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8.4 Ways to Enhance Memory

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Recognize and apply memory-enhancing strategies
  • Recognize and apply effective study techniques


   Most of us suffer from memory failures of one kind or another, and most of us would like to improve our memories so that we don’t forget where we put the car keys or, more importantly, the material we need to know for an exam. Of course it is impossible to remember everything that has happened to you exactly as it had originally played out. The previous section specifically emphasized examples of how memory can be distorted and in some cased completely fabricated. In this section, we’ll look at some ways to help you remember better, and at some strategies for more effective studying.


   What are some everyday ways we can improve our memory, including recall? To help make sure information goes from short-term memory to long-term memory, you can use memory-enhancing strategies. One strategy is rehearsal, or the conscious repetition of information to be remembered (Craik & Watkins, 1973). Think about how you learned your multiplication tables as a child. You may recall that 6 x 6 = 36, 6 x 7 = 42, and 6 x 8 = 48. Memorizing these facts is rehearsal.

Another strategy is chunking: you organize information into manageable bits or chunks (Bodie, Powers, & Fitch-Hauser, 2006). Chunking is useful when trying to remember information like dates and phone numbers. Instead of trying to remember 5205550467, you remember the number as 520-555-0467. So, if you met an interesting person at a party and you wanted to remember his phone number, you would naturally chunk it, and you could repeat the number over and over, which is the rehearsal strategy.

Try this fun activity that employs a memory-enhancing strategy.

   You could also enhance memory by using elaborative rehearsal: a technique in which you think about the meaning of the new information and its relation to knowledge already stored in your memory (Tigner, 1999). For example, in this case, you could remember that 520 is an area code for Arizona and the person you met is from Arizona. This would help you better remember the 520 prefix. If the information is retained, it goes into long-term memory.

Mnemonic devices are memory aids that help us organize information for encoding. They are especially useful when we want to recall larger bits of information such as steps, stages, phases, and parts of a system (Bellezza, 1981). Brian needs to learn the order of the planets in the solar system, but he’s having a hard time remembering the correct order. His friend Kelly suggests a mnemonic device that can help him remember. Kelly tells Brian to simply remember the name Mr. VEM J. SUN, and he can easily recall the correct order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. You might use a mnemonic device to help you remember someone’s name, a mathematical formula, or the order of mathematical operations.


A photograph shows a person’s two hands clenched into fists so the knuckles show. The knuckles are labeled with the months and the number of days in each month, with the knuckle protrusions corresponding to the months with 31 days, and the indentations between knuckles corresponding to February and the months with 30 days.This is a knuckle mnemonic to help you remember the number of days in each month. Months with 31 days are represented by the protruding knuckles and shorter months fall in the spots between knuckles. (credit: modification of work by Cory Zanker)


If you have ever watched the television show Modern Family, you might have seen Phil Dunphy explain how he remembers names:

The other day I met this guy named Carl. Now, I might forget that name, but he was wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. What’s a band like the Grateful Dead? Phish. Where do fish live? The ocean. What else lives in the ocean? Coral. Hello, Co-arl. (Wrubel & Spiller, 2010)


It seems the more vivid or unusual the mnemonic, the easier it is to remember. The key to using any mnemonic successfully is to find a strategy that works for you.


   Some other strategies that are used to improve memory include expressive writing and saying words aloud. Expressive writing helps boost your short-term memory, particularly if you write about a traumatic experience in your life. Masao Yogo and Shuji Fujihara (2008) had participants write for 20-minute intervals several times per month. The participants were instructed to write about a traumatic experience, their best possible future selves, or a trivial topic. The researchers found that this simple writing task increased short-term memory capacity after five weeks, but only for the participants who wrote about traumatic experiences. Psychologists can’t explain why this writing task works, but it does.

What if you want to remember items you need to pick up at the store? Simply say them out loud to yourself. A series of studies (MacLeod, Gopie, Hourihan, Neary, & Ozubko, 2010) found that saying a word out loud improves your memory for the word because it increases the word’s distinctiveness. Feel silly, saying random grocery items aloud? This technique works equally well if you just mouth the words. Using these techniques increased participants’ memory for the words by more than 10%. These techniques can also be used to help you study.

