(Current work in progress). I discuss some memory and learning techniques.
-Memory Palace Visualisation Technique 
-Think/Process deeply and make your own connections 
-Sleep well 
-Location and mental state can matter 
-Spaced Repetition 
-Habit forming 
I’m told I have a good memory. I don’t think it is spectacular (I rely mostly on  and to some extent  and  as a student) but I do recall a wide range of material when needed.
This was most noticeable in my recall for my final exams at Cambridge University. Unfortunately, I never deeply mastered  Memory Palace techniques as I didn’t train at it and wasn’t fully aware of them, but I made great use of  Deep Processing and I was sleeping (and moving) well. I was also aware that recall works better in a state closest to how the learning occurs, so was moderately stressed when learning.
These are practical tools achievable in work or study to improve memory.
The theoretical basis for much of this rests on these ideas established (although still debated) in the science:
We have (1) associative learning mechanisms (think Pavlov Dog pairing mechanisms) and (2) instrumental / symbolic learning processes
In popular press, we have (i) slow brain learning [and where we move learnings from a short term type of memory into a longer term memory] and (ii) fast brain learning - more instant (think fear, flight, fight mechanisms)
And (a) short term mechanisms and (b) long term and habit mechanisms
And these cross all our senses and functions eg visual, sound, motor etc.
Memory Palace - Visualisation Techniques
This memory technique is ancient and seemed to be referred to in ancient Greek but I’d be unsurprised if it dated back further given the oral history traditions in ancient cultures.
The basic idea behind the Memory Palace Technique (or aka Method of Loci) is to associate pieces of information with a location that you are very familiar with. An example would be of your house - maybe your childhood house, or your route home from school / work.
You can likely picture your home with a high degree of detail. You know where the furniture is found, where objects are placed etc.
The Memory Palace technique has to do with associating information with specific areas of that familiar place (hence palace / Loci).
As you walk through your palace, you place pieces of information that you wish to memorize in specific areas. When you want to recall the information, you go through that mental route, and the information will be easily accessible.
The technique is made more effective when you add surprising features to the information, and vivid visualisations also help. Additions of smell, sounds or other features also strengthen the memory palace.
You may well have heard of the technique. I’d look up more detailed books if you’d like to practise it or the web has it covered. It doesn’t suit everyone and I find it can struggle with more complex information rather than vocab, lists and dates. But if you want to store fact type information into long term memory recall, this is an established technique.
Deep Processing and Connections
This is my main technique for more complex information. It involves re-processing information I am interested in and making links to other information, ideas, people, images I already know / know well.
It involves “deep processing”. Surface processing or rote learning would be a simple recitation of an idea on paper. Deep processing would be to re-process this idea in your own form - vocally, in drawing, in movement, in your own words and connecting it ideas/memories which are solidly stored (in your long term memory) already.
The re-processing best works in the way you find interesting for some that might be drawing or recording.
This work is based on experiments by Hyde and Jenkins (1973).
These researchers gave participants lists of words, which they later tested recall of, as their memory items. To affect their thinking about the words, half the participants were told to rate the pleasantness of each word, and half were told to check if the word contained the letters ‘e’ or ‘g’. This manipulation was designed to affect ‘depth of processing’. The participants in the rating-pleasantness condition had to think about what the word meant, and relate it to themselves (how they felt about it) – “deep processing”. Participants in the letter-checking condition just had to look at the shape of the letters, they didn’t even have to read the word if they didn’t want to – “shallow processing”. The second, independent, manipulation concerned whether participants knew that they would be tested later on the words. Half of each group were told this – the “intentional learning” condition – and half weren’t told, the test would come as a surprise – the “incidental learning” condition.
Whether or not a participant wanted to remember the words didn’t affect how many words they remembered. Instead, the major effect is due to how participants thought about the words when they encountered them. Participants who thought deeply about the words remembered nearly twice as many as participants who only thought shallowly about the words, regardless of whether they intended to remember them or not.
… So you need to think about what material means to you / in relationship to other material or ideas you know.
The stronger connections you make in ways that make sense to you, the better your recall of the information particularly if it contains more complex information or ideas.
Hyde, T. S., & Jenkins, J. J. (1973). Recall for words as a function of semantic, graphic, and syntactic orienting tasks. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12(5), 471–480.
This is why flash card ideas you make yourself, with drawings or sounds or other processing elements work better than simple bought or printed lists.
There’s an enormous amount of science study on sleep and memory.
The main important fact to know if that good sleep helps you remember (both motor and cognitive memory).
So, in general and particularly when studying you need to be aiming for 8 hours sleep approx. There is individual variation (7 to 10 hours is within normal range, and some self-report that less sleep is OK for them, but I think it’s rare), which you will know by if you are waking up feeling tired or not.
An academic review is here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768102/
And the book Why we Sleep (Matthew Walker) on sleep surveys the wider evidence of the importance of sleep.
If you are not sleeping well this will be impacting memory formation and recall.
Location and physical state
You remember items best in the same places you learnt about them. You also remember items best in the same physiological / emotional state as you learnt about them.
This typically won’t apply so much once you enter work life. But in school life it highlights the importance of studying under time pressure as a learning technique for exams. It also means - almost common sense - don’t study when drunk or on drugs. (Actually, if you are drunk and study, you recall better when also drunk than sober. However, this is worse than sober study and sober recall.)
In general, being aware of ones physical / arousal state while doing knowledge work is useful.
Also high “stress” impairs memory and recall, so pre-exams you need to work on keeping stress (ie adrenaline and cortisol) to acceptable levels. This is where breathing, mindfulness and meditation techniques can help if you are prone to this.
But, as a small “hack”, if you can study in the place where you will be tested there’s good evidence that you will recall better. (The thinking is that associative learning cues happen between the environment and the information, which help recall. Similar complex effects happen with the environment and pain killing drugs and other drug effects - for instance moving rooms in end-of-life patients on high doses of pain killer drugs, can results in the dose needed for those drugs to go down - due to drug tolerance effects being associated with environmental cues that are lowered on moving to a new a room).
This is unlikely for most people. So in this situation, you actually want to study the same information in many different environments. The results show this seems to be better and the thinking is that the many environmental cues either increase the array of associative links to help recall or the lack of one strong environmental cue provides less of a barrier to assessing recall.
In short, study in lots of places (unless for sure you will learn and be tested in the same room). Don’t be drunk or high. Match arousal state in learning to arousal state in recall.
[to follow] in brief, “...A simple way to do spaced repetition is to use flashcards organised into a box. Set up a schedule for when you will revise the cards in each of the sections in your box. If you answer a card correctly, you put it into a section that you will revisit less frequently in the future, whereas if you get the answer wrong, you move the card into a section scheduled for frequent visits…”
Habits and making things easy
If you are wanting to learn or maybe do something new, say learn the guitar. But, you are struggling the practice, it’s disheartening not being that good and the energy barrier to starting seems high. You need to try and make it easy for your self. For instance, leave the guitar out, leave it near your bed - or some other simple cue - where it’s super easy to simply pick up and play and then continue.
You want to lower the barriers to start as low as possible, find a good clear starting cue, and then if possible reward somehow so it becomes more intrinsic and routine.
This is one of the excellent factors behind Run to 5k programmes which get you walk / running for only a few minutes at a time to start. It’s a very hurdle to get over and you increase it with time until it forms a habit. It helps if you also give yourself a clear cue. Eg Every other day when home from work.
The idea behind Habits is “... This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, a habit is born. Habits aren’t destiny...habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically….”
[more to come]