation where you have to cram everything within a short period of time.
Become a SuperLearner® 2: Learn Speed Reading & Boost Memory by Jonathan Levi, Lev Goldentouch, Anna Goldentouch, SuperHuman Academy® on Udemy
Modern Productivity — Superhuman Focus In A Distracted World by Brad Merrill on Udemy
10. Take The Time To Reflect
Instead of attempting to plough through a large chunk of reading quickly, take the time to ponder and reconsider what you have just read.
There are various mental tips to help you consolidate the information you just encountered:
- Consciously single out the main concepts or arguments
- Make notes on the page (by underline, highlighting or writing in the margins)
- Try to visualize the contents with images, diagrams, graphs or charts
- Actively ask yourself questions about the material (instead of passively absorbing everything)
- Read key sections of the material out loud
- Reflect on the significance or implications (i.e. the “so what?” question) of what you have been reading
- Try to relate the content to your personal experiences and preferences
11. Test Yourself
There’s a reason why you have to prepare for a test in the first place.
Research indicates that students who are tested on what they have learned had better long-term memories of the content than those who were not.
Testing yourself is how to remember what you read – and how to retain what you read over a longer period of time.
Create a list of difficult questions that cover the key concepts and ideas within your reading material and try to write down (or verbalize) the answers within a specific time period.
It is alright to refer back to your reading if you cannot recall specific details.
12. Eliminate Distractions
It is easy to forget that reading is a physical and physiological act – and not just a mental one.
Researchers from the University of Oregon have found that individuals have better recall capacity when they read printed news stories, as compared to their counterparts who read the same stories online.
Part of this phenomenon can be explained by the lack of tactile information (e.g. the weight of the book, the texture of the page).
The other issue, however, is the element of distraction caused by the ephemeral nature of online news (it can appear, disappear and be interrupted by advertisements without warning).
Likewise, many other factors can interfere with your ability to absorb and consolidate new information as you read:
- Fatigue (e.g. from sleep deprivation or a long day) can affect your focus
- Your phone or laptop can easily interrupt your concentration with social media notifications and text messages
- Other factors like noise pollution, room temperature, lighting, and even your body position can affect your ability to remember
13. Know Your Chronotype
Dr Michael Breus, a board-certified sleep specialist and clinical psychologist, has argued that everyone has a different circadian rhythm (i.e. a biological clock).
This means that your cycles of alertness and sleepiness are relatively unique.
Discovering your chronotype is useful because you can use it as a guide when planning your daily activities.
Researchers are increasingly interested in how chronotypes affect school performance. Meanwhile, a growing number of companies across the world are encouraging their employees to adjust their schedules according to their individual chronotypes.
Your chronotype may not fall neatly into one of the four general categories (you may, for example, be a hybrid between two chronotypes), but they serve as a useful guide for determining the optimal time of the day for some serious learning:
- Bears: individuals who sleep well and whose body clock generally matches the movement of the sun. Bears usually wake up at 7 am. They should take on tasks that require the most focus and concentration in the morning.
- Lions: the prototypical “early bird” who wakes up before sunrise (around 5.30 am). Lions enjoy maximum productivity in the morning but usually begin to feel tired in the afternoon and evening.
- Wolves: the prototypical “night owl” that has trouble waking up in the morning and going to bed before midnight. Wolves enjoy maximum productivity between noon and 8 pm.
- Dolphins: the rarest chronotype. Dolphins are often neurotic and sleep very restlessly. They may find it hard to fall asleep at midnight and often suffer from insomnia. They are most productive between 10 am and noon but have to take extra steps to ensure that they get a good night’s sleep.
14. Share What You’ve Read
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was known as “The Great Explainer.”
He could explain complex, difficult, and sophisticated ideas to other people in a simple and accessible manner.
The Feynman Technique refers to this ability while acknowledging the memory-enhancing effect it has on the explainer.
In other words, you learn better when you have to teach what you’ve learnt.
The technique itself is very simple.
All you need to do is review what you’ve read to ensure that you really understand it.
Then find a friend and explain what you have just read to them. Use your own words and try to be as direct and straightforward as possible.
If you have no one to turn to, you can achieve the same mental benefits with a piece of paper:
- Write down the name of the concept or idea you’ve just read on a piece of paper.
- Write down your explanation of the concept or idea in plain and simple language.
