If you want to “improve your memory”, chances are your main goal is probably to have an easier time remembering factual knowledge and/or events from your life. All the different tips provided on this website and elsewhere should help a lot with those aims. However, you might also like to know that the concept of memory is involved in so much more. Almost every single thing you do on a daily basis involves your memory in some way or another, including when you’re dreaming at night, riding a bike or tasting an apple.
I’ve been asked a bunch of questions about all the different “types of memory” and about how to improve them. There’s a lot here that the average reader doesn’t necessarily “need” to know. There are massive overlaps between those categories and not all of them are relevant to your goals. But if you’re curious, here are my answers.
Implicit versus explicit memory
Explicit memory is what you can say out loud (“Newton was an important scientist”), implicit is everything else. The feeling that you probably should avoid falling off a cliff or putting your hands on a hot stove is a form of implicit memory. So is every ability that you’ve learned to perform like riding a bike or tying your shoelaces.
Sometimes used as a synonym for implicit memory. Often it more specifically describes a form of implicit memory that includes all the abilities you’ve developed, like how to read and write, how to hold a fork and, again, how to ride a bike. To get better at developing those kinds of abilities, the most important concept one should be familiar with is what Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”. I wrote this long article in French about how to become better at any complex skill, like playing a musical instrument, dancing, solving math problems or playing basketball. That’s all very interesting and very important, but you don’t necessarily need to focus on that now if your main goal is to “improve your memory”.
Also sometimes called “ultra-short-term memory”. That’s all the 1000s of bits of data that we’re perceiving all the time through our senses. Out of this almost infinite amount of data, 99+% will be forgotten in half a second, but your brain will select a few that for various reasons seem to be worthy of attention. Sensory memory isn’t something we typically consciously try to improve. I’m sure people who are passionate about cooking over time will develop a more powerful sensory memory for different tastes. That’s another interesting subject I think, but again not something most people should take much time exploring.
Short-term memory and working memory
Those are often treated as complete synonyms, but they’re indeed at least somewhat different. I’ll let someone else explain the distinction and here I’ll just talk about working memory. Working memory is what you use in real-time to consciously remember something, analyze something or perform an action. If you’re engaged in a conversation and you’re trying to form a sentence, you’re using your working memory to avoid getting lost in your thoughts, to monitor the other person’s body language, to avoid forgetting what you just heard and what you just said and so on.
You’ll often read that your working memory has a capacity of 7 plus or minus 2. That’s true for example for numbers said out loud at a rhythm of 1 per second. Without using any particular memory technique, it’s probably not a problem for you to read a phone number like 525-3680, repeat it in your head so that will stay a short while in your working memory, compose it and then forget it.
However, that commonly heard “7 plus or minus 2” figure can be a little misleading. The reason you’re capable of briefly holding 525-3680 in your working memory is that you’re most likely treating those 7 digits as 3 or 4 “chunks” of separate pieces of data in your head. So instead of remembering 7 separate digits, you’re remembering “525” as one chunk, “36” as another and “80” as yet another. When we’re dealing with completely separate pieces of data that can’t easily be grouped together, the capacity of our working memory isn’t easy to quantify precisely, but it’s more like 4 plus or minus 1 or even less. Those 4 or so chunks of info will usually be a mixture of elements taken from your short-term memory (and therefore often from your surrounding environment) and other elements from your long-term memory. Although the capacity of your working memory is quite limited, it’s very efficient when it comes to using and manipulating and playing around with those few chunks.
My understanding is that the main reason experts are able to seemingly manipulate extremely large quantities of data is that they’ve built over time increasingly complex chunks of infos relevant to their area of expertise. Let’s say for example that you’re learning to speak French. At the beginning saying the word “bibliothèque” might, at least for an instant, necessitate most of your working memory capacity. You might need to treat this one word as 3 chunks of info: “bi – blio – thèque” and you might not be able to think about anything else while you’re trying to make sure you’re getting this one word right. But if you practice speaking French long enough, saying a complex sentence like (in French) “Yesterday I went to the library and picked off this amazing book about the history of the Universe” will be done effortlessly, and you’ll be able to simultaneously think about what you’re going to say next. Another example might be how a skilled pianist will play a long and seemingly complex string of say 30 musical notes that in his working memory will be treated as just one simple chunk of data.
There are some data suggesting that working memory can be improved using a training tool called “dual N Back” (free here: http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/). But it’s a controversial subject. We do know that you will improve at the task you’re practicing, but it’s not 100% clear whether or not the gains are real and transferable across the board, not just on that one specific task. Plus those exercises are extremely difficult, exhausting and often boring. I think trying to improve your working memory is a little bit like trying to improve your IQ (not just your test results, but what is measured by those tests). It’s pretty damn hard. I think it’s possible, but it’s not something most people should focus on. You can optimize your working memory by making sure you’re sleeping well and taking good care of your health, but don’t expect miracles.
Remembering your life and what happened to you. Although episodic memory is stored in your brain differently than factual knowledge, there isn’t much difference between the tips and tricks I would give to someone hoping to better remember his or her life versus what I would say to anyone else.
Words, concepts, factual knowledge and so on. That’s most people’s main area of focus when they say they worry about their memory. All the main “tips” I’ve provided before will help tremendously.
One important rarely made distinctions
I would like to make a distinction between memory as a natural ability that we all possess to varying degrees versus memorization as a skill that you can learn to get better at. It’s not the same thing and you can become extremely good at memorizing stuff even if you happen to be born with a below-average memory. Your natural memory, while it can be improved in a limited way, depends mostly on your genes. Your memorization skills, one might call it your “trained memory” or “mnemonic memory” (I wish there was a more common and accurate expression that I could use*), can be spectacularly improved almost without limits. I was the so-called “Canadian Memory Champion” in 2016 and 2017. I can work as a substitute teacher and learn the names of everyone in the class a few minutes before starting the day. I can spend hours reciting all the 1000s of things I currently have stored in various memory palaces. When I’m at my peak I can memorize 100 digits in less than a minute. And yet I swear that my natural memory is still, to this day, nothing special at all.
[*: This distinction between your natural memory and your trained memory was made more than 2000 years ago, first century BC, in a book called Rhetorica ad Herennium. The author makes a distinction between your natural memory and what he calls “artificial memory”. Artificial memory, he says, is made of images and places and is “the product of an art”. I agree with the distinction, I just don’t like calling “artificial” the use of a method that happens to be in near-perfect harmony with how your brain works.]
I have a fun collection of humiliating stories about all the different times my natural memory has failed me in an ironic way. That time I took my bike to a memory competition and forgot it there for more than a week for example. If you and I and a bunch of random people had our natural memory tested on a bunch of random things that we didn’t make a particular effort to memorize (What did you do on Tuesday two weeks ago? Name all the characters from the last movie you watched? Can you make a semi-precise drawing of both sides of a $10 bill without looking at one?), my personal results wouldn’t shine in any way. Even for more conventional “study this” types of tests, my results would be mediocre if I didn’t know how to use mnemonics and memory palace.
Last note on that distinction: If for example one person have memorized say 2000 historical dates, the fact that he or she have managed that feat doesn’t by itself tell you if or she has a good natural memory or even a good trained memory. That feat would indeed be much easier with a good trained memory, but it would remain possible to achieve by using nothing but spaced repetition and long term perseverance. It’s also possible to have an awesome trained memory and to never use it for anything except competition disciplines. I know of at least one former world memory champion who can memorize a deck of cards in less than 30 seconds but who never bother to memorize anything in his “normal” life.