In some of the previous sections, depth of processing has been discussed to suggest that information that is encoded in a deeper way by associating the information to be remembered with something that is important to you on a personal level or personally identifying with the information can create a stronger trace for the information to be later recalled (Craik & Tulving, 1975). Further studies implementing these theories in terms of enhancing memory have demonstrated that by encoding the information with an emotional valence, the information may be efficiently recalled and the memory trace may be more vivid allowing for more details to be accurately remembered (Kensigner & Corkin, 2003). Comparing memory for neutrally valence words compared to words encoded with a negative valence indicated that participants were statistically more likely to accurately remember words with a valence or emotional arousal associated. Additionally, words that were encoded with both emotional arousal (words related to cultural taboos) and negative valence were more accurate and had higher recall rates compared to words with just emotional valence. This suggests that systems in the brain that create emotional responses such as the amygdala and hypothalamus can be recruited by attaching emotional reactions to information to be remembered in order to enhance encoding procedures and build a stronger trace for later recall.


   Based on the information presented in this chapter, here are some strategies and suggestions to help you hone your study techniques. The key with any of these strategies is to figure out what works best for you.


A photograph shows students studying.

Memory techniques can be useful when studying for class. (credit: Barry Pousman)

  • Use elaborative rehearsal: In a famous article, Craik and Lockhart (1972) discussed their belief that information we process more deeply goes into long-term memory. Their theory is called levels of processing. If we want to remember a piece of information, we should think about it more deeply and link it to other information and memories to make it more meaningful. For example, if we are trying to remember that the hippocampus is involved with memory processing, we might envision a hippopotamus with excellent memory and then we could better remember the hippocampus.
  • Apply the self-reference effect: As you go through the process of elaborative rehearsal, it would be even more beneficial to make the material you are trying to memorize personally meaningful to you. In other words, make use of the self-reference effect. Write notes in your own words. Write definitions from the text, and then rewrite them in your own words. Relate the material to something you have already learned for another class, or think how you can apply the concepts to your own life. When you do this, you are building a web of retrieval cues that will help you access the material when you want to remember it.
  • Don’t forget the forgetting curve: As you know, the information you learn drops off rapidly with time. Even if you think you know the material, study it again right before test time to increase the likelihood the information will remain in your memory. Overlearning can help prevent storage decay.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse: Review the material over time, in spaced and organized study sessions. Organize and study your notes, and take practice quizzes/exams. Link the new information to other information you already know well.
  • Be aware of interference: To reduce the likelihood of interference, study during a quiet time without interruptions or distractions (like television or music).
  • Keep moving: Of course you already know that exercise is good for your body, but did you also know it’s also good for your mind? Research suggests that regular aerobic exercise (anything that gets your heart rate elevated) is beneficial for memory (van Praag, 2008). Aerobic exercise promotes neurogenesis: the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain known to play a role in memory and learning.
  • Get enough sleep: While you are sleeping, your brain is still at work. During sleep the brain organizes and consolidates information to be stored in long-term memory (Abel & Bäuml, 2013).
  • Make use of mnemonic devices: As you learned earlier in this chapter, mnemonic devices often help us to remember and recall information. There are different types of mnemonic devices, such as the acronym. An acronym is a word formed by the first letter of each of the words you want to remember. For example, even if you live near one, you might have difficulty recalling the names of all five Great Lakes. What if I told you to think of the word Homes? HOMES is an acronym that represents Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior: the five Great Lakes. Another type of mnemonic device is an acrostic: you make a phrase of all the first letters of the words. For example, if you are taking a math test and you are having difficulty remembering the order of operations, recalling the following sentence will help you: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” because the order of mathematical operations is Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction. There also are jingles, which are rhyming tunes that contain key words related to the concept, such as i before e, except after c.