- Review your written explanation to see if it is accurate.
- Try and re-write your explanation if any part of it is unclear or overly reliant on jargon or technical language.
There might not be a one-sized answer to the question of how to remember everything you read, but you can do a better job at retaining crucial information and concepts by reading more actively.
15. Use Acronyms And Acrostics
Making an acronym is one of the most common mnemonic devices you can turn to.
For example, many students who struggle to remember the seven colors of the rainbow in the correct order memorizes the acronym ROGGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet).
If you have trouble remembering the acronym itself, you can convert it into an acrostic phrase like “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.”
When doing this, try to create sentences that have a personal significance to you so that it is easier to recall.
If you are not interested in English history, for example, you can create a more contemporary acrostic like “Really Outrageous Twitch Gamer Becomes Instantly Viral.”
16. The Method Of Loci
This memory enhancement strategy goes by many names: the memory journey, the journey method, the Cicero method, the Roman room, the memory palace, and the mind palace technique.
It was initially used by ancient Greek and Roman thinkers (to memorize long oral speeches) and has been recently popularized by the BBC series Sherlock.
It involves a detailed visualization of a spatial environment (this can be based on a real location like your home or an imagined one).
Once you have a physical location firmly in mind, plan a specific route through it.
For example, you can imagine going through the door of your bedroom, walking through the room, and then entering the bathroom.
Once you have the specific route pinned down, you then make associations between what you need to remember and the specific elements in your room.
If you need to prepare for a foreign language exam, for example, you can associate each new word you need to remember with a specific location (door, shoe rack, closet, bed, mirror, window, etc.).
Imagine if you had to remember the names of all the forty-four countries in Europe.
Most people can only remember 5-9 discrete bits of information (numbers, words, etc.) at any one time.
To get around this, you should divide the large group of information into smaller and more manageable units.
The word “chunking” – which comes from psychologist George A. Miller’s 1956 paper – is an acknowledgment of the limits of our short-term memory in processing novel information.
For this specific example, you can break down the forty-four European countries into five different categories: Northern Europe (6 countries), Eastern Europe (4 countries), Southern Europe (7 countries), Western Europe (7 countries), and Central Europe (4 countries).
The smaller categories should not be created arbitrarily – there should be a logic of familiarity that justifies why each unit of information in that group is there.
Chunking is a flexible and versatile mnemonic strategy that can be used in a large number of ways.
You are probably already using it to remember long sequences of numbers (e.g. phone numbers).
The smaller groups can be created in various ways, from semantic properties to more superficial categorizations like phonetic similarities (e.g. dividing the European countries alphabetically instead of geographically).
18. Know Your Learning Style
As with chronotypes, recent research has found that everyone processes information in a slightly different way.
Psychologists and researchers in the field of education have identified seven distinct learning styles.
By identifying your preferred learning style, you can come up with more effective learning and memorizing techniques:
- Visual learners: you learn best when there is a visual or image to help you understand new information. Pictures, images, mind maps, and cinematic media (e.g. short videos, films and documentaries) are some good answers to the question of how to remember things for a test.
- Aural learners: you learn best through music, rhyme schemes, and phonetic associations. This learning style is often overlooked since most educators don’t have the musical talents needed to create jingles, songs or rhythmic devices to help their students.
- Verbal learners: you can learn well through verbal instructions, written texts, or both. Reading something aloud or listening to the content you need to learn may help. You can also write down your own notes, summaries, and explanations.
- Physical (kinaesthetic) learners: you need an element of motion to help you learn (i.e. learning by doing). You might want to process new information by going for a walk, role-playing, using hand gestures as you recite the content, or drawing your own diagrams.
- Logical learners: you need to understand the underlying concept, theme or system behind something in order to internalize it. Making charts, lists and categories can be useful.
- Social (interpersonal) learners: you learn best when learning is a social activity. Organize study groups or one-on-one sessions to prepare for tests and exams.
- Solitary (intrapersonal) learners: even extroverted individuals may learn more effectively when learning is a solitary pursuit. Create a space and time for you to be alone with your material.
You do not need to limit yourself to a particular learning style, however. Sometimes it is more effective to combine different types of information (e.g. audio and visuals) so that you can absorb the information in multiple ways.
19. Use The Pomodoro Technique
First developed in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique is a productivity hack that can help you focus on what you need to memorize for a test.
