Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Six Tips To Improve Your Memory

I'm not sitting for examination this semester. In fact I haven't taken any written examination since 2011, simply because I'm now a postgraduate researcher, and researcher don't take exams! :D

It's exam season now, and I feel bad when I see people trying so hard to memorize their notes. Boycotting Facebook is one way to stay focused, but you need some time off as well and immersing yourself in a sea of books isn't going to help.

Forget about your grandma's magic potion or the tips given by your CGPA 2.0 seniors. Here are six ways, backed up by solid science, for you to improve your memory.

1) Drink coffee 
I read about this piece by National Geographic blogger Virginia Hughes earlier this year. It was published in Nature Neuroscience, and all competent scientists know that Nature doesn't take in shoddy research (though it was later pointed out that this research suffers from a weak statistical analysis). In this study, volunteers who had taken a 200 mg caffeine pill— equivalent to about two cups of coffee — while they were shown a series of pictures were better at remembering details of those pictures the next day. The effect, however, was the same even when the researchers increased the dose to 300 mg (about three cups of coffee), and it disappeared altogether when the researchers dropped the dose to 100 mg (about one cup of coffee). They also pointed out that in order to maximize the caffeine effect you have to take in caffeine during memory consolidation process and not after the process.  

2) Write your own notes
This article was published in May 2014 in The Atlantic, and the study itself was done by psychologists from Princeton University, and it shows that people remember lectures better when they've taken handwritten notes, rather than typed ones.
This is actually quite relevant to university students. When I was in my undergraduate years I often came across cases whereby the lecturer gave us printouts and encouraged us to study the powerpoint slides. And some people even made it a habit to skip the entire semester, and then requested only for the powerpoint slides from those who attended class at the end of the semester. And I believe this rotting tradition is still very much alive and kicking today. So boys and girls, it's time to wake up early, stop skipping classes and start taking down notes. By yourself.

3) Study at night, and then have a good sleep
I wrote this article back in 2012, and it was conducted on Harvard students and was published in PLos One (notice how I like to emphasize the prestige of the journal/university involved? Yeah I'ma fastidious piece of sh*t when it comes to choosing the things I read).
The study shows that subjects who slept between tests were significantly better at remembering the unrelated words than those who got no shuteye. In the 24-hour retest—where all subjects had a full night of sleep—those participants who went to bed shortly after learning the words did much better than those who went through an entire day before sleeping.
Not sleeping. They're doing memory consolidation.
Unfortunately, a lot of university students today still stick to the age old method of waking up in the wee hours because they claim the cool night air offers a "much conducive and quiet environment for study". A lot of the juniors I've met told me about routinely waking up at 5 am to study for the 8 am test. Uh oh, science says that you've done it the wrong way and it's bad for your memory, my dear.

4) If you're a female, find a guy to read it to you
Studies have shown that women tend to retain more audio information when it is delivered by male voices in a deep pitch. I don't know how true this is since it's written in Discovery Magazine, a company owned by Discovery Communications—the parent company of the notorious Animal Planet which aired not one, but two hoax documentaries (one pertaining to mermaid and another about the existence of dragon), and Discovery Channel which aired the fake documentary about megalodon.
But it's hardly surprising really, since women seem to be hardwired to find deeper voices more attractive. So I guess it's worth a try though, and you may even get an excuse to approach that cute guy in your class...
p/s: Does this work the other way round? Answer: ask Discovery Magazine.

5) Chewing gum
Have you ever wondered why basketball players in the NBA always have something to chew on, or Sir Alex Ferguson always having a chewing gum in his mouth while looking at his watch or roaring at the fourth official? Research has found that subjects who chew gum could stay focused longer on certain types of task. Sportsmen chew gums to relax themselves while stay focused on the task at hand, and so can you. Try chew gum to stay focused in your study.
6) Read bad handwriting
If you have a bad handwriting, congratulations. A team of psychologists from Princeton gave a group of volunteers information about three species of aliens written in three different fonts: Arial, Comic Sans and Bodoni MT. They found out that those who were given the harder-to-read fonts scored on average 14% higher in a test 15 minutes after the reading. Scientists think it's beneficial for the brain to work harder at reading difficult-to-read text, as it means we don't skim.
Do I have bad handwriting? Yes I think so. But I suck at memorizing things. 
So if you insist on skipping classes and memorizing your lecturer's powerpoint slides instead of writing your own notes, you should at least change all the fonts to something like this.

Extra tip: Doodle
As a physicist, I always carry a pen in my pocket so that I can scribble down things whenever I like or simply to illustrate an idea to a friend. I like to doodle—it helps to visualize difficult concept and improves understanding. Our brain loves diagrams, and drawing weird, funny diagrams in the margin of an otherwise long-winding passage could make learning much more easy and fun. A study published in Science says that doodling can engage people who might otherwise not pay attention; it helps them learn how information is presented; it inspires learning and retention of information; and it can assist people in communicating that information later. Do you have those weird drawings in your text book? Start doodling today!


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