The World Memory Competitions represent a series of events where people from all over the world compete in ten different disciplines of memory in order to memorize as much information as possible within a given period of time and then are judged on what they are able to remember and the accuracy of their memory. One of the key strategies individuals have reported using in order to master their encoding ability and compete with some of the worlds leading memory performers is known as the method of loci, a strategy of memory enhancement which uses visualizations, spatial memory, and familiarity with the environment to quickly and efficiently recall information. Also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or the memory palace technique, this mnemonic device dates back to ancient Greece and Rome where orators and story tellers would use this method to memorize grandiose speeches and pass down epic stories through oral history such as the Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. The method of loci is an imaging technique where a person memorizes the layout of a building or some environment they are familiar with, and information that is needed to be remembered is arranged throughout the environment. The person trying to recall the information then uses this spatial map they have created to mentally walk through the environment to encounter each piece of information along the way. This mnemonic has been widely used throughout the history of humans and modern brain imaging techniques have demonstrated activation of areas of the brain related to spatial memory during method of loci recall including the medial prefrontal cortex and areas of the posterior hippocampus (Maguire et al., 2003). Additionally recent research using virtual reality has demonstrated that the method of loci appears to be equally useful in environments that are novel compared to familiar, as well as extremely detailed compared to less detailed (Legge et al., 2012). Additionally the method of loci was demonstrated to be effective for participants that had previously been naive to the technique compared to participants that did not use the method of loci. Overall, the method of loci represents a historically practiced and scientifically validated technique which can create a stronger process of encoding and lead to more accurate and efficient information recall.


   There are many ways to combat the inevitable failures of our memory system. Some common strategies that can be used in everyday situations include mnemonic devices, rehearsal, self-referencing, and adequate sleep. These same strategies also can help you to study more effectively.



Openstax Psychology text by Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett and Marion Perlmutter licensed under CC BY v4.0. https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology




Review Questions:

1. When you are learning how to play the piano, the statement “Every good boy does fine” can help you remember the notes E, G, B, D, and F for the lines of the treble clef. This is an example of a (an) ________.

a. jingle

b. acronym

c. acrostic

d. acoustic


2. According to a study by Yogo and Fujihara (2008), if you want to improve your short-term memory, you should spend time writing about ________.

your best possible future self

a. a traumatic life experience

b. a trivial topic

c. your grocery list


3. The self-referencing effect refers to ________.

a. making the material you are trying to memorize personally meaningful to you

b. making a phrase of all the first letters of the words you are trying to memorize

c. making a word formed by the first letter of each of the words you are trying to memorize

d. saying words you want to remember out loud to yourself


4. What type of memory enhancer requires you to organize units into manageable units?

a. rehearsal

b. chunking

c. elaborative rehearsal

d. none of the above


5. Memory aids that help organize information for encoding are ________.

a. mnemonic devices

b. memory-enhancing strategies

c. elaborative rehearsal

d. effortful processing


Critical Thinking Questions:

1. What is the self-reference effect, and how can it help you study more effectively?

2. You and your roommate spent all of last night studying for your psychology test. You think you know the material; however, you suggest that you study again the next morning an hour prior to the test. Your roommate asks you to explain why you think this is a good idea. What do you tell her?

3. Describe three different ways you could enhance your memory when studying for an exam. Which strategies do you think are more effective in enhancing memory than others?


Personal Application Questions:

1. Create a mnemonic device to help you remember a term or concept from this chapter.

2. What is an effective study technique that you have used? How is it similar to/different from the strategies suggested in this chapter?




elaborative rehearsal

levels of processing

memory-enhancing strategy

mnemonic device


Answers to Exercises

Review Questions:

1. C

2. B

3. A

4. B

5. A


Critical Thinking Questions:

1. The self-reference effect is the tendency an individual to have better memory for information that relates to oneself than information that is not personally relevant. You can use the self-reference effect to relate the material to something you have already learned for another class, or think how you can apply the concepts to your life. When you do this, you are building a web of retrieval cues that will help you access the material when you want to remember it.

2. You remind her about Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve: the information you learn drops off rapidly with time. Even if you think you know the material, you should study it again right before test time to increase the likelihood the information will remain in your memory. Overlearning can help prevent storage decay.



chunking: organizing information into manageable bits or chunks

elaborative rehearsal: thinking about the meaning of the new information and its relation to knowledge already stored in your memory

levels of processing: information that is thought of more deeply becomes more meaningful and thus better committed to memory

memory-enhancing strategy: technique to help make sure information goes from short-term memory to long-term memory

mnemonic device: memory aids that help organize information for encoding