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Forgot where you put the keys? Experts (and a trivia buff) share tips to boost memory

Eugene Mymrin
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Getty Images

You don't have to be a trivia buff to be great at remembering things.

Monica Thieu, a four-time Jeopardy! contestant and winner of the game's 2012 college championship, uses memory techniques like mnemonic devices and flash cards to retain world capitals, TV shows, Olympic cities and more.

"With practice, absolutely everyone can make their memory stronger," says Thieu, who also researches memory, human cognition and emotion as a postdoctoral scientist at Emory University.

Listen to the podcast episode: Where did I put the keys? Tips to improve memory

That's because memory is selective. What our brains choose to remember is something we can train, says Charan Ranganath, director of the Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California, Davis, and author of Why We Remember. "It can be biased, warped and reconstructed."

If you want to improve your memory, even if it's just remembering where you parked or where you put your keys, try these science-backed strategies from our experts.

Pay attention to what you want to remember

"The first necessary ingredient in creating a memory that lasts longer than the present moment is attention," says Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist and the author of Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. "We need that input — otherwise that memory doesn’t get made, even if your eyes see it."

When people gripe about having memory problems, they're often having attention problems, she adds. For example, if you blame your memory because you can't find your parking spot, you probably weren't paying attention to it in the first place. So slow down and focus on what you want to remember.

Create a rule and a habit

If you repeatedly lose track of an object like your keys, wallet or cellphone, pick a designated spot in your home and keep it there when it's not in use, says Genova. That way, you don't have to expend effort trying to remember where you placed it.

"If you put it in the same place every time, you've made it [a fact], sort of like your address and birthday: My keys always go in this bowl. There's a rule and a habit," she says.

The more details the merrier

To form memories you'll naturally keep, make them as immersive as possible, says Thieu. This is especially helpful when you're tackling a subject that you find difficult to connect with.

Let's say you're trying to learn more about the Renaissance era. Commit the period to memory by absorbing information about it through a variety of mediums, says Thieu. Make a playlist of music from the era. Watch period dramas set at that time. And "any time you have an opportunity to learn something in a richer way, do it" — like going to a theater performance on the subject matter.

Our brains love to remember anything that's "meaningful, emotional, surprising or new," says Genova. So the more details you can give your brain to latch onto, the stronger that a memory becomes and the easier it is to recall later.

Trigger your memory

When your brain creates a memory, it naturally weaves together all the sights, sounds, tastes and smells associated with that memory, says Genova. So use those connections to your advantage.

Let's say you're studying for a vocabulary test. If you always listen to Dua Lipa while you're studying and "have a chance to listen to Dua Lipa while you take the test, it might help you remember those words," says Genova. Psychologists call this process "context-dependent memory."

Genova suggests enhancing your study space with smells, music or certain tastes. Try chewing a piece of cinnamon gum, for example, while you're preparing for a big exam — and then again while you're taking it. Your senses can act as triggers for the rest of your memory to fall into place.

"Chunk" long strings of information

If you have a big load of information to recall at once, Ranganath suggests a strategy that researchers call "chunking." It's a way to organize longer strings of information to make them easier to recall. Let's say you want to remember the phone number (130) 555-1212. "That’s 10 digits, which is a lot to juggle around in my mind."

So "chunk" it into three parts, he says: 130, 555, 1212. Instead of recalling each number individually, you can recall the entire group — and then retrieve each individual number more easily.

Create a "mind palace"

Need to remember to grab eggs, milk and coffee creamer from the store? Ranganath suggests a method that memory researchers, as well as memory champions, call a "mind palace" — or the method of loci, which means "places" in Latin. You may have seen this ancient mnemonic device on TV shows like Sherlock.

This technique allows you to pair a place you know well, like your childhood home, with new information. Picture yourself placing the items of your grocery list around the house. Place a carton of eggs on your couch. Put milk on the kitchen counter. Put some creamer on the coffee table. Later on at the supermarket, recall this path through your house as you're shopping. It'll help you remember your grocery list.

Try good old flash cards

Don't overlook the power of reviewing flash cards, says Thieu. "Some of the best trivia experts I know do a lot of flash-carding."

Thieu likes to watch old Jeopardy! reruns and create flash cards for the information in each episode. Then, she'll use the cards to quiz herself. She also uses this technique to drill lists of more specific trivia information — say, the world's longest rivers or deepest lakes.

Take your flash-carding one step further by testing yourself before you learn the information, to see what you already know, and then afterward to see what you were able to remember. A pre-lesson test primes your brain for what you'll need to recall later on.

"We learn the most when we challenge ourselves — and that's an extraordinarily powerful tool for retaining information in the long run," says Ranganath.

Go easy on yourself

Lastly, don't expect your memory to be perfect, say our experts. It's normal to occasionally misplace your keys or forget to pay a bill.

"Life is an open-book test," says Genova. You're not cheating if you look something up or write it down. It could save your mental energy for something more meaningful.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Margaret Cirino. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual editor is Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

Listen to Life Kit on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and sign up for our newsletter.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Andee Tagle (she/her) is an associate producer and now-and-then host for NPR's Life Kit podcast.
Margaret Cirino
Margaret Cirino (she/her) is an assistant producer on the Life Kit team. She was formerly a production assistant at Short Wave, NPR's science podcast, involving pitching, producing and forcing her virtual and in-person co-workers to play board games with her. She has a soft spot for reporting on cute critters and outer space (not at the same time, of course).