Pomodoro is the Italian word for “tomato” – reference to the shape of the kitchen timer that its creator Francesco Cirillo used. Its logic is similar to that of spaced repetitions, but it provides more specific guidelines on how to space out your learning sessions.
The technique is easy enough to follow:
- Break your study session into a few 25-minute intervals. Each interval is called a pomodoro.
- You get a five-minute break after each pomodoro.
- After completing four pomodoros, you get a longer 15 – 30 minutes break.
There are a large number of desktop and smartphone apps that incorporate the Pomodoro Technique.
Its popularity can be attributed to its simplicity and its effectiveness in minimizing distractions while preventing burnout.
Since you know that each interval only lasts for 25 minutes, you will find it easier to maintain your focus and concentration throughout each period.
The brief breaks help you to “recharge”. You can use them to stretch, walk around, or even complete some physical chores.
20. Don’t Try To Multitask
Anthony Wagner, a psychology professor at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Memory Laboratory, has argued that your brain can only do one thing at a time.
When you try to multitask, what you are actually doing is task-switching.
Existing research indicates that heavy multitaskers (those who switch between many different types of media in a given period of time) perform much worse on simple memory tasks.
Multitasking compromises your attention and your working memory capacity.
This effect is especially significant when you are working on a cognitively demanding project – like writing an academic essay or studying for an exam.
Be mindful of your habits and consciously keep your attention focused on your test material.
21. Memorize Backwards
While it is generally ideal to take your time to store information in your long-term memory, there are always situations in life that require you to know how to remember things fast.
You may have a limited amount of time to remember a speech, your lines for a performance, or the names of all the important people at a company event.
Instead of only doing the intuitive thing of trying to memorize everything from beginning to end, try to memorize the outline of your content from end to beginning.
Even if you forget a specific section or sentence, having the entire outline firmly in your short-term memory will allow you to improvise effectively.
22. Use Your Learning Style To Your Advantage
When you have a lot of information to remember and limited time to do so, it’s crucial to play to your strengths.
If you are a visual learner, for example, using images is how to retain what you read within a short period of time. It may help, for example, to create visual associations to help remember the key points of all the presentations you attended at a conference.
Likewise, if you are a verbal learner you can repeat the information you need to memorize to yourself over and over again. (Listening to a recording or writing it down repeatedly can also be useful).
As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.
Familiarity with your learning style and experience with memorizing large chunks of information under stressful circumstances will make you better at this.
23. Relate What You’re Memorizing To What You Already Know
Associations help short-term memories stick.
One good mnemonic technique you can use is to make conscious associations between the new information you are trying to remember and what you already know.
For example, if you have to learn about World War II, try to associate the major historical developments, political leaders and contextual factors with what you have already learnt about World War I or a comparable military conflict.
24. Selective Forgetting
You can only juggle so much information in your short-term memory at any given time.
If you have to remember a chunk of information quickly, it helps if there are not many other things jostling for your attention and limited brain space.
Instead of being distracted by routine information (e.g. how to get to work, what to wear, and what you have to do later this week), outsource all this minor memory work to an app or your personal calendar.
25. Pay Extra Attention To The Confusing Stuff
You may assume to you have already figured out how to remember everything you read – only to find that you are having trouble distinguishing between two similar names or concepts.
For example, many people find it harder to differentiate between stalactites and stalagmites – or between President Suharto and President Sukarno. Do you say that someone is a “practicing lawyer” or a “practising lawyer”?
If you have to remember different things that can easily be confused for one another, be sure to make an extra mental note to differentiate them.
With stalactites and stalagmites, for example, you can use the mnemonic “c is for ceilings, g is for ground”.
This is how to retain what you read accurately and to avoid the common confusion caused by seemingly interchangeable words.
Psychologists and neuroscientists are still working towards a comprehensive understanding of the human faculty of memory.
As it stands, however, there is significant evidence to support the thesis that your brain is like a muscle.
The more you use your mind, the more adept it becomes at encoding and retrieving information.
In other words: if you don’t use it, you will lose it.
The question of how to retain what you read and learnt may become even more difficult to answer as you grow older and the biological process of aging takes its toll on your mind and body, but these mental techniques and lifestyle adaptations will help you keep the depressing effects of cognitive decline at